HEB is the type of organization that we love. Founded in Kerrville, Texas, the chain of supermarkets brings a wonderful mix of products to neighborhoods all over Texas.
We won’t hide the fact that we’re unabashed HEB fans, and it’s the grocery store we visit first for all of our needs. (Truth be told, we feel a little dirty every time we walk into a Kroger or Randall’s… like we’re cheating on our favorite.) We’ve had great success with products that HEB puts their name on, since almost all products branded HEB are not only high value but also very high quality. Clearly this is an organization that stands behind what it sells.
We recently got word that the new HEB on 1488 in Magnolia had something interesting: An honest-to goodness BBQ joint inside the store.
Located right by the main entrance to the store, you can’t miss the Texas-themed facade or the smell of smoked meat. (These HEB guys are pretty darned smart.)
Right off the bat, we’re told that the beef used in HEB BBQ is 100% natural. “Natural” is a buzzword that doesn’t have an official meaning, so we’re glad HEB defined their take on it: No added hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.
We place our order with the friendly, efficient staff member, and search out a spot to devour our BBQ.
After ordering, we are directed to a side room that was easy to overlook at first. It’s bright, spacious, and comfortable. We appreciate the honesty of the space; it’s not trying to be a fake City Market in Small Town, Texas.
Plenty of seating is arranged throughout the room, and the wall graphics pull together this modern/rustic look that is comfortable and inviting.
We started with a quarter-pound chopped brisket sandwich. The brisket was coarsely chopped and shredded, and moistened with a tangy-sweet BBQ sauce. The flavor was unusual, in a good way; a bit sweet, a touch of tangy sourness, and noticeable peppery finish.
The chopped beef sandwich made a good first impression on us. It’s above-average BBQ; nicely tender and filled with unique flavor from the sauce; a great start to our BBQ lunch. But it was time to move on to the next course.
Next up was the beautifully arranged, loaded baked potato. The warm potato was topped with butter, sour cream, pre shredded mild cheddar (slightly dried out) and freshly cut chives, then finished with chunks of chopped turkey.
The turkey was tender, juicy, and gently smoked. It was better than average, but would have benefitted from a touch more perfume from the smoking wood.
The potato, however, needed some serious work. It arrived only slightly warm and undercooked; the butter wasn’t melted. When we alerted the manager, he quickly replaced it… with another slightly warm, undercooked potato. The manager on duty told us that he’d checked the internal temperature himself, and it was correct to HEB’s 140 degree specification. The manager (a very nice guy who was clearly interested in our feedback) even showed me a photograph of the inserted thermometer showing 140-145.
But the potato was undercooked.
I’d never researched this before, but upon returning to my desk, five minutes with Google revealed that an internal temperature of 210 degrees is considered ideal for baking potatoes (other sources confirmed this). Apparently HEB needs to update its specifications unless it wants to serve an undercooked potato. It is apparent that their kitchen isn’t staffed with experienced restaurant cooks; I can’t imagine that a professional cook wouldn’t know how to properly bake a potato.
Fortunately, this should be an easy fix.
As any Texan will tell you, the standard test for Texas BBQ is the brisket… preferably the fatty (or moist) brisket. Lean brisket can be good, but there’s flavor in the fat, and the fatty end is the part most BBQ connoisseurs crave.
Pit masters experiment for years to learn to select the perfect brisket, concoct the ideal rub, and perfect the smoking technique that brings the most out of each individual brisket.
So how does HEB, who’s new to this game, do? Let’s find out. At the counter HEB sets a pretty high bar: At $18.50 per pound, HEB's brisket is priced higher than Corkscrew BBQ, our benchmark for great brisket.
The brisket arrived thickly sliced, with a nice pink 3/8” smoke ring. Curiously, the smoke ring was only on one side of the brisket. The bark was dark, thin, and soft… and again, only on one side of the brisket.
As you can see, the fat wasn’t particularly well-rendered, leaving significant zones of creamy white fat intact in the midst of the beef.
Cutting into the brisket revealed an inconsistency of texture. Some regions were beautifully tender and soft; others were dense and far too firm, requiring a saw-like technique with the supplied plastic knife.
Tasting the brisket revealed a uniformly mild flavor. Clearly this was high-quality brisket, but the flavor was more like roast beef than BBQ. The flavor of smoke was somewhere in there, but was so far back in the flavorway as to be lost in the more dominant beefy and fatty flavors. The bark lacked an assertive kick of pepper; it mostly contributed a needed bit of saltiness.
In summary, I think the brisket has potential, but the potential hasn’t been realized. A more fragrant mix of wood, a bit more time in the smoker, and improved technique to even out the cook across the brisket could result in a greatly improved product. Learning to create top-quality BBQ takes time and experience; even a top notch organization like HEB isn’t going to perfect this craft right out of the box. Hiring an experienced pit master to oversee the preparation, smoking, and slicing of the brisket seems like a prudent course of action.
HEB should be applauded for bringing a legitimate BBQ operation to its new Magnolia store. This early visit showed promise, but there is work to be done. Based on the food that came out, it appears that the hard-working staff has experience in the grocery business, not the restaurant business. Adding a couple of pros in the restaurant field would go a long way to taking HEB True Texas BBQ from promising to outstanding.