New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville serves a righteous plate of smoked meats with side dishes. Many parishioners and patrons credit the holy smoke for the heavenly flavor of the barbecue.
"If we have a secret [ingredient]," says Horace Archie, the manager of the church-sponsored enterprise, "it's that the good lord is on our side." Profits from the sale of the food go to support the small church and to pay the six employees, most of whom are members of the congregation.
In many ways the cafe next to the neat, red brick church exemplifies what to look for in a good, Texas barbecue joint. The big smoker sits in front of the small white building with a tin-roof front porch nearly as big as the dining room. Inside, rows of long tables fill almost every available space that isn't used by the kitchen where the meat is sliced and the side dishes prepared.
The barbecue is sold by the pound or by the plate. Plates come with pork ribs, beef brisket, sausage, or chicken, plus potato salad, pinto beans, a pickle, and a slice of onion. Come hungry, because the food is piled high.
The brisket is lean with just enough fat to keep it juicy and flavorful. "We prefer pork ribs because with beef ribs you just buy a lot of bones," he says. After smoking the ribs, he cooks them again in a pot to get them so tender that the meat falls off the bones.
On the four days the restaurant is open, Archie is in the kitchen around 5:30am preparing the meats for the smoker. He marinates the main courses for a short time using a simple recipe that he prefers to keep to himself. On a regular Friday and Saturday they will sell around 200 plates a day. Wednesdays and Thursdays are a little slower.
"We try to never sell completely out," Archie says, "but it happens sometimes, especially if we have a big group hit us hard." Folks come all over the world to enjoy a plate of New Zion barbecue, especially since a national television show chose them as one of the 10 best places in the U.S. to eat. "We've had people come in from Japan, Paris, and nearly every state," he says.
The restaurant started 24 years ago almost by accident. Annie May Ward brought a small smoker to the church yard to cook her husband's lunch while he was helping the pastor work on the church building. The construction project went on for several days, and people started to stop by and ask if they had a little extra meat they would sell. D.C. Ward and the pastor decided it might be a good fundraiser for the church to sell a little barbecue on the weekends. Gradually the operation expanded. "This is at least the third smoker we've had," Archie says.
The meat in the smoker is watched by Robert Polk, who has been the head pit man for more than 13 years. May Archie runs the cash register and keeps the books as well as helping out in the kitchen. "She's a real good cook, but I handle most of the cooking at the restaurant," Archie says. "I couldn't do it all without her."
The church has talked about tearing down the little white building and putting up a bigger restaurant. The building began as temporary housing that has been added on to over the years. "People seem to like the smaller place," Archie says, "but it sure can get crowded sometimes."
Archie's advice to backyard barbecuers is to use all natural wood he uses only oak and never use charcoal lighter fluid because it leaves a bad taste on the meat. "Start early and take your time," he says. "You can't rush good barbecue."
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue is at 2601 Montgomery Rd. about a block off of Sam Houston Avenue on the south side of Huntsville. The food is served Wednesday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm. To call ahead, dial 936/295-3445. One last word from Horace Archie: "Come back soon and God bless."
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