The quest to establish a destination barbecue joint inside the loop has begun, and Midtown is the first beneficiary.
The Republic Smokehouse & Saloon has quietly begun its soft-opening phase. The restaurant from the Landmark Houston Hospitality Group (Hearsay Gastro Lounge, Mr. Peeples), which was first revealed by CultureMap in January, replaces Blackfinn in the section of Midtown that's in the middle of a mini-boom fueled by the opening of Oporto Fooding House & Wine and the imminent arrivals of Izakaya and Fluff Bake Bar.
The all-female service staff wear uniforms that are a Texas riff on the outfits seen at Twin Peaks: cut-off jean shorts and brightly-colored plaid tops.
While the name includes the word smokehouse and the menu prominently features a full selection of smoked meat, The Republic is no ordinary barbecue joint. The restaurant's look, dark wood with limestone accents and Texas-style paraphernalia like Longhorns and vintage pistols on the walls, is the most traditional thing about the restaurant.
The biggest break with tradition is that The Republic offers full-service and a full liquor license: no standing in line required. Chasing barbecue with a cold beer or sweet tea may be standard, but the restaurant adds a full cocktail menu (all $10 or less) and wine to the mix. The all-female service staff wear uniforms that are a Texas riff on the outfits seen at Twin Peaks: cut-off jean shorts and brightly-colored plaid tops.
The Twin Peaks vibe extends to the 28 TVs that hang from just about every wall, including four on the patio. Next to the entrance, diners will find a stage that will host live music every Thursday through Saturday. And yes, the restaurant has already secured the necessary dance hall permit, so expect to see revelers getting their groove on.
Turning to the food, the extensive menu by features a full range of entrees, appetizers, sandwiches and even flatbreads created by executive chef Matt Knotts.
"I didn't leave anyone out," general manager Angel Rios says with a grin. Vegetarians might consider a smoked mushroom sandwich or grilled portabella entree. Pescetarians have both hot smoked salmon and fried catfish to choose from. The menu includes several unexpected proteins like smoked quail, duck and veal shank.
As part of a commitment to Southern hospitality, Knotts is making almost everything in house; that includes milling his own cornmeal for grits, using smoked duck to make duck sausage and tossing leftover burnt ends into the barbecue beans.
While Republic will throw mushrooms and salmon in its smokers, it's already serving credible Texas barbecue, too. Credit for that goes to Cedric Williams, who served as pitmaster at the celebrated Williams Smokehouse until a fire destroyed it in 2007.
He displays a quiet enthusiasm about being back in the barbecue business. "It's very rewarding, because this is what I love to do," Williams says. "This is what I've been doing for most of my adult life. It feels like home to me."
At a tasting with Rios and Knotts, I found that Republic is off to a strong start. The brisket already shows well-rendered fat and proper moisture; a massive beef rib fairly fell off the bone and was imbued with a deep smokiness. Pork ribs, turkey, chicken, pulled pork, ham and two kinds of sausage are all available as plates; most of the meats are available as sandwiches, too.
From Knotts' side of the menu, highlights included the smoked duck breast and a smoked quail over stewed okra— yes, that's an actual green vegetable at a barbecue joint — that Knotts says he learned to cook from his grandmother.
While Knotts may not have Williams' history with barbecue, he grew up around Southern flavors thanks to his upbringing in the Houston area and family in Mississippi. The chef, who trained at both the Culinary School of the Rockies and the Culinary Institute of America in New York, has accepted his first executive chef job after stints at places like Batanga and Hearsay on the Green. He brings chef-driven techniques to the menu.
As part of a commitment to Southern hospitality, Knotts is making almost everything in house; that includes milling his own cornmeal for grits, using smoked duck to make duck sausage and tossing leftover burnt ends into the barbecue beans. The Reuben sandwich uses pastrami that's smoked and brined in-house, too.
Desserts at most barbecue places may be an afterthought, but pastry chef Efrain Roman ensures that Republic's stand out. For example, the popcorn milkshake is made with house-made corn ice cream and decorated with caramel popcorn. House made strawberry ice cream tops the funnel cake.
Taken together, The Republic seems poised to become a restaurant that offers an appealing mix of options: barbecue sandwiches and plates to office dwellers at lunch, barbecue-inspired mains at dinner and enough bar snacks and flatbreads to keep the late night crowd satisfied.