Talk to a Texan about barbecue and the discussion gets serious — fast. The eyes squint ever so slightly, the arms fold, and short nuggets about smoking with oak, dry rub, and the quality of meat are spoken of in a slow, matter-of-fact tone that sounds both polite yet final.
If the Texan happens to run his own 'cue joint, the oral lesson will be over in seconds. But why talk about it when a smoked slab of steer can be presented like a offering to the gods, laid on a butcher block table, and sliced with a meat cleaver so sharp, the pieces fall away like pages turning in a book of beef, rubbed edges glistening, tender flesh ready to be consumed?
"Try this, ma'am."
Laura Hahnefeld Cafe
Pork spare ribs (half-pound): $5.04
Sausage link: $3.89
Turkey breast (half-pound): $5.84
A slice of moist beef brisket was handed to me on bright white butcher paper, cozily curled up in the center, its aroma causing me to swallow in anticipation. I plucked it from its paper nest, tilted my head back, let it dangle a bit, then dropped it in my mouth, letting its warmth rest on my tongue before lazily chewing the tender meat, salty and fatty, savoring its slow-cooked, smoky flavor.
"More, please," I managed to say.
Texas BBQ House in South Phoenix isn't a place you're likely to drive by, but it's worth the trip if you're looking for Texas barbecue — and nothing but Texas barbecue — in Phoenix inspired by Lockhart, Texas.
If you've spent a fair amount of time around the barbecue pit, you know you can't talk about Texas barbecue without talking about the town of Lockhart. Thanks to its immigrant German butchers, Texas barbecue was born there (along with other central Texas towns) in the 19th century, the institution being passed to those passionate about keeping its traditions intact.
Mike Pitt, owner of Texas BBQ House, understands Texas barbecue. A backyard pit master and caterer in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Pitt came to Phoenix four years ago to start his own restaurant — until the economy tanked. Three months ago, along with fellow Texan Doug Dieckmann, who worked 'cue joints in Austin, Pitt finally saw his dream realized.
"There's barbecue on every corner in Texas," Pitt says. "I wanted to bring Texas barbecue to Phoenix and show people how we do it back home."
Located off the beaten path — specifically, on the corner of 24th Street and East Roeser Road — the stark, orange-and-rust-colored building with the modest patio area may lead one to expect Texas BBQ House's small interior will be just as bare-bones. Nope. Inside, it's clean, cheery, and comfortable. Amid tables and booths topped with black-and-white checked tablecloths, sepia-toned Western photographs, buckets of signature rub serving as functional décor, and the logo on the back wall with the tagline, "That's how we do it, son." underneath, locals munch meat while watching sports (always sports) on one of the small TVs or gather around the counter to shake hands and inquire about the brisket they've been hearing so much about.
And after only being open for three months, Pitt tells me he's already Texas-'cued the Arizona Diamondbacks on more than one occasion. (Signed photos of manager Kirk Gibson and coaches Alan Trammell and Matt Williams hang in the entryway.)
At Texas BBQ House, the emphasis is on the meat — brisket, barbecued chicken, pork ribs, pork loin, chopped beef, regular and jalapeño sausage, and turkey — all smoked over oak with family-recipe dry rub. There are no sandwiches or "meal deals"; this is meat à la carte, sold by the pound (think of it as deli-style), and this custom makes it easy to eat light, try more than one menu item, or bust a gut.
And the sauce? The sauce is not discussed. This is meat as the gods of cooked animal flesh intended it to be — perfectly prepared and confident enough to stand on its own. (But, hey, if you want some sauce, it's on the tables and also available for purchase.)
Another Texas barbecue tradition alive and well at Texas BBQ House is the dinnerware. Your "plate" is a scrap of butcher paper, your "tray" a shallow plastic Pepsi crate, and your "utensils," for those who truly understand barbecue, are your hands — or your hands plus a slice of white bread, used to roll up the meat. (There are plastic forks, but I'm convinced they're meant for side dishes and desserts of banana pudding and pecan pie.)
What Texas BBQ House needs to get right in the way of Texas barbecue, it does. The brisket is heavenly and, depending on the amount of marbling desired, available in lean, moist, and "cutter's choice." Cooked low and slow, the taste is lightly smoked, salty and fatty, with a thin, crackly crust. The chopped beef arrives in a delicious pile as dark as night, moist and smoky, and making for a sinfully good sandwich, especially with onions, pickles, or jalapeños available at a small bar. And the smoked sausages are plump and peppery, stuffed with a mixture of pork and beef, cumin, and, if so desired, bits of jalapeño.
"I tried five places in town to see if they could match my sausage recipes and nobody could do it," Pitt says. "I finally found a local Mexican guy who makes them for us."
They say there isn't a Texan in the barbecue business who's gotten pork ribs right — not so at Texas BBQ House. Here they are two-handed, thick strips of tenderness you eat like the meat version of corn on the cob. The pork loin and chicken are also decent, but not as good as the turkey breast, which, thanks to its rosemary rub, tastes like Thanksgiving Day.
As with the sauce, Texan barbecuers don't tend to talk about side dishes, but at Texas BBQ House they are understatedly good and deserve a mention: mustard-y potato salad, Texas creamed corn with sweet kernels bathed in butter and heavy whipping cream, crunchy cole slaw (wonderful alone or stuffed in a sandwich), and scrumptious pinto beans that taste like the veggie version of the 'cue.
"We throw in our brisket rub, sauce, and chopped beef when we make them," Pitt says.
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At Texas BBQ House, the counter's where the magic happens, so order up, watch the carve, and bring the green — this cash-only establishment keeps costs down that way. Keeping true to another Texas tradition, it's closed on Sunday, and, until they get their liquor license next month, you're welcome to BYO a cold beer or two.
Waiting four years to do his own 'cue in Phoenix has made Pitt a restless Texan, indeed. He's planning to open his second location in Old Town Scottsdale in October.
"Before we open, I want to make sure we're doing everything right here," Pitt says. "It's all about consistency."
Yes, sir, it's all about the meat.