24930 Budde Rd, The Woodlands, TX
Corkscrew has only been open since November of 2011, operating out of a trailer in the south section of The Woodlands near IH 45. However, they’ve made quite a name for themselves in the short time, including a spot in the Texas Monthly top 50. They operate in the tradition of the best of central Texas BBQ; open until they sell out with lines forming well before their 11am opening time Tuesday through Saturday. There is a reason for the lines, too, with excellent brisket, good sausage, and great ribs. Their pit capacity is relatively small for such a popular place, maxing out at 600 pounds.
We planned a three BBQ stop lunch for Saturday. I had read enough about Corkscrew to know we needed to get there at least 15 minutes before opening. The next scheduled stop would have no lines so there wouldn’t be any rush, and the final stop I wasn’t sure what to expect; the reviews said it was in someone’s front yard and the restrooms were in their garage!
I was on the motorcycle but Leslye and Wyatt were in the relative luxury of an air conditioned Jeep on a day where the temperature was forecast to hit 102 degrees. I arrived a few minutes before they did and jumped into the line at Corkscrew BBQ. It was 10:45am and there were about 30 people in front of me. By the time Leslye, Wyatt, and the rest of the folks lined up at 11 the line had grown to about 40. Corkscrew has a large metal canopy but that covers about 20-25 people. We were a few feet beyond the shade and took turns standing in the sun. A large pit stood in its own building and the canopy led to a newer trailer where the food would be served from.
BYOB and free beer on Saturday
I glanced over and noticed they had free beer so I cracked open a cold Lone Star to help with the wait. There was a guy sort of guarding the ice chest of beer so I asked him what they run out of first; free beer or BBQ. He laughed and said usually it’s the BBQ. This was another positive sign for the quality of the meat. We chatted a little bit more and I learned that they were soon going to expand, with a second pit, a fully concreted pad area, and a new layout. They were going to try and move beyond a lunch-only business to a breakfast/lunch/dinner establishment.
I’ve said it before, but while top quality BBQ is not “easy” by any means, smoking only a single service of food is much easier than having consistently fresh meat throughout the day. Cooking one wave of meat and not having to keep the pit going all day or watching the temperature and meat while still serving removes additional distractions. The potential for either waste or leftover food is much higher when you have to adjust for the fluctuations of the crowd throughout the day. If you don’t believe me, go eat at 11:30 or noon at a busy lunch BBQ location, then go back at 2:30 or 3pm. You can get by cooking ribs in 2-3 hours but brisket takes much longer and doesn’t hold well for long. I’ve seen some places resort to steam boxes to try and keep leftover brisket moist but it washes away the smoke flavor and it never tastes the same as brisket that is pulled off the smoker and let sit for a short time before being sliced. You can’t really slow down or speed up the smoking process by a large margin either. Black’s BBQ in Lockhart works around the difficulty by parking their brisket in the fridge after about 8 hours and then finishing them off back on the smoker as needed.
While waiting in line I struck up a conversation with the next in line after he asked if it was my first visit to Corkscrew. He said he had lived in the hill country for 46 years and this was great BBQ. Then he said it was as good as Salt Lick and better than Franklin. I told him straight up that if he thought Salt Lick was outstanding cue that I didn’t trust him anymore. Salt Lick is more about the experience than the food, and the brisket that I’ve had there was not even close to the top tier of smoked brisket joints. It’s a sauce-heavy establishment where you spend time enjoying friends and drink under the shade of giant oak trees. It’s fine to say that you like the Salt Lick, but to compare it to Franklin (or a few other select joints) tells me that either you really don’t know BBQ or you haven’t really been to Franklin. I suspect in this gentleman’s case it was really the latter. He didn’t seem to know much about la BBQ, John Mueller, Snow’s, Pecan Lodge, or a few others I threw out during the conversation, and he didn’t really respond when I talked about Louie Mueller. I’ve eaten at the Salt Lick numerous times and most of the barbecue there is decent but they don’t compare to the top tier. We did discuss a few other joints like Cooper’s in Llano which was in my plans for the following week, and when I mentioned Country Time which was our final stop he said that was his go-to place before Corkscrew opened in 2011. He also said the ribs were “fall off the bone” good here; a phrase that is overused and misunderstood. Overcooked ribs fall off the bone. You want ribs where the meat is barely clinging to the bone and resist just a little as you pull it away. No knocks against the guy, but don’t put Salt Lick and Franklin in the same category.
After opening, the line moved slowly but faster than the Gatlin’s line the day before. Leslye and I split a three meat plate and I ordered a sliced brisket sandwich for Wyatt plus a second to take home to Shawn. The time from order to picking up our food passed quickly and we took a look at the bounty before diving in. The brisket looked good, with a thin but dark smoke ring and nice color to the bark. The bark itself looked a little light on rub compared to Mueller-style but not everyone likes the pepper-heavy rub there. The sausage was glistening in the sun, and the ribs were nice and pink.
The brisket was smoked to perfection, in that the fat on the outside (called the cap) was perfectly rendered and the fat membranes in the middle of the meat also was present and kept the meat together just enough to prevent it from falling into small pieces. In undercooked brisket the inner fat will be stringy or resist the pulling apart and in overcooked brisket the inner fat is rendered away, allowing the brisket to fall apart in cubes but also not providing the flavor impact that it should. The rub had a nice flavor but was a little lighter than I prefer. The smoke flavor though didn’t permeate all the way through the meat. This was great BBQ, but not quite elite. I’d rank it below the top 5 in Texas but Corkscrew is a solid contender for a top 20. Being less than 20 miles from the house it is close enough to sneak out to every once in a while in between hitting up some other joints around this area.
The sausage was good, and although it was finely ground and sported a thin casing, I enjoyed it. I prefer onsite made sausage though.
The ribs were good, but a little more chewy than expected. They weren’t my favorite ribs around Houston but they were very good. The rub was spicier than the brisket but worked well on the pork.
The baked beans were good, without any extravagant flavoring but a solid side dish. The potato salad looked like it passed through a blender and was bland and almost like mashed potatoes. The sauce was basic sweet sauce but we didn’t use it. My conversation in the line had suggested asking for the rib sauce which was different than the standard, but I had forgotten to ask, and the line was still going strong at that point so I didn’t feel like jumping in this time just to try it.
Even though the temperature was climbing quickly to 100+ and this is outside service only, we enjoyed it. I’ll be back to sample them again – I’m hoping I can make for a lunch break someday from work.
Second visit 7-26-2013
I wanted to treat my coworkers to some great BBQ and after a business trip messed up plans to do it during Texas BBQ week we settled on Friday July 26th for the trip. Brandon Griffin, Ralph Sanchez, and Richard Lynton would accompany me for a long lunch. We escaped work as early as possible but arrived later than we hoped, at around 10:50. Richard suggested bringing umbrellas or wide brimmed hats to help with the sun. Even on a Friday the line was solid and we were just outside the shade of the canopy. We took turns during the wait until we finally got to the ordering window which was almost 10 minutes until noon. I ordered us each a three meat plate with brisket, ribs, and sausage.
While the guys ogled their meals I took a few pictures and then we dug in. The brisket was great with perfectly rendered fat and a wonderful smoky taste. Ralph commented “It had an excellent taste and was mouth-watering. The spices were not overwhelming and the meat was nirvana.” Richard chimed in “It’s the best brisket I’ve ever had, it melted in my mouth.” Brandon was impressed as well saying it was great brisket.
The sausage was well smoked with a decent snap although the casing was commercial-like and the grind was very fine. It did at least seem to be custom made though and there were nice visible bits of pepper mixed in throughout.
The ribs were great, and Corkscrew had sold out before we even finished out meal. Ralph noted that they were “deliciously juicy with an excellent coating on the outside. I especially loved the burnt ends on some of the ribs.”
The sides were good but not as magical as the smoked meat. The baked beans won favor and were said to be “sweet and tasty”. The guys wanted a little more spice to kick up the potato salad a bit.
We left Corkscrew full and content. My coworkers were wowed by the quality of the food and now have something to compare – there are still a couple of places within an hour or so drive that I would like them to try. While I’ve only been to Corkscrew twice, both times the food was consistently great and having them in the Houston area brings the BBQ respectability up a notch.