Robert Crivellari has spent most of his working life leading a team. He was a successful head football coach and athletic director at Elkins High School, just outside Houston, for 7 years and spent 23 years in coaching altogether. Coach Criv, as they called him, left the football field behind in 2010. Now he’s a one-man team running the pits at the BBQ Place, in downtown El Campo.
“I was just ready to try something different,” Crivellari told me at a picnic table outside his restaurant. He’s been in this location for two years after starting in a take-out-only spot in 2014. “My entire life was run by a bell schedule,” Crivellari continued, referring to his time as a coach. “I didn’t know what the rest of the world was like.” So he left the big city for the small town, and now his schedule is driven by the needs of his barbecue pit—but he doesn’t mind.
The smoker is a reverse-flow Pitmaker vault that runs on charcoal and chunks of oak and pecan. He cranks it up to 325 degrees in the morning to cook his ribs, chicken, turkey, and sausage hot and fast, similar to the method used by lifelong friend Wes Jurena of Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque, in Cypress. The chicken quarters, with a good balance of salt and smoke, were spectacular. Juices just ran onto the platter from the meat, and the skin was almost to the point of crackling. It was some of the best barbecue poultry I’ve had in a while. I loved the flavor on the pork ribs, but even Crivellari agreed they needed more time to tenderize on the smoker.
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Things are different with the briskets. They’re put onto the smoker the night before for six hours at 280 degrees. Then the briskets are wrapped in foil and cooked an additional ten hours at a lower heat. What comes out could be cut with a spoon. The beef is sliced double thick just so it will hold together long enough to be transferred to the platter. Even from the lean side, it was incredibly moist. The sausages come from Prasek’s, just down the road, as does the boudin, which Crivellari also smokes. Slices of smoked turkey were peppery and juicy and took on more smoke than any other item. Overall, it’s a well-executed barbecue menu.
Coleslaw doesn’t make an appearance on the menu, which is unusual at a Texas barbecue joint, but you won’t miss it after trying the Cajun red potatoes, roasted with plenty of garlic and black pepper. The mac and cheese is made with cavatappi pasta, which really holds on to the creamy cheese sauce. Green beans were the special of the day, so I was disappointed they were from a can.
Don’t come looking for the BBQ Place on the weekends. Crivellari left coaching so he could finally get his weekends free, so it’s open only Tuesday through Friday. Also, remember that if Crivellari is on vacation, the place will be shut down. Either call ahead, or check for the big “BBQ” flag outside. It gets mounted alongside the building when the doors are opened.
Crivellari has a small staff to take orders and work the drive-thru window, but he does all the cooking and slices the barbecue for every order. It’s a lot of work, so I asked Crivellari if he still thought running a barbecue joint was a good choice as a second career. He told me, “Not one day of my career in coaching or cooking do I regret getting up and going to work.” And you won’t regret going out of your way to El Campo to get a taste of the BBQ Place.