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Follow the Smoke, East Texas BBQ

Working barbecue magic in the pits at Huntsville's New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo by John DeMers)

Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Q (Houston)

Address: 5109 Kirby Drive, Houston
Phone: (713) 522-2530
Established: 1977
Owner: Jim Goode
Best Bites: beef brisket, sausage, potato salad, jambalaya, homemade breads, pecan pie, 
chocolate cream pie
Payment: credit cards

Jim Goode was an artist above all else. It just took him a few years to discover he was meant to paint his greatest works with smoke.

By the mid-1970s, Jim had trained as a commercial artist and taken up residence in a Houston studio with a handful of others similarly inclined. In those days, Jim was in the habit of stopping for barbecue at a little mom-and-pop place that had served Houston since the 1950s. One day when he stopped, mom was struggling visibly, with pop nowhere in sight. Jim asked the woman if her husband was around, only to learn he had passed away. Clearly, running a barbecue place alone was not high on this mom’s personal wish list, ownership of the place changed just before Labor Day 1977. Over that long holiday weekend, Jim and various family members worked around the clock to get the restaurant in order: deep cleaning in the kitchen, general sprucing and maintenance in the dining room, plus a new look in all public areas achieved more with style than substance. Old license plates, weathered concert posters and various hunting trophies became the décor of Goode Co., and they remain so to this day. An uncle who had cooked in the Army during World War II came in to assist for a while, making foods and also helping Jim refine his recipes.

Opening on a shoestring, and a short one at that, Jim had virtually no money for mainstream advertising. His focus for the first two or three years in business, according to his son, was on being his own best perfectionist—experimenting with wood ’til he settled on green mesquite (higher moisture content, less harsh flavor), trying different spice blends for a dry rub until he had one worth setting in stone, auditioning purveyors until he gave up and decided to make almost everything himself from scratch.

This included not only turning out Goode Co.’s four kinds of barbecue sauce, but grinding and stuffing his own sausage and even baking his own bread. Wonder of wonders, Goode Co. not only bakes its own specialty breads—like the immensely popular onion buns and jalapeño cheese loaf—but the most traditional, arguably least interesting bread of all time, plain Texas white.

The payback, on the good days anyway, was near-complete control over quality. Over time, the even bigger payback came to be word-of-mouth, soon spilling the cafeteria line all around the dining room and out the front door.

The moral of Goode Co.’s story is that once you hear opportunity knock, you probably need to keep listening. 

Ruthie's Pit Bar-B-Q (Navasota)

Address: 905 W. Washington (Highway 105 West), Navasota    
Phone: (936) 825-2700                      
Established: 1976
Owners: James and Ruthie Henley
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork shoulder, 
Elgin sausage, potato salad
Payment: cash and checks

According to Louis Charles Henley, his parents, James and Ruthie—still listed on the menu as owners—were traveling around Texas nearly 40 years ago and stopped in some out-of-the-way county seat for a sandwich. Apparently, the sandwich was an epiphany. “My mama said, ‘We got this house. We gotta open up a barbecue place.’” 
Louis was pit boss at Ruthie’s from Day 1, learning his craft for two years from his Uncle Clyde, who came in from Austin. With his uncle and others helping, Louis worked the old house into shape to serve as a restaurant and built a brick pit out back for smoking.

Louis hasn’t just smoked all the meat himself with a blend of post oak, pecan and mesquite. He has chain-sawed and chopped all the wood to make the smoke.

For wood, there’s mostly post oak, with just a little bit of pecan and mesquite for flavor. For dry rub, there’s something simple, little more than seasoned salt, black pepper, and garlic powder. For meat, there’s beef brisket that cooks 12 to 13 hours in the pit, plus the pork shoulder Louis calls by its grocery store name, Boston butt, smoked until it shreds and crumbles into tender piles of flavor. There’s Elgin all-beef sausage, smoked a long time “until the grease all runs out, not like they do over there in Elgin.” And there’s “mutton,” a different touch in Texas to be sure: ribs of older lambs, something older customers line up for and eat ’til it’s all gone.

One thing there definitely isn’t at Ruthie’s Pit Bar-B-Q is marinade for the meat. That may be cookin’, but it ain’t barbecuin’. In barbecuin’, it’s the smoke that tells the tale.”

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church (Huntsville)

Address: 2601 Montgomery Road, Huntsville
Phone: (936) 295-3445
Established: 1979
Owner: New Zion Church, operated by Horace and May Archie
Best Bites: pork ribs, beef brisket, half chicken, smoked sausage, potato salad, buttermilk pie
Payment: cash and credit cards      

Since 1979, when Annie Mae Ward dragged a pit onto the property and started cooking lunch for workers building the church, the place has become an offbeat landmark. When your platter of barbecue lands in front of you on a table plastered with furniture and lawyer ads, it’s easy to forget any and every other reason your life might bring you to Huntsville.

Though the barbecue served by New Zion is mainstream delicious, some of the techniques are definite departures from the mainstream. For one thing, Horace Archie is one of the few pit masters in Texas who doesn’t smoke his brisket overnight, preferring to come in each morning about 5:30 to get the wood going and cook his briskets in a single 6- to 8-hour stretch. Quite often, he serves it sliced or chopped the same day it starts out on the smoker. As a result, the fork-tender beef at New Zion is less smoky-tasting than most other examples—a matter of personal preference—featuring instead the char-grilled flavor associated with steak. 
Other items, like the half chickens and pork ribs, seem to carry more smoke than the brisket, while the spiced blend of pork and beef in the sausage would probably still taste good if it saw no smoke at all.

Side dishes are extremely spartan: a scoop of mustard-yellow potato salad and a pool of mild red beans, plus a deli pickle and a slice of onion. Desserts, however, seem heaven-sent. All baked here, best-selling sweets include pies of sweet potato, buttermilk, and pecan.

Just those few items, ordered at the counter and served to you at one of New Zion’s 52 seats, are enough Wednesday to Saturday to attract a line that often stretches out the door, past the smoking pit and around into the parking lot behind the sanctuary.

 “It all helps out the church,” Horace emphasizes. “I love to see all the people eating and telling me how great it is and coming back again and again.” He smiles broadly, tongue softly touching cheek.

“It might even help me get to heaven.”

West Texas Style Bar-B-Que (Silsbee)

Address: 3078 Highway 96 North, Silsbee
Phone: (409) 385-0957
Established: 1985
Owners: Richard and Nita Nolen  
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, Cajun rice, potato salad, homemade yeast rolls, fresh-baked pies
Payment: credit cards

“Good Food…Mean Women” promises a sign right beside the front door.
These days, that promise is being kept better than ever. West Texas Style Bar-B-Que is one of the few such places in which the entire experience is delivered by women. 
Richard Nolen, known to all as “Chockie,” started this place with his wife, Nita, more than two decades ago. He called it “West Texas” not because he forgot this was East Texas but because he wanted to smoke with mesquite, a technique few cooks in the area would support. Still, that doesn’t hold back the line that forms here every lunch and dinner—and it doesn’t keep Chockie or, increasingly now, his daughter, Alma, and her husband, from driving all the way to West Texas to fill a trailer with the deep red wood.

Nita passes through the dining room constantly, asking customers if their food is all right or offering to refill their coffee. Behind the counter, she’s a whirlwind as well. 
For a trip through the kitchen and out to the smoker, Alma takes over, making sure to point out each thing that’s being made from scratch along the way. And there, on crusty racks inside the long black smoker, brisket after brisket breathes in the heat and smoke of a Texas far from Silsbee.

For dessert, West Texas Style Bar-B-Que bakes its own pies. The result is close to irresistible, sitting atop the counter for all the world to think it’s 1947. There’s perfect pecan, coconut cream, lemon and chocolate under golden-browned peaks of meringue, pumpkin during any cool weather and leading up to the holidays.”

Jaws Bar-B-Que (Port Arthur)

Address: 1448 7th Street, Port Arthur
Phone: (409) 985-6601
Established: 1984 
Owner: Punarbassi Sandy
Best Bites: beef brisket, hot links, 
pork neck bones, potato salad
Payment: cash

If there could ever be such a thing as a typical Texas barbecue cook, it’s a safe bet Punarbassi Sandy would not be it. Born in Guyana, the English-speaking British colony at the top of South America, Miss Sandy went in and out of one marriage and started raising seven kids by herself before she met her husband—and, by a tangled path, found her future in Texas barbecue.

“At first we cooked the food we liked to eat in Guyana and Trinidad,” Miss Sandy recalls with a knowing smile, looking much younger than her 60-plus years. “We made rice and peas just like back home, with plenty of sweet coconut milk...curry goat—now I can totally make that—and roti like they do in Trinidad. We fixed some wonderful foods, but unfortunately they didn’t become very popular around here.”

“Then somebody suggested we try American food, and we figured that in Port Arthur, Texas, American food had to mean barbecue. We cooked it and took it around to supermarket parking lots and to the refineries and the shipbuilding places at lunch. Before long, we were extremely popular. One day, we sold 700 barbecue sandwiches in Jasper. I don’t never see people eat so much barbecue.”

The emphasis is on barbecue’s version of soul food, especially on their spicy rendition of beef homemade links and the pork neck pieces known in these parts as “bones.”

All meats are seasoned and smoked on premises by Miss Sandy, who sends Styrofoam boxes to her cluster of tables inside, her picnic tables outside or to any of the cars waiting for takeout in the gravel parking lot. 

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From the March 2009 issue.

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