The secret to Gatlin’s award-winning barbecue is written on the wall.
In May, owner and pitmaster Greg Gatlin ’03 got some smokin’ good news — Gatlin’s BBQ scored a spot in Texas Monthly’s “Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas” list. The recognition could not have come at a better time. In 2015, Gatlin’s relocated from a modest starter location — a 745-square-foot home where regulars lined up early and often for the legendary brisket — to a new building with ample parking in Houston’s Garden Oaks. How do you preserve the character of a beloved destination while appealing to a bigger audience? Keep customer favorites on the menu, incorporate a welcoming “neighborhood wall” and use that extra space to smoke more meat.
I never, ever thought that I’d be in the restaurant business. I’ve always loved food, I’ve always loved the different elements that food brings to the table, but I never thought that I’d be right in the middle of it and a part of people’s conversations at their dinner tables.
Our neighborhood and community wall really tells our story. That was just going to be a meat wall — pictures of a bunch of different cuts of meat. The backdrop is the plat of this neighborhood, which is where we grew up. We’ve got [images of] places we went to high school and college, downtown Houston, other neighborhood restaurants — some that are still here and some that are gone.
There are two smokers here, then we’ve got one large trailer pit offsite. [Gatlin uses a combination of hickory and post oak over indirect heat.]
Today, we have twice as many sides. [Chef Michelle Wallace joined the team at the new location.] We do a lot of sandwiches, like in-house smoked pastrami and turkey. We grow our own onions and peppers and have a house-made pepper vinegar and honey mustard. We’re smoking bologna in-house. We’ll serve that with a sunny-side-up egg, with our smoky mayo, and then we’ll put a couple of onions and pickles on there.
Everybody has an opinion about barbecue. I think it keeps people coming back. We have so many transplants that come to Houston, and they’re from different regions. We’ve got folks from the Carolinas who say, “What is this beef barbecue?” So, it’s always good to see what other folks are doing and then let them see what we’re doing.
I have deep respect for pitmasters. I know what we go through every single day. I try to support all those guys. One guy I really admire is Wayne Mueller up in Taylor [Texas], owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue. We’ve had many conversations about where barbecue is now, how we continue to be successful in a genre that’s getting more and more crowded. And then, how do we continue to keep the family name and the branding of your product and company to a high level without getting burnt out.
My dad, Henry, is at the restaurant today, and my mother, Mary, popped in yesterday. Mom was treated for breast cancer in 2012, and she’s been free and clear ever since. She had a great support system with friends and family members. Now, she talks to and mentors a lot of folks who are going to the Medical Center for treatment. She’s always been a great encourager, especially to us three boys growing up. I mean, she still loves coming up to the restaurant, she enjoys it, and she drives the hammer on things. I’m like, “Mom, what are you doing?”
What we’d like to do is start a family foundation in Mom’s name to target literacy, life skills and cancer support systems, especially in our neighborhood. I went to Rice, my younger brother went to the University of Houston, so there’re some connections all around the city.
We have three children: Reagan’s 9, William is 6, and then the baby, Avery, is 1. Ami [Gatlin’s wife] does all of the catering. She takes care of booking everything and making sure that all those events get taken care of. I want [my children] to know what’s going on here, I want them to know what we’ve built so they respect it at the end of the day and they appreciate it at the end of the day. And, they can bring their own new fresh ideas.
We’ll continue to be relevant as far as a genre of food. And it’s really something that’s communal. It continues to build a dialogue. And we can sit around and have a beer and have some wine and we can always talk about it. And you’re here in Texas where you can’t help but talk about it.
We’re almost four times what the size was on 19th street. But the heart and soul of the place is what we were trying to bring over, and I think we’ve done a great job.
I think we just kind of found our space. There was nothing we targeted from a marketing perspective. It was: How can we build a business, and how could it be a really good reputable business, and then, how can we make it grow? And that was our only thought. And make some friends along the way, and if we happen to get an award along the way, great, but no big deal.
Our tagline is “The secret ingredient is love.” And it still holds true. We’ve made so many friends and colleagues just by being here in the restaurant.
Here is Greg Gatlin’s recipe for a tender and flavorful smoked pork.
Recipe: Smoked Pork Shoulder
Servings: 15 to 20
6 to 8 pound pork butt
2 gallons water
2 cups kosher salt
2 cups brown sugar
12 cloves garlic, rough chopped
1 large onion, rough chopped
1/2 gallon apple juice
2 cups kosher salt
1 cup black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic powder
3 cups smoked paprika
1/4 cup crushed red pepper flakes
Combine all ingredients for the brine, making sure that the sugar and salt have dissolved. Place the pork shoulder in the brine and refrigerate for 8 to 10 hours.
Remove pork from the brine, give it a quick rinse, pat it dry and place on a sheet tray. Rub the pork with yellow mustard, making sure to fully cover. Next, season liberally with the spice rub.
Prepare the fire or smoker. Smoke the pork shoulder at 225 degrees for 8 to 10 hours. When done, the bone will slide out easily with a slight tug.
Wrap pork with foil if it reaches the desired color before being completely done and tender. Pork should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees.