Excellent Pork Ribs and Brisket at Gatlin's Barbecue in Houston
It's easy to feel welcome in Texas where smiles and giant diet cokes are handed out like business cards wherever you go, but Gatlin's BBQ has a special kind of unexpected charm. When you pull up to the barbecue joint, the first thing you notice is its cleanness. It opened in 2010 in a building that looks more like a gas station convenience store than a temple of meat and smoke.
It's not that the space is unpleasant or uncomfortable, it's just that eating Texas BBQ, I'd gotten used to eating with my fingers off of paper-lined trays and standing on floors slicked with brisket grease, walls stained black and yellow from hardwood soot. Gatlin's, on the other hand, is downright sterile, fancy computer-designed signage and all.
The first hint you're in for something special is when Mary Gatlin—mother of Greg Gatlin, the man in charge of the pit—leans over to you and recommends you try the rice. And man, it's good. It's as if the restaurant is only as clean as it is because the Gatlin's went and used up all their dirty for the rice. Hot, musky, riddled with chopped chicken liver and giblets, it's served with a smile but eats like a punch in the mouth.
A sandwich packed with sliced brisket is carved to order (make sure to ask for a few slices of the moister second cut in there), stacked on a carefully buttered and toasted soft bun, and crazy big for its $6.75 price tag. The moist brisket is pebbly and fatty the way it should be, with just a tinge of smokiness—the flavor here is first and foremost beef.
Here's a tip: for the same price, you can get a chopped brisket sandwich, which is where all the juice, burnt ends, and extra fat that falls off the slices ends up. They're not the prettiest sandwiches, but they're the best ones on the menu. I like to eat them with crunchy slices of raw onion and a few pickled jalapeños tucked on top of the meat, pickles on the side to cleanse my palate between bites.
Like good Texans, the Gatlins don't assume you want sauce on your meat, but will happily oblige you with a tub of their house-made stuff on request. I'm not much of a barbecue sauce eater, but theirs is good, with a hint of heat, a strong kick of vinegar, and not too much sugar.
Sliced meat is a little pricier than the Texas average, but it's also better. Brisket, ribs (St. Louis and baby back), turkey, homemade sausages, and thick-pulled pork is all $14.95 a pound, while whole chickens will run you $12.50 a pop.
The ribs at Gatlin's are a picture perfect example of what a good dry rib should be. Meticulously butchered and sliced, every rib you get is thick and meaty with a smoke ring that extends nearly all the way to the center, its flavor intensified by a powerful dry rub.
Most impressive is that of the two racks of ribs I tried (both regular St. Louis cut and baby backs), every single one of them managed to hit that perfect sweet spot between pleasantly meaty and meltingly tender. Even the pork here is well-mannered: it politely declines to fall off the bone until you ask it nicely to, whereupon it comes quietly with no resistance.
The dirty rice can't be beat, but you'll find some seriously porky baked beans as well as properly soft and army-green green beans on the sides menu ($5.95 a pint, $8.95 a quart, $29.95 a gallon) alongside a crunchy and creamy cole slaw and tangy potato salad.
Oh, and don't worry about getting too full for dessert—Mary won't let you forget it.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.