Ever been to a barbecue fest and got tired of all the brisket, beef ribs, and sausage? I know that may sound crazy to some of you but I promise after 15-25 samples of similar barbecue it can get quite boring regardless of the quality. There have been some twists in the last couple of years, with Louie Mueller featuring lamb chops along with their traditional beef ribs at several events and several participants doing pulled pork at Gettin’ Sauced 2014. Even the mighty TMBBQ fest this year saw some variety in choices such as Miller’s Smokehouse pumpkin spice sausage, Stiles Switch fried boudin balls, and Evan LeRoy’s brisket cookie.
With the Houston Barbecue Throwdown, the HOUBBQ gang came up with an innovative spin on barbecue festivals. Like most, this was an all you can eat party, but unlike others it was also a contest, with a Grand Champion winner decided by a panel of esteemed judges and a People’s Choice winner crowned by festival goers who dropped a token into a box for their choice of contestants. The goal was to capture the flavor of Houston’s diversity in a bite of barbecue. Entrants included Latin American, Asian, and soul food influences.
In the weeks leading up to the throw down some joints experimented while others perfected an existing menu item, like the lamb chops at Roegels or the pig wings (pig shank) from Patrick Feges. On event day a couple of competitors had to make an audible and deviate from their original plans but the bounty laid out was enjoyable with nary a bad option in site.
The event was held indoors at Saint Arnold Brewery which eliminated weather concerns. An excellent ratio of samples to customers (14 barbecue booths to around 500 general admission) meant that the lines were short. Because every booth had non-traditional options the lines were also very even across the event, and sample trays were handed out quickly. This meant that not only could one actually sample all fourteen, but it could be done in less than an hour. This left a lot of time to talk and consume the free Saint Arnold beers from the open taps. That’s right, it was also free beer. For those who don’t imbibe, Saint Arnold has fantastic brewed root beer which was also available.
Intentionally few VIP tickets were sold and the experience included a true VIP experience, with lucky ticket holders housed in the Investor’s Pub. This rarely accessible room included a private bar and VIP patrons could sit in lush and ample seating while watching the judges as they sampled the entrees.
The panel of esteemed judges included Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook, Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe, Houston pitmaster Greg Gatlin, Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue, and Robert J. Lerma, president of the advisory council for Foodways Texas and skilled photographer.
When the judging was complete the Grand Champion prize was awarded to Trent Brooks and Brook’s Place. In addition to the winning trophy, Brooks took home a new Yeti cooler full of 44 Farms beef and a cash prize. The People’s Choice award went to Will and Nicole Buckman’s Corkscrew Barbecue.
If you weren’t able to attend, don’t fret. A few of the dishes are already on local barbecue menus and look for some others to appear soon. The Brisket House may be adding brisket and beef rib chili to their menu as a special feature. The event did exactly what the promoters were hoping for; building on the unique mix of influences that is Houston barbecue it inspired pit masters to look beyond the common and expand their menus. I talked with a few participants as they were packing up. Several were already planning and plotting for next year’s event!
Below were the samples I tasted and my notes on them. The order was in relation to the room layout.
Brooks’ Place BBQ- Smoked oxtails, smoked cabbage and burnt ends
I’d never had an oxtail so I wasn’t sure what to expect and was hesitant to try. I was rewarded however with smoky, juicy meat with flavorful fatty tissue. The flavor reminded me of the best bites of a T-Bone steak, but the meat on the oxtail was much more tender. I didn’t get a sample of the cabbage or burnt ends as I had my sample nearly halfway into the event.
Roegel’s Barbecue Co.- Smoked lamb chops and collard greens
I had been wanting to try the smoked lamb which is a weekly special but was always unable to visit on the feature day. Moist, tender, seasoned to perfection, and deliciously medium-rare this was a great bite.
Tin Roof BBQ- Bacon wrapped shrimp stuffed with brisket, jalapenos, and cheese
Absolutely delicious. Familiar in concept but nicely complex in flavor. I could have eaten these all day but had to pace myself.Glazed with a honey chipotle sauce and sitting on a bed of dirty rice and 44 farms beef.
The Brisket House- Beef rib and brisket chili
A simple sounding dish but executed wonderfully. Beef rib and brisket swam in a hearty mix of tomatoes, jalapenos, Dos XX, and spices then topped with traditional cheddar cheese and onion. Throw in some saltines on a “cold” Houston day for great and literal comfort food.
Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue- Brisket burnt ends tamale served with pork spareribs queso
The queso was the star here, thick and full of flavor. Would have been great to eat while watching a football game!
Jackson Street BBQ- Polish jalapeno cheese kolache stuffed with smoked brisket
While we Texans call meat filled kolaches by the same name as standard ones, they are more accurately called a klobasnek or klobasniky. Either way I call it tasty and a smoked brisket kolache with jalapeno and cheese is a great combination of local flavors and cultures.
Feges BBQ- Smoked pig wings with jalapeno mustard glaze
Patrick Feges is popularizing this smoked and seasoned pig shank offering at Southern Goods when available. The jalapeno mustard glaze expertly complimented the smoke pork and is one of many bites I will have out in the wild when I can get a chance.
Pappa Charlies Barbeque- Masala rubbed smoked burnt ends with cider Siracha slaw on a Ritz cracker
Wes and team experimented with the Indian spice mixture recently to well received reviews and it was another taste I had been trying to reach prior to the event. I’ve been to India thirteen times and the unique flavor combination worked very well and was instantly memorable. I’d love to introduce this to my Indian friends and hope to see it featured again in the future. Why a Ritz cracker? Wes’ reply, “who doesn’t like a Ritz cracker?” True.
Chopped and Smoked- Middle East inspired brisket kibbeh with sauce
Houston’s Halal Texas BBQ joint offered up flavorful meatballs in sauce. It as a nice and unique flavor mix.
BBQ Godfather-Smoked beef rib with pork belly, and sautéed mushrooms
A well-constructed sandwich with succulent pork belly. The earthy mushroom flavor combined with garlic gave this a very unique flavor mix, so much so that I had to drag a friend over to sample it. Haven’t heard of BBQ Godfather? Daniel Vaughn AKA BBQ snob gave them a 4 star rating on TMBBQ.
The Pit Room- Smoked brisket tamalito
A perfect moist tamale resting on top of red sauce (roasted chile Colorado) topped with fresh crema, burned end bits, and habanero . I hope this becomes at least a rotating feature when they launch the restaurant soon, its a great item and I would love to have it again.
Blood Bros BBQ – Pork belly and pig ear on a roti
Quy, Robin, and Terry have been driving the fusion barbecue game in Houston through their series of popups and should be on your short list of Houston Barbecue. For the throw down they continued their exploration to the far reaches and offered up a combination of pork belly and pig ear on a Malaysian onion roti. Adding a little crunch it was topped with crushed chicharron with Lemon-Lime Juice. Another first for me, the pig ear was not overwhelming and added flavor. Good stuff and keep watching this crew, follow them on Twitter for latest info on their popup schedule.
Ray’s BBQ Shack- Smoked Oxtails
Another version of oxtails, and nicely done.Smoked with Pecan wood and rubbed with spices.
Corkscrew BBQ- Smoked brisket taco topped with Texas caviar
A smoked brisket taco could almost be considered Texas comfort food, and few in the world do brisket as well as the Corkscrew crew. A corn tortilla held that famous brisket as the founding layers. Next up was Texas caviar, a relish mix of black eyed peas, corn, onion, cilantro, and more and then finished with green chili ranch sauce on top it was a great mix of flavor and I want one right now.
Special thanks to JC Reid, Michael Fulmer, JR Cohen, Anthony Compofelice, and all of the volunteers who made this a very special event. Saint Arnold gets kudos for the venue and drinks. Prize sponsors Yeti and 44 farms also should be highlighted for their support of Houston barbecue.
All signs point to this becoming an annual event but you don’t have to wait an entire year for a Houston barbecue festival. Keep watching houbbq.com and get tickets for the more conventional springtime festival. In the meantime, get out and explore, Houston barbecue is on the rise!