I just got back from a quick trip to Houston, Texas, and I came away with a couple of observations.
First, Houston is really, really big—and by big, I’m not talking about population (though with 2.2 million residents, it is the fourth largest city in the country.) Rather, I’m talking about geographic scale, for the city of Houston sprawls out over more than 600 square miles. Everything really is bigger in Texas. (To get a good sense of the scale, check out these maps comparing Houston’s boundaries to various other world cities.)
The second is that Houston’s barbecue scene is really, really interesting. It may require hours of driving around The Loop and up and down I-45 to track find it all, but there’s a wide variety of barbecue out there to be sampled. Yes, central Texas-style brisket—the kudzu of the barbecue world—has now spread its invasive tentacles across the city. This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious fatty slices at places like Roegels Barbecue Co. on Voss Rd. and CorkScrew BBQ up north in Spring.
But Houston has plenty of other barbecue specialties that can’t be found in the meat markets of Lockhart or the brisket palaces up in Dallas. Boudin, for instance.
Boudin is a sausage made from ground pork shoulder and liver mixed together with rice as well as onion, pepper and a generous amount of spice. It, too, is an import, migrating to Houston from the Cajun regions of Louisiana and somehow becoming a staple of neighborhood barbecue joints. (Another Cajun dish, dirty rice, is now a popular side in the city’s barbecue joints, too. I’m particularly fond of the rich, sausage-studded version at Gatlin’s BBQ.)
But boudin has taken on a character of its own in Texas. In Louisiana, the links are usually steamed, and many diners don’t eat the casing but rather use it as a delivery system, squeezing the hot contents onto a cracker or right into their mouths. Houston barbecue joints smoke their boudin, and the taut casings make a pleasing pop as you bite right into them. The sausages also tend to have more rice than their Louisiana cousins, making them a solid, filling preamble to a plate of ribs or a chopped beef sandwich.
At Triple J’s Smokehouse they spell it “boudain,” and it comes in a regular or spicy variety. (Get the spicy version: it has just the right blend of smoke and heat.) At Ray’s BBQ Shack, which shares a Third Ward storefront with a gas station, the foot-long boudin links are made in-house by pitmaster Ray Busch.
My favorite of the barbecue boudin I tried was found on the north side of town at SouthernQ BBQ & Catering, for they had just a little more snap to the casing and a wonderful rich, savory flavor. Most Houston joints serve their boudin with a side of saltine crackers. At SouthernQ, they take it a step further with “firecrackers”—saltines steeped in red pepper flakes and spices. Combined with the heat from the spicy boudin, it’s a tongue-tingling but delicious combination.
Boudin is just one of the many barbecue specialties that a curious diner can uncover in Houston. There’s the chopped beef sandwich, for instance—an under-appreciated delicacy—plus the barbecue baked potato—a giant spud stuffed full of chopped smoked meats. And we can’t forget juicy links, the city’s traditional barbecue sausage, which we’ll explore in a future installment.
Whichever of these treats you decide to sample, be sure to leave with a little extra in a take-out box. It’s a long, long drive around The Loop, and you might get a little peckish before you reach your next stop.