Is Killen’s BBQ Really The Best in Texas?

Barbecue that’s worth the drive, the wait, and then some

By Robb Walsh Photography by Kate LeSueur June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

These days, waiting in line is just the price you pay for good barbecue in Texas.

At 10:45 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, there were 14 people queued up outside Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland. Many people (including me) find waiting in line for barbecue annoying, but you have to understand that the line and the inevitable appearance of the sold-out sign are evidence of greatness—as Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Pecan Lodge in Dallas, and CorkScrew BBQ in Spring have already proven. That’s the price you pay for good barbecue in Texas these days. If you can’t wait in line, don’t go.

Barbecued meats are alluringly juicy when they’re hot out of the smoker, but they get tough and dried out within hours. Having customers lined up and ready to eat allows a barbecue joint to slice up the smoked meats at their peak. There has been a line in front of Killen’s every day since the place opened in late February, and most days, the restaurant sells out of everything by three in the afternoon. 

Ronnie Killen, owner of Killen’s

I got lucky on that recent Tuesday—nothing was sold out, and I only waited for 15 minutes. A blackboard menu hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hallway lists everything that was available at the start of the day, while another blackboard announces what’s sold out. I ordered my favorite items for my two-meat plate, requesting a couple of slices of the awesome “fatty end” brisket and a link of the sublime German-style sausage seasoned with garlic and mustard seed. For my two sides, I got a bowl of crunchy coleslaw and the creamed corn, the latter of which is the best I’ve ever tasted—par for the course here at Killen’s, where nearly everything is amazing.

Easily the best barbecue joint in the greater Houston area, Killen’s is already being called one of the best in the state, although you could hardly call pitmaster/owner Ronnie Killen an overnight sensation. When he was a kid, Ronnie Killen used to hang out at Killen Time, his dad’s barbecue restaurant in Pearland. In 1991, Ronnie opened his first Pearland ’cue joint: Killen’s Kountry BBQ. Intrigued by the restaurant business, Killen went to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu Cooking Institute, then came home and opened the hugely successful Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, in 2006.  

You’d think that opening another barbecue joint at this point in his career would be a step backward, but the time was right to bring the sensibility of a classically trained chef to the pitmaster’s craft. Two years ago, Killen started competing in barbecue competitions to brush up on his technique and even held pop-up barbecue events on the building’s front lawn to build buzz before he opened. The meat he served was stunning.  

Thanks to the long success of Killen’s Steakhouse, Ronnie Killen already enjoyed close relationships with top meat packers when he opened his barbecue joint a mile and a quarter down South Main in Pearland. His well-marbled beef ribs come from Allen Brothers in Chicago, the country’s premium steak supplier, and his briskets are USDA Prime. The fatty ends of those Prime briskets at Killen’s have a fabulous black crust on the edges, a crispy coating known as “bark” in pitmaster parlance, which Killen creates by applying a blend of salt and three different grinds of black pepper to the fat on the outside of his barely-trimmed briskets before cooking. This crust gives each bite of juicy beef from the fatty end a peppery flavor and a crunchy texture, and some of the lean meat from the flat end of the brisket has bark too (you can request it with or without). While the thick slices of flat brisket aren’t as plush as those from the fatty end, they’re surprisingly tender and juicy. 

I skipped Killen’s famous beef ribs, with regret, on my Tuesday visit, although I had enjoyed them immensely previously. Slow-smoked until the meat becomes meltingly soft in the middle and crunchy on the top, these Fred Flintstone–size beef bones may be the best thing on the menu. The problem is practicality. Due to their size, you can only order them by the pound, and at $18 per, one massive rib can cost $25 or more—way too much meat for one person.

While brisket and beef ribs are the stars at Killen’s, there are plenty of other choices. There’s barbecued turkey every day and smoked chicken two days a week, as well as a very fatty bone-in pork belly, though pork isn’t really where Killen’s shines. Pork lovers will find the pulled pork perfectly cooked, but without that jolt of Southern-style vinegar sauce that pulls the flavors together. The pork ribs are tender enough, but are in need of some kind of crust, glaze, or sauce to save them from the also-ran category. 

Three barbecue sauces are provided in squirt bottles on each table: sweet, tangy, and coffee. The tangy sauce is a typical Texas blend with a chile pepper zing, while the coffee version is a stellar complement to the beef. The sweet sauce is, in my view, a dessert topping—I would vote to replace it with South Carolina mustard sauce for the sake of pork lovers.

As for the sides, I asked Killen the secret of his creamed corn. “We don’t do anything special,” he replied. Fresh corn is cut off the cob, and the cobs are simmered in milk and cream and then scraped, drawing out every last drop of corn milk before the cream and kernels are cooked down. Sounds pretty special to me. Meanwhile, the sensational cabbage-and-carrot coleslaw dressed with red-wine vinaigrette features not only slivered almonds and sunflower-seed kernels but, as a final touch, broken up bits of instant ramen noodles, added for texture—a church picnic coleslaw additive I have never seen in a restaurant before.

Perhaps befitting Killen’s classic, yet of-the-moment cuisine, the restaurant’s vintage, repurposed institutional space has a Brooklyn vibe, with polished-concrete floors, vintage signs, and retro chrome dinette sets—Formica-topped tables with chairs covered in metallic-flecked vinyl and matching upholstered booths, every single one in the sunlight-drenched dining room, of course, taken at all times.

With Killen’s Barbecue, Ronnie Killen has joined an elite cadre of hip, urban pitmasters like Aaron Franklin in Austin who are taking on the Texas-barbecue status quo, serving a fattier, more highly seasoned style of barbecue than the standard stuff and appealing to diners who understand that fat means flavor—the same gang who made pork belly, chashu pork ramen, and highly marbled Wagyu beef so popular.

The thing is, not everyone who loves barbecue in Texas is willing to eat fat, and that represents a challenge. When the restaurant first opened, Killen estimates that 70 percent of his customers asked for lean meat, although they are starting to request the fatty end more and more. And apparently everyone finds something to love, because Killen is cooking around 2,500 pounds of barbecue a day, and his remarkable new barbecue venture made $250,000 in its first month. “It took four years for the steakhouse to get to that level,” he said. “My dad was amazed. He told me at Killen Time, he was lucky to do $150,000 in a whole year.” 

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