EDITOR'S NOTE: We printed this story before the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spread into America and led to massive changes in the Houston-area's food scene. Many of the operations listed below are still open for take-out, some also for delivery, and you can get the latest what they're doing here.
If you can, get some food from some of our favorite barbecue spots. These are the 12, which have opened in the last five years, that are changing the game.
Houston native Grant Pinkerton’s eponymous brick-and-mortar cracked Texas Monthly’s Top 50 almost immediately after its 2016 debut—not shocking, since he was already smokin’ on a Weber Smokey Mountain in middle school—but it was in 2017 that the young pitmaster sealed his rep as a local hero when he fed thousands of first responders for free during Harvey. Today his raucous joint is a local favorite with lines out the door, a bustling bar with great margs, and a traditional lineup of consistently knockout Central Texas barbecue with a Hill Country twist—brisket, sweet pork ribs, boudin, and dinosaur-sized beef ribs are standouts. If there’s any of Aunt Ruby’s blueberry cobbler left (a recipe first made by Pinkerton’s great-great-grandmother), top it with some vanilla Blue Bell from the vintage icebox. And you can always tell when Pinkerton himself is on hand because he parks his big black truck outside, license plate PORKRIB. —GK
- The line: 30 minutes, max.
- Classic order: One slice fatty brisket, two pork ribs (one glazed, one dry), jalapeño sausage link.
- Must-try sides: The throwback jalapeño cheese rice, a recipe passed down from Pinkerton’s mom. Also try the South Texas charro beans (full of poblanos and garlic) and mustardy potato salad.
- Best special: Smoked salmon during Lent (until April 9); $1 Lone Stars every Thursday.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: “Growing up, we lived by Goode Co., but the place I always go back to in my head is Lum’s BBQ in Junction, Texas—it was fatty and moist and cooked over mesquite coals, and just so different; such a stark contrast to what we had here.”
Leonard Botello IV’s recently opened Houston outpost is a far cry from his original in Brenham, where brisket, ribs, sausage, and a couple of sides are still served up in a funky shack with some picnic tables on the porch. In 2019 this 6,200-square-foot iteration debuted with five custom-made smokers—converted propane tanks Botello designed so heat swirls through the cylinders to cook meat evenly—and a separate counter for the insanely delicious cakes baked by Botello’s mother. The vibe is still cool, from the ’gram-friendly decor to the incredible food. The new Truth is familiar in its roots, adventurous in spots, and far too good to pass up. Says Botello: “I wanted to evolve craft barbecue but still stay true to the whole artistic aspect of it.” —TM
- The line: Out the door, weekends; 20 minutes, weekdays.
- Classic order: Half-pound brisket, half-pound jalapeño cheddar sausage, half-pound pork ribs.
- Must-try side: Tater tot casserole—smashed fried potatoes, onions, cheese, and peppers—which also happens to be the ultimate drunk food.
- Best special: Botello’s Saturday beef rib is in a class of its own.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: “If we wanted barbecue in Houston, we’d have Goode Co.”
Brothers Robin and Terry Wong and their longtime friend Quy Hoang turned their side-hustle—a barbecue pop-up—into a scorchin’ hot brick-and-mortar in late 2018. You’ll find your standard Central Texas ’cue here, sure, but these critically acclaimed bros also incorporate Asian influences in menu staples and sides—smoked turkey banh mi, eggy brisket fried rice—and the insane daily specials. We’re talking Thai green curry boudin. What’s more, the peppery bark on their brisket is as bold as these pit bosses’ determination to put their stamp on a fast-evolving scene. —TM
- The line: 15-30 minutes.
- Classic order: A couple of pork ribs and a smoked turkey banh mi.
- Must-try side: The thick and creamy smoked gouda mac and cheese will never let you down.
- Best special: Friday’s Thai green curry boudin paired with Thai peanut butter sticky pork ribs.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: Luling City Market on Richmond. “That’s where we would go often to enjoy a meal with friends and family,” says Hoang. “The sausage link was something I really enjoyed.”
Owner Michael Sambrooks considers his food “barbecue with a Tex-Mex twist.” Consider the astonishing brisket taco—homemade tortillas here are fried in rendered brisket fat—only improved upon with a side of rich, slightly piquant elote. But wait, there’s more: juicy, house-made beef sausage cooked in vertical smokers; piles of homemade jalapeño-vinegar potato chips fried in beef tallow; a massive pickled-veggie bar with peppers, carrots, and onions; and even bacon- and-egg breakfast tacos before 10:30 a.m. All that and the adjacent Bar at the Pit Room, complete with its sprawling patio, outdoor tables, and TVs, make this the consummate neighborhood spot. —TM
- The line: 10-25 minutes.
- Classic order: The two-meat plate is solid, but go for the brisket taco and chips and queso.
- Must-try side: The creamy elote bathed in hot sauce goes with everything.
- Best special: The Snake River Farms wagyu beef rib.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: The since-closed Luther’s chain (bought out by another Houston stalwart, Pappas) in Kingwood. “They did chopped beef and sausage sandwiches, and as far as I knew, when I was younger, it was good.”
At 29, culinary school grad Brett Jackson answered a Craigslist ad for a barbecue apprenticeship in Central Texas. When it came time for his interview, he knew nothing but the address, but the smokehouse’s rep was legendary. “I’m in the middle of nowhere and pull up to this 100-year-old place,” he recalls. “It’s Louie Mueller BBQ.” He nabbed the gig, and so began the journey that culminated with him opening his own place in 2018 inside the former Nonmacher’s Bar-B-Que, a Katy institution located just a couple of miles from where he grew up. He inherited Nonmacher’s 40-year-old, 1,000-gallon smoker called The Beast and swiftly drew daily lines with his mix of creative specials like brisket enchiladas and offerings like chopped beef, a Nonmacher’s staple still served today in tribute. “I believe in what I do and what we’re doing here,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did, though.” —TM
- The line: 15-20 minutes or less.
- Classic order: Two-meat plate of brisket and pork ribs. This is one of those places where the sauce is excellent and also totally optional.
- Must-try side: Baked potato gussied up with butter, cheese, sour cream, and pulled pork.
- Best special: Brisket-and-cream-cheese–stuffed, bacon–wrapped jalapeños—if you can get them.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: Nonmacher’s, of course. “If you lived in this area, then this was the barbecue place you came to."
About twice a month brothers Theo and Don Nguyen pull up their trailer to serve the meats they smoked in their big ol’ front-yard tank (a 500-gallon smoker called “Sunday Morning,” made from salvaged propane tanks), always finding creative expressions for the proteins—brisket pho, smoked chicken and rice with yuzukoshō (a Japanese citrus and chile paste)—because that’s what they like. Their namesake, Khói—the Vietnamese word for “smoke”—is “the way to incorporate smoke into cuisines,” says Don Nguyen. And that could mean smoked brisket and beef ribs on some days, or experimenting with smoked chicken and sausage on others. You never know; you’ll just have to line up. —TM
- The line: 30-60 minutes.
- Classic order: Half-pound brisket, and the brisket pho. You might fast beforehand.
- Must-try side: A heaping of the (free!) house-made kimchi is a vibrant contrast to all that smoke.
- Best special: Varies by pop-up, but look for that chicken and rice with yuzukoshō or nigiri—fatty beef sliced thin over vinegar rice.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: “Roegels was always awesome, even when it was Baker’s, and it’s been really cool to see Russell evolve.”
Southwest Houston (just inside SH 99)
Cigar-smoking pitmaster Ara Malekian is a classically French-trained Armenian chef from Switzerland who spent years working for Wolfgang Puck, and since 2018 he’s been here cranking out old-school Texas barbecue that will blow your mind. There’s much to love about his hand-built shack, from the reclaimed-wood dining hall with its obligatory taxidermy and Steve Earle soundtrack to the tacked-on shipping container kitchen and pitroom with its own chef’s table and three vintage wine-stave—fueled vault smokers that give Malekian’s holy trinity a clean, sweet smoke. His hulking beef rib, inspired by the legendary Wayne Mueller’s buttery benchmark, is a contender for best in town, delicious with the house-made pickles—the faintly tart discs make perfect palate cleansers. —GK
- The line: No lines out the door; but known to run out of items by 4:30 p.m. on weekends.
- Classic order: The beef rib, but leave room for sides.
- Must-try sides: Red skin potato salad copiously flecked with black pepper; crisp coleslaw that ditches the mayo for oil, vinegar, Dijon, and local honey to righteous results; baked beans (placed in the smoker to catch brisket drippings); and mac-and-cheese (adorned with burnt ends).
- Best special: Smoked octopus first braised in red wine, available every Friday.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: “I’m not sure it’s old-school, but Roegels Barbecue on Voss. The beef pastrami is phenomenal.”
Originally, in 2011, brothers Scott and Greg Moore and Michelle Holland were focused on candy when they started a bean-to-bar chocolate business in a clapboard 1,900-square-foot house, the oldest in Tomball, that had more space than they knew what to do with. They started serving barbecue four years later—if you want truffles, go left to the glass cases, but if you want meat, continue straight ahead—to support their passion project, but that was when things got interesting. By 2017 they were one of the best-loved smokehouses in the state thanks to their mouthwatering brisket, house-made sausage from beef trimmings, and specials that would spawn their own restaurants (Tejas Burger Joint is just around the corner). “Sometimes I have to catch myself, like, I’ve only been doing this for four and a half years,” says Scott Moore. And yes, they do put their chocolate in the ’cue—with delectable results, like a ridiculous mole barbecue sauce that pairs perfectly with their smoky half-chicken. —TM
- The line: 45-60 minutes.
- Classic order: A half-pound of brisket and a couple of chile relleno sausage links.
- Must-try side: The flan-like carrot soufflé, a Chef Holland original.
- Best special: Thursday’s house-smoked pastrami Reuben on rye with Swiss cheese, house-made sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: Strack Farms, which closed in 2014; of what old-school places remain, the original City Market in Luling. “I wish I could make ribs like they do,” Scott Moore says.
Chef John Avila returned to his hometown with some serious street cred—he’d opened restaurants in New York and worked with Aaron Franklin in the early days of Austin’s legendary Franklin BBQ—in 2016, first opening his place as a vendor inside the former Conservatory food hall. Two years later he cut the ribbon at Henderson & Kane, a general store that houses his tasty grub pulling from all styles of Texas cuisine: The menu runs the gamut, offering everything from steak, breakfast tacos, and boudin to chili, along with—naturally—brisket, sausage, and ribs. He’ll take it all up a notch at a new East End brick-and-mortar coming mid-2020. —TM
- The line: 10 minutes or less.
- Classic order: The pulled pork sandwich, and maybe some brisket if you’ve got any room.
- Must-try side: Extra-creamy corn with green chiles.
- Best special: The daily Texas Red chili, which is composed of 44 Farms steak trimmings in homemade red chile sauce with white and yellow cheddar, sour cream, and green onions.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: Smitty’s Market in Lockhart. “Everything about it is fantastic. It has the all-wood walk-in cooler, meat hooks. Nothing can beat that. It’s so authentically cool.”
East End (832-491-0556)
Marcus Powell’s grandfather Henry “Hoot” Powell was known for making great barbecue—once even in a tin trash can. Though he died before he could open his own restaurant, his grandson achieved the dream in late 2017 and named the place for him. “Most of the recipes were his,” says Powell. “The rubs, the barbecue sauce, all that.” Powell achieves maximum smokiness by cooking his meat first over mesquite wood and finishing over pecan, and Hoot’s legacy lives on in the laid-back joint that’s known to offer crawfish and other communal dinner staples alongside old-school favorites like brisket, turkey, chicken wings, and tender pork ribs made with Hoot’s outstanding salty and smoky rub. —TM
- The line: Five minutes, max.
- Classic order: Hoot’s Trio of pork ribs, chicken, and sausage.
- Must-try side: The dirty rice made with chicken liver, kicked up with plenty of Cajun spice.
- Best special: Smoked brisket and black bean chili, served with tortilla chips and typically offered during cold-weather snaps.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: Burns Original BBQ. “My granddad bragged that he taught Mr. Burns how to barbecue.”
A barbecue joint in a food court?! Yes, but Greenway Plaza isn’t any old food court, and Feges—smoking since its 2012 pop-up iteration—is no ordinary joint. There’s Chef Erin Smith’s sides—like Moroccan–spiced carrots doused in yogurt sauce, and vegan (yes, vegan!) charro beans flavored by broth made from smoked corn cobs left over from the day’s elote salad—and then there’s pitmaster Patrick Feges’s astonishing, melt-in-your-mouth whole Duroc hog. Feges traveled to Charleston to learn the technique for creating this South Carolina staple from famed barbecue guru Rodney Scott before opening his spot here in 2018. Doused in a vinegary mustard sauce that will speak to any fan of Low Country ’cue, the succulent hog is outstanding on its own, though the staff will likely ask if you want cracklins chopped into it, too. The answer to that is ‘hell yes.’ —GK
- The line: 10-15 minutes.
- Classic order: Two-meat plate—brisket and turkey are fan faves.
- Must-try sides: Brussels sprouts, warm loaded potato salad that tastes like twice-baked sputs, and the irresistible sweet potato-and-banana mashers—yam casserole will never be the same.
- Best special: Brisket nachos, available weekly on Tex-Mex Tuesday.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot: “Ray’s for the rib tips, which you don’t see a lot in Texas—it’s a Chicago specialty—and just good sausage. It reminds me of the sausage I grew up eating.”
Since 2015 folks have been known to line up as early as 5:45 a.m. on Saturdays outside this cabin in Old Town Spring, which started as a ’cue trailer three miles down the dirt road in 2011. So what’s all the fuss about? The picture-perfect peppery bark on hobbyist-turned-exalted-pitmaster Will Buckman’s incredible Prime Creekstone brisket, for one, and his wife Nichole’s soulful sides that could win over even the most ornery granny at the church picnic. And don’t overlook the specials, like the loaded baked potatoes or Buckman Tacos, the latter featuring brisket or Duroc pulled pork topped with slaw and fiery green chile ranch made from scratch. You can walk it all off later with a post-meal mosey around the cute nearby shops. —GK
- The line: Two-hour wait on weekends, line starts around 9 a.m.
- Classic order: The $145 family tray that feeds 6-8 with brisket, ribs, a sausage link (try jalapeño and cheddar pork), turkey, pulled pork, and two heaping sides.
- Must-try side: Dill and leafy green-inflected coleslaw.
- Best special: Brisket- or turkey-topped Caesar salad with dressing by Tris Chef Austin Simmons.
- Pitmaster’s favorite old-school spot:“The one I love the most and did grow up with— they’re no longer with us—is Read’s Barbecue. Charlotte Read was the powerhouse behind it and blessed us with her cobbler recipe.”