At Pappas Delta Blues Smokehouse, the smoked brisket is the star of the show—the prime-grade Creekstone brisket literally has its name in lights on a marquee above the front door.”That meat’s gotta be perfect,” says chef Michael Velardi, who has been with the Pappas restaurant group for 27 years, 15 of which have been spent with its barbecue joints. “If it’s not, we won’t serve it.” Alongside restaurant group founder Harris Pappas, Velardi knows the expectations that come with such a display.
That brisket was perfect on my first visit. You get a choice of lean, fatty, or both. I asked for both. The lean slices were everything I wanted in a brisket. It had smoke, a peppery bite on the well-formed bark, and the fat cap over the juicy meat was perfectly rendered. I thought I’d gotten lucky—with the servers, smoked cocktails, and all those steaks on the menu, Pappas Delta Blues seemed too fancy to be focused on consistently great brisket. Then I came back a few months later and nothing had changed: the brisket and the bark were still stellar. Velardi, who attributes the great bark to rubbing the raw briskets with safflower oil before seasoning them, wasn’t surprised. “I’ve got fresh brisket all day long,” he said, noting that briskets are scheduled to come off the wood-fired Oyler smokers in three or four shifts throughout the day.
The first time I visited Pappas Delta Blues, I sat down at the bar and tried not to eat every one of the warm rolls served with Plugra butter that were plopped down soon after I took a seat. I listened to the bartender describe the barbecue to other patrons, and rolled my eyes behind his back when he said the brisket was seasoned with nine kinds of pepper and three kinds of salt. He may have been exaggerating, but as I sampled the brisket crab cakes and sipped a cold glass of lambrusco wine, it sounded appropriate. The crab cakes are really deep-fried balls of lump crab, mixed with smoked brisket and topped with “Carolina butter sauce.” It’s certainly an interesting way to use up leftover brisket, and I enjoyed them more than I’d like to admit.
A platter of three meats offered generously portions—they had better be generous for $30 (with two sides). Peppery pork belly was sliced thick and as tender as any I’ve eaten. Slices of smoked turkey breast were also juicy and flavorful. Adding a pork rib will cost you $3.95 extra, and I’d do it again. It’s a hybrid of a sweet glazed rib and a smoky rib heavy on the pepper, and was better for the combination of flavors. On both trips, the rib was cooked a little more than I’d like, so those looking for falling-off-the-bone ribs will be delighted.
The table service on a second visit was impeccable, as expected from the Pappas chain. The server recommended the cheese grits, which were far too cheesy. It tasted like a few pebbles of grits were suspended in cheese dip. I’d rather get the creamy mac & cheese with a crumbled cracker crust. The coleslaw was a basic mayo version: light on the dressing, with plenty of crunch remaining. My favorite side was a thick slice of tender turnip atop a bowl of salty turnip greens.
While the brisket was superb on both visits, I much preferred the pork belly and turkey on the first trip to my follow-up, which included dry smoked chicken and pulled pork better suited for a sandwich. Oh, and that pork ribs was still plenty worth the extra $3.95.
There’s plenty I didn’t get to on the menu, which includes fried chicken, burgers, steaks, and fish. Apparently, I’m not alone in my preferences: Velardi said the orders swing to barbecue about 75 percent of the time. He said their focus from the beginning was to capitalize on the current popularity with craft barbecue. “Craft barbecue is in,” Velardi said, so Pappas is buying expensive proteins and surrounding them with touches not found at traditional barbecue joints, like crab cakes.
A smoked brisket boudin just hit the menu as an appetizer, so I didn’t get to try it. Another starter looked more familiar: Sticky pork belly bites with cherry cola glaze are straight out of Ronnie Killen’s playbook at STQ. They were fine here, but its Killen’s version that I’ll continue to crave.
For those who associate the Pappas name with decent chain barbecue, Pappas Delta Blues is certainly a step up. Velardi said the goal was for the other 23 Pappas locations to up their game as well. “I think some of the stuff has rubbed off on the Pappas BBQ in general,” Velardi said. A recent trip to the Dallas location shows they still have a ways to go, but maybe the high quality will rub off on the group’s other spots once the second Pappas Delta Blues Smokehouse opens in the Dallas area soon.
19901 Gulf Fwy., Webster, TX, 77598
Sun-Thur 11-10, F-Sat 11-11
Pitmaster: Michael Velardi
Method: Wood-fired rotisserie
Year opened: 2017