The Rise of Houston Barbecue

Barbecue has long been a popular food in the Houston area. Cities to the west such as Lockhart and LaGrange were hosts to some of the first barbecue joints opened by German and Czech immigrants, but barbecue joints have populated Houston since the 1920’s and 1930’s. Matt Garner’s barbecue even made the original Texas Monthly best barbecue list in 1973. While Garner’s establishment is gone, several early entries remain. Pizzitola’s originally opened in 1935 when the Davis family launched Shepherd Drive Barbecue Stand. The business was moved due to the construction of I-10. In the 1980’s it was purchased by long time customer Jerry Pizzitola and was renamed Pizzitola’s. For more on this history, check out Chris Reid’s article.

Barbecue Inn and Lenox Barbecue and Catering have been serving since the 1940’s. In the 50’s and 60’s others joined in like Dozier’s Grocery and Market, Otto’s, and Demeris. in 1973 the door was literally swung open at The Swinging Door.

But today is a great time to be living in the Houston area as the barbecue scene has truly reached a crescendo. In the next few months three joints make the move from pop ups and trailer to brick and mortar, and a fourth expands to a much larger location.

In addition, Southern Goods has also been offering barbecue on weekends as they work through a soft opening offering other options daily. There are also three major barbecue events happening before the end of the year, bringing big Austin names such as Franklin and Mueller as well as cooks from outside the state

  • October 3: Q for a cause IV, featuring John Mueller, Pappa Charlie’s, and Feges BBQ
  • October 11: Southern Smoke featuring Aaron Franklin, Sean Brock, and Rodney Scott
  • November 8: Houston BBQ Throwdown, a number of Houston pit masters will compete to showcase barbecue with a Houston twist

On September 29th No Kid Hungry is putting on Houston Taste Of the Nation. While not exclusively BBQ related, a number of Houston area BBQ restaurants will be participating. You can score 10% off your ticket with code PITQUESTHTX, courtesy of Texas Pit Quest.

In the past few years, Houston has risen in visibility and respectability in the barbecue scene. Houston has always been a city of food, but had fallen behind Austin as the great barbecue renaissance elevated quality barbecue to an entirely different product from what was being commonly served in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Back then chain restaurant expansion ruled the land and mediocrity was accepted. Texas Monthly didn’t even publish their top barbecue list between 1973 and 1997.

While quality barbecue speaks for itself, a hard working few have promoted the city and it’s barbecue, helping to drive the scene further. JC (Chris) Reid and Michael Fulmer launched the Houston Barbecue Festival in 2013, which showcases Houston barbecue and raised the visibility far and wide. Reid also writes for the Houston Chronicle and has published articles on historical Houston joints as well as more contemporary ones. Syd Kearney, Pheadra Cook, and Alexandra Doyle, continue to espouse the virtues of Houston barbecue in their media. A single positive review from the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook will cause lines out the door, deservedly, as has happened most recently to Roegels Barbecue Co. A leader in the barbecue world and also wielding power with his reviews, Texas Monthly’s Daniel Vaughn spearheads TMBBQ.com and has visited all of the brick and mortar joints mentioned in this article, although a few pop ups still have eluded his schedule.

JR Cohen tweets often about Houston barbecue. Bloggers have also focused on the Houston area; Scott Sandlin (Tx Pit Quest), Houston Fed, Anthony Compofelice, and others are out there spreading the word that Houston barbecue is a force to be reckoned with. Austin Blogger Jimmy Ho has made a number of trips into the Houston area as well and has posted on his blog.The Dallas based Texas BBQ Posse also posted a positive article in 2014.

Making the turn

When did Houston BBQ begin making the turn? I’d place it first on Trent Brooks, who opened his modest trailer in 2009. His unassuming spot for Brook’s Place BBQ in the parking lot of an Ace Hardware store reset the bar. No longer would run of the mill barbecue be good enough for the Houston area. It was time to step up the game.

Brooks' Place BBQ

Brooks’ Place BBQ

In 2010 two other quality joints launched, The Brisket House and Gatlin’s BBQ. Wayne Kammerl cut his teeth at Tom’s BBQ in Bryan/College Station before opening The Brisket House in Houston. Quality barbecue and strip center can go hand-in-hand and the prices make this a worthy stop. Greg Gatlin and family serve up their version of barbecue at their eponymously named joint, which is close to the central texas style but with a southern barbecue twist such as the dirty rice. Gatlin’s comically small dining room, long waits, and fast sell-outs on 19th street is no longer their weak link. A new much larger location opens at 3510 Ella Boulevard on September 11.

Corkscrew Barbecue quietly began serving up barbecue from their trailer in 2011 before they rocketed to the Texas Monthly top 50 in 2013. When an Oyler was brought in to take primary duties away from an offset pit, myself and fellow Houston area foodies felt that the consistency and quality rose to top ten in Texas ranking. With their original location the customers were visiting the location because they knew or had heard about Corkscrew. It was tucked away in the far corner of a large strip center, not visible from I45 or even Rayford road. Very few would have randomly happened upon their location.  Corkscrew is about to enter an entire other level when they bring their product to a brick and mortar location in old town Spring, where folks completely unaware of their quality may stumble onto one of the best joints in the world.

Delicious three meat plate from Corkscrew BBQ

Delicious three meat plate from Corkscrew BBQ

Ray Busch and Maxine Davis opened up the quaint Ray’s Real Pit BBQ Shack in 2011, in the Third Ward near the Houston medical center. Ray quit his regular job at the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and  hasn’t looked back.

Also in 2011 Chris Reid planted his flag in the ground. His passion for barbecue and Houston had dovetailed into the Houston Barbecue Project. his article “What’s wrong with Houston barbecue?” was a question, an admission, a statement, a defiance, and a manifesto all rolled into one. Daniel Vaughn, who at the time was still blogging at www.fullcustomgospelbbq.com as BBQ Snob, was the first to post a reply and stated his excitement at the project. Since then, Reid has tirelessly been exploring and promoting Houston barbecue. First on his own, then through the Houston Barbecue Festival, and most recently as a writer for the Houston Chronicle. Click here to see a list of his excellent articles here.

You have to have quality barbecue to back up the talk, which Houston does have, but Reid’s efforts to put the spotlight on the Houston scene should be much appreciated by consumer and producer alike. In 2013, four Houston metro joints made the Texas Monthly top 50, six if you include Galveston and Livingston but that is a stretch.

The word was out, the tide was rising, and it was unstoppable. Sure, Franklin, Mueller, and others were the darlings of the scene, but the stage was set and the players continued to assemble.

Few joints arrived onto the scene with the fanfare of Killen’s Barbecue. While Ronnie Killen had at one time owned a barbecue joint, he was more famous for his highly rated steakhouse in Pearland, Texas. With sights firmly set on being the best anywhere, a series of popups received rave reviews and the barbecue public eagerly lined up and populated the brick and mortar location upon opening.

Beef rib plate at Killen's Barbecue

Beef rib plate at Killen’s Barbecue

Mike Gray took his award winning competition barbecue and opened The Wooden Spoke with wife Teresa Gray in 2013 near The Woodlands. Unique among the joints I’ve visited, all the prices include tax and the daily specials are great deals. Mike has added on inside dining with air conditioning and heating, taking it a notch above the standard trailer setup and making for a comfortable experience.

Southern_Q quietly entered the Houston scene with their far north location. With a garlic infused rub, house made sausage, and smoked boudin, their southern twist earned rave reviews from the community including a 4.25 rating from Daniel Vaughn. Keep an eye on them as their business grows.

After more than ten years of running the Houston outpost of Baker’s Ribs and an epiphany during a barbecue road trip, Russell and Misty Roegels changed the name on the marquee to Roegels Barbecue Co. and began tweaking their rubs and cooking, producing top tier barbecue.While they try to stay open well after lunch they sell out regularly. In the barbecue world this is a good thing, ensuring fresh barbecue and no wastage. You can catch my interview with Russell here.

3 meat plate at Roegels Barbecue

Brisket, Sausage, and ribs with potato salad and loaded mashed potatos

Jackson Street Barbecue is one of the newer joints, but with the knowledge of Greg Gatlin and the backing of Bryan Caswell (Reef, Little Bigs, El Real) their joint in the shadow of Minute Maid Park downtown has the foundation for great food and a great time. I hope they fully utilize the stage for live blues music, as that would be a great experience. If you go, you must get the burnt end biscuit, pieces of flavorful burnt ends between a cheddar-jalapeno biscuit. I’m also a fan of the deer sausage, which is also an option at Gatlin’s and Brooks’ Place. Jackson Street’s is sourced from Ruffino Meats while I believe Gatlin’s and Brooks’ are sourced from B&W meat company in Houston. I’ve had them all and enjoy the different taste the venison provides, it’s a nice change up from the standard.

While Austin’s laws allow for food trailers to launch and prosper, the feedback I’ve received is that Houston makes it much more difficult. In Houston, the rise of quality barbecue came not just from brick and mortar buildings, but also from pop ups like Pappa Charlie’s.

Pappa Charlies is making that envious leap from a popup to a true brick and mortar. Wes Jurena’s location just may be genius, close to downtown on Rusk and located in a fast-gentrifying area near the soccer stadium.

Great brisket from Pappa Charlie's

Great brisket from Pappa Charlie’s

John Avila, whose solid barbecue resume includes Franklin Barbecue, launching Morgan’s Brooklyn Barbecue, and most recently his El Burro and the Bull popups on Navigation road is also making the jump into brick and mortar along with wife Veronica Hernandez and Michael Sambrooks as they launch The Pit Room at 1201 Richmond Ave. in the Montrose area.

Grant Pinkerton landed on scene with high marks for his product and had planned a brick in mortar location for Pinkerton’s BBQ in the upscale River Oaks area of town but that deal has fallen through. Pinkerton is planning additional popups in the near future. Catch him on Twitter, Facebook, or http://www.pinkertonsbbq.com/

Blood Bros. have done a series of popups mostly in the Heights area. Currently they can be (and should be) caught at Lincoln bar at 5110 Washington Ave. They have also popped up at Buffalo Bayou brewery and other locations around town. Keep an eye on these guys as they balance other business focus with barbecue. They might just catch the break they need and serve barbecue full time. For now, though, go check them out and enjoy the party atmosphere and great barbecue. Find where they will be by following them on Twitter.

Quy hoang of Blood Brothers BBQ

Quy Hoang of Blood Brothers BBQ

Savory Spice has welcomed several barbecue entrepreneurs to their spice shop off of Kirby, including Blood Bros., Pinkerton’s BBQ, and Harlem Rd Barbecue. Their support of the barbecue community also helps expose others to high quality barbecue.

I want all the barbecue joints to be close to me!

It’s still not perfect here, though. Within a 30 minute drive from my house, there is really only one joint I currently recommend, The Wooden Spoke. About 10 minutes further was the original location for Corkscrew. Luckily, even though they are moving farther away, their new location may reduce the drive time by 5 minutes which will help. Admittedly, I do live outside of town, even technically outside of Tomball.

It’s also currently a long drive from my office to a quality joint. Southern_Q is the closest, with Brooks’ Place far enough to make it an hour and a half round trip if I eat quickly. Although my office is on 249 and Louetta, there are other quality non-barbecue restaurants so it’s not as though there isn’t opportunity. A Rudy’s has opened near work and has produced decent barbecue, so in a somewhat bittersweet way my lunchtime barbecue urges might be sated.

West of Houston, Katy Texas has been exploding in growth and the new intersection of IH 10 and Tollway 99 should be able to support one or even two more joints. Spring Creek Barbecue has turned out some impressive brisket at that location, and their $12.95/pound beef rib is a great deal.

Nice Beef Rib from Spring Creek Barbecue

Nice Beef Rib from Spring Creek Barbecue

I think the majority of barbecue patrons in the Houston area are still learning just what is good barbecue. Crowds still populate the big gas-assist chains. Pit masters still tell me stories of customers who want the bark cut off, or who don’t understand pricing by the pound – especially with beef ribs. I still see reviews of quality places with comments that I know are not consistent with their product and I still see complaints about the price of barbecue which comes from a public that has either not eaten barbecue recently or is not caught up with the prices of the meats.

But change is happening. More and more in my conversations I am being told that those questions and requests are coming less and less. People have recognized great barbecue and their acumen has improved.

This is time for Houston barbecue to shine

The good news is that it means the wave of barbecue hasn’t yet crested in Houston. It’s an exciting time to eat barbecue in Houston, and an exciting time to be smoking quality meats.

Hang on and ride this one out as the dining public in Houston is learning about what great barbecue is, and the joints continue to crank out great product!   I can truly say the best is yet to come for Houston barbecue, and these next few months will be downright exciting!

-BBQ Bryan

Some Houston Barbecue History

1946 Barbecue Inn http://www.thebarbecueinn.com/history.html

1946 Lenox Barbecue http://www.lenoxbbq.com

1935 Shepherd Drive Barbecue Stand (later became Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue) http://pizzitolas.com/index.html

1957 Dozier’s Grocery and Market, inc http://doziersbbq.com/

1963 Otto’s http://www.ottoscatering.com/ottos-history.php

1964 Demeris Bar-B-Q http://bbq.demeris.com/about-us/

1973 The Swinging Door http://swingingdoor.com/our-story/

1994 Triple J’s Smokehouse http://triplejsmokehouse.com/jarrett-scales-family/

Long gone – Matt Garner, Drexler’s, Luther’s (bought by Pappas)