“Live-fire cooking next to a gas station: who would have thought?” Brisket & Rice co-owner Hong Tran asked. “Only in Texas,” he added with a laugh. It’s in this unlikely location in northwest Houston that he; his wife, Michelle; and his brother Phong opened their barbecue joint just over a year ago.
The space inside the Phillips 66 had been a Church’s Chicken and a Chinese restaurant. Tran, who got a cup of coffee at the gas station every morning on the way to work, realized it was the perfect place to park his pair of five-hundred-gallon smokers mounted on a trailer. “It was sitting in front of my face the whole time,” he said. Even better, the location was just outside the city of Houston’s health department jurisdiction, making it easier to get a permit. Harris County only required an enclosed pit room in which to park them. “It’s ridiculous how lucky I got,” Tran said.
The Trans closed the drive-through to build the pit room, thankful their $20,000 investment would finally be put to use. Phong quit his job as a machinist to focus on the restaurant, while Tran kept his job producing parts for the oil and gas industry. “It’s a Plan B in case things go south,” Tran said, still sounding uncertain about his business venture, which was the first restaurant any of the three had ever worked in.
Several years ago, Tran had a hard time finding consistently good barbecue where he lived in Cypress. A friend sold him a used smoker, and after some alterations, he fired it up in his backyard. Working as a machinist for fifteen years, Tran was running out of new things to learn about his trade. As he started getting bored, “[barbecue] was a challenge,” he said. “I wanted to chase it, I guess.” The backyard briskets got better, and he upgraded his smoker. Then he started making sausages. Before long, the brothers decided to invest in the smokers that would be the workhorses at their future restaurant.
The menu, like the name of the place, “is an homage to how we grew up,” Tran said. He and Phong were raised in Brenham by Vietnamese parents. Their dad passed away when they were young, and their mom raised a big family on her own. They enjoyed barbecue, but each sibling wasn’t getting their own combo plate “She’d buy meats by the pound, and rice was our filler,” Tran said. “Now when I eat brisket, I need the rice,” he added.
The brisket and rice dish on the menu is that simple: two thick slices of well-smoked brisket are laid over a generous scoop of seasoned jasmine rice and drizzled with the house-made barbecue sauce. The restaurant also offers BBQ fried rice, which includes chunks of brisket, Chinese sausage, eggs, onions, and barbecue sauce. Each serving is wok-fired to order. The wok is as important as the smoker. The sweetness of the sauce mixed with the melted brisket fat provides what Hong describes as wok hei, which translates as wok breath or wok energy in Cantonese. I could taste it in every bite as I carved from the hillock of fried rice on my butcher paper–lined tray. The sweet sausage and the peppery brisket made a masterful match, but don’t just take my word for it. As Tran explained proudly, “When you have the old Asian ladies coming in to get your fried rice, you’re like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
I thought the fried rice was the result of leftovers from the brisket and rice, but Tran corrected me. Each dish has its own independent process. They fill three rice cookers, each with a forty-cup capacity (the rice cooker in my kitchen has an eight-cup capacity), three times daily with jasmine rice for the brisket and rice, for which freshly smoked and sliced brisket is reserved. For the fried rice, they prefer long-grain rice and require two daily batches from all three rice cookers. “It’s almost like using day-old rice,” Tran said of long-grain rice, which easily separates into individual grains. As for the brisket in the fried rice, they cook extra and chill them overnight. “You know how hard it is to cube a brisket when it’s soft?” Tran asked.
Not everything comes with rice here. The pork ribs are smoked until very tender, then glazed with the house-made barbecue sauce. They’re subtly seasoned, so the pork flavor comes though well. I really enjoyed the simple pork and beef sausage as well as the jalapeño cheese variety. For the classic sausage, Tran aims for what he ate as a child in Brenham. “There are so many sausage places around that have that Polish, German, and Czech mix,” he said, naming Chappell Hill and Burton’s. I could see the resemblance, but preferred Tran’s version, with a smoky and snappy casing.
When ordering at the counter, Michelle will ask if you want pickles, onions, and jalapeños. Say yes to all of them. The Trans use a different recipe for each. The jalapeños are sweet with a hint of soy sauce and use lemon-lime Jones soda from the soda fountain. (Tran said theirs is the only Houston restaurant he knows of that serves Jones on tap, and swears by the brand so much he sent me off with a bottle of cream soda just so I could try it.) The thick-cut cucumber pickles have a nice balance of tangy and sweet, and the onions are on the sweeter side. Alternate bites of the pickles with the barbecue and you’ll see why they’re a magical accompaniment.
I only tried two sides. The loaded baked potato salad is served hot and is Tran’s alternative for barbecue-stuffed baked potatoes. The daily demand is just too hard to judge, he said. I was more drawn to the Poor Man’s Macaroni, which Tran said is their take on a dish served at many Houston-area Vietnamese restaurants called nui xào bò, or stir-fried macaroni with beef. In this case, the macaroni is cooked in the wok with diced bacon and a ketchup-based sauce. It’s salty, sweet, delicious, and filling.
Tran said they’re happy to have made it beyond the one-year mark and hope to keep growing. He calls himself a barbecue nerd but admits that “the majority of consumers aren’t.” Making Brisket & Rice a must-visit for fellow nerds will take time. He said the focus from the beginning has been to please the neighborhood first. “In order to be found out as great you need to survive,” he said. In a discussion about the day job he retains, Tran said he enjoys the work because he likes “turning a piece of raw material into something useful.” The parallels to brisket and the gas station space are obvious. If Brisket & Rice is not yet a barbecue destination for all of Houston, it won’t take long.
Brisket & Rice
13111 FM 529, Houston
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 11–7
Pitmasters: Hong and Phong Tran
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2022