Food courts are like rental car counters: no matter what you ask for, the expectation is serviceability, not excitement. That’s what makes Feges BBQ, at Greenway Plaza, in Houston such a surprise. Below street level, among food court staples like burgers and Chinese food, you’ll find a true Texas barbecue joint.
Patrick Feges and Erin Smith opened the place earlier this year with a goal unlike that of other Texas barbecue joints: don’t let the smoked meats upstage the sides. From the first announcement of the coming restaurant, Smith said she wanted to get folks to come in just for the sides. At $3 a dish or $8 for three, it’s easy to try several of the eleven options. I invited my Texas Monthly barbecue sidekick, Christiane Wartell, along to enjoy the bounty and provide her thoughts:
This is the first place I’ve visited that offers more sides than meat. The array reminded me of banchan, the collection of side dishes served with Korean barbecue. I love the sides-first mentality of Erin Smith. The endless combinations I could create for each bite made me giddy, probably the giddiest I have ever been in a food court. My favorites were the Moroccan spiced carrots, kale salad, and the elote corn salad.
I agree. The hint of smoke left on the corn had me convinced that it had spent some time in the pit, but Smith set me straight. She puts about thirty raw, shucked corn cobs on the flat top at a time, without any oil or seasoning. The oil seeps out as the cobs heat up, encouraging the browning. The cobs are rotated a few times, and they’re cooked as much by their own steam as the heat from the griddle. It’s the first time I’ve heard of grilling corn this way, and it was delicious.
It’s not hard to eat healthy here, either. The Sidekick’s beloved baby carrots, cooked until tender, are coated in a Moroccan spice mixture and drizzled with a yogurt dressing. They pair well with a side of the mashed bananas and sweet potatoes that are whipped just enough to keep them from being leaden. The roasted Brussels sprouts are pleasantly sweet and salty, as are the greens, which also come on a unique turkey and brisket sandwich.
I liked the idea of the Asian cucumber salad, a play on the dill pickle tradition of Texas barbecue, but the cucumbers soaked up the soy sauce too readily, making the whole thing overly salty. The austere yogurt-dressed slaw was on the other end of the spectrum. Next to all the aggressive flavors, it seemed timid. If it’s hearty you’re looking for, go with the dirty rice. It started as a boudin filling, which Feges eventually abandoned (the smoked boudin on the menu is commercially made but certainly worth a try), so there’s plenty of meat and flavor.
Feges’s cooking experience spans fine dining and barbecue in Houston, most notably as a cook with Ronnie Killen at Killen’s Barbecue, in Pearland. Feges understands the importance of wood cooking, so his location in a food court seems especially curious. Peeking through the kitchen doors behind the serving line, you might expect to find a few gas-fired or electric cabinet smokers sitting under a hood. Instead, you find a huge Oyler rotisserie smoker. “We can only cook on-site,” Feges told his landlord, so they redid the hood system from the barbecue joint that had previously inhabited the spot. Now they’re cooking with all wood.
Feges runs the pit along with Wade Elkins, and they have plenty to keep straight. There were eight smoked meats available on my visit plus a special of bulgogi pork belly burnt ends (which were far too salty), served with a nice kimchi. Whole hog, a passion of Feges, had been a weekly special that just wasn’t selling. It’s been discontinued, but there’s still plenty of good stuff to choose from, including a juicy pulled pork shoulder. The beefy sausage links from Ruffino’s were plump and well smoked. The smoked turkey was juicy and smoky, with a heavy rub that provided a pop of flavor.
The brisket slices were tender with a proper amount of fat left on them. I enjoyed the smoky flavor of each juicy bite, but the saltiness was just on the edge of too much. The pork ribs were also properly smoked, but they’d been fouled up by the hand of whomever seasoned them—it took a minute to register on the taste buds how overly salty they were because of the heavy layer of sweet rub. I scraped the excess rub off the other rib and enjoyed it immensely. Talking to Feges tableside, he said it was a problem he’d address. Thankfully, it’s an easy fix.
Beautiful aerated pork cracklins are offered as a side, but they work best as an appetizer. Get a cup full of the house-made white barbecue sauce and use it for dipping the cracklins, but be careful not to fill up on them. (They might even work as a dessert.)
When it comes to an after-meal sweet, the options here are too good to skip. Smith worked with local pastry chef Jill Bartolome to develop the peanut-butter-and-jelly cake. It’s so rich and dense and sweet that it feels wrong, like binging on Uncrustables while chugging chocolate syrup, but damn if my fork didn’t keep finding its way toward the slice on the table. That was, until I tasted the finest banana cream pie I’ve ever eaten. A flaky tart crust is coated with salted caramel, filled with a banana pastry cream, and then topped with fluffy whipped cream. The final flourish is a sprinkling of crushed, candied banana chips. It’s so good, folks come down from their offices right around the 3 p.m. closing time just to get dessert.
Feges BBQ is new and has some minor kinks to work out, but it has a solid foundation. Its Monday through Friday hours make it a tough destination for weekend barbecue road trippers to work in, but it’s worth the effort to visit. Smith and Feges provide the double whammy of unexpectedly good barbecue from a food court and unexpectedly great sides at a barbecue joint.