Ara Malekian’s first cooking job was in a fancy French kitchen in Switzerland, his first bite of Texas-style barbecue was in California, and his first drink in the morning, an Armenian coffee, reflects his birthplace. He has come a long way to cook Texas barbecue, and Houstonians require a bit of a trek to try it at the tiny Harlem Road Texas BBQ in Richmond, which opened earlier this year.
You have to really be looking for it to spot the shack sitting alongside busy Harlem Road. An electrical substation across the road is the only landmark around. The walk from the gravel lot to the front door passes the outdoor restrooms (don’t worry, there’s full plumbing), but once inside it feels like a small-town barbecue joint with an elegant European rusticity. Malekian built the tables and benches, and the interior finish is reclaimed wood fencing. The ceiling is vaulted and white, which helps reflect the light coming in through the windows, which are mounted high enough so that the only thing you see is the clear blue Texas sky.
A food truck is backed into the building to provide a kitchen and serving counter. Ordering is done through the truck’s window. Malekian will be the guy with the cowboy hat and the well-shaped facial hair. A cigar will either be in his mouth or shirt pocket, and if he’s cutting, he’ll use a large, custom-made slicing knife. The whole package looks a bit intimidating, but the man is all about hospitality. He’ll gladly make you an Armenian coffee (not on the menu), which is similar to a Turkish coffee but with a finer grind and lighter roast to the beans. Get one.
Malekian’s long route to Texas included Armenia, Iran, Switzerland, and California, where he tried Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ in Van Nuys and first caught the bug. Despite his long route here, Malekian says making Texas barbecue feels nostalgic in a way. “[In] the kitchen that I apprenticed in when I was cooking in Switzerland, a lot of the equipment used charcoal and wood,” he told me. He fuels his vault smokers with staves from red wine barrels. “It gives it a cleaner, sweeter smoke,” he said of the dense wood. There’s also a stack of dried grapevines for when he’s cold-smoking fish. I was there for the special of smoked lamb chops. They have to be cooked past medium to get any sort of bark, but they were juicy and smoky.
I was lucky enough to be accompanied by J. C. Reid from the Houston Chronicle, who provided some additional context on our meal. He said the brisket we ate, which was an excellent fatty cut, was the best he’d had from Malekian. There was plenty more to praise. “I modeled my beef ribs after Wayne Mueller’s,” Malekian told me, which was wise. They didn’t reach the Louie Mueller peak of greatness—who does?—but these were some spectacular beef ribs. The peppery bark was stout, and the fatty meat beneath was buttery and salty.
At 12, Malekian began his kitchen apprenticeship, where he “started washing dishes, prepping, and eventually making sausage.” He wouldn’t think of buying sausage off the shelf, but the one he makes could use less of the European subtlety and more salt, fat, and spice. The links get lost with all the other bold flavors, like the heavily seasoned Duroc pork ribs and the pulled pork shoulder. I swore there was sauce on the pulled pork. The finely shredded meat was too juicy, it seemed, to not have some added moisture. Instead, Malekian rubs the pork heavily with smoked paprika, black pepper, garlic, onion, salt, and brown sugar, and smokes the ribs above a pan that collects the seasoned fat as it drips off. All of this is then reincorporated into the pork as it’s pulled, making for some of the richest tasting pulled pork you’ll have.
The sides and desserts at Harlem Road are thoughtfully constructed classics. The beans are smoked under the briskets to catch their fat and flavor. A lightly dressed potato salad has a pleasant saltiness that I guessed was applied directly to the potatoes. Malekian gave me a knowing nod. (A tip: season the potatoes, folks, not just the dressing, in your potato salad.) A crunchy slaw of red cabbage rounded out the trio. One could also make a side of house-made pickles and pickled onions, which shouldn’t be missed.
When I heard “croissant bread pudding,” I immediately thought of Killen’s Barbecue, but this version is denser and not as wet. You could eat the fluffy dessert with your hands. A plate of cookies is also available, but I’d go for the pecan pie. Malekian doesn’t like sweets all that well, so he challenged himself to make a pecan pie recipe with half the sugar of most. It was refreshing to taste the actual pecans in the excellent slice.
Harlem Road is a long way from Houston, but Malekian said it doesn’t matter all that much. The locals have discovered the place and provide plenty of weekday dinner business. He’s open only for lunch on Saturday and Sunday. The latter is when folks line up for smoked beef cheek barbacoa, which sounds great but I don’t know how I’d go back and not order a beef rib. Maybe an Armenian coffee can provide that second wind.
9823 Harlem Road, Richmond
Wed-Fri 3 p.m.-sold out, Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-sold out
Pitmaster: Ara Malekian
Method: Oak wood in cabinet smokers
Year opened: 2018