Historically, Houston hasn't been known for great barbecue, but that's changed over the past few years. As names like Gatlin's, CorkScrew and Killen's have evolved from promising upstarts to barbecue royalty, a new generation of pitmasters have emerged who are pushing the city towards being on an equal footing with anywhere in smoked meat greatness — even Austin.
Foremost among them is Wesley Jurena of Pappa Charlies Barbeque. The former Army Ranger -turned-competition-barbecue-champion has emerged as a consensus favorite among local barbecue bloggers for his fatty, smoky, pepper-heavy, Central Texas-style barbecue that's prepared "hot and fast" in five or six hours instead of "low and slow" in 12 or more.
If all goes according to plan, Jurena will be serving by Labor Day.
For the past year, Jurena has been selling barbecue out of his trailer that's parked at Jackson's Watering Hole in Montrose, but he's made no secret of his desire to have a space of his own. Recently, the pitmaster signed a lease on a space in EaDo, briefly the site of Japon Sushi, for a brick and mortar location of Pappa Charlies.
Negotiations had been under way for awhile, but Jurena got a call two weeks ago that the deal was done — coincidentally, shortly after Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn had made his visit that would turn into a highly-coveted four star review (and when I had stopped by for a sandwich).
"That spot has been a couple of different places, and I’ve had my eye on it for a while," Jurena tells CultureMap. "It’s not ideal for what I want to do, but it’s the best option at this time. I would have preferred to stay in Montrose. I’ve been there a year, and Montrose has been very good to me."
Close to major attractions
While the space isn't perfect, its status as a second-generation restaurant means that it has all the necessary plumbing and equipment like a grease trap and vent hoods that can be expensive to install or require a lengthy wait at the permit office. The location is also close to major attractions including BBVA Compass Stadium, Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center. As Jurena notes, the Ranger Creed includes the sentence "surrender is not a Ranger word," and he's determined to make it work.
"I don’t have any choice. It’s here," Jurena says. "Like anything else, you can’t be scared of your dreams. If you put in a hard days work and put out a good product, it’ll come along."
"Like anything else, you can’t be scared of your dreams. If you put in a hard days work and put out a good product, it’ll come along."
Renovations to the space are designed to be accomplished quickly, with mostly cosmetic changes to the dining room and the installation of two vertical smokers from local manufacturer Pitmaker. If all goes according to plan, Jurena will be serving by Labor Day.
Lunch service will feature the items Jurena already serves at the trailer: brisket, pork ribs, tri tip, turkey, sausage and beef ribs. Dinner is still a work in progress. Jurena's cooking style allows him the option of serving the same menu twice, but he's also contemplating the possibility of plated dishes that use smoked meat as one component. Frequent visitors to the trailer have encountered one-off specials like Indian-style masala-spiced lamb. Pappa Charlies could set itself apart with other, similar features.
One complicating factor is that Jurena has no experience working in a restaurant; he went straight from the barbecue competition circuit to operating his trailer. "I suspect it will be a comedy of errors as it goes on," Jurena says with a laugh, but don't underestimate his ability to learn and adapt quickly. He reached this point in less than two years and shows no signs of slowing down.
"As I’ve said in many different interviews, it’s been a grind and a lot of sweat. Not that I think that’s going to go away, but hopefully this is the culmination of that year of hard work. Hopefully, we can continue to provide a quality product to the city."
Pappa Charlies joins John Avila, who will bring his barbecue joint The Pit Room to a former Montrose porn shop later this year, and Grant Pinkerton, the passionate 26-year old pitmaster who's also on the hunt for a brick and mortar space after his plans to open in River Oaks fell through, as part of the next wave of Houston's barbecue boom. Whether or not national respect comes, Houstonians are the happy beneficiaries of all the activity.