Great Barbecues of Texas: Otto's Hamburger and Barbeque and Williams Smoke House in Houston
Even from outside in the parking lot, you could see how plain the original location of Otto's was.
In 2004, I visited two barbecues in Houston while working on a story for Gourmet about West African restaurants around the country. Both barbecues are now sadly closed. Like people, dead barbecues need to be eulogized so we don't forget them.
Ribs, sausage, and brisket at Otto's with a side of the dark sweet sauce. The Pellegrino was a high-rollers touch.
Otto's Hamburgers and Barbeque was founded as a grocery store, selling fresh eggs and blocks of ice, in 1951, and by 1963 began dispensing some of the better barbecue in Houston. The ancient premises at 5502 Memorial Drive (there are two newer branches) was like a cross between a shed and a shack, divided into two parts. The front half devoted itself to burgers, but when you passed through a double doorway (I'm recalling this at six years' remove), you'd find yourself in the barbecue part, where the smell of smoke was prodigious and the décor rustic, with lots of testimonial photos lining the walls.
While the quality of Otto's 'cue didn't quite match that of Central Texas joints, it was quite good nonetheless in a familiar sort of way, much like most of the local barbecue in the barbecue-producing parts of the state. The brisket proved estimable, with a good smokey flavor and an almost-delicate texture. It had been cooked over hickory for 18 hours, though that sounded a bit excessive. They also serve chopped beef, pork ribs, and sausage. The sauce was dark and sweet, and went particularly well with the sausage. Beans and potato salad were the standard sides, and you could get raw onions, dill pickles, and jalapenos..
Otto's boasted of its celebrity diners over the years, and you could hardly mention the name without someone volunteering that it was George Bush, Sr.'s favorite place to eat in town. Other celebrities have included (and I'm taking this odd collection from the website), Liberace--which the website spells, "Liberacci," George Foreman, Ron Howard, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lewis, and Waylon Jennings. The old place frightened everyone by closing for a few months in 2009, but then it reopened, only to close permanently.
Next: The superlative Williams Smoke House
My friend Jay Francis took me to Williams Smoke House in 2004. It burned down three years later.
This account of the fabled Williams Smoke House is more by way of a commemoration, for the place burned to the ground December 18, 2007. It was a literal cabin nestled in the tall pines on a narrow road in north Houston, in an area called Independence Heights that was built as an African American model community. Indeed, the look of the place was Deep Southern more than Houstonian.
The menu at Williams. Note the presence of such barbecue arcana as stuffed baked potato, "po-boys" (showing Louisiana influence), and a modest roster of barbecued meats.
The place had been run by Willie Williams and his son Cedric since 1987, and their barbecued ribs were one of the glories of Houston cuisine--smokey, moist, and exceedingly crusty, a paragon among ribs. In his book Legends of Texas Barbecue, Robb Walsh encourages you to, "Sit under the trees at a picnic table if the weather's nice. The oak- and pecan-smoked brisket is excellent, and so are East Texas ribs and beef links." The peach cobbler was also unusually good.
Barbecues like Williams are irreplaceable, so when Willie decided not to rebuild but simply to retire, a collective groan went up from the city.
On the right, Williams' legendary well-crusted ribs.
Check out the entire series Great Barbecues of Texas
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.