Great Barbecues of Texas: Otto's Hamburger and Barbeque and Williams Smoke House in Houston
In 2004, I visited two barbecues in Houston while working on a story for Gourmet about West African restaurants around the country. Both barbecues are now sadly closed. Like people, dead barbecues need to be eulogized so we don't forget them.
Otto's Hamburgers and Barbeque was founded as a grocery store, selling fresh eggs and blocks of ice, in 1951, and by 1963 began dispensing some of the better barbecue in Houston. The ancient premises at 5502 Memorial Drive (there are two newer branches) was like a cross between a shed and a shack, divided into two parts. The front half devoted itself to burgers, but when you passed through a double doorway (I'm recalling this at six years' remove), you'd find yourself in the barbecue part, where the smell of smoke was prodigious and the décor rustic, with lots of testimonial photos lining the walls.
While the quality of Otto's 'cue didn't quite match that of Central Texas joints, it was quite good nonetheless in a familiar sort of way, much like most of the local barbecue in the barbecue-producing parts of the state. The brisket proved estimable, with a good smokey flavor and an almost-delicate texture. It had been cooked over hickory for 18 hours, though that sounded a bit excessive. They also serve chopped beef, pork ribs, and sausage. The sauce was dark and sweet, and went particularly well with the sausage. Beans and potato salad were the standard sides, and you could get raw onions, dill pickles, and jalapenos..
Otto's boasted of its celebrity diners over the years, and you could hardly mention the name without someone volunteering that it was George Bush, Sr.'s favorite place to eat in town. Other celebrities have included (and I'm taking this odd collection from the website), Liberace--which the website spells, "Liberacci," George Foreman, Ron Howard, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lewis, and Waylon Jennings. The old place frightened everyone by closing for a few months in 2009, but then it reopened, only to close permanently.
Next: The superlative Williams Smoke House