The original Houston BBQ festival launched on a cold and windy day in March of 2013 with fifteen local barbecue joints representing Houston area barbecue. It was at the genesis of the #riseofhoubbq and since then the annual event has taken off, matching the growth of quality barbecue in Houston. The barbecue scene has risen so quickly that I believe eleven of this years attendees were not in existence when the first Houston Barbecue Fest was held. For 2016 there were twenty six barbecue joints represented, ranging from most of those from the first event to HOUBBQ newcomers BBQ Godfather, Harlem Road Texas BBQ, Jackson Street BBQ, and Tejas Chocolate Craftory (and BBQ).
The crowd feasted on smoked meats of many kinds. Brisket, Ribs, and sausage were of course available but the variety went farther than ever seen. You’ve probably seen many pictures of the alligator served by Pinkerton’s, the whole hog served by Feges, or maybe the pastrami served up by Roegels. Familiar treats from past years returned like barbacoa tacos from Gerardo’s, fried corn-on-the-cob from Ray’s, and bacon wrapped stuffed jalapenos from Spring Creek.
This year the variety continued, in addition to serving more traditional barbecue you could sample ox tails from Brooks’ Place, smoked sirloin from Tin Roof, a giant steamship round from Feges, turkey sausage and pork short ribs from Killen’s, pulled pork sundae from Pappa Charlies, pork Tamalito from Ell Burro and the Bull, and much more.
Last year the drink lines were long and the HOUBBQ team responded with not only additional drink stations, but mobile units that rolled through the crowd completely eliminating the wait. I also have a love/hate affair with the location. The parking lot of a sports stadium is not the most pleasant location to hang out for hours, but there is a benefit. With an asphalt surface the event can be held rain or shine. I was reminded of this when a recent unrelated festival in Austin was canceled due to rain. Even a light rain can force a cancellation if the contracts require the grass to remain unaffected. While the sun popped out and rain stayed away during the public admission times for this event, it has rained in the past and I would much rather eat barbecue in the rain than stay at home.
I’ve talked before about brisket burnout and welcome the selection that is now being offered at fests, but there is also a risk if a barbecue joint offers something that they do not intend to serve at their restaurant. If customers experience it at the event or see it in the media coverage and then request the item on their next visit that isn’t available, it can turn into a negative visit. So while I was happy all 26 booths were not handing out brisket, I was also pleased that some still were. One owner mentioned they like to stick with what they do best, and that makes sense as well.
Coming into the festival I decided to challenge myself and eat from every barbecue vendor. My plan was to eat quickly so I set up a second goal, to grab a bite from every vendor before the VIP hour expired. A plan was in place to hit the most popular spots first but I needed a second hand to do this, so I enlisted our 19 year old son. When the gates opened we would stack 3-4 samples on our tray before downing and moving on. For the more popular places we split up and met back in the middle. This pattern continued unabated until about 20 booths had been hit when I encountered a bit of a stall. Downing a free root beer from Blakes put me back on the path and I finished off the twenty sixth sample with five minutes before the gates opened to general admission.
It wasn’t the best plan to be honest, and consuming so much so quickly that didn’t allow me to enjoy the better bites as much as I’d wanted. I also didn’t have time to write notes on each sample so you won’t see a detailed list here. Regardless, it was a great time and I would like to thank the HOUBBQ team for their hospitality and perseverance with pushing the Houston barbecue scene.
A few notes to pit masters and restaurant owners:
A chalkboard or other signage showing what you are serving goes a long way, especially if you are doing something outside of the Texas Trinity.
Many people will photograph your food, and many of those will post on Instagram or other social media sites. Printing up some business cards for the event will help promote your business. El Burro and the Bull went an ingenious step further and printed up event-specific cards with the entree information listed on it. Pizzitolas used a printed paper liner somewhat similar to what Black’s Barbecue did at the Red Dirt BBQ Fest.
If your line is short due to lack of familiarity with your business, set some samples on a large tray and walk around handing them out. It’s a good opportunity to get face time with the public and show off your product.
In a flash it was over and now there is a summer break before the barbecue fest season kicks in again with Smoked Dallas in September, Gettin Sauced in October, and TMBBQ in late October or early November
Blood Bros. BBQ
The Brisket House
Brooks’ Place BBQ
El Burro & the Bull
Harlem Road Texas BBQ
Jackson Street BBQ
Louie Mueller Barbecue (Taylor, Tx)
Pappa Charlies Barbeque
Ray’s BBQ Shack
Roegels Barbecue Co.
Southside Market & BBQ (Elgin, Tx)
Spring Creek Barbeque
Tejas Chocolate (& BBQ)
Tin Roof BBQ
The Wooden Spoke