I didn’t know what to expect when I ordered the smoked pork ribs at Candente in Houston. The menu’s description included ancho chipotle barbecue sauce, cilantro, queso fresco, and a chile lime butter. It sounded more like components of a taco than a barbecue dish. Owner Michael Sambrooks certainly earned his barbecue credentials with The Pit Room (on our Top 50 list) a block away, so I remained open-minded. What arrived to the table on a butcher block looked like no other rack of ribs I’d eaten.
Houston is much lauded for its diversity, especially when it comes to dining. The city also is home to some of the state’s best barbecue. That healthy barbecue culture brings with it a confidence and a willingness to expand on the preparation and flavors beyond the traditional. This past week I got to sample some unique racks of ribs at Candente and International Smoke. Both restaurants bring together smoked meats and flavors not often found in barbecue joints.
Sambrooks calls the ribs at Candente “Tex-Mex ribs.” (They’re available as an appetizer, or a half-rack can be added to most entrees for $18.) He said he serves them as a tribute to the ribs he’d eaten at Tex-Mex restaurants like Lupe Tortilla and Pappasito’s. “They’re super saucy, and they fall apart,” he said of those ribs, noting that the target doneness for the ribs at Candente would be short of falling-off-the-bone. Mine were a little too tough for my liking, but I really enjoyed the bold flavors and the presentation. An ancho and pasilla chile puree brought some depth and a little heat that was tempered by molasses, honey, and some of the Pit Room’s barbecue sauce. Queso fresco and rough-chopped cilantro topped the uncut rack, and it came with a side of sauce that I hadn’t seen anywhere near barbecue before.
Butter isn’t an uncommon ingredient in barbecue sauce, but it isn’t usually in a starring role like at Candente. The butter is pureed with roasted habaneros and jalapeños, white wine, garlic, and salt. It’s similar to the butter dipping sauce you might get with fajitas, and I’m very much intrigued to try it with some smoked brisket. The combination of flavors took me back a month or so to the Southern Smoke Festival in Houston when chef Jason Vaughan of Nancy’s Hustle topped a perfectly smoked beef back rib with a whipped butter and cilantro sauce that I haven’t been able to shake from my memory. Leave it to Houston to make a compelling case for pairing barbecue with yet another animal fat.
At International Smoke in Houston, they encourage pairing ribs with more ribs. Chef E.J. Miller just added a Vietnamese-style rib preparation to the menu alongside American- and Korean-style pork ribs. A half rack of any flavor is available as a meal with smoked sweet potatoes for $18. The same half-rack is $22 if you want to try two flavors. If you want all three, just get the rib trio, which is a rack and a half of ribs, six of each flavor (and no sides), on one platter for $45. They all start with St. Louis-cut pork ribs and are all smoked, but the sauces and marinades diverge wildly.
The Vietnamese-style ribs are first marinated in soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots. Miller said he was aiming for the standard salt-and-pepper pork chops found on Vietnamese restaurant menus. The ribs go straight from the marinade to the smoker and bathe under oak smoke for about four hours. The cut ribs are topped with fried garlic and shallots and fresh cilantro. It made for a series of powerful flavors competing for attention, but I never wearied of trying to identify them all.
The American ribs seem to be inspired by the ribs of Memphis far more than those in Texas. They get a slather of sweet barbecue sauce after smoking, and then a layer of dry rub is sprinkled on. They pack a punch. The Korean ribs are rubbed and smoked just like the American ribs, but they get a sauce made from gochujang, a fermented chile paste, and are garnished with green onions and black sesame seeds. If you prefer ribs seasoned simply, these may be overwhelming, but I enjoyed every bite. They are certainly sauce-forward, but all are built on the foundation of well-smoked ribs that are tender, but not too much so. I had to alternate rib flavors to determine a favorite, which wasn’t easy, but I’d go with the Vietnamese if I had to choose just one.
International Smoke opened in July 2018 with some baggage as a result of its California-based ownership. One of the partners is Ayesha Curry, who is married to Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. “That’s why they pulled me in here, a Rockets and Texans fan, to run the kitchen,” Miller said with a laugh. While I finished the last sip of my smoked old-fashioned, the chef explained that they use smoke whenever possible throughout their menu. “If you can cook it in an oven, in this kitchen we try to put it in the smoker,” he said. He urged me to return for the smoked beef short rib or the smoked and fried half-chicken. I might have to get another order of pork ribs too.
It was refreshing to see these restaurants breaking the unwritten rules of Texas barbecue, while honoring its traditions and still producing great tasting food. Sambrooks said experimentation is rewarding for him, but that brisket will remain a sacred cow, at least at the Pit Room. “You’re kind of locked in at a barbecue place, at least we are, to not really experiment with different flavors on brisket,” he said. “But ribs seem to be a more accepted one to play with.” Play he did at Candente. Where else can you get a rack of smoked ribs with free chips and salsa?