Houston BBQ 101

Old School vs. Craft BBQ

If you ask a new barbecue fan how many barbecue joints there are in Houston, he might respond “ten or twenty.” In reality, of course, there are upwards of 100 barbecue joints in the greater Houston area.

For many new barbecue fans (those who have discovered Texas barbecue in the last ten years), the only joints they are familiar with are the craft-barbecue places that get most of the publicity and which are active on social media. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. These places produce great barbecue and honorably serve the barbecue community. They deserve the recognition. 

Though the high-profile, Instagram-worthy craft-barbecue joints get most of the publicity, there is an entire underworld of old-school barbecue joints that exist throughout greater Houston. For every one of the former there are ten of the latter that crank out good-to-middling barbecue on a daily basis.

And there is a silent army of customers who patronize these workaday restaurants and who mostly reject the idea that craft barbecue is better or worth the premium price that often comes with it.

Indeed, for old-school adherents, the glory days of Houston barbecue are represented by places including Otto’s, Luther’s and Thomas Bar-B-Q.

So what exactly is old-school barbecue? It can be traced to a time when “modern conveniences” such as automated smokers and “low fat” and “no fat” recipes were all the rage.

The distinction between craft and old-school barbecue is most apparent in the way brisket is prepared.

Old-school brisket is prepared in a way that almost all of the fat is trimmed off before or after the cook, and hardly any seasoning is added to the outside, resulting in a brown or gray outside layer or bark.

And unlike craft-barbecue joints, which almost exclusively use the highest Prime-grade brisket, most old-school joints happily make do with Select or Choice grade.

Also, the brisket is often butchered so that the “point” and “flat” portions of the brisket are separated, either before or after it is smoked. The resulting chunk of point is chopped for sandwiches while the slab of flat is used for sliced beef.

Because most of the flat has been stripped of fat, the meat can dry out fast, and some tenderness can be achieved by thinly slicing the meat. It’s no surprise that sauce is a much more important factor at old-school joints, adding flavor and moistness.

You can still order brisket from the point at these spots, though you have to specifically ask for “wet cut” or “loose cut,” the equivalent of craft barbecue’s “fatty” or “moist” terminology.

If you read this guide’s article about ETX vs. CTX Brisket, you will note similarities between ETX-style brisket and old-school brisket. Indeed, many of the old-school joints in Houston are ETX-style. 

Worlds do sometimes collide when old-school adherents visit a craft-barbecue joint. Many craft-barbecue pitmasters cringe when a guest asks for “extra lean” brisket — basically code words for “make my brisket old-school” by trimming off all the fat. The often-heard complaint by old-school aficionados is, “Why should I pay for all that fat?”

Undoubtedly, fans of craft barbecue will read the description of old-school brisket and roll their eyes. Old-school adherents will continue to quietly mock craft-barbecue fans for overpaying for brisket encrusted in what they consider inedible fat. In the end, it is all up to personal preference.

How the HOUBBQ Guide helpsTo be sure, this guide focuses more on craft-barbecue than old-school. But there are still some old-school places that make great barbecue and represent historical connections to Houston’s barbecue past. For that reason, we offer the ability to filter by notable Old-School joints in the Styles Filter. Additionally, there is a Features Filter for Essentially Houston that includes many old-school joints that are a throw-back to Houston barbecue history.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. 
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