AUGUST 9, 2016 ~ 1:13 am
by Eric Sandler
This year has been relatively quiet for new restaurants in Montrose — only recently-opened brunch restaurant Snooze has made a real splash — but the city’s best dining neighborhood will receive a valuable new addition next week when The Pit Room makes its debut. In addition to opening a new barbecue restaurant, owner Michael Sambrooks recently purchased neighboring property Jackson’s Watering Hole, which will result in a symbiotic relationship for fans of the neighborhood ice house.
In the next few days, the process of converting the Talk of the Town porn shop into a Central Texas-style barbecue joint will be complete when the City of Houston makes what Sambrooks and executive chef-pitmaster Bramwell (Bram) Tripp anticipate will be a final inspection. Assuming that happens, Sambrooks and Tripp will spend the rest of this week training their staff and then open the restaurant to the public either Monday or Tuesday.
Jackson’s will also see changes as a result of the acquisition. Sambrooks plans to add a tap wall of 25 beers whose selection will be overseen by Tripp. Later, he’ll add covers and misters to the patios to give it more all-weather appeal. These improvements should help Jackson’s remain a prime football-watching destination for both college and pro fans. Of course, it will still be a crawfish destination in the spring, and most of the staff has remained through the transition in ownership.
Turning to barbecue, opening The Pit Room will bring to fruition a process that began over a year ago when Sambrooks hired former Franklin Barbecue pitmaster John Avila to assist with the project. They parted ways in January, and now Avila is serving meat daily under his El Burro and the Bull concept at the Conservatory food hall downtown. Meanwhile, Sambrooks and Tripp have used the construction delays to tweak The Pit Room’s recipes, and they’re excited to show diners what they’ve been up to.
Before getting to the food, let’s start with the building. The renovation process stripped the structure to its studs and rebuilt it from the ground up. Most diners will enter through the back where a parking lot has been built or walk over from Jackson’s. Front parking is reserved for to-go orders, and the restaurant has a dedicated window to serve them and Jackson’s patrons who walk next door.
Inside, the space has a clean, rustic look. Once diners reach the serving line, they’ll see housemade sausages that will hang from racks lit by heat lamps for a bit of a Chinese-barbecue effect, a butcher block cutting board for all barbecue meats, and a griddle for heating housemade tortillas. Sambrooks expects to seat approximately 60 people inside, and the restaurant will add a 60 seat, covered deck on the side for additional seating and a 20-seat patio out back that will primarily be for private dining.
Of course, The Pit Room’s actual pit room drives the entire restaurant. Tripp uses two, custom-made, barrel-style offset smokers made by Allout Fabrication in Stafford. It’s an old-school touch in a city where most restaurants use either cabinet or rotisserie smokers. A vertical sausage cooker sits adjacent to one of the pits.
“From the very get go, we said — it would have been cheaper to get a (rotisserie) — we wanted all offset smokers,” Sambrooks tells CultureMap. “Even our sausage smoker is all wood-burning. We control the temps ourselves. We load each log. We control the fire.”
As for the meats going into the pit, they’ll be of high quality. All beef will be U.S.D.A. Prime and all pork will be a heritage, Berkshire-Duroc breed from California. That sort of sourcing helps contribute to prices that are a couple of dollars per pound higher than most Houston-area barbecue joints ($19.50 for brisket, $22 for beef ribs).
“It costs a little more, but it’s obviously a good product,” Sambrooks says. “We hope the customers will appreciate it.”
Those prices also include access to Tripp’s housemade pickles, salsas, and sauces. The cucumber pickle will be a jalapeno-dill that Tripp describes as “salty, very heavy on the vinegar with just a kiss of spice,” which cuts through the fatty meats. In addition, The Pit Room will serve its own taqueria-style pickled carrots, pickled jalapenos, pickled red onions, two salas, a habanero hot sauce, and an intensely spicy mustard that takes eight days to cure. The barbecue sauce includes a little smoked brisket fat, as do the tortillas.
The full menu includes brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, turkey, pulled pork, chicken, and three varieties of housemade sausage (jalapeno-cheese, Czech-style all beef, and venison). Specials will include additional sausages like chorizo, bacon, pastrami, cured hams, and even jerk chicken. In addition to the usual sides, the restaurant will add some Tex-Mex flair with elotes, chicharron, potato chips, and even chips and queso. Dessert options will consist of two pies and three ice cream sandwiches.
On the beverage side, look for the usual sodas (including Big Red, naturally) as well as housemade lemonade, cold brew coffee, and seven beer taps. Czechvar pilsner and Shiner Bock will always be available; the rest will rotate among local breweries that at opening include Karbach and Brash. Tripp worked with Victor Wine Group owner Natalie Vaclavik on a tidy, seven bottle wine list where all selections are $6.95 per glass or $26 per bottle.
In the beginning, The Pit Room will only be open for lunch and will operate separately from Jackson’s. In phase two, the restaurant will add dinner service and begin serving food to the bar. Once everything is running smoothly after a few months, weekday breakfast tacos and weekend brunch will be both be added.
Individual barbecue restaurants in Houston have offered amenities like all day service, the extensive pickle selection, and the blending of barbecue and Tex-Mex, but no restaurant has done it all. If The Pit Room succeeds, it will push Houston’s already excellent barbecue scene to another level.