Communal tables, cafeteria-style lines where meat is carved and piled on your tray, a smoker or two pumping away out back. Barbecue is a cuisine of convention. Part of what we love about it is that no matter where we’re ordering our sausage and chicken, we know at least roughly what to expect. But that doesn’t mean that Houston barbecue restaurants are resting on their laurels. From the smoked meat boom of the last few years, emerges a new breed of chef who treats the old-school craft like an art.
When Bramwell Tripp, best known for his work at locavore temples Revival Market and Coltivare, debuted his menu at The Pit Room in Montrose last August, the offerings included the brisket and mac 'n' cheese we all expect, but even those dishes were prepared with better ingredients and tasted essentially different from many of their forebears.
Then, in December, the inner loop got another dose of updated ’cue when Grant Pinkerton opened Pinkerton’s Barbecue in the Heights. Only in his twenties, Pinkerton almost can’t help but have a fresh outlook on the meat that obsesses him. But a new attitude is nothing without quality, and both restaurants deliver. Over several visits, the two pitmasters proved that barbecue’s new guard is one to be reckoned with, easily holding its own among big names like Killen’s Barbecue.
The Pit Room’s tacos are a stand-out for a reason. Barbecue tacos are not a new idea, but flour tortillas made with smoked brisket fat are. Are they less pliable than thinner, less beefy tortillas? You betcha. Will you care? No, sir. And that sturdiness is necessary given their job of holding heaping portions of smoked meats.
The chicken taco, filled with pulled meat, griddled cheese and blackened garlic, was my early favorite. But that’s given way to an obsession with the better balanced pulled pork taco, brightened by cilantro, salsa verde and pickled onions, and dusted with cotija cheese. While the brisket is reliably the best of the meats at The Pit Room—juicy, lustily full-flavored, and smoky, though not to excess—the brisket taco could still benefit with some tinkering. Toppings of grated but unmelted cheddar and sour cream overwhelm the beef and its accompanying salsa roja.
The sausages are a stand-out. Tripp crafts three different kinds: Czech-style beef, jalapeño-cheddar pork, and black-pepper-garlic venison. The last of these is the greatest achievement, by no means dry or gamey, and bursting with flavor.
Sides are equally exceptional, particularly the jalapeño-vinegar potato chips, which are served hot from a fryer filled with bubbling beef tallow. The warmth somehow makes the saline slap of the vinegar stronger, but the heat of the peppers simmers on low as the crunchy potatoes cool. Tangy spice also marks the homemade hot sauce that dresses big, blistered chicharrones that arrive piled high in a cardboard container.
Cross your fingers that okra is available on the line the day you dine. Its typically slimy texture is eclipsed by an enticingly blistered skin. Tangy coleslaw refreshes, and charro beans are unusually thick and flavorful. Macaroni-and-cheese, too, is well-realized with its waft of sharpness, but would be even better if the sauce were less loose (on one visit, downright watery).
Uncommonly for a barbecue joint, dessert garners as much attention from the cheery staff as the meat. Sweet, tart cherry pie can turn around even the pie agnostic with its substantial, almost cookie-like crust. Speaking of cookies, they’re paired with locally made gelato in three different ice cream sandwiches. My favorite is the brown sugar butter cookie version filled with caramel-banana gelato in a neat twist on old-fashioned banana pudding.
While The Pit Room looks like a standard-issue barbecue spot with its fully manned hot line, iced troughs of Cheerwine, and counter filled with homemade pickles and sauces, diners at Pinkerton’s will find something rarely seen among smoked meat purveyors: a full bar. It's covered in taxidermy, for the feel of the bachelor pad Jud Fry from Oklahoma! might have constructed if Aunt Eller had paid him better.
There are wines by the glass or the bottle, each intended to be paired with a specific dish—did you know pork ribs are best complemented by shiraz?—along with plentiful whiskey varieties, local beers and cocktails. Those are mostly classics, such as a Bee’s Knees and a Bloody Mary, both made with fresh, local ingredients. But I think nothing plays better with the sugar and fat of barbecue than the Ranch Water: Topo Chico, tequila, candied jalapeño and lime.
The menu is written on a tall length of butcher paper just inside the door leading to the cafeteria line. First stop is side dishes. Though a Cajun friend liked the duck jambalaya, I wasn’t sold on its sweetness and lack of spice. I preferred the surprisingly acidic jalapeño cheese rice, soft enough to resemble savory rice pudding or even mashed potatoes, more than the backwoods risotto relative I expected. Like the rice, the voluptuous, cumin-soaked South Texas Beans are cooked more or less beyond recognition, but just think of them as exceptionally flavorful refried beans and enjoy.
Brisket, soft and sweet enough to almost enter the realm of patisserie, is the stand-out among meats, as it is at The Pit Room. Get it lean if you wish, but “moist” or, more accurately, fatty, will make you happiest thanks to its channels of adipose delights that meld muscle seamlessly with fat, even if your cardiologist might disagree. Chopped and served in a soft, egg-washed jalapeño bun, it makes one of the best barbecue sandwiches in town, no tangy sauce necessary. You might need a swipe of the sauce with the pulled pork sandwich. Although the meat was pulled to order and likably moist, it needed a bit of a flavor boost to overcome the vibrant personality of the bun.
And while The Pit Room’s ribs didn’t always impress (significant others aren’t the only things in your life that could be labeled “too clingy”), the flesh from Pinkerton’s lovably lard-laced, dry-rubbed pork ribs slide from the bone with delicious ease. In competition, they would kill. The glazed version, too saccharine for my taste, would likely garner blue ribbons, too.
So would the desserts. Pinkerton’s, like The Pit Room, skips the tried-and-true classic banana pudding in favor of Mrs. Beth’s banana cake, a fluffy cousin to banana bread, spread with white frosting. But I liked the blueberry cobbler even more, a dense compound of big, not-too-sweet berries and crisp-edged biscuit chunks.
But really, winning ribbons is beside the point. What matters is that with artists in the kitchen and at the pit, Houston barbecue is reaching greater and greater heights. And I can’t wait to taste what’s next.