Burns Original BBQ is a Houston institution, but it was close to being gone forever. Founder Roy Burns passed away in 2009, and the restaurant closed in 2010. The Burns barbecue family scattered to a couple new locations. The gleaming white shack in the heart of Acres Homes fell into disrepair, and needed serious help before the family could consider reopening it. In came Cory and Carl Crawford (of MLB fame), grandsons of Roy, to finance the upgrades. The restaurant reopened in 2012 with a new front porch and the same old menu, and the dispersed Burns returned to the Original.
My visits to Burns have been many over the years, and I realized I’d never written about it in-depth for Texas Monthly. I’ve devoured rib sandwiches and stuffed potatoes with zeal on the sticky picnic tables out front, while continually being unimpressed with their sliced brisket. That brisket is one of the reasons they haven’t made a Top 50 list recently, but I wanted to visit this time with a different mission and an open mind. I met Cory Crawford with a handshake on the front porch. I admitted that our value system in judging Texas barbecue favors sliced brisket over all else, and is therefore skewed toward white-owned Central Texas style barbecue joints. This time, I wanted to try what his customers valued. I wanted the most popular plate on the menu.
Crawford came back from the kitchen with a plate of ribs, links, potato salad, and beans. He also brought Roy’s sons, Gary and Steve Burns, out from the pit room. We discussed their fight against gentrification in Acres Homes, where construction of a subdivision was just halted. We talked about neighborhood barbecue slang (look for my story on that soon), and about how sliced brisket is the fourth most popular meat on the menu after ribs, links, and chopped beef. The Burnses reflected on their barbecue legacy. They’re all happy to have the family back together under one roof. “When people tell you the story about how my parents used to have a business,” Steve Burns explained, “that shouldn’t have to be.”
Roy Burns started as the neighborhood pitmaster in 1973. He ran a successful, although not entirely legal, barbecue business out of the family home. The boys worked for dad on the weekends and learned the craft. This was no small operation, with a pit sitting in the driveway. “The old man had maybe five or six barrel pits in the backyard,” Gary Burns said. In 1988, he moved the operation to the current site of the restaurant but worked out of a truck. Ribs, links, chicken, and brisket were on the menu. A building came soon after and grew slowly over time. Additions, enclosures, and improvements to the structure came only as city inspectors mandated them. Crawford said, “Every time the city came in and told him he had to upgrade, he added more onto the building.” Roy Burns built a brick pit behind the restaurant, enclosed it, and then tore it down in favor of steel smokers. It was a barbecue joint with a life of its own.
The current version is the most polished it’s ever been. Crawford demanded a sign be placed out by the street for the first time. Burns sits along a residential street without sidewalks that meanders through the neighborhood. Without the sign, it would be easy to pass. There’s a new parking lot, and a house next to the barbecue joint that used to be Crawford’s auntie’s house is now the home of Burns Burger Shack. It’s a new venture for the family and serves a damn fine cheeseburger. Things have never been better here, and after some serious attention from Anthony Bourdain’s 2017 Houston episode on Parts Unknown, they’ve never had a wider audience. Crawford said he’s met folks from Australia, Japan, and France in line, but he also believes the program showed off Burns to Houstonians who may have forgotten about them or never knew about them at all.
Burns was packed during my visit. Our conversation was interrupted whenever we’d open a new item to eat (with photos prior, of course). The billboard-worthy chopped beef sandwich was majestic in its bulk. Its contents spread beyond the bun—there was no way to eat it politely. Every bite was a supremely satisfying mix of bark and fat, sweet and salt, smoke and beef. Heft would become a theme with the stuffed baked potato. I’ve had this one many times. Between the generous scoops of butter and the sour cream, there’s almost as much dairy as meat covering a potato that exists, at first sight, only by assumption. It came topped with more of that excellent chopped beef and some of the regular links. They’re made for Burns by B&W Meat Market in Houston from a Roy Burns recipe. They’ve got a loose grind, good smoke, and a little heat, and would be the most familiar link to fans of Central Texas barbecue. Frenchy’s Sausage Co. makes the “homemade” links, which have a unique spice mix and a kicked-up flavor, thanks to some MSG. Link lovers looking for a lighter version can try the chicken links.
A rib plate comes with a couple massive spare ribs, while the rib sandwich is stuffed with a stack of ribs from the smaller end. The bigger ribs are a little less tender, but a little gnawing from the bone is better than falling off. The smoke flavor is forward in the well-formed bark, and there’s a hamminess to the salty meat. The sweetness comes from the sauce drizzled over top. You can ask for it on the side, but in sandwich form, it’s best to get the bones covered in sauce. Crawford said it’s a favorite of folks from the neighborhood, and when it’s the daily special on Wednesday, they’ll easily sell a hundred.
The sides go beyond the very good potato salad and pinto beans. Smoked mac & cheese is decadent, and the dirty rice is a nice Houston touch, although it needs more seasoning. After all the meat and potatoes and conversation, we never got to dessert. We didn’t bother with sliced brisket either. They cook it overnight after stacking the fireboxes full of wood, and then Gary fires the pits back up in the morning when he gets in at 7:30. As the briskets get done, they go directly from the pit to the cutting board. There’s no resting, no wrapping, and definitely no warmers. “The ovens and the baked meat,” which is how Steve Burns describes electric warmers, “I don’t think that’s true barbecue.”
The Burns family is carrying on a tradition and changing as little as they have to to stay relevant. Their best sellers are such for a reason. Even if I don’t love their sliced brisket—the item many Texans demand a barbecue joint be judged upon—that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting or even praising. Get a link and rib plate, a chopped beef sandwich, or even a rib sandwich, and enjoy what has been a neighborhood favorite for over forty years.
8307 De Priest St., Houston, TX, 77088
Pitmasters: Steve Burns and Gary Burns
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 1988