When Truth Barbecue opened three years ago, Brenham quickly became one of Texas’s top barbecue destinations. But as Leonard Botello IV’s joint received praise and a national spotlight, a small barbecue operation was getting started across town. LJ’s BBQ, a partnership between Matt Lowery and Corey Cook, began as a pop-up with a borrowed smoker in late 2015. They had their own 500-gallon smoker built the following year, and took over the back room of the local liquor store. When I dropped in recently to their nearly year-old storefront on Main Street, they’d just finished a new pit room for their new 1,000-gallon smoker, tripling their barbecue capacity. From what I ate, they’re gonna need a bigger smoker.
There were a few folks waiting outside the door when it opened at 11:00 am. By the time I was done eating, the line stretched from the counter back out through the door. The smell of oak smoke floated as Lowery took out a fresh brisket to slice. Once the cutting block was in full view, the pressure of choice was real. It all looked good, and that line was growing. Lowery offered a burnt end of fatty brisket for a taste. It was incredible—and distractingly tasty. With five meats and five sides on the menu, I decided to give up on deciding and just try them all.
For sides, I generally enjoy baked mac and cheese. I like the cheesy crust on top, and prefer the texture to the creamy variety. LJ’s version, from a recipe devised by Cook, is an exception. “It’s kind of an alfredo sauce,” he said. He’s been tweaking the recipe for a year to hold better on the macaronis, and I think he’s cracked the formula. It’s rich and buttery, but with plenty of cheesy punch. Any sauce remaining on the plate is worth sopping up. As far as best sides, the greens gave the mac and cheese tough competition—the collards are cooked to tenderness, but still have some bite. They’re savory from a good stock, with a generous layer of crumbled bacon covering the greens.
The crunchy slaw is a Texas standard, as are the well-seasoned pinto beans. The chefs get a little wild with the potato salad, which is dressed with sour cream, buttermilk, bacon, and a little mayo. With the rough chop, it eats like a loaded baked potato, which pairs perfectly with the tender brisket. Both the lean and fatty slices were superb with a hearty bark and plenty of smoke. A butcher in Burton worked with them on a sausage recipe. “We spent a weekend making five-pound batches,” until they got it right, Lowery said. The result is incredibly juicy and pleasantly salty with a great snap to the casing.
Black pepper dominates the flavor of the pork shoulder. It is pulled to order instead of being chopped ahead of time, which helps it retain its own moisture (and makes it easy to ask for a good bit of bark). The ribs veer to the sweeter side and were more tender than I prefer, but were still some good, saucy pork ribs. Rounding out the smoked meat options is the excellent turkey, which comes in thick slices, coated in pepper that may be held on with a yellow mustard slather. These folks know how to smoke meat.
LJ’s, named after Lowery’s grandmother Laura Jean, is a true-blue barbecue joint that feels like it’s been around forever. Heck, three years was far too long for me to wait for a visit for one of the best “new” barbecue joints out there. Truth might be what brings out-of-town barbecue hounds to Brenham, but with LJ’s in the mix, this town is no longer a one-stop shop for excellent barbecue.
1407 W Main St., Brenham, TX, 77833
W-Sat 11-6 (or until sold out)
Pitmaster: Matt Lowery and Corey Cook
Method: Post oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2017