Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stations of the 'cue: I & II

Posted on Wed, Aug 19, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-08-19

A review copy of Texas BBQ: Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden (University of Texas Press) recently arrived on an already cluttered desk, and it might have languished there longer but for the evocative cover photo of a pitmaster inspecting his clods and links. Like most of the photos in the book, its composition, colors, and especially the light quality, evoke Old Master painters filtered through photographic sensibilities of the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

With the exception of a couple of places in Fort Worth and Dallas, the subjects hail from towns with names like Navasota, Mineola, Zabcikville, and, of course, Lockhart, Luling, Elgin, and Tyler, the trophy buckles on the Texas barbecue belt. San Antonio doesn’t make the cut. But this might inspire you, as it did me, to get out and see what we have to offer off the beaten, Bill Miller track. I decided to hit only places I had never been before. And to concentrate on one simple product: the sliced brisket sandwich. 

Pat’s Barbecue, on East Houston, follows a classic format: order at a small walk-up window, eat at picnic tables past their prime. Pat’s does offer the dubious extra of a small TV for the delectation of diners, but there is also the encouraging sign of a large, portable barbecue rig and unruly piles of oak surrounding the permanent pit. Unruly also characterizes the sandwich. 

Complete with pickle spears and sliced onion, the overstuffed item, bracketed by slices of unabashedly ordinary white bread, contained both crusty and fatty parts. Some were juicy, some were tough, and all had just a faintly smoky flavor. The barbecue sauce, pre-applied, was a little sweet, slightly glutinous, and not very spunky. Due to the prodigious amount of meat and its general chewiness, the package was altogether impossible to eat, the bread offering little to no structural support. So I deconstructed it. Final score: 11 toothpicks out of a possible 20. 

I found Chit Chats Bar-B-Que on Cherry while cruising the East Side for likely targets. It enticed because it didn’t fit the mold: Someone had gone to the effort to apply a little paint, make an attention-getting sign, and you actually walk inside to place your order. A large fan supplied the only AC at the indoor tables, although there is also outdoor seating under a cobbled-together canopy. The $5.99 sandwich, however, was a total class act. And it also comes with a side. The pimiento- and pickle-studded salad was merely OK, but the sandwich, served on a more than serviceable hoagy bun, had aspirations. The brisket, thickly sliced with no fat trimmed, offered whiffs of smoke (maybe mesquite) and was moist and very good. The sauce left little impression, reinforcing the credo that it’s what’s left off, more than what’s slathered on, that counts. Sliced red onion and crinkle-cut pickles completed the picture. If anything, Chit Chats’ approach may be almost too polite, right down to the dispenser of sanitizing hand lotion that’s available at the condiment table. But I’ll be back to check out the rest of the menu. Score: 15 toothpicks.  

To be continued… 

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