Gary Vincek seems to do it all. He doesn’t run a just a barbecue joint, a sausage factory, a meat market, a processing facility, or a bakery. As owner and pitmaster at Vincek’s Smokehouse, he and his crew provide the Southeast Texas town of East Bernard with all of those things. In one place.
In our collective rush to ogle over the latest slice of fatty, prime-grade brisket at a big-city barbecue joint, we sometimes forget the role that small-town barbecue joints provide in their communities. Take, for instance, a visit to Vincek’s on a recent Friday. The most popular order of the day was fried catfish, an option for those who observe Lent. Not only was it a thoughtful addition to the menu—one with the community in mind—the dish was flat-out good. The salty, crispy fish played nicely as the surf to the turf of pecan-smoked barbecue (I was not observing Lent).
Of all those meat options, Vincek’s is probably best known for its smoked sausage. Gary Vincek wouldn’t divulge the recipe to me, but the 200-year-old family recipe that originated in Moravia is a mix of beef, pork, salt, black pepper, and garlic. The meat is coarsely ground and stuffed into natural casings. Racks of hanging sausages are wheeled into a cinderblock smokehouse behind the kitchen where pecan smoke fills the chamber as the sausages rest overnight. The links morph into a ruddy shade and soak up great smoky flavor while maintaining their juiciness. It’s one of the best sausages in the state. You can also get a dried version of it at the meat counter if you want something more portable.
Oddly enough, briskets are cooked in much the same way. Trays of raw, seasoned briskets are stacked into a tall cart, then placed into the smokehouse overnight (he doesn’t keep track of the temperature). It’s a smoking process I haven’t witnessed at any other barbecue joint in Texas. A little oak is added to the pecan for the briskets, but the finishing touch is when they’re put to the fire in a low concrete pit out back. Charcoal is the only fuel used for the final hours of cooking, but it’s here that they develop a crust and an additional layer of flavor.
The cooking process isn’t a perfect one, and Vincek doesn’t have much help to keep an eye on them. Between his other duties, he can’t also baby the pits. This haphazard approach means some briskets are better than others. The first one I was served in the dining room had great flavor and juiciness, but it was tough with loads of unrendered fat. When Vincek led the tour out back, he picked out his best brisket that was resting on the pit. It was like it came from another restaurant. I told Vincek as much, and he shrugged. There’s only so much he can do, he told me. Somebody had to fry all that catfish. When I asked about hiring a pit assistant, he laughed. “I can’t even hire somebody around here to sweep the floors.”
The pork ribs are less of a gamble. They’re cooked over direct heat, and the familiar, delectable scent of fat dripped on coals hits your palette before the meat does. The ribs aren’t seasoned heavily, but they don’t need it. You might need to tug a bit to get them off the bone, but the flavor is rewarding. A half chicken was also austerely seasoned, but here it didn’t work so well. The meat was juicy enough, but the flavor left me wanting.
Sides are basic, but homemade. The oil-and-vinegar-based slaw has some crunch, and the potato salad is highly seasoned and heavy on the sour cream. Dessert lovers will be in heaven. A case by the register is full of homemade kolaches and mini pies like pecan and buttermilk. There was also a large pan of chocolate fudge cake pudding, and banana cake pudding (essentially cake pieces broken up into a pudding). I couldn’t resist the banana cake pudding, a unique take on a Texas favorite.
Vincek’s is a great barbecue joint, and a small-town treasure. You won’t have a brisket epiphany here, but you will find a great meal—and you just might find a new favorite sausage.