The true measure of any Texas barbecue joint will always be its smoked brisket, but recent culinary trends—not to mention the high price of beef—have inspired more creative, expansive menus. That’s especially true here in Houston, where chefs and pitmasters alike look to the East Texas style of barbecue, drawing inspiration from Cajun cuisine as well as Southern cooking traditions, where pork is more prominently featured.
Take smoked boudin, for instance, once an afterthought on barbecue menus. These days, it’s the specialty at places like Ray’s BBQ Shack on Old Spanish Trail, where pitmaster Ray Busch infuses his sausage links with hickory smoke until the casing turns a deep mahogany and is just crispy enough for you to snap through in one juicy bite.
Cajun influence is even more evident just down the highway in Beaumont, where the so-called Juicy Links at Patillo’s Bar-B-Q feature chewy casings stuffed with fat-laden beef trimmings mixed with generous amounts of garlic and paprika. Pop open the casing with a knife, squeeze out the crumbly filling onto a slice of bread, and you’ll have a makeshift sandwich that’s as East Texas as it gets.
Among more recent smoked-meat inventions, the burnt-end biscuits at downtown’s Jackson Street BBQ are quickly becoming a kind of quintessential comfort food for the city. The fragrant, sharply flavored biscuit complements the rich, tangy smokiness of the brisket—a traditional delicacy of Kansas City-style barbecue—with just enough barbecue sauce laced throughout to hold it all together.
Even richer is the Pork Belly BLT at BBQ Godfather in Spring, where lightly smoked, thick-sliced pork belly is crisped on a flat-top grill, then stuffed into a pillowy Italian loaf with lettuce, tomato, cilantro and a slightly sweet maple-raspberry sauce. For the ultimate extravagance, try the Texas hushpuppies at Red River Bar-B-Que in Katy, which sounds like an appetizer but eats like an entree: deep-fried bites of chopped brisket, barbecue sauce, and pepper jack cheese that’s crispy on the outside and steamy/smoky/cheesy/heavenly on the inside.
That’s not to say that all of these non-traditional main dishes are brand-new inventions. Take, for instance, the Sweet Water Duck at Goode Co. BBQ, a twist on standard chicken or yard bird dishes in which mesquite smoke fuses with and sweetens up the slight gaminess of the duck’s dark meat. It’s been a local favorite for slightly longer than we’ve been riding barbecue’s latest new wave—since 1977, to be exact—proving that Houston has been leading the pack for years, whether we knew it or not.