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side dishes of texas barbecue joints no longer play second fiddle

The Texas barbecue renaissance of the past 10 years has resulted in many delicious benefits, mostly notably in exquisitely smoked meats but also in chef-inspired side dishes.

Long gone are the days of pre-made potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans served out of 5-gallon tubs. Though some purists might scoff at the necessity of sides, they play an important role in contemporary barbecue-joint patronage.

Barbecue hounds like myself often are hamstrung by the fact that our friends and family don't always want to eat barbecue every day (crazy, I know). And pity the vegetarian who finds himself among a group of meat lovers making a beeline for a barbecue joint. 

Fortunately, the trendiness of high-quality sides means there are now options for everyone. But it wasn't always this good. 

Back in the 1800s, butchers at Central Texas meat markets would cook any unsold, soon-to-spoil meat on Sundays to provide a special meal for locals and laborers. Customers would then take their meat wrapped in butcher paper next door to the dry-goods store and purchase additional foodstuffs with a longer shelf life to supplement their meal - think crackers, onions, cheese and pickles.

Kreuz Market in Lockhart and The Brisket House in Houston still offer these old-school accompaniments.

The "modernization" of barbecue joints in the 1980s and '90s yielded poor-quality smoked meats cooked in automated pits and mass-produced sides served out of plastic tubs ("convenient and easy!"). 

I noticed a shift in side-dish quality circa 2010, when Greg Gatlin opened his tiny take-out joint in the Heights. Tucked away on the menu among Central Texas-style meats was fragrant, East Texas-style, spicy dirty rice. This fusion of two styles was both innovative and delicious. It remains a fixture on Gatlin's menu.

Side dishes at local barbecue joints continued to improve from there. Another turning point came in 2013, when Killen's Barbecue debuted in Pearland. Chef Ronnie Killen introduced his own version of a traditional side - creamed corn. It still ranks as one of the best sides in the Houston barbecue realm. 

At Roegels Barbecue Co. on Voss, co-owner Misty Roegels makes "Texas Caviar" - a fresh, bright assemblage of black-eyed peas, corn, black beans, tomato, red onions and parsley.