2990 Hwy 290 West Brenham, Tx
Hours: Friday-Sunday 11am-sold out
True to the craft
Twenty six year old Leonard Botello represents a new type of pit master. While culinary skills were honed at his family’s restaurant, he wasn’t born into a famous barbecue family. He didn’t learn his smoking skills under the tutelage of an old master or even work at one of the legendary barbecue joints. In fact, while he respects and has visited the old favorites, he idolizes a younger generation of pit masters, such as Aaron Franklin and John Lewis.
Botello used the resources that have only become available in the last few years to research and learn the tricks of the trade; Aaron Franklin’s book and video series “BBQ with Franklin”, TMBBQ.COM, following social media accounts of barbecue bloggers, and watching the many YouTube videos now available on the subject.Friend @houstonfed said it well when he likened Franklin’s book to a blue print for a successful barbecue business.
To me, Botello represents an entirely new wave of barbecue pit masters and restaurants that will open in the future, and my interview with him will be published shortly as another article in my “Young Guns of Barbecue” series that began in 2014.
This review is focused on Botello and family’s new restaurant, Truth BBQ although I admit I will diverge for a bit. Just hang in there, we’ll get to it I promise.
On the drive between Austin and Houston via Hwy 290, you will pass through Brenham. Just west of the city is the “World’s largest barbecue pit”, which is for sale at $350,000 the last time I checked. Very near that is a small roadside shack the formerly hosted “J’s BBQ”, a place where I had seen smoke emanating from on some days but looked to be almost a random occurrence and it never drew me onto the premises.
Back in October I noticed the sign had changed from the handwritten one to a professional one touting “Truth BBQ” so I popped in on a late afternoon and grabbed some brisket. I use brisket as my Litmus test for barbecue. If the brisket is good then I will try to come back and try more of the menu. If the brisket is bad then I drop it off my “to visit” list. It was good enough I published a first impression, and marked it as needing a return visit.
Does the meat source matter?
Another visit reaffirmed the brisket was delicious but I had just visited Snow’s and wasn’t able to sample more. I checked out their Facebook account that evening and noticed a photo of their source for brisket- Creekstone Master Chef Prime. Source does make a difference, and across Texas you will encounter joints using everything from Select to Choice to Prime and sources from the local grocery store to more common suppliers like IBP to specialty meat purveyors such as Creekstone and 44 Farms. I will say that there are some great TMBBQ top 50 joints that use Select and make it work, and definitely Prime doesn’t guarantee the outcome will be good, but in general Choice or Prime will work best for low and slow brisket.
Back in 2013 Daniel Vaughn wrote a good primer on brisket grading, and it’s a good read if you want to learn more but of note is the comment that prime brisket was not used in many places then. Today, it is still not as common as Choice or Select, but Prime is used at a larger number of locations. In my opinion Prime isn’t really necessary for the point side of the brisket, but it does provide benefit to the flat.
In competition it is the flat that is judged and Prime has taken priority for many on the cook off circuit. In fact, incredibly high priced Wagyu is now becoming the hot ticket, and I noticed several teams using it recently. In retail, I’ve only had Wagyu brisket once and it was a special menu item as part of a flight of briskets with 4 different sources. I preferred the Prime on that day over Wagyu; the point end of a brisket has plenty of marbling and you can lose some of the “beefy” taste with too much internal fat in my opinion.
There are many aspects to the flavor of a brisket other than grading: the type of cattle feed, whether antibiotics and growth hormones where used, the size of the carcass, even the temperature and climate where it was raised. All this on the same level, I still and impressed when I see a barbecue joint using top tier meat.
Truth BBQ is one of the best in Texas
This attention to quality sourcing moved Truth up to my short list for revisits and I stopped by again in March 2016 with plans to explore more of their menu. What I had could be one of the top 20 in Texas, potentially higher if it’s as consistent in subsequent visits. That’s a bold statement, but I’ll explain.
The brisket is great, perfectly smoked and with a nice but not overpowering seasoned bark. Multiple grinds of pepper are part of the rub and Botello has taken care to work the recipe with lots of research to great results.
The beef rib was also tasty. 44 Farms is the normal source for the meat but the supply was short so they went with another vendor. Regardless, it was a nice hunk of meat.
The ribs had that impeccable cook; tender enough you could pull the meat cleanly off the bone, but not overcooked to the point of them falling off on their own. When we talked, Botello said they have basically a 10 minute window in cooking time between when they are just right, to being overcooked; the attention to detail here is one of the keys to the quality. The rub on the rib has a bit of sweetness, but it works well.
The sausage here is a 70/30 blend, is made in house, and had a very good flavor with a good snap. At 12:30 they were already sold out of the jalapeno cheese variety and I was told to make sure to try some next time. I really like folks who take the effort to make their own sausage and I feel like it’s a true part of the craft of barbecue itself. I had a sample of the turkey and it was excellent, both flavorful and moist.
Meats are cooked in a Klose offset with a unique history. More on that history in my interview which will be published shortly.
Let’s talk about sides for a moment.
Sides were not part of the origin of meat market barbecue. Since the meat market was in the back of a general store, sides that were sold in the general store and were not fresh house made ready-to-eat items but rather they were the ingredients to make the sides at home. For someone grabbing a bite of smoked meat what became commonplace was crackers and white bread. Those would be purchased by one individual and the remaining amount left behind. A slice or chunk of cheese could also be purchased by the diner. Barbecue sauce in its now ubiquitous bottle also didn’t exist. Hot sauce was a communal purchase as well and made its way onto the tables.
Over time it would seem some of the first true side dishes entered into the picture; pinto beans and potato salad. The potato salad was most likely a German style which did not need refrigeration, similar to what is still being served at The Salt Lick. I don’t recall baked beans being a standard at the old school markets like Kreuz and Louie Mueller so even though they would have been accessible and even canned ready-to-eat baked beans were available from Heinz in 1901, I believe they came into retail barbecue restaurants later. When block ice was no longer the standard for cooling, I would image cole slaw also crept into the picture, otherwise it would have been costly to keep them cold with the precious ice.
So over time we’ve seen some sides added to what was mostly meat, bread, and cheese of those old meat markets, sides have always been, well, a sideshow. Cafeteria style service at joints like Black’s and later at Chisolm Trail brought even more options including desserts, but they were still the side show.
In recent years, some establishments have elevated them to center stage. Just ask anyone who’s been to Opie’s about those insanely good butter beans, or the creamed corn from Killen’s. There are others (some of my favorites listed below so as not to offend) but a barbecue menu can still be hugely successful with the few standard options of pinto beans, potato salad, and cole slaw.
A few of my favorite side things (in no specific order)
Butter Beans Opie’s Barbecue
Tater Tot Casserole Opie’s Barbecue
Pecan Pie Cobbler Opie’s Barbecue
Mac and Cheese Pappa Charlies
Creamed Corn Killen’s Barbecue
Bread Pudding Killen’s Barbecue
Amazing Beans Hays County Barbeque
Bacon Brownie Blue Moon BBQ
Hurricane Cake Miller’s Smokehouse
Carrot Souffle Tejas Chocolate
Collard Greens Truth BBQ
Corn Pudding Truth BBQ
*Bourbon Banana Pudding Roegels Barbecue Co.
*I can’t believe I have not had this yet but each visit they were sold out. I have it on good authority from a number of friends that this is a worthy dish.
The Current Trend: The Meats
Only a few years ago the large beef plate ribs were a delicious novelty and only a few isolated places but now you can get them at many joints across the state. The smaller chuck ribs are sold at more and can be found even at multi-location restaurants like Spring Creek Barbecue. http://texasbbqtreasurehunt.com/spring-creek-barbecue-beef-ribs/
Today and for the next couple of years, more innovative meats will be the big thing in barbecue (I’m working on an article on that subject but as one example, check out Daniel Vaughn’s articles on Pastrami [here] and [here] . Daniel has declared 2016 the #yearofpastrami)
10 years ago the number of places selling top tier truly elite brisket and ribs was only a handful, but today that number has grown to where every major city in Texas is host to one or more of these formerly rare birds. So to differentiate themselves and turn their place into a destination for barbecue lovers, some owners are reaching into different seasonings, meats, and preparation to introduce their own take on smoked meat. In Houston the Blood Bros are using Asian influenced spices and sauces, Pappa Charlies uses a rub with masala on pork chops, Tejas Chocolate has a cumin spiced turkey, just to name a few. Lamb chops from Roegels are quality options that should be indulged when they are offered.
The next big thing: Sides
However, it is sides that I think will crowd the stage for popularity by 2018, it is what will differentiate the elite level meat slingers, and here is where my long worded diversion begins to come back to focus on the subject of Truth BBQ.
The sides here were great. They are also made in house and are very memorable. Leonard told me the secret was his dad’s long history owning a white-linen restaurant and the palette he developed. His dad would sample a side and proclaim specifically how to tweak it, and this has worked out to some truly flavorful dishes.
The first one I have to speak about is the collard greens. These were perfection in a paper boat. Touches of sausage, bacon ends, and tomato mixed with the soft and moist greens were heaven in every bite. You must try these.
We dove into a sample of the corn pudding and had an almost equal reaction. Moist and sweet corn took this dish over the top. The baked beans had a nice flavor and I enjoyed them. The potato salad reminded me of home style, with red potatoes and what tasted like both mayonnaise and mustard, providing a creamy sauce to the chunky potato.
For dessert Leslye grabbed a giant slice of chocolate cake and it was enjoyable as well. It was a nice ending to such a good meal.
Stay tuned for my interview with pit master Leonard Botello, I’m transcribing it now and it should be posted within the week.