Zen and the Art of BBQ: Great Texas Barbecue
Enlarge Image Credit: O. Rufus LovettEnough with the reviews and rankings. This Texan is ready to kick back and enjoy
My favorite table at Martin's Barbecue in Bryan, Texas, has an intriguing pattern on top. The original Formica was ersatz wood grain, but decades of tile-dragging domino players wore a brown-and-ivory double oval in the middle. When I placed an order of smoked brisket and pork ribs, pickles, and onions on the table recently, it looked like a barbecue mandala.
Since I left the Houston Press, after 10 years of restaurant reviewing, I'm seeing things differently; barbecue is a lot more enjoyable without ratings or rankings to fret over. I do less waxing eloquent about the way oak-smoked central Texas beef seasoned with austere Teutonic salt and pepper compares with the Tejano bravado of chili powder-rubbed borderland goat smoked on mesquite. Unless I have a freelance gig that pays by the word, my new mantra is, "It's all good."
And without the strictures of the critic's anonymity, I can banter all I want with the guys who tend the pits. At Martin's, that's third-generation owner Steve Kapchinskie. His grandfather Martin Kapchinskie bought this site, in southeast central Texas, in 1924 and built that most beloved of Texas retail operations: a combination gas station, barbecue stand, and convenience store. They don't sell gas or groceries anymore, just barbecue, but the social part of the business lingers on. There's always someone hanging out with Steve in the pit room. To get there, you walk a path worn through several layers of vinyl flooring to the bare concrete underneath.
Martin's doesn't turn up much on Best Texas Barbecue lists; the quality of the barbecue is rated "average" by the websites. Of course, average is pretty damn good in this neck of the woods—moist and smoky brisket, pork ribs crisp on the outside and tender at the bone. Still, I'm not sure why I love joints like Martin's so much. Is it the matter-of-fact cultural preservation, the glimpse of a disappearing Texas, that I find so compelling?
I contemplated this last week in the parking lot of Lev's Paint & Body on 90A, just southwest of Houston in the town of Richmond. Under a pecan tree beside the parking lot is where the Plantation Barbecue trailer sets up. The Garcia family has operated it for 22 years. On this morning, Rose Garcia scrambled eggs while her husband, Lolo, sliced brisket. "I smell like smoke all the time," Lolo said. "Sometimes I go to the store and the cashier puts my money up to his face and sniffs it. He says, 'Your money smells so good!'"