The Best Houston Barbecue of 2016
While 2016 will go down for some as a year they would rather forget, it has been another banner year for Houston barbecue joints. New proprietors have entered the game, popular places are still drawing crowds, and increased exposure is boosting traffic at many old favorites. The booming barbecue business in the Greater Houston area shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
The barbecue scene in the Houston area is still not getting the attention that Central Texas does, but it certainly does have plenty of room for many different places and styles to succeed. There’s a full spectrum of barbecue options. Houston has the heavy influence of Central Texas-style, black-peppered, “barky” brisket, Asian- and Middle Eastern-spiced variants, and traditional Southeast Texas-style, family-owned standbys that serve smoked boudin and juicy, garlicky sausages as well as meats with sweeter rubs and sauces.
The work to determine the best of the Houston-area barbecue joints covered the more than 2,000 square miles of the Greater Houston area. There’s about 60 road miles between two of the spots on this year’s list, and a lot of places considered in between. Here are our picks for the restaurants that served the most outstanding barbecue this year.
7. Gatlin’s BBQ – 3510 Ella, Houston, Texas
Greg Gatlin and family have been providing Houstonians with smoked meat goodness for almost seven years. This year’s transition from the cramped quarters of the former 19th Street location to spacious new digs on Ella Boulevard has them busier than ever. Greg’s mother Mary is still there to greet folks with a familiar smile and big hug. “Once you’re here, you’re family,” she says. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner service, Gatlin’s provides the best option for quality dinner hour barbecue in the area. With the recent hiring of chef Michelle Wallace (formerly of Houston’s) to help manage kitchen operations, the flow between ordering and food availability seems smoother, and the atmosphere more relaxed.
Smoky, peppery brisket is as good as it’s ever been, and the St.Louis-cut pork spareribs are perfectly cooked. The meat pulls off the bone cleanly without being completely “fall-off-the-bone.” The larger location means the menu has expanded, too. Big beef ribs now make regular appearances, and the available side dishes have substantially increased. Favorites include pinto beans seasoned with smoked sausage, and corn kernels, deeply infused with wood smoke, mixed with diced red onion, red pepper, and jalapeño. Best of all is the dirty rice, with a livery punch and spicy finish. It’s a classic Mary Gatlin recipe that shouldn’t be overlooked. When Smoked Wangz are on the specials board, be sure to pick up a half-dozen to share with the table. Meaty chicken wing segments are spiced, smoked and doused in Gatlin’s barbecue sauce, then returned to the pit for the sauce to set. The results are gloriously sticky and smoky. Have napkins ready!
6. Pappa Charlies Barbeque – 2012 Rusk, Houston, Texas
The sweet and spicy competition-style ribs alone earn Pappa Charlies a top spot; you’ll not find any quite like these anywhere else in the area. Though the meats here are usually lighter in smoke flavor than other joints, owner Wes Jurena’s “hot-and-fast” cooking method and thick salt and pepper rub result in great briskets. Other items to keep in mind include boneless beef short rib burnt ends (a Tuesday special), and the juicy peppered turkey (when available). Don’t pass on the creamy macaroni-and-cheese either; the rich blend of five cheeses and big elbow macaroni pairs well with everything. Order it “loaded” as a hearty main dish option, topped with your choice of chopped meats. (We recommend the brisket.) Savory collard greens flavored with bacon and pork, and touched with sweetness and spice, round out the best side options.
Watch Pappa Charlie’s social media feeds for specials. A recent Friday night menu offering included a hefty slice of smoked prime rib, smashed taters, roasted Brussels sprouts, and a draft beer of your choice, all for just $18. Willing to embrace the “goofycue” moniker bestowed upon them by a regular customer, they’re not afraid of a little barbecue experimentation. Look for “The League” on the specials board: a smoked brisket burrito stuffed with macaroni and cheese, pintos, and house-made guacamole. Another off-menu favorite on Wednesdays is the 1836 Sandwich, piled high with sliced brisket, pulled pork, sliced smoked sausage, spicy slaw, and a sweet sauce. A similar sweet sauce is the glaze on the very popular Friday special: the bacon-wrapped smoked meatloaf plate. It’s served with two sides for only $11.95.
5. Roegels Barbecue Co. – 2223 South Voss, Houston, Texas
Owner Russell Roegels spent years managing the sole Houston outpost of the Dallas-based chain, Baker’s Ribs. In late 2014, he and his wife Misty realized it was time to change up the offerings, so they bought the place and established Roegels Barbecue Co. Since then, their Central Texas-style barbecue has just gotten better and better. Stay on top of the daily specials, which include smoked pork chops, lamb chops and—our favorite—the smoked pork belly special on Wednesdays. Well-seasoned and with fully rendered fat layers, this pork belly is one of the best in the state. Order it with collard greens and creamy macaroni and cheese plus some brisket and ribs on a three-meat plate special for $16.95. The bourbon banana pudding for dessert is a must. Even if you’re full, take one to go for later!
Roegels was one of the first Houston-area barbecue joints to make smoked brisket pastrami a regular menu item. Thursday is pastrami day, available by the pound or as one of the meats on a plate for a modest upcharge. Be sure to try it on their extremely popular Reuben Sandwich, stacked on griddled rye, with sauerkraut, homemade Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese for $11.95. Six or seven pastrami briskets are smoked weekly to meet the demand for the forty or so Reubens served every Thursday.
4. The Pit Room – 1201 Richmond, Houston, Texas
A newcomer on the Houston barbecue scene, The Pit Room is the best new Houston barbecue restaurant of 2016. As reported earlier this year, co-owner Michael Sambrooks and chef Bramwell Tripp have brought out a full complement of handcrafted barbecue, sides, and desserts sure to please the most discriminating of barbecue connoisseurs. Brisket, pork spareribs, and smoked chicken are solid contenders for some of the best in the city. Three types of sausages are made fresh daily at the Pit Room, a rarity in the Houston barbecue market. All are excellent, and it’s advisable to include at least one when you’re considering your ordering options.
The Pit Room makes good use of meat trimmings in other items, such as their Tex-Mex-style tacos. Brisket fat is rendered and smoked in the pits, then substituted for lard in house-made tortillas. Smoked, chopped brisket is also added to their hearty Texas Red Chili and features prominently in the Loaded Frito Pie, which comes topped with pulled pork or chopped beef, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and onions.
3. Killen’s Barbecue – 3613 E. Broadway, Pearland, Texas
When Ronnie Killen first launched his take on barbecue in Pearland almost three years ago, people knew it was something special. Killen applied the skills he learned at Le Cordon Bleu London to Texas barbecue and sides. News spread rapidly, and lines of customers have persisted ever since. All the buzz means it’s not unusual to run into local celebrities here. Members of the Houston Texans football team are frequent customers. This may have factored into the decision earlier this year to include two new Killen’s Barbecue stands in NRG Stadium, where over 100 briskets are prepared on game day just to meet the demand.
“The best barbecue, period,” is Killen’s motto, and it shows in every perfectly-rendered slice of thick, prime brisket simply seasoned with coarse black pepper and salt, at the remarkably low price of $16 per pound. Big beef plate ribs are $20 per pound, but an excellent value option is the smaller beef chuck rib plate with two sides for only $15.95. House-made sausage is $3 per link, made from brisket and pork belly trimmings, as well as applewood smoked bacon.
The menu has expanded considerably since opening. Regular daily specials include chicken fried steak on Tuesdays, smoked pork chops on Wednesdays, smoked prime rib on Fridays, and fried chicken on Sundays. Bowing to the pressure of customer requests, huge stuffed baked potatoes are now available for $10.95. Other daily specials might include brisket or pulled pork tamales ($20 per dozen), brisket or pulled pork tacos ($8 for three), and Wagyu brisket ($25 per pound). Desserts are fantastic. Killen’s bread pudding gets rave reviews from just about everyone, but don’t dismiss the carrot cake, buttermilk pie, banana pudding, or seasonal cobblers.
2. Tejas Chocolate Craftory – 200 North Elm, Tomball, Texas
Chocolate? Isn’t this a barbecue review? Tejas Chocolate was founded in 2011 by Scott Moore, Jr., and his partner, Michelle Holland, as a “bean-to-bar” confectionary business in Tomball. Moore realized at some point all the residual space and time (!!) in the cacao bean roasting process could be used to cook other things, and in 2015 the barbecue side of the business was born. Scott’s brother Greg Moore is a trained chef, and his creativity shines in exemplary special dishes and sides. “Unique” is an understatement in describing some of their creations. The sweet carrot souffle (Michelle’s contribution) is one of the best side dishes ever served with barbecue and helps balance the salt and spice of the smoked meats. Cornbread pudding is more savory than sweet, with noticeable additions of white cheddar, green onion, and parsley. Winter special dishes offered periodically include included smoked pork chowder, potato soup, and Hobbit Stew, thick with chunks of rustic potatoes, roasted poblano pepper, smoked pork, and bacon. It’s named after its creator, Hobs, the kitchen supervisor, whom Scott declares to be a “furry, large-footed meat cutter.”
The brisket here is tender with a sturdy bark, which is also evident in the burnt end nuggets. Big beef plate ribs are cross-cut into shorter sections, resulting in two- or three-inch pieces just perfect for a 1/3-pound single serving. Wednesday is House Prime day, a sandwich special loaded with a half-pound of moist brisket, braised mushrooms, sautéed onion, horseradish cheddar, and green onion mayo on a toasted kaiser roll. Regular daily special sandwiches on the menu include the Brisket & Blues, with sliced (or chopped) brisket, blue cheese, red onions, and halved grape tomatoes, and the Bird & Bacon, with smoked turkey, bacon, fresh avocado slices, and topped with a fried egg. This gem, located down a quiet side street in Old Town Tomball, is a destination-worthy barbecue place worth driving many miles for.
1. CorkScrew BBQ – 26608 Keith, Spring, Texas
Quality and consistency are what makes CorkScrew BBQ so remarkable—and that is what earned them the top spot in our 2016 Houston barbecue rankings. Day-in and day-out since 2010, owners Will and Nichole Buckman have delivered the best brisket, smoked turkey, and pulled pork in the Houston area. The prime briskets from Creekstone Farms are smoked at least 12 to 14 hours on huge, red oak-fueled Oyler rotisserie pits. The result is succulent, melt-in-your-mouth brisket—in our opinion, some of the best in Texas. Big beef plate ribs and smoked chicken on Saturdays are excellent as well, and sell out quickly. At CorkScrew, the popular beef ribs are priced at $20 each, which makes them much more affordable than at other places that typically charge $22 per pound. (Since beef plate ribs often weigh a pound-and-a-half or more each, the grand total elsewhere often ends up being between $30 and $40 dollars.) The housemade sides typically include potato salad, coleslaw, beans, macaroni and cheese, and a cobbler of the day. The menu may not be as extensive as other places, but it’s just the right size to ensure the Buckman’s extremely high quality standards are maintained.
CorkScrew BBQ regularly sells out by 3:00 pm daily. It’s best to visit around 1:30 pm on a weekday, just after the lunch rush has diminished. Don’t be dissuaded though if there’s a line out the door; it moves quickly. The Buckmans are almost always on-site, often manning the cutting board at their bustling location in Old Town Spring. Each item ordered is sliced with precision and carefully arranged. The Buckmans are well aware that photos will be taken and shared on social media and make each tray look its best. Not surprisingly, on a recently-aired episode of the Travel Channel’s show Food Paradise, CorkScrew BBQ earned the top spot in their nationwide search for “the 8 greatest places for BBQ bliss.”
That’s our list for this year. We look forward to seeing how Houston-area barbecue joints (especially some that we have high hopes for, like Pinkerton’s) rank next year!
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.