In August 2017 Jim Buchanan was almost ready to start serving his bacon-wrapped meatloaf and brisket debris po’boys at White Oak Biergarten, in Houston. The owners of Lucky’s Pub had given his Buck’s Barbeque Co. a home as they geared up to reopen, and the kitchen was his domain. The opening date was announced as August 26, and Buchanan had even served a preview meal to a local food writer—but then the storm uprooted his plans. Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey submerged the entire first floor of the restaurant before they were able to even open the doors.
Plans for a reopening are still unclear, but the bar owners found another home for Buck’s: another one of their bars, called Lucky’s Lodge.
From its opening day in 2012, Buchanan was the right-hand man of Wesley Jurena at Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque in their former EaDo location near Houston’s downtown. Buchanan left the restaurant last year to pursue his own barbecue dreams popping up around town. Pappa Charlie’s then moved out to Cypress, leaving EaDo without a good barbecue option, so the owners of Lucky’s Lodge, just a couple doors down from the former Pappa Charlie’s location, gave Buck’s a home. Since January, Buchanan has been serving lunch out of Lucky’s from Wednesday through Saturday, with dinner service on Friday. (Check their Facebook page for the other pop-ups they run in the evenings and on Sunday.)
Buchanan and Jurena became known for their “goofy-cue” at Pappa Charlie’s, and Buchanan is still pushing the boundaries of Texas barbecue. When I stopped in, it was meatloaf day. The bacon-wrapped smoked meatloaf might sound familiar from the old Pappa Charlie’s days. It’s served over garlic mashed potatoes, and the hulking hunk of meatloaf was smoky and comforting. Throughout the week, there are plenty of other surprises, too: The brisket debris po’boy is a Thursday staple, and recent efforts have also included go chu jang–glazed beef belly slices and a pork belly banh mi. (Fans of the Butterfinger brisket, Buchanan’s famous creation in which a brisket is covered in crumbled Butterfinger candy bars, will have to be patient.)
Classic barbecue is also well represented here at Buck’s. The dark-crusted spare ribs were some of the juiciest I’ve ever eaten, cooked just tender enough, with a lingering, pleasant charcoal flavor. The smokiness on the barbecue here is distinct with the coupling of oak wood and lump charcoal. On the ribs it was perfect, but with longer cooked cuts like brisket, it can get heavy. Nothing spends all that long in the Pitmaker vault smokers that Buchanan cooks on, which are all rolling at the hot-and-fast temperature of 325 degrees. “The ribs are done in two and a half hours,” he told me.
The brisket takes a little longer. The fatty end of upper-choice beef was tender, but it looked exhausted from the hot smoker. Lots of the fat had rendered out, and the beef that remained was a bit mushy. I preferred the lean end. Each slice had a great fat cap, had plenty of smoke, and was good and juicy. Peppery turkey breast takes the high heat well and was one of the best items on the menu.
Buck’s makes their own beef sausage. It has a coarse grind and lots of garlic and is the only thing juicier than the spare ribs. It goes well with their tomatoey beef barbecue sauce. The casing had a good snap, but it was nothing like the boudin. (These links from DJ’s Boudain out of Beaumont are about the only item not made in-house.) I asked Buchanan how he gets the casing so crisp on smoked boudin, and he said the secret is to put them into the smoker frozen: The casings get the opportunity to tighten up over the longer cooking time required for frozen links.
There was no dessert when I visited. Big Red ice cream is the flavor of the house, but there wasn’t a batch ready, so I was happy to take a few more bites of the cheesy squash instead. The slices of yellow squash still had some integrity and were well seasoned. It was all buttery and cheesy enough without feeling too heavy. The sweetened greens were lightly cooked and still had a pleasant chew. I swore the potato salad had sour cream in it because it tasted so much like a great baked potato, but Buchanan said it was just mayo, a little mustard, and a lot of pickles. The cumin-heavy pinto beans were kicked up with a pico de gallo toward the end of the cooking process, so the chunks still had some crunch to them. It was an impressive lineup of well-made classic sides.
Buchanan wants more for Buck’s, and he envisions having his own place one day. In the meantime, Lucky’s Lodge serves as a good home base. Buchanan’s tenacity in keeping the dream alive is to be admired, and his cooking backs it up. After some serious bad luck, his hustle keeps him in the barbecue —and in the discussion as one of Houston’s best new barbecue spots.
2024 Rusk St., Houston, TX, 77003
Thur-Sun lunch & dinner
Pitmaster: Jim Buchanan
Method: Oak and lump charcoal in a cabinet smoker
Year opened: 2018