The Pit Master

Trust Big Paul to up your meat game with ’cue to queue for

“What you really want to ask me is, where is the accent from?” said Paul Nwuli, as he stood behind the counter at his modest barbecue joint, Big Paul’s BBQ. After I’d incorrectly guessed Jamaica and the Bahamas, he told me that he had been born in Houston, but had grown up in Ghana and other West African countries. His mom, it seems, had a long career working for various United States embassies.

Max’s Menu Picks

Hot links lunch with a side and a drink, $9.
Quarter barbecue chicken, $8.
Four-meat Bounty Hunter Combo with two sides, $26.
Red beans and rice, $1 extra.
Sausage gumbo, $15.

Paul returned to the States as a teenager, and that’s where he learned to barbecue. At his restaurant, you’ll eat things like rib tips, homemade hot links and made-to-order gumbo—the meats slow-smoked using mainly hickory and a few other hardwoods. This is home-style cooking all the way in the best traditions of Texas and the American South, so don’t expect white tablecloths and fancy décor.

Aside from a few posters of Wild West icons such as Roy Rogers and the Man with No Name, a.k.a. Clint Eastwood starring in those spaghetti Westerns, the restaurant is a boxy, unadorned room. Order from the counter, where Paul often stands when he isn’t in the back, stoking his fire pit. The ’cue will be brought to your table in a plastic box, and you’ll cut your meats with plastic knives. No worries. The meats are pull-apart tender.

First among equals here is Paul’s house-made hot link, the best in the city: a burnished, copper-color link that he cuts five or six times on a diagonal. You can have it with mild or hot sauce, and I suggest mild. There is already enough subtle heat in the link, and the mild, vinegar-y red sauce complements the grainy texture perfectly.

The chicken is also exceptional, moist, where many barbecue joints dry chicken out. The skin isn’t rubbery, either, a common flaw in chicken slow-smoked over wood. I ate some, although most people just tear it off and discard it.

The rib tips were extremely tender, pink inside, the color of the smoke ring you always see on slow-smoked ribs. These go better with the hot sauce, complex and deep red without the cloying, sugary aftertaste of commercial barbecue sauces. My one quibble was with the brisket. It had nice, smoky flavor, but the meat—sliced medium-thick with crusty edges—was a tad fatty, and not particularly tender.

Paul’s side dishes are exceptional. The red beans and rice is especially delicious, and I couldn’t stop eating popcorn-size pieces of fried okra served in a paper-lined basket. If you want hot biscuits, be prepared to wait. “I make biscuits to-order,” Paul told me, “and I have to explain that to my customers.” I was too hungry to wait, so maybe next time.

One thing I did do was order some gumbo to go, a dish also made to-order that takes approximately 45 minutes. This is a thick, murky gumbo served with rice on the side, and your choice of either shrimp or sausage. Paul will also make you Southern fried chicken and a real N’awlins-style jambalaya, if you’re willing to wait for those.

The accent might be West African, but the food is all-American.

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