Food & Drink Keep the fire burning

The Smokehouse upholds the Texas tradition of authentic pit barbecue

San Antonio has never been a heavy hitter in the world of hard-core barbecue, BBQ, or Bar-B-Q. Yet as recently as 30 years ago, smoke from a battery of barbecue pits shrouded certain sections of the city, and even denizens of its white-bread core made regular pilgrimages to the outer edges of town to tuck the ties in and lock lips with smoky bones. Gulf Street, off of East Houston, was a favorite personal destination; it was dark, grimy with smoke, and the crusty clods of brisket were a revelation to this carpetbagger.

Barbecue staples brisket, ribs, and sausage, fill a plate with potato salad and pinto beans at The Smokehouse on the East Side. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

For a more open-air experience, there were always the Miller sisters just west of downtown, down a driveway, past an old Pontiac, and behind the family home. The screened dining room was hung with flypaper and heavy with the pungent aroma of Myrtle and Bernice's famous ribs; it was also full of the city's movers and shakers. Myrtle Miller Johnson "took the barbecue sauce recipe to her grave" when she died in 1999 at age 96, according to Robb Walsh in his Legends of Texas Barbecue. She claimed to have been offered money for it many times, but always refused. Myrtle also ordered that the place be torn down upon her passing "so that no one could give the family a bad name with inferior barbecue."

1999 could easily have spelled the death knell for real barbecue in San Antonio; that was also the year that pitmaster Bob Wells died. "San Antonio barbecue is on its way to becoming a footnote until we find Bob's," says Lolis Eric Elie in Smokestack Lightning, Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. Miller's was gone by the time Elie hit town, and the author found that the River City's barbecue tasted "obligatory." He was right - about both Bob's Smokehouse (aka Bob's Den) and the knee-jerk nature of most local barbecue. But at Bob's, the obligation was to a slow-smoked authenticity that clung to sausage and sliced brisket alike, just as years of smoke had permeated the very walls. Fortunately, Bob's will didn't call for a demolition, and for a time, the place (along with two spin-offs) soldiered on, despite fires and the inevitable loss of the spirit of a man who had once claimed, "Barbecue was like a gift for me. It ain't nothing that I went to school for."

The Bob's branch on Roosevelt, run by his daughter, eventually closed, the North Side location changed hands, and then word filtered down that the original Bob's on Roland at Rigsby had succumbed. Not wanting to believe that a bastion of true Q was gone, I did a drive-by, only to find that the name had changed to The Smokehouse. The interior had been spiffed up with kitchy country artifacts and was suspiciously shiny for a barbecue joint, but all was well in the pit: Larry, Tony and Clifford, three of the original cooks, were in charge, and my sigh of relief must have been audible to current owner, Tanya Limon Ollerbidez.

Employee Larry James prepares a brisket plate at The Smokehouse.

Lamb lovers will be especially happy to know that the breast, Bob's signature dish, remains black with well-cooked fat, but packed with forthright flavor, the pork ribs shouted smoke and needed no sauce, and the coal-dark lumps that were the meaty short ribs proved lean, pull-apart tender, and, frankly, fantastic. The Smokehouse continues to make its own sausage, a more subtle product than you might be led to expect; loose and grainy-textured it's the soul mate to the sauce, a fruity elixir Bob once said he modeled on a Kraft product and kept improving. I'd swear I tasted coffee, but it's folly to try to analyze any barbecue sauce and even more foolish to ask for the recipe - these guys have big knives.

I must admit to trying the chicken out of a sense of duty, but the dark meat at The Smokehouse remains worth anybody's attention. Bob always preferred mesquite, a wood many find too pungent for anything requiring long smoking times, but it here it produces meat that is moist and just smoky enough. The bellwether brisket, the main meat of Texas barbecue, was tender and lightly smoky, but didn't show the rich spice of Bob's reign. Maybe the loud-mouth lamb simply got in the way.

Sides can be an after-thought at many barbecue joints, but not at The Smokehouse; here I'll swear they're even better than before. The pinto beans don't need sauce to sing, but feel free to slop it on, the potato salad is county-fair chunky and the coarsely chopped slaw is superbly crunchy-creamy and accented with tiny chips of pickle. A credible rice is also served, but it's a foil for sauce.

The Smokehouse

3306 Roland
11am-8pm Tue-Sat,
11am-6pm Sun
Price range: plates $5-7
Credit cards
No wheelchair access

The desserts are another matter. Bob' s wife used to do the cobblers, but desserts went downhill with Bob's demise. The Smokehouse's pecan and sweet-potato pies are produced by a large food-service company and are not worth your time or money. The lemonade is not a from-scratch product, either, but the super-size Styrofoam serving seems to fit right in regardless.

Myrtle, Bernice, and Bob may be gone, but it's clear that Larry, Tony, and Clifford are carrying the mesquite-fueled torch. And given that the Texas House passed a resolution of sympathy and appreciation upon Bob's death, we can only hope that the barbecue community will continue to produce pit masters; as Bob implied, there are no schools. Maybe the humongous trophy on display from the St. Philip's College 2005 Ribs Cookoff will serve as a source of inspiration cooks and culinary schools. A restaurant that has served both Don King and Oprah Winfrey may deserve to survive for that notoriety alone, but a tradition that has served all Texans for years is even more worthy of living long into the future.

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