Housemade Sausage May Be Rare in Houston Barbecue, but Deserves More Attention
American poet John Godfrey Saxe wrote in 1869, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Fast forward to 2017, and you might question whether or not this still holds true. Maybe for the “lawmaking” part, but sausage-making has been experiencing a renaissance in the Texas barbecue scene.
Obviously, the sausage business isn’t a new thing. It’s been around in Texas as long as there have been butchers and meat markets. It maximizes the yield on the meat they process and helps them sell it before it has a chance to spoil. Southside Market in Elgin has been making sausage since the 1880s, and to this day makes one of the best tasting all-beef sausages in the state.
Pitmasters across Texas recognize the value of adding unique, quality sausage to their repertoire. It gives them an opportunity to experiment with ingredients and spices in the kitchen that are outside the bounds of “traditional” barbecue. Austin-area pitmasters have been leading the charge with their creative sausage blends over the past few years. Tom Micklethwait, Keenan Goldis, Evan LeRoy, John Lewis, and John Brotherton all are known for their masterful concoctions, ranging from LeRoy’s King Ranch Chicken Casserole sausage, to Goldis’ Apple Pie sausage (yes, apple pie!), to Brotherton’s Crawfish Étouffée Boudin. Sausage popularity in the Capital City has even spawned its own competition, The Sausage Kings of Austin (the 2nd Annual event will be held this year on February 16).
But what about Houston? At times it seems like we’re a bit slow in catching up on what’s trending in Texas barbecue. Bryan Norton of Texas BBQ Treasure Hunt provided a thorough assessment of “Houston’s Sausage Problem” in his 2016 post, lamenting our city’s sparse availability of creative housemade sausage in comparison to the Austin area. When The Pit Room opened their doors on Richmond last year, the menu included three different original sausages, made fresh daily, in-house, which is virtually unheard of in Houston. Barbecue fans immediately took notice. Other than Luling City Market and Killen’s Barbecue, there weren’t many attempts at sausage made on-premises in Houston barbecue joints. Surely there had to be more.
Thus began my quest of the past month to discover what I could about Houston’s lesser-known sausage makers. Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly and J.C. Reid of the Houston Chronicle laid the groundwork in their mini-tour of Houston sausages in the summer of 2014, and J.C. Reid reported on Powell Bar-B-Q late in 2015. With these articles in-hand, coupled with some tips from others, it was time to find just where the sausage is made in Houston.
Powell Bar-B-Q in the Sunnyside neighborhood has been a barbecue joint in some capacity or another for over 50 years. Felix Powell bought the business in 2006, and his assistant pitmaster, Wayne Lemon, began making Beaumont-style, all-beef links over 30 years ago. This type of sausage, also known as “garlic bombs,” “grease balls,” or “juicy links,” is a style unique to Southeast Texas. With higher fat content, and a blend of spices that often includes paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper and sage, they are an acquired taste for some. They’re often served sliced into large pieces and presented pooled in sauce. The beefy flavor was evident, but the “juicy link” style wasn’t. These turned out to be denser and drier than anticipated, though still enjoyable, and worthy of a return visit.
On the way to Powell Bar-B-Q, you’ll pass by the Sausage and Boudin Shack on Reed Road. Surely this was a place to find something unique. It turns out the smoked sausage and boudin are housemade, and the menu includes beef, Cajun and deer sausage. The beef sausage was pre-sliced and served sauced, and had a dark casing with a noticeable smoke ring on the interior. The boudin had a crispy casing with a good balance of lean pork and spices, but without the livery presence found in most recipes. There wasn’t noticeable smoke flavor, though it was labeled on the menu as “smoked boudin”. Both the sausage and the boudin were good enough to warrant a return visit here as well.
Byron’s Gourmet Bar-B-Q on West Little York advertises “homemade links” and “smoked boudain” on their marquee out front. Byron’s is a walk-up joint with a couple of tables out front and a drive-through lane. Proprietor Byron Johnson has been in business here for 20 years, smoking his products on a 6-foot by 8-foot brick pit. He brought out beef links and a link of boudin to sample. This was as close to the “Beaumont-style” juicy links as I’ve found in Houston. Coarse ground, loaded with garlic, and stuffed into the tougher beef casings, Mr. Johnson says “the beef casing is what makes them links. Pork casing seeps, and you lose the juice, so they’re drier. Pork casing makes it sausage. There’s a difference.” For every 100 pounds of grind and spices, he adds six pounds of garlic. These were true to their “garlic bombs” nickname—and of excellent quality. With a half a loaf of bread, it was tempting to soak up every drop of juice and sauce.
Luling City Market (not affiliated with the original City Market in Luling, Texas) opened their location on Richmond in 1981. They offer beef links and spicy links for $5.50 each. About 200 links of each type are made twice a week in-house, and are tied with twine into “C-rings”, a common style for the Lockhart and Luling-area barbecue joints. After procuring one of each on a recent late Saturday afternoon visit, there were some distinct differences from the sausages from the other locations. Without knowing the specifics of the mix of ingredients, the flavor was noticeably less beefy, with an undertone of something unusual. Was it some type of filler? It would be hard to say, but it was definitely not the same as those known to be simply beef and pork plus spices. The beef link was fat and juicy, but the spicy link had been sitting for awhile and had lost all its moisture. There wasn’t much of a difference in the heat or spice level between the two either, and it would have been difficult to tell them apart.
Ray Busch of Ray’s BBQ Shack makes about 100 pounds of their their sausage and boudin every other day to meet clientele demands. They offer dense, all-beef links, spicy beef and pork sausage, and housemade boudin. With respect to the spicy beef and pork sausages, Ray shared that he uses a 60/40 beef-to-pork blend, and sometimes up to 70/30, depending on the texture. There is also some beef heart in the grind, along with green onion, red pepper, cumin, and a little sage, plus other spices. Its brief, fiery kick is boosted by the addition of a tiny bit of Scotch Bonnet pepper, but it tapers quickly, which encourages a dive right back in for a few more slices. Ray also occasionally makes one of Houston’s most unique sausages: a pork and seafood blend he calls Muddy Waters, which uses shrimp, crawfish, and crab. Don’t miss the opportunity to try it when it’s on the menu as a special!
Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland rolled out housemade sausage in 2014, and started with a quality ground blend of brisket trimmings, pork belly trimmings, applewood smoked bacon, and spices. A jalapeño sausage was added later. At just $3.00 each, links at Killen’s are a great value. Every afternoon, the meats are ground with the spices, further mixed by hand, and allowed to rest overnight to give the flavors a chance to fuse. Each morning they’re stuffed into pork casings and loaded into the pits for the day’s service. The grind is a bit coarse, and the meat and juices burst forth when the snappy casing is breached. In 2016, Killen’s premiered a new sausage at the Houston BBQ Festival and the TMBBQ Fest: white-meat turkey seasoned with a little jalapeño, red pepper and other spices, with cheese added for a bit more fat content. These occasionally show up at the restaurant. Snatch them up quickly when they do.
When The Pit Room opened in 2016, it was stunning to find three different sausages on the menu, all made fresh daily. Owner Michael Sambrooks has two people dedicated to the three-day process of grinding, stuffing, chilling, and smoking in the upright, wood-fired sausage smoker. A third person is in training. The Czech-style, all-beef sausage is flecked with pepper, mustard seed, garlic and other spices. A smoky and peppery venison sausage is darker and richer, and the pork jalapeño cheese is studded with green bits of jalapeño and melty cheese. The links are $3.50 each, and one of each makes for a hearty meal with a bit leftover for afternoon snacking. At last report, The Pit Room was making 60 pounds of each type of sausage three times a week just to try and keep up with demand.
Sausage making on-premises is a difficult task for a barbecue joint with a small staff and high traffic, mainly due to the time and resources required to complete the process. The equipment needed is often large and bulky, and each piece has to be carefully cleaned and thoroughly sanitized to avoid cross-contamination before starting the next day’s batch. Without a large staff supported by adquate volume, it’s hard to dedicate someone to the task. Kudos to the joints that are able to make the effort.
Houston has a wide variety of sausage types that are unique regional contributions. Its proximity to “boudin country” is also a bonus. Visit one of the places making these (conveniently listed below) to find out what a difference there is in fresh, housemade sausages compared to pre-smoked commercial options.
Did we miss any Houston-area barbecue places making their own sausage? If so, please let us know in the comment section below.
Powell Bar-B-Q, 4101 Clover St, Houston, Texas 77051, (713) 731-9630.
Open Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.
Sausage and Boudin Shack, 3610 Reed Rd, Houston, Texas 77051, (713) 733-0442.
Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Byron’s Gourmet Bar-B-Q, 2101 W Little York, Houston, Texas 77091, (713) 290-0870.
Open Wednesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Sunday through Tuesday.
Luling City Market, 4726 Richmond Ave, Houston, Texas 77027, (713) 871-1903.
Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday noon to 7 p.m.
Ray’s BBQ Shack, 4529 Old Spanish Trl #C, Houston, Texas 77021, (713) 748-4227.
Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Killen’s Barbecue, 3613 E Broadway, Pearland, Texas 77581, (281) 485-2272.
Open Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Monday.
The Pit Room, 1201 Richmond, Houston, Texas, 77006, (281) 888-1929.
Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
About The Author: Smoked meat enthusiast and occasional barbecue competition judge in the Houston area, Scott Sandlin authors the Texas Pit Quest blog, maintains the Guide to Houston-Area BBQ map, and is the barbecue columnist for Houston Food Finder.