You’ll drive by a pasture where cows are grazing before arriving at Harlem Road Texas BBQ in Richmond, but that’s part of the charm of the place.
The brand new, standalone structure on Harlem Road in Richmond looks like it’s been there forever, when in fact,“The metal is reclaimed from an old barn,” says chef, owner and pitmaster Ara Malekian, who spent the last two years building the place from the ground up.
And what a place it is: Take away the wooden benches and the soda dispensing machine in the middle of the dining room and it could have been a tiny chapel. Tastefully chosen antelope taxidermy and special windows that filter the incoming light also make it feel like a space out of time, with an artsy element reminiscent of something you might find out in Marfa, Texas.
But no, this was Richmond, this was a barbecue joint, and I was ready for some ‘cue. So Malekian put together a sampler plate for me to try, and as I did as much damage as I could to the beef brisket, sausage, pork rib, beef rib and smoked chicken tray he prepared for me (completed with sides of creamed corn, slaw, baked beans and potato salad), we talked about how Harlem Road Texas Barbecue came to be.
The story starts in Switzerland, where, while at boarding school at age 12, Malekian started an apprenticeship with a French chef. While in high school, Malekian moved to the U.S. and continued to work in restaurants. In the year 2000, he was recruited by Wolfgang Puck and became the corporate chef overseeing 82 of Puck’s restaurants, eventually leaving a few years later to open own restaurants in San Francisco. In 2005, after coming to Houston to visit his family, he decided that he didn’t want to miss out on his nephews growing up, so he sold his shares in his business and moved to Texas.
Malekian has been doing private catering and pop-ups since he moved to the Bayou City. He had a private catering trailer that he stored on the grounds that house Harlem Road Texas Barbecue today. About three-and-a-half years ago, he got bit by the barbecue bug, and had been wanting to open something casual, so when his landlord approached him about opening a restaurant, everything fell into place.
Harlem Road Texas Barbecue is the 15th restaurant that Malekian will have opened. At 47, he has a clear vision of what he wants it to be. Prior to opening the restaurant, he traveled all around Texas to taste the best of the best. He says that most barbecue places have just one or two things that they’re known for, that they’re good at. His objective for everything he makes to be good, from the smoked meats to the sides and even the soft drinks, which are naturally flavored sodas by Stubborn Soda.
While I enjoyed everything that I tried on my tray, the house-made beef sausage was a clear standout. The natural casing and finely ground, juicy sausage was outstanding, in fact, so much so that I kept on coming back to it after taking bites of brisket, beef rib or pork rib.
Another notable item, something that truly surprised me, was his smoked half chicken. Malekian smokes his meats using the staves from retired French Oak Wine barrels, which he says is sweeter and milder than other popular woods used for smoking, like Post Oak. While it was much less pronounced with the heavier meats, when I took a bite of the chicken, the red wine aroma was clearly present, elevating the chicken from something simply smoked to something that was gourmet, like a coq au vin without all the sauce.
I finished off every last bit of the baked beans, which had this smoky, rich depth. “I finish them off in the smoker under the brisket so the drippings go into the beans,” Malekian explained when I asked him what made them so, so good. The creamed corn was excellent as well.
I asked Malekian what he thinks sets him apart form the other barbecue joints around town, to which he responded, “My classical knowledge of cooking and the science behind what makes smoke, what develops the bark.”
But it’s more than that. For his brisket and beef ribs, he uses Texas-raised, Black Angus beef from 44 Farms, which he says he’s been using for several years and offers a consistently high-quality product. His smoker is a custom made vault built by Pitmaker that gives Malekian more control over the smoking process.
He’s also opened many restaurants before, so he’s starting things off slowly, to better manage the production and volume. In addition to his core menu, he’ll be offering different enticements every day: Wednesday he’s doing mac 'n' cheese with burnt ends, Thursday is creamed corn, Friday is pork brisket, Saturday is lamb chops, and soon, on Sundays he’ll be doing seafood (he mentioned smoked octopus).
“It’s such a primal thing cooking with fire and smoke. The kitchen I apprenticed in (in Switzerland), we had a few pieces of equipment that were all wood and charcoal burning, where we would make things from scratch,” he says. “So I put my own touch on things here.”
Things like adding Armenian coffee to his barbecue sauce (it’s fantastic). And it’s not just the food. “I built the bathroom sink myself,” he says, of the outhouse. Make sure you stop in before leaving and read the sign above the toilet.
Harlem Road Texas BBQ is located at 9823 Harlem Rd. Opening hours are Wednesday through Friday, 3 p.m. until sold out; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. until sold out. For more information, visit www.harlemroadtexasbbq.com.