Big Texas BBQ
Saucy meat and the cobbler is sweet
Enjoying a smoky, saucy plate of barbecued meat is one of life’s simple pleasures. Trying to categorize exactly what style of barbecue you're digging into, however, can spin your brain around worse than slamming a case of beer and hanging upside down from a tree. You have Kansas City-style sauce, which is thick with tomato and molasses. There's sweet and spicy St. Louis-style. People in Georgia like their sauce with bourbon and brown sugar, while Alabama natives prefer a dab of mustard and vinegar in theirs. The Carolinas have their own subsets of barbecue sauce by region, from tomato and vinegar in the north to lots of black pepper in the south.
And then there is Texas. The big state that it is, there are more varieties of Texas barbecue sauce than you could point a shotgun at—many from recipes that have been passed down through families for generations. Big Texas BBQ, formerly Big John’s BBQ, on East Central is no exception. Their unique recipe is made in-house by serious Q-ers, cooks Mike and Janet.
I’ve visited this place several times since their debut this January, and aside from a pain-in-the-ass credit card machine, the speed of service has been excellent. It’s comforting to smell the oak smoker out back before you even get out of the car. And, despite the Spartan furnishings, it has a friendly, down-home feel to it.
The menu is an uncomplicated arrangement of barbecued meats and poultry, available by the sandwich, plate or pound, and individual items like smoked turkey legs, wings, fried catfish, hamburgers and sausages. Side dishes like potato salad, barbecued beans and grilled Texas toast are served with every plate, or pick from green beans, corn on the cob, French fries and coleslaw.
I signed on for the full tour by ordering the pork ribs ($10), catfish with fries ($6.50 half, $9.50 whole), the “Lobo plate” with pork and beef brisket, and a slice of peach cobbler ($2.80). I was wounded to the core to discover I'd arrived too late in the day to get any peach cobbler—all that was left were some scrapings on the sides of the pan. It's par for the course. Nearly every time I’ve dined here the cobbler pan has been bare as a baby’s bottom.
“You have to come in on Monday and Tuesday, when we're not so busy,” said employee Josephine. Nonetheless, she kindly gave me the pan “leavins” in a little bowl.
A small but important detail about Big Texas: They serve everything in Styrofoam takeout boxes with plastic dinnerware, whether it’s dine-in or carryout. It's a little ghetto, but it does eliminate the need for dishwashers.
The pork ribs were rich and tender, and lightly burnt on the top and ends—the meat fell off the bones with minimal coaxing. My beef brisket was less tender, but made up for it with a smokier flavor. Pliable, moist slices of pork brisket came with deposits of fat around the edges. All this glorious meat was bathed in a medium-thick house barbecue sauce, which was a symbiotic blend of piquant tomato, tangy vinegar and smoke. Flecks of black pepper were visible, but didn't contribute much to the taste.
A side of potato salad was thick and loaded with hard-boiled egg and sweet pickles. I substituted the green beans for the barbecue beans on all the plates—on previous visits, the beans have been rather bland. By contrast, the green beans were delicious with a certain mystery ingredient that gave them a tangy savor.
The catfish was about as good as I’ve ever had it. (And I come from the Midwest, where catfish is a point of honor.) Seasoned cornmeal breading locked in the fish's precious moisture with no muddy flavor. The meat flaked right off its delicate bones. This fish stood alone with no sauce, but a shake of Tabasco helped bring out its natural flavor.
I finished off my meal with the bowl of cobbler leavins, a delectable combination of woody, spicy nutmeg, sweet peaches and super-rich pie crust topping.
Big Texas BBQ owner Susan Hsu later told me she's had a rough time with losing her business partner, a name change and several moves. (The former Big John's had a few different homes in the South Broadway neighborhood.)
“I have to do a lot of work,” she said, “but I can’t give up.”
If Big Texas keeps that fine meat and cobbler coming, people in Burque will see to that.