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Pappa Charlies website: www.pappacharlies.com Twitter: @pappacharlies
The new HouBBQ scene
The first time Leslye and I came across Pappa Charlies Barbeque it was in the weeks leading up to the second Houston Barbecue Festival in 2014. We were sampling as many of the joints as we were able prior to the event, partly because we love barbecue but also because they were holding a contest that required one to take selfies at each of the joints for entrees into a drawing for VIP passes. I had googled Pappa Charlies Barbeque but found little in the way of reviews at the time so we had no idea what to expect. We arrived on March 22, 2014 at his trailer parked at Lucky’s pub in the heights with an open mind and no knowledge of the quality of his product.
What I remember from that visit initially was the houston heat. Then that telltale whiff of smoke as we neared the counter outside behind the bar. After a quick chat we grabbed our order and sat down where an umbrella gave us no real respite from the temperature. With one bite though we both knew we found something special. Pappa Charlies owner, Wes Jurena, cranks out great brisket and other proteins. In fact his brisket is one of my favorites, not just in Houston, but anywhere, with a nice heavy pepper rub and fat that is rendered excellently. The mac and cheese is also great, made with five different cheeses and finished with a bit of smoke, it is the perfect side to compliment the peppery and moist brisket.
The Houston barbecue scene has made huge strides in recent years and while the large chains still draw bustling crowds it’s these little gems that are popping up and helping the change the face of Houston barbecue. There isn’t a line waiting before he opens (yet), which makes for a nice quick and delicious barbecue stop.
Even before that public start in early 2014, Jurena had been winning fans over with his hot and fast cooking method through catering gigs. In a state where low and slow is revered and chanted as the only method for brisket Jurena has championed a much faster cook while retaining moisture and flavor. Rather than the 12 – 15 hours that most say is required for good brisket, he is able to get excellent moist and flavorful results in less than half that time.
The only downside is that there is little to no smoke ring but as any true barbecue lover should know, the smoke ring is more for show than for taste. If you thought a smoke ring was the sign of flavorful barbecue, then you probably also like “fall of the bone” ribs. A smoke ring is a chemical reaction and you don’t even need smoke to get one. Toss a little Morton’s Tender Quick onto a brisket and cook it with gas and you can still get that ring.
Jurena has been mixing it up a bit lately with daily menu specialties like tri tip tacos, lamb tacos, smoked prime rib, and even hot dogs with brisket pieces and mustard made with local Houston brewery Eighth Wonder’s brew. Regardless of the menu options, stop by and check out some great Houston barbecue.
Pappa Charlies is the about as close to a one man operation as I’ve seen in the business. On the day of my last visit he was the only one working his trailer. It’s not always a completely one man show though, he does often get help from his friend Jim Buchanan.
While some earlier attempts at finding a more permanent home have fallen through, it is inevitable that eventually Jurena will find the right deal and Pappa Charlies barbeque will have a full time store front. Until then, put it at the top of your list and stop by Jackson’s Watering Hole most Fridays-Sundays, and follow @pappacharlies on twitter to stay abreast of his schedule as there are times when catering and other activities mean he will not be at Jackson’s. I spoke with Jurena about his background. That interview follows.
Where did the name come from?
It’s in honor of my father, Charlie. How did you get started cooking brisket? When I was about 18, I think I had been to the Houston Rodeo cookoff, I decided I wanted to try and smoke a brisket. I burnt it horribly. Then i became obsessed with trying to figure out a way do it. I was an only child so I did a lot of cooking otherwise, whether it was just spaghetti or a sandwich i’ve always like to cook and just kind of got fascinated with brisket.
I went into the army and the whole time I would drag a 55 gallon drum with me, the horizontal type like they sell at HEB. I used the be the guy that would cook at all the squad, platoon, and team parties. I thought it was good but looking back it probably wasn’t but no one else was doing it.
You were a Ranger in the Army?
First Ranger Battalion for about six and a half years. I was a Ranger instructor down in Florida for awhile and I was at Fort Bragg for another year and half.
What were you cooking back then?
Chicken, brisket, it’s hard to find brisket in the southeast US though. I did a lot of fajitas, no one was doing those. Coming from Texas I did some pretty good fajitas.
After you finished with the Army what did you do?
I stumbled into telecommunications. Somehow; I don’t even know how I ended up there. I had a good run in corporate America making a substantial amount of money, more than I ever dreamed I’d make. The whole time I was cooking in the back yard. Everybody was talking about how good it was.
I guess in about 2009 I got bored and I decided to take my passion for cooking and my competitiveness to the competition circuit.
You did well, correct?
I did OK. I started in Arizona so I was on the Kansas City Barbecue circuit first, doing KCBS rules which some of the guys in Texas cry about but I think they’re just crybabies. I probably won more awards than I didn’t win. I traveled all over, from California to Alabama and as far north as Kansas City.
The competition deal led to catering on the weekends, which led to people saying “Wes, you should start a business” which is not unfamiliar to a lot of guys.
I got laid off from a government contract job and couldn’t get back into telecommunications so I decided I was going to start cooking for a living. I guess the first time I had the trailer out and it was announced was at Lucky’s pub in the heights. I was already doing stuff for Lucky’s, I know the owner there and had cooked at events for the downtown location.
I catered for the Sugarland Skeeters front office for a year so I had some little things going but it wasn’t until I did the popups at Lucky’s in the Heights that I had the trailer.
I saw you the first time in the Heights in March of 2014, was that when you first did your commercial pop ups?
Yeah, probably the first week or two of doing it.
You’ve been doing this as a mostly one man show as you’ve built a fanbase and are looking to continue to grow. Is there any advice to someone who’s aspiring to follow the same path?
Don’t do it. That’s the simple answer. It’s a grind and you have to be prepared to do it. I have a good friend of mine, Jim Buchanan who helps whenever he can. He’s been a big help with moving this forward. I don’t know if you can do it as one person, but I don’t really have any tips for anybody out there.
Today’s an example of that grind. You’ve prepped and cooked it, and are out here slicing and serving by yourself.
Yeah I’m more than 12 hours in the day and it’s only three in the afternoon. Luckily I’m done.
Well, when I’m done here I’ve gotta go clean it all up which is the part many don’t see. They don’t see the prep at the beginning or the cleanup at the end. When I’m done with that, I’ll be up early and out here again tomorrow.
So you mean being a pitmaster isn’t all fun and good times?
Ah, no. Well there are a lot of good times, it’s just not always fun.
Your set up basically in the parking lot of another establishment (Jackson’s Watering Hole). This limits what you can sell, such as soft drinks which could help profit. Is the next step to move up to your own establishment, is that the typical dream for someone at this stage?
Specifically in Houston the rules are different… I believe places like Portland and Austin are more friendly to trailers. You can survive with just a trailer. In the city of Houston I don’t think that’s possible, for several reasons. First of all Houston folks are very accustomed to eating barbecue indoors. It’s a sit down thing. The humidity is already coming back this year, the season’s getting ready to be short for those of us out here doing our thing.
What I don’t see much of in Houston compared to Austin are food trailer parks. The food truck events have also had some controversy around them. Is it harder to do it in Houston?
Sure. The rules here are different, you can’t tie into water, sewer, or power like you can in Austin. In the city of Houston, you have to move every twenty four hours. Thats very difficult for the barbecue model.
Speaking of Austin, it’s been sort of the golden child of the barbecue scene, however Houston has really been coming up lately. Even some people with established business have gone out, tasted what the competition has to offer, and improved their own product. What do you think about the Houston scene in general?
I think it was mediocre at best but it’s growing. One of the reasons really why I decided to keep pursuing this full time is that I’m a Houston kid. Houston is the fourth largest city in America.
There is no reason why people shouldn’t know about Houston and its food, its barbecue, versus Austin or Dallas. I believe we’re far superior. Maybe we haven’t been hitting full stride in barbecue but we will.
In talking with others it seems the customer base in Houston hasn’t matured, that the clientele isn’t as accepting of central Texas style barbecue as Austin. Some business owners have said there are still people who want every bit of the fat removed. Have you seen that as well?
Yeah, though there is a following for what I’m doing I do it for the simplicity and by the way it tastes good. I just had a complaint the other day that I had too much fat on my brisket, and I have people who will ask me to cut the fat off. It’s painful to do but certainly I’ll accommodate them.
It’s different in Houston because restaurants separate the point from the flat and immediately the guy with the knife cuts all the bark and fat off, so really what was the point in cooking it like that? There is a sea change that is happening in Houston, it’s that different style. I hate the term artisan but it’s more of a craft that’s coming to barbecue now and to the city of Houston .
What do you think turned the corner to the craft, not necessarily in Houston but in the barbecue scene?
I think it’s just kind of lightning in a bottle. Aaron Franklin ended up with a huge following and barbecue has continued to get bigger and bigger, even on television with shows like Pitmasters. Even though some people will say “that’s competition cooks and they don’t know what they are doing” I say bullshit. That’s another reason why I said I’m going to go out to the public and show them that competition guys can cook as well as the other guys. But yeah, everything kind of happened at the right time and if you ask what really pushed it over the edge that has to be Aaron Franklin and the things that have happened around him. That’s not to say that the Muellers and all these other folks aren’t doing great stuff, it was just that Franklin was the catalyst for a lot of it.
I think that for many years a number of restaurants were serving that extra lean brisket with the fat cut off. With everything that has happened lately do you think they will change?
I don’t think you can argue with the success of the established names here in Houston. I wish I had the balance sheets that they do. I don’t know that they are going to change that much. I know some have gone out there and observed the top joints but I don’t think that the big chains are going to change because they don’t have to change.
It seems like they are still very busy even with all this that has gone on in kind of the periphery?
You can see any online poll, and the big names are going to be up there around the top.
A few minutes ago you touched on competition style barbecue. How is that different than commercial style?
Obviously there is a lot of sauce involved, and it’s not just salt and pepper. There are a lot of spices involved in the rub. A guy doing a competition under KCBS has to have four different kinds of meat ready for turn in. They may use rubs, injection, Parkay, whatever, but it doesn’t matter how you get from point A to point B as long as it ends up being a good product. That’s my opinion.It is very different though, and with commercial I don’t have to cut it into perfect form.
When someone has to judge a lot of the same type of food, I imagine cooks are looking for something to stand out?
Yes, you are looking for that one single bite to stand out. You only get one bite to impress them so you amp up things ten-fold. For competition I use a heavy chili rub and I’d poke my brisket with my finger to test if it was done; my face would almost be on fire. It’s not something you’d eat a whole meal of.
You use a hot and fast method, what are some of the benefits?
Well, everything is going to get done faster. In my opinion it tastes just like a low and slow cooked brisket. The only disadvantage is the margin for error is very thin. If your goofing around making macaroni and cheese let’s say, and you forget that you put the chicken or ribs on there is no turning back, they’ll be burnt.
How did you come about cooking this way?
Well, my first pit I think had a problem with the damper and it ran hot so I just learned to cook that way out of necessity.
Early on you didn’t stray far from the more common meats. Lately you’ve smoked some clod, tri tip, lamb and more. Is this the type of menu variety you might have at a brick and mortar?
Sure absolutely. You may not see a whole lot of that at the lunch service. There may be a different meat featured daily for lunch but definitely if I end up with a brick and mortar in the evenings you’ll see us try to do some different stuff. I’m not scared to cook anything. If it tastes good and people buy it I’ll cook it again.