It was noon on Friday, thirty minutes after Brett’s BBQ Shop in Katy had opened, and one of the specials was already sold out. Jacqueline Herrera, the restaurant’s general manager, had to smooth things over with a few customers who wouldn’t be getting their barbacoa tacos. She was taking orders faster than owner and pitmaster Brett Jackson could slice and plate them in the compact kitchen. One customer left, promising to return, while the others were happy to settle for brisket or the day’s hatch-chile-and-cheese sausage. I sat at the side counter both happy and uneasy, knowing that I was about to get the last barbacoa taco of the day. I ate it with a smile, but without making eye contact with anyone around me.
Such is the fervor for Jackson’s barbecue. Last October he took over this tiny restaurant that sits between a tailor and a tire shop. It was formerly Nonmacher’s Bar-B-Q, a legendary joint that had served Katy for forty years, and was just a mile and a half from the house where Jackson grew up. The old sign is still above the door. The letters B and Q are visible on either side of the temporary banner for Brett’s. The 38-year-old smoker from Nonmacher’s is still in the pit room as well. “The fact that I’m cooking on this is a big deal for a lot of people,” Jackson said, so he hasn’t been keen on replacing it, even though it’s the cause of massive wood bills. Brett’s goes through a cord and a half of wood every week for just five lunch services. Still, the pit itself might be what secured Jackson the lease. “I think a lot of the reason [the landlord] ended up letting me in here is that no one wanted to move that barbecue pit in the back,” he said.
The oak-fired smoker isn’t easy to load either. The barrel is about as long as your standard 1,000-gallon smoker, but it has a considerably wider girth. A series of small doors also makes it difficult to load with raw briskets. Rolando Garcia, Jackson’s right-hand man in the pit room, has to put his head almost inside the smoker to reach the back of the deepest shelf. Garcia came with Jackson from a previous job at Houston’s Midtown Barbeque, which closed in early 2017. The only other employee at Brett’s, Anna Garcia (no relation to Rolando) also came with him from Midtown, but they didn’t bring along the baggage that came with what was a subpar barbecue joint.
“I kinda got thrown in the fire, and it was sink or swim,” Jackson said of his short stint in Houston. “It was a great way to learn the restaurant business … to learn what not to do.” Fortunately he’d learned a lot of the right things to do from his first job in barbecue. Jackson left his father’s insurance business to work at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor in 2012. After his two years there, he knew how to properly work a fire. “We didn’t have thermometers and temperature gauges. It was all by feel,” Jackson said.
Some beef rib wisdom may also have rubbed off on Jackson during his time in Taylor at one of Texas’s beef rib meccas. A beef rib I sampled at Brett’s BBQ Shop back in March was maybe the finest I’ve had since my last trip to Louie Mueller. A pinch at the corner of the rib brought with it strands of beef with nearly liquid fat clinging to each strand. Each bite gushed with juice. The pepper provided both heat and crunch to the bark. “I use a couple different pepper meshes,” Jackson said, along with some garlic powder. The beef rib alone is worth a visit, but it only comes off the pit Friday through Sunday. While Jackson has learned plenty since leaving Louie Mueller in 2014, he admits, “I wouldn’t be able to cook a beef rib like that unless I worked there.”
Wednesday and Thursday visitors shouldn’t despair, since the brisket is so good too. Jackson smokes Prime grade briskets during the week and steps it up to Wagyu beef from Snake River Farms on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve only had the prime, but it was spectacular on two visits. Lean and fatty brisket are both juicy, with the perfect pull-apart texture. Pork ribs are also expertly cooked with a heavy rub and plenty of smoke.
Another item Louie Mueller is well known for is its family-recipe sausage, but Jackson said he didn’t get to soak up that knowledge. “That’s the one thing that’s held secret—about exactly what goes in there,” he said. Jackson stuffed plenty of the sausage, but he didn’t know the ingredients. His early attempts at sausages for Brett’s BBQ Shop were dry and crumbly. After doing a lot of research, he said, “I’m adding more fat and mixing it longer.” The original all-beef sausage, made with brisket trimmings, was much improved on my recent visit. It was juicy and well-seasoned with a surprising hint of sweetness. The hatch-green-chile-and-cheese version, a temporary Friday special, was even better.
The sides at Brett’s, all made by Anna Garcia, include the standard trio of potato salad, beans, and slaw. Along with the creamy mac & cheese, they’re all good options. The beans are rich thanks to the pork ribs that simmer (on the bone) in the pot while the beans cook. I especially enjoyed the slaw. “I hate mayonnaise,” Jackson confessed, and although he couldn’t eliminate it in the potato salad, the slaw uses an oil-based dressing. It starts with red cabbage, to which Garcia adds diced jalapeño, red bell pepper, red onion, strips of carrots, and cilantro. A generous dose of red wine vinaigrette makes it eat more like a salad than slaw, but I really enjoyed how it balanced out the richness of the meat.
In less than a year, Jackson has built a joint that’s made Katy into a barbecue destination. Despite the small footprint and a challenging parking situation, customers are flooding in. “This made sense. I could do it on my own,” Jackson said of the cramped space, but I wondered if he was already thinking about expanding. “My whole deal is growing at the right pace rather than growing too fast,” he replied, though he did admit he’s keeping an eye on the tenants on either side of the restaurant. For now his focus is on the barbecue itself. He told me that he’s happy, “as long as I’m getting better at what I’m doing.”