1221 W 19th Street, Houston Texas 77008
Gatlin’s BBQ sits just inside North loop 610 and a few blocks east of Hwy 290 in the heart of Houston, Texas. They’ve only been around since 2010 but the converted house doesn’t really give off a newer business vibe. They serve up tasty brisket among other meats include an unusual choice at BBQ joints, deer sausage. The word has gotten out about them and they debuted on the Texas Monthly top 50 list this year.
This was BBQ Friday for Derek and me. I met up with him and his BMW K1300S at 10:30 for a ride deep into town for lunch. I had heard the lines start before their 11am opening so we got right down to riding and took Hwy 290 into town. This is my absolutely least favorite type of riding; in-town on a busy freeway with traffic riding your ass at 60+ miles an hour with nowhere to go if there is an accident. The biggest concern when I am on roads like this is lost loads from trucks or other objects ejected onto the road. We passed on of those suspect trucks on the way in. He had a large item in the bed, with part of it hanging off the tailgate and secured with one measly strap. It is not uncommon for tractor-trailers to lose their load on this road or loop 610. I have seen giant rolls of steel that have fallen onto the freeway overpass and literally punched a hole through the pavement. In early morning drives in my truck when going fishing I have witnessed more than one drunk driver veering into the concrete borders. Yet another danger is from drivers who try and cross multiple lanes of traffic at the last possible moment because they are about to miss their exit. To add to all the excitement, the stretch of 290 nearest to Loop 610 is undergoing construction so loose rocks, concrete, and other obstacles may appear in the lanes of traffic. Finally, this was one of the first days of the year that the temperature would reach 100 degrees. None of this is conducive to an enjoyable motorcycle trip and I gripped tightly as we rode to our exit near 610, hoping it would be worth the ride.
We took the early exit before Loop 610 and rode up to Gatlin’s at 1221 West 19th street. I knew we were almost there when I saw the cars parked along the side of the street. It was about 10:50am when we hopped in the line and 20 people were already there. A little excitement at a few minutes before 11 when Greg Gatlin showed up but a little yellow Fiat 500 was blocking his truck’s path into the side entrance. At first it seemed no one was willing to admit they owned the car but eventually someone got up and moved it. There are only a few parking spaces in front and otherwise one should park parallel to the street and be careful to not block any of the entrances to the industrial businesses nearby. We were able to slot the bikes in without too much trouble, but plan on getting here early and walking a little.
The pace of the line moved slowly after they opened. Like some of the lunch based BBQ joints, a number of people call ahead with large to go orders and the staff has to balance between the large and small orders. It was a full 45 minutes after they opened before we placed our order. We opted for a three meat plate with brisket, regular sausage, and their deer sausage and a two meat plate with brisket and pork ribs. Beans, potato salad, and coleslaw were our sides and two waters would try and quench our thirst. After placing our order we waited. And we waited. The person delivering the orders asked us what our number was and we confirmed; she said it would be just a minute. They continued to call out orders, and while ours was 142 they were up to 146 before she checked on us again. We finally got our plates 45 minutes after ordering. They did apologize but this was one of the most inefficient places I’ve been to. They had enough of a staff in the back to seemingly prep orders quickly but a tiny building with one ordering station just wasn’t working smoothly.
Our food was visually pleasing. A nice dark, but soft, crust on the brisket and nice pink coloring on the bone-on pork ribs was enticing. I couldn’t tell the difference in the sausage visually, but kept the slices separated to try and ensure I didn’t mix them randomly.
The brisket was great. The smoke flavor was mild but permeated all the way through the meat. It was slightly undercooked in the middle, the fat membranes in the middle resisting a little more than it should when pulling apart, but the outer layer of fat was well rendered. When biting into a piece with a lot of bark and a little fat I almost had that magic tingle; very close but just not quite there. The smoke flavor was a little more mild than oak, but not as sweet as pecan. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I asked they replied that they use hickory wood here. The dragon had escaped again but the brisket was some of the best I’ve had in the Houston area I think Brooks’ place has the ability to be better but my last visit there was later in the afternoon and today’s visit at Gatlin’s was the winner so far.
The deer sausage was great as well. The slight gaminess that was almost pork-like and the leanness that the deer offers made for a delicious combination. When I was younger we had the opportunity to eat deer sausage more often and it is one of my favorites. My old-school deer sausage though was heavy on the deer and light on the beef. This sausage tasted to me the reverse, which possibly an 80/20 beef to deer ratio but that’s just a guess. The regular sausage was also good although neither had that solid snap. Here is another place that prefers to slice up your sausage when the serve it. I still like a link even if it’s only a piece of a link. I figure that the sliced sausage when fanned out on your plate gives the appearance of more food, but it takes away the pleasure of the snap of well smoked sausage. One other thing I miss about sausage is the pricing. In Luling it was less than $2 for an entire “c-ring” of sausage and only a little over $2 in the various Lockhart establishments. Some places charge $7 or so for a pound, which is well on the high side. Here though you have the option of the 2 or 3 meat plates so the price seems a little fairer, although Gatlin’s $12.95 two meat and $14.95 three meat options are still on the high end of that scale.
The pork ribs were full bone style and were good. Just enough of tension while clinging to the bone and seasoned very well they were tasty. I’m not a big pork rib aficionado but while I have had better, these were still quite good.
We sampled the sauce and both of us had a ‘woo’ moment. There was something in this sauce that we don’t taste often. It was a bit sweet with a slow building spice but there was something right in between those two flavor bursts. We sampled again and I even did a wine-style sample where I sort of breathed in the sauce and swirled it around. Derek though lemon and I thought maybe pickle juice. We decided later we think it is pickle juice. I did like it but didn’t put any on the meat.
The sides here were only fair. The beans were ok, the potato salad not as much, and the coleslaw was passable. The star is the meat and that’s good enough.
We had watched the line and by 12:30 it had dropped to only a handful at a time. I think the business lunch rush is what drives the crush at 11, and you can probably get here around 12:15 to 12:30 and avoid the longest wait. Gatlin’s does sell out though, so don’t procrastinate.
We took an alternate route back, following Shepherd north to Montgomery road which merges onto TX 249. This allowed me to get back to work without any major freeway and even though our lunch went even longer than expected it was well worth it. Gatlin’s is the best Houston area BBQ I’ve had so far. I will get back to Brooks’ Place soon though because it’s worth another shot, but if you’re in town, I’d recommend Gatlin’s.