Review of Nathan’s BBQ, in Brenham

Review of Nathan's BBQ, in Brenham

Nathan’s BBQ shares the small town of Brenham with some serious barbecue competition. Truth Barbeque, to the west, made the top ten in our latest barbecue list, and LJ’s, on the east, is a new member of the top fifty. Nathan’s has been around longer than both and, as pitmaster John Schulze explains, what separates it from the others is that at Nathan’s, โ€œwe do it the old-school Texas way.โ€ By that he means direct-heat barbecue.

Schulze mans the steel pits early in the morning and loads them up for the lunch rush. He starts by lighting a bag’s worth of B&B oak charcoal in each of six fireboxes, and adding pecan logs on top of that fire. The meat goes on directly above the hot charcoal. He’s been doing this full-time since 2017, while fellow pitmaster Daniel Espino, who covers the afternoon shift to cook dinner, has been working these pits since 1997. That’s before this place was called Nathan’s.

Nathan’s BBQ is attached to the back side of the Buccaneer Food Store. Nathan Winkelmann opened the convenience store and gas station in 1981, then added a barbecue counter inside, which he ran as Big Daddy’s Barbecue. A renovation in 2010 added the current restaurant onto the store, and because of a copyright dispute, Big Daddy’s became Nathan’s BBQ. Winkelmann sold the business two years ago, but the same team of cooks and manager Cyndi Murski are operating it with as few menu changes as possible.

Today you can enter the restaurant through the Buccaneer Food Store entrance or pull around back to get to the main entrance. That route will take you past what is labeled the โ€œviewing windowโ€ into the pit room. It’s a bit dusty, but cup your hands and peer in to see the steel pits giving off that unique smoky smell that perfumes the air around the front door.

Inside is the serving line with the meats on display. Golden half-chickens (they can be quartered for combo plates) glisten alongside the pork ribs. These are the two cuts that do best inside the high heat of a direct-heat cooker, and Nathan’s does fine versions of both. The chicken was well seasoned and juicy, while the tender pork ribs had a great bark, and took on the flavors of the lemony mop sauce used on all the meats in the pit room.

Schulze said the briskets take about five hours to cook. Unfortunately, the top of the briskets are scraped of fat and bark before being loaded into the steam table. I asked for the burnt ends listed on the menu. They were cut from the outer edge, which had toughened up during the high-heat cooking. They went into a stuffed potato (Nathan’s serves eighty to ninety of these every day), whose generous scoops of butter, sour cream, and shredded cheese softened the burnt ends a bit, but I’d go for chopped brisket instead next time. Or better yet, get the potato with some excellent German sausage.

Eckermann’s Meat Market in nearby Shelby has been making German-style sausages since 1961. It delivers fresh, raw sausages to Nathan’s every morning, and they cook up in the pits, taking on that charcoal flavor. They’re salty, garlicky, and incredibly juicy, and go well with Nathan’s special-recipe barbecue sauce that’s heavy on onion flavor and light on sweetness. Daily specials like chicken-fried steak and fried catfish were introduced by Winkelmann to provide something other than barbecue. Since Winkelmann sold the business, Murski has added a few more specials, such as fried pork chops and meat loaf.

Every plate comes with a fresh baked roll or cornbread. If you’re a fan of sweetness, get the latter. The slaw and German potato salad are classic recipes, but I loved the crunch of the broccoli salad and the depth of the dirty rice. If you’re looking for dessert, Murski makes the cobbler and banana pudding in-house. I tried a slice of rainbow cake from a local bakery, and loved every buttercream-filled layer from red to purple.

Nathan’s is one of the few direct-heat barbecue joints in Texas. This region is known for its community barbecues, in which cooks use a similar style, so these are the flavors the locals crave. As for those passing through Brenham from Austin or Houston, if the lines at the other, more recently famous spots aren’t your scene, stop in at Nathan’s and fill up a tray with Texas barbecue cooked the old-fashioned way.

Nathan’s BBQ
1307 Prairie Lea, Brenham
Phone: 979-251-9900
Hours: Mondayโ€“Thursday 11โ€“8, Friday 11โ€“9, Saturday 11โ€“8, Sunday 11โ€“6
Pitmasters: John Schulze and Daniel Espino
Method: Direct heat over charcoal and pecan
Year opened: nineteen eighty one



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