Not long ago, a plate of fatty, charcoal-black brisket with a thick exterior bark would have elicited a confused—maybe even disgusted—stare from many Houstonians. We don’t want that, they would have protested. But they did. We all did. We just didn’t know it then.
It was on a recent afternoon at Roegels Barbecue Co. over on S. Voss Rd. that the above thought occurred to me, even as I sawed through the crunchy, peppery exterior of some brisket, reaching tender, succulent meat oozing with buttery beef juices. It looked and tasted a lot like the brisket at Killen’s, CorkScrew, Jackson Street and other new Houston barbecue joints, yet another wonderful example of the dark-and-fatty style of barbecue that’s sweeping the state.
The new wave of Texas barbecue likely reached a peak this past May, when Aaron Franklin of legendary Franklin Barbecue in Austin won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. In honoring a Texas barbecue pitmaster with an award usually reserved for chefs from fine-dining restaurants, the tastemaking Beard folks were sending a signal—Texas barbecue is a culinary art form of the highest level.
Interestingly, however, while Franklin is the most well-known of the new-wave establishments, these days the best new barbecuers are setting up shop in Houston, not Austin.
Take pitmaster Russell Roegels (pronounced “RAY-guls”) and his wife Misty, with whom I chatted after devouring their brisket. When Russell bought a Baker’s Ribs franchise more than a decade ago at the age of 28, he carefully followed the company's recipes, at least for a time. “We didn’t season the brisket much at all,” he says. “We cooked it with the fat cap on, then cut the fat off and threw it away,” not unlike most East Texas barbecue joints. It wasn’t until after their license agreement expired in January 2013 that the Roegelses began reevaluating their technique.
“A customer told us we ought to check out the Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket seminars at Texas A&M,” he remembers. “Our barbecue was terrible compared to what we had there. We watched Aaron Franklin trim briskets, and we got some advice from Wayne Mueller at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. We drove all over the state sampling barbecue. Then we came home and changed everything that we were doing. We changed suppliers and meat specs. We even changed the name of the restaurant.”
At the end of the day, the changes all added up to something remarkable. Russell began buying top-grade cuts trimmed down until only a quarter-inch of fat remained. He gave the meat a simple salt-and-pepper rub: “I use the best Malabar pepper in two different grinds—medium and cracked,” he says, disclosing at least one of his secrets. It’s the fat and spices cooking down together that creates that black, crunchy bark, adding a perfect spicy note to each bite. Misty, for her part, revamped the side-dish selection at newly christened Roegels Barbecue Co., coming up with a cucumber salad and banana pudding, both of which are excellent. Rave reviews from food critics across the city followed soon after, and business has never been better.
Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Barbecue is perhaps the most well-known local trailblazer of this new trend. Although he already owned the popular Killen’s Steakhouse and thus knew his way around a side of beef (and, in fact, had hosted a series of barbecue pop-up dinners in the late 1990s), Killen wanted to resharpen his skills. First, he spent four years competing on the cook-off circuit to fine-tune his method, then began testing his skills on eager fans at a new series of pop-up dinners. Pop-ups, it should be noted, are now becoming as popular a method for showcasing special, one-off meals for pitmasters as they’ve been for chefs, who’ve been hosting such occasions for at least a couple of decades.
When he finally opened his long-awaited Pearland barbecue restaurant in February of last year, though, Killen was frustrated to find that the majority of his customers asked that the fat and bark be removed from their brisket. He started passing out free samples of the good stuff, just to show people what they were missing. Today, aficionados of new Texas barbecue go out of their way to sample that fatty bark, along with his smoked pork belly and monster beef ribs. And Killen, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London, has inspired a new generation of pitmasters, not to mention food wonks across the nation: witness a recent episode of Top 5 Restaurants on the Food Network in which Killen’s Barbecue was named the second-best in the nation. Franklin was left off the list entirely.
As young chefs start out in the restaurant business, it’s not uncommon for them to hone their craft with pop-up suppers—but it’s only recently that so many gravitated toward barbecue pop-ups. Even Culinary Institute of America graduates like Bryan Caswell are getting into the barbecue business (disclosure: I’m a partner with Caswell on Tex-Mex venture El Real). The well-known Reef chef partnered with veteran pitmaster Greg Gatlin this past spring to open Jackson Street BBQ, which already sees lines out the door on days when the Houston Astros are playing across the street at Minute Maid Park. Meanwhile, Houston’s most recent James Beard Award winner, Chris Shepherd, recently purchased a custom-crafted Pitmaker smoker, which he’s already using for smoking chicken wings and other barbecue specials at his Underbelly on Lower Westheimer.
Shepherd recently partnered with Killen for one of a series of upscale barbecue pop-up dinners called Fire & Smoke, serving char siu beef cheeks with pickled water spinach and beef belly porchetta with ember-roasted carrots. But that’s far from the only joint venture happening these days; witness the recent collaboration between chef Arash Al Kharat, who often cooks pop-up dinners at Glitter Karaoke, and Roegels Barbecue, in which Al Kharat made ramen using Russell Roegels’ smoked beef bones (as well as tri-tip from popular beef purveyor 44 Farms and hand-made noodles from Chinatown favorite Tiger Den). Needless to say, both pop-up dinners sold out.
Central Texas joints may still get the most media play, but not for long. The undeniable fact is that Houston—and nowhere else—has become the hottest barbecue market in Texas. Want further proof? Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, north of Austin, is rumored to be looking for a new location for his own barbecue joint—where else?—right here in town.