Everything is bigger in Texas — even the take-out boxes. At lunchtime recently I dropped in at Texas Blues BBQ on Monroe Avenue for a quick bite to eat. I had my eye on a burger, but the ribs got my attention, too. Thinking that a quarter rack would be a nice and not overwhelmingly huge appetizer for my lunch, I ordered them. Minutes later, when two baskets containing my lunch and my "appetizer" hit the table, I knew for certain that I had bitten off far more than I could chew. The burger itself was gigantic, but the ribs were so substantial that the basket they were served in was actually bowing under the strain of supporting the meat along with portions of barbecued beans, mac n' cheese, and a square of cornbread. Looking at my now-gluttonous seeming lunch, I asked for the ribs to-go. And that's how I came to be lugging a take-out box that could have easily held an unabridged dictionary back to my car. As I said, everything is bigger in Texas — except for the prices.
At just under 6 months old, Texas Blues BBQ is the unlikely sister restaurant of Astoria Greek Cuisine next door. Both restaurants are owned by brothers Paul and Bill Votsis, and the contrast between the two reflects the Votsis family's 40-plus-year history in the restaurant business. Both of the Votsis brothers grew up working in their father's restaurants, including the Greece Ridge Family Restaurant on West Ridge Road. Bill, who manages Texas Blues, describes being "born into the biz." Greece Ridge Family Restaurant was a diner in the in the tradition of Greek diners. It offered a menu that was all things to all people, embracing breakfast food, burgers, sandwiches, diner comfort entrees, and Greek food including the typical gyros, spanakopita, and other staples. Astoria and Texas Blues offer a lot of the same type of food. The restaurants have effectively split the menu in half, styled the more "American" side of the menu as "Texan," and added barbecue to the mix. It's a clever idea, and a good use of the former pizzeria which Texas Blues occupies.
As for the barbecue, it's pretty good. On my first visit I ordered three different sandwiches: pulled pork, brisket, and a Carolina-style pork sandwich. ($5.95, 6.95, and $6.50, respectively) Texas Blues does not have the gigantic free-standing smokers that perfume the air around other barbecue joints in our area. Instead, it has a small smoker that looks like it could hold a couple of briskets or pork shoulders along with a rack of ribs. The meat that comes out of it has a nice, smoky taste, but little of the almost-lacquered appearance you get on meat that's spent a very long time over a slow-burning fire. It also tends to turn out meats that taste remarkably the same. Other than the color of the meat and maybe the texture, I had a difficult time distinguishing between the flavors of the pulled pork and the brisket, both of which were dressed up with a sticky, slightly sweet barbecue sauce. The Carolina barbecue stood out from its companions slightly, distinguishing itself with a nice spice and vinegar bite and the creamy crunch of hand-cut cole slaw.
To bring some contrast to the sandwiches, I added a generous dollop of "devil sauce" to the beef, which perked it right up. Texas Blues' devil sauce is tart and peppery, slightly thinner than you'd normally encounter, and enriched with both crushed red pepper and tabasco sauce. It's not overwhelmingly hot, but it will certainly get your attention and keep it for a good while, lingering on your lips and tongue as a spicy reminder of your meal.
While the barbecued meats here are good, but not great, the ribs are pretty exceptional. Roughly the same sauce that adorns the pulled pork and brisket is used to good effect on these very meaty and generously portioned ribs, layered on so thickly that it's impossible to eat them without making a mess of yourself, the table, and possibly of diners nearby. At home, in my zeal to tear the sweet, smoky meat from the bones, I managed to splatter sauce on my shirt, my pants, and even the keyboard of my laptop, which was sitting a good five feet away from where I was eating my lunch. I'd advise keeping a roll of paper towels handy. (quarter rack of ribs with two sides and cornbread or biscuit, $9.95)
Texas Blues BBQ is rightly noted for its smoked and barbecued meats, but it also offers a solid line-up of diner staples, including chili, burgers, and fried chicken (despite two attempts to order the latter, I never got to try it – it was always sold out). The chili is some of the best I've had in a long time, shamelessly pandering to carnivores by including shreds of smoked pork and beef in the thick, spicy stew along with beans, onions, and bits of green pepper. ($4.49) Faintly sweet and meaty and topped with fresh jalapeno slices to add that extra burst of fire, the portion looks a little small at first glance, but it's plenty rich and hearty enough to satisfy even the biggest of appetites.
I've never thought of Texas as being particularly noted for its burgers, but Texas Blues offers a small selection of what it calls "Texas Burgers and Chicken" all dolled up with names like Lonestar and Texas Dixie. A fan of meat topped with meat, I opted for a Texas Blackjack burger ($7.39) that probably had the effect of a bag full of lead shot on my coronary arteries. Six ounces of grilled beef, topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, and jalapeno slices, this burger was pretty damned big. It spilled out of the huge roll in which it was served and made it a real challenge to pick up and eat in any way that allowed me to preserve a little dignity. Of course, after the first couple of bites, I didn't much care how it looked: I'd gone to meat heaven.