The building that houses Rusty Buckle BBQ Company in New Caney, northeast of Houston, was previously a real estate office, a hair salon, and a taxidermy shop. Owner and pitmaster Allen Rhoden ran all but one of those businesses. His father owns the building and the land, so it was the obvious spot for the barbecue joint too when Rhoden opened it last October. He’s hoping this new career path will stick.
In 1994, Rhoden graduated college in Huntsville with a history degree, but he had a hard time finding the right job. He opted for taxidermy school and opened his own shop. Rhoden said he did quality work, but it was hard to compete with the low prices offered by amateurs. Hunters could pay someone working out of a garage as little as $100 for a mounted deer head. “It’ll look like it got whacked in the ass with a boat paddle, but you couldn’t compete with that,” Rhoden said. Eventually he gave up taxidermy and started selling real estate. He also bought a smoker.
“The first brisket I did, five years ago, my dog wouldn’t even eat,” Rhoden told me over the phone. Even so, he was “bitten by the barbecue bug,” as he describes it, and honed his skills on the competition circuit. A year after that first brisket, he and wife LaShawna began saving to open a barbecue joint while he continued selling real estate. They put all their extra money into barbecue and kitchen equipment over a four-year span. They traveled to joints around the state trying the food, but also observing customer flow, design, and hospitality. Rhoden practiced different recipes, different rubs, and different briskets. He also traded the competition vault smokers he was using for a Fast Eddy’s Cookshack rotisserie that uses wood pellets for smoke. “Work smarter, not harder,” was his theory.
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In addition to the Cookshack (and another on the way), Rhoden uses a Traeger smoker at the restaurant. He sets the time and temperature, loads the wood pellets, and comes back in the morning. I don’t love the idea of Texas pit masters leaving stick burners behind for pellet cookers, but I also preach about judging the product over the process when it comes to barbecue. Rusty Buckle serves good food. The fatty brisket and juicy nuggets of brisket burnt ends were great on two visits, especially in the tacos, where the latter comes with fresh jalapeño slices, a drizzle of barbecue sauce, raw onions, and sweet horseradish pickles. That beef was perfectly cooked, although the lean brisket was a bit dry, as was the sliced turkey.
The ribs on one visit had a wet look to them. It wasn’t really a glaze—more like a bark that never formed. The meat was tender enough, and well-seasoned on these large spare ribs, but there’s another rib option to consider. Rhoden wraps individually cut St. Louis pork ribs with thick-cut bacon, then smokes them for a few hours until the bacon is crisp. It’s pork-on-pork action that provides a unique, smoky bite. Another specialty, which I didn’t get to try, is the barbecue sushi. There’s no raw fish involved, but there is some seafood. Chopped shrimp is surrounded by ground sausage and cheese, then wrapped in bacon. A whole log of the stuff is smoked, then sliced for service. Rhoden said it brought swarms of barbecue fans to his table at the recent Houston BBQ Fest, but he was out of it when I visited.
The restaurant sees plenty of business too. I arrived at opening time on both visits, and there was already a line. On an average day, Rhoden said he feeds between 250 and 300 customers before 2 p.m., but it wasn’t that way from day one. Part of his motivation for opening was selfish. He was tired of traveling thirty minutes to Corkscrew BBQ in Spring to get his smoked-meat fix, but many locals were just looking for cheap barbecue from him. So part of his task, as he puts it, was “educating these people around here that it’s OK to wait in line, and it’s OK to pay $20 for a pound of brisket.” They seem to have gotten the message.
A few customers in the dining area were just as concerned that I’d ordered the right sides along with the meat. There’s the dirty mac & cheese topped with chopped brisket that Rhoden’s daughter, Savannah, who also works the register, insisted go on the menu. Mamie’s corn casserole, the recipe for which came from a friend’s mom, is a rich corn pudding. On the lighter side, green beans are mixed with bacon and onions, then smoked alongside the meat.
Sweet potato casserole is listed as a side, but the brown sugar topping makes it more like a dessert. Or you could opt for bread pudding or pecan cobbler, or my favorite—a scoop of each in one bowl. If you need something sweet for the road, there are barbecue cookies. Rhoden tweaked a recipe he found on the Stubb’s barbecue sauce website, using his own sauce in the dough. They taste like a good brown-sugar cookie. Cool off with some homemade sweet tea, or get spicy with a glass of jalapeño lemonade. Raw slices swim around in the jug, and their heat isn’t hard to detect in the concoction.
Rhoden said he’s got the seating capacity to serve more people than he does daily, but he wants to grow slowly. “I cook to my mental capacity,” he told me, explaining that he needs to keep all those menu items straight on the smokers. “Every week, we’re able to do a little bit more,” he said. And every week it seems like more folks are finding their way out to New Caney, at the far east end of Grand Parkway, where yet another new barbecue joint has opened serving impressive barbecue in the greater Houston area.