For too long, the standard advice to anyone who asked the question, "Where's the barbecue in Houston?" was "Drive to Lockhart."
How was it possible that Houston had better goat brain masala than it did versions of Texas's most iconic cuisine? Yes, if you knew where to look, you might luck out with a great plate of brisket at Williams Smokehouse (R.I.P.), but, generally speaking, the city's scene was defined by too soft ribs and too lean brisket.
Happily, that's all changing thanks to a new generation of pitmasters that have delivered tasty food and inspired a few Houston classics to step up their game. While Houston still doesn't have anything quite as strong as Austin's new-school big three of Franklin Barbecue, LA Barbecue and John Mueller Meat Co, there is, finally, good cue to be had here.
Prior to jumping into the list, I want to acknowledge the work that local writer J.C. Reid and co-organizer Michael Fulmer did for this year's Houston Barbecue Festival. No one has done more to document and promote the rise of Houston barbecue than Reid and Fulmer, and it's hard to imagine our current scene would be as robust as it is without their efforts.
For anyone wondering about the omission of Goode Co. BBQ, respectable turkey and world-class pecan pie are not sufficient to offset too lean, dried out brisket and under-seasoned ribs. Even the signature duck frequently comes out greasy.
The seafood restaurant's still killer, but I'm done standing in line for their barbecue.
Located in a small building on 19th Street, Gatlin's serves brisket that's both well seasoned and sufficiently smoky to be worth a visit. However, it's pitmaster Greg Gatlin's ribs that are among the best in Texas. Never mushy, they always pull away from the bone with just the right amount of force.
Gatlin's is Houston's most consistently excellent barbecue joint.
While that would be a sufficient reason to include Gatlin's on this list, the sides are destination worthy, too. Don't skip the bacon-spiked green beans or authentically offal-licious dirty rice. Even the cobbler works despite using canned peaches.
Yeah, service can be slow. If time is a factor, go for lunch early in the work week. Other than that, Gatlin's is Houston's most consistently excellent barbecue joint.
When he first started a barbecue pop-up at his Pearland steakhouse, Ronnie Killen frequently wore a Franklin Barbecue T-shirt as he stood on the line slicing brisket. If that didn't make his target clear, now he's printed up his own shirts that read "The Best Barbecue, Period."
Honestly, it's not far off. Prime brisket emerge from the pit jiggling with fat, and his homemade sausage, this maybe the only place in Houston that makes its own, has an addictive, spicy kick. But it's the beef ribs that have become a signature item. Fantastically tender, seasoned with just the right amount of salt and pepper, and brimming with crispy, smoky, unctuous fat, they could almost pass for the definitive version served at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor.
While it's tempting to order pounds of everything after standing in a line that can last 90 minutes or more, try to leave room for either the pecan pie or banana pudding, as they're both excellent. The biggest question about the endeavor is whether Killen will be able to sustain the quality once the permanent space opens and he starts devoting attention to launching CK Steakhouse.
If the answer is yes, 2018's Texas Monthly Top 5 might want to make room.
Located on a surprisingly rural-looking stretch of Gessner, Virgie's is the only Houston barbecue joint to appear on the Texas Monthly's renowned list in both 2008 and 2013. That's a tribute to pitmaster Adrian Handsborough's dedication to perfecting his craft.
His brisket comes with lots of smoke flavor, and his ribs are always properly cooked. The locally sourced beef sausage is also worth trying, with just enough spice and a good snap. The location itself has a lot of charm, and Big Red is available for an authentic Texas food and beverage pairing.
But only people who like that soda's overwhelming sweetness will enjoy Virgie's sides, which are pretty skippable.
CorkScrew BBQ may technically consist of two trailers, one for smoking and one for serving, but it still features permanent, covered seating. Ah, the joys of owning a food truck outside the reach of the City of Houston Health Department!
That coverage is welcome, because the word is out about CorkScrew. Long lines are the norm most days, and the restaurant has usually sold out of meat by 2 or 3 p.m. Will Buckman's moist, tender brisket and just spicy enough pork sausage are always delicious.
Ah, the joys of owning a food truck outside the reach of the City of Houston Health Department!
The turkey is good, too, but can be among the first meats to sell out. Get there early or risk regretting the drive to Spring.
Located in the parking lot of an Ace Hardware in Cypress, Brooks' Place doesn't look like much, but one should never judge a barbecue restaurant by its appearance. If anything, a shabby exterior can sometimes be a sign of quality.
By that standard, this joint, which also landed on the Texas Monthly Top 50, more than holds its own. Both fatty and lean brisket are moist, and the fat is always well-rendered. Ribs have an excellent bark and good chew. The sides are a mixed bag, but that just means there's room for more meat.
Open since 1949, Lenox lost its dining room to the East End light rail line. That's a shame, because it meant the moist brisket and well-seasoned ribs from its massive Oyler smoker could no longer be enjoyed without taking the order to-go. But just last week, Lenox began serving lunch to sit-down customers at nearby Medel's Ice House.
If this picture of delicious-looking meat is any indication, it's a match made in Houston barbecue heaven.
At the very least, The Brisket House serves the best barbecue near the Galleria, which makes it the first choice for any tourists smart enough to avoid the please-don't-confuse-it-for-the-original Luling City Market. That it earns that status is sort of amazing, since pitmaster Wayne Kammerl employs a gas-fired Southern Pride smoker.
These smokers are usually derided by barbecue fans for producing dried-out, flavorless brisket, but maybe it's just that people who typically use them don't care very much about producing a quality product. No worries, my last visit to the Brisket House was excellent.
Aggies might recognize Kammerl's name, because he ran the well-regarded Tom's BBQ in College Station for a number of years. Johnny Manziel's loss is Houston's gain, and the Aggie Special, meat served with white onion, a whole pickle and a block of cheddar cheese, is just as tempting as ever.
A couple years ago Pizzitola's owner Jerry Pizzitola and general manager Tim Taylor made a trip to central Texas with a group of Houston barbecue fans (including me). After sampling the offerings at Snow's BBQ in Lexington and Louie Mueller, they resolved to bring the Houston institution up to the level of their central Texas competitors.
While I'm not arguing that Pizzitola's serves some of the best barbecue in Texas, there's no denying that the brisket is more moist and fattier than it was before the trip. The ribs are still as excellent as they've always been, with a good bark and just the right mix of seasoning.
Friendly, sit-down service and the ability to get barbecue at dinner time are two other reasons why this Houston institution has been successful for 70-plus years.
Smoked. Boudin. It's an East Texas mashup that's so alluring it should make any thinking person's mouth starting watering. It certainly did at the Houston Barbecue Festival, where Ray's had a consistently long line.
While the boudin's a sufficient reason to visit Ray's BBQ Shack, the brisket and ribs are also solid, if not quite destination worthy. The sides have the taste and appearance of being old family recipes, with the potato salad a particular standout. Despite the name, there's nothing particularly shacky about the restaurant. It's located in a strip center that's anchored by a gas station.
Why is a San Antonio-based chain in a list of Houston's best barbecue? Three important reasons.
First, Rudy's locations in Clear Lake and Katy offer solid, Central Texas style barbecue in parts of town that are otherwise bereft of decent options. Second, of the restaurants on this list, it's the only one other than Pizzitola's that's consistently open for dinner. Third, the restaurant makes consistently solid food.
The ribs are always tasty, and the smoked prime rib on the weekends is rarely seen on other menus. Few sides anywhere are as addictive as Rudy's creamed corn.
Feges BBQ (Honorable Mention)
Underbelly line cook Patrick Feges is a US Army veteran with a compelling personal story and a passion for making great barbecue. Unfortunately, his real job keeps him too busy to make barbecue more than once a month or so.
It's tasty stuff, but not nearly consistent enough in quality or frequency for this list. However, if Clumsy Butcher decides to get into the barbecue game, or Ronnie Killen decides he needs an apprentice, Feges's potential is almost limitless.
Until then, look for his occasional pop-ups at Anvil to taste the possible future of Houston barbecue.