[Ed. Note: Now updated for 2017!]
Since getting back into the game a few years ago, Ronnie Killen’s motto has been “The best barbecue, period!” and that’s exactly what he’s produced—he even has T-shirts printed with the slogan for sale at his Pearland restaurant. The brisket is superb, and occasionally served in “flights” of the best Prime-grade and Wagyu breeds, allowing diners to sample smaller portions of each high-end meat side by side. House-made sausage snaps and pops with herbs, spices and juicy chunks of pork and beef. Beef ribs come covered with salt-and-coarse-ground-pepper and can weigh in at almost two pounds, so come hungry and bring friends.
The Texas trinity of barbecue shines at this eatery next door to the Astros’ ballpark, with meaty pork ribs, juicy sausage and well-rendered, deeply smoked brisket setting the stage. Bryan Caswell’s cheddar-and-jalapeño biscuit stuffed with brisket burnt ends—the delicious bits of meat left over from chopping brisket, then smoked again for added depth of flavor and a barkier texture—is one of the best additions to a Houston barbecue menu in recent memory.
Remember when the rest of Texas said Houston wasn’t much of a barbecue powerhouse? Take remaining naysayers to the Pit Room and watch them change their tunes. Every flavor pops as if it’s been placed under a microscope and magnified 50 times. The mustard-spotted Czech-style beef sausage, tallow-fried jalapeño-vinegar potato chips and cinnamon-smacked cherry pie each more flavorful than you’ll find just about anywhere else. But executive chef Bramwell Tripp’s greatest gift to ’cue lovers may be his uncommon tacos. In one tortilla made using brisket trimmings, charred garlic cloves stick to a haystack of pulled chicken and green chiles thanks to a layer of griddled cheese. It’s the best of barbecue and Tex-Mex in a single $4.25 package.
In his quest for a thriving barbecue trailer, Trent Brooks has weathered any number of challenges over the years: overzealous health inspectors, antagonistic neighbors, skyrocketing beef prices and bad weather. And yet he still manages to draw fans from all over the Houston area to a Cypress parking lot, where he puts out great brisket, pork ribs and sausage, as well as a rotation of creatively smoked dishes. On any given day, brisket tacos, pulled pork burritos, catfish and dirty rice-stuffed pork loin just might appear on the menu.
Russell and Misty Roegels use their two custom-modified, all-wood smokers and a Bewley pit from Dallas to imbue minimally trimmed briskets with a crusty bark and smoky essence. Giant beef ribs and St. Louis-cut pork ribs have been rebooted with a different spice rub, and his peppery sausage layers on the heat and spice with big flecks of jalapeños.
Wesley Jurena had spent a little time on the competitive barbecue circuit but had no formal culinary training when he started this popular operation out of a trailer in 2013, after being laid off from his job. He began selling brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork and chicken, items found at most other barbecue trailers across the city, popping up around the Heights and Montrose—locations notoriously devoid of good barbecue. But what sets Jurena apart, in his own words, is this: “I’m a Houston kid.”
Now 50, Jurena grew up accustomed to the city’s hodgepodge of culinary influences, which can be seen in his masala-rubbed tri-tip or a chile-rubbed leg of lamb topped with jalapeño tzatziki and cucumber pico de gallo. The masala was the idea of an Indian customer who’d recently returned from a visit home, bringing back fresh spices for Jurena to play around with. “I’m not afraid to cook anything,” the pitmaster says. “If I cook it and people like it, I’ll cook it again,” either at a catering job or when he parks his trailer at Jackson’s Watering Hole on Richmond.
In the year since opening his Pappa Charlies trailer for business, Jurena says he’s found that brisket is his most popular protein, as would be expected in Texas, but not always in its traditional form: “My brisket tacos are my big sellers. The city is used to eating things on a tortilla,” he laughs. Before long, Jurena hopes to house his pop-up operation in a full, bricks-and-mortar restaurant, offering standards side by side with his own creative interpretations. “Houston’s more diverse than any other major city and only getting more and more diverse,” he says, offering this advice to aspiring local pitmasters: “Don’t be scared to branch out and try something else.”
Speaking of which, at least one more thing that sets Jurena apart: his salt-and-pepper brisket is cooked high and fast at 325 degrees for five to seven hours. It’s a drastic departure from the traditional low-and-slow style, a virtual religious tenet in Texas, but as with Jurena’s other bold experiments, it works. [Ed. Note: Pappa Charlie's Barbeque has since opened in a bricks-and-mortar restaurant space in EaDo.)
The slow-burning post oak of the pit, located just inside the front door of this storefront barbecue joint in Tanglewood, will set your mouth watering immediately. Pitmaster Wayne Kammerl has emerged as one of the most talented in Houston, producing some of the city’s best, most consistent barbecue. Upper-choice to Prime-grade briskets are seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika and a few other secret spices, then slow-smoked to perfection. Try The Brisket House special: a sheet of butcher paper heaped with a full pound of brisket, pork ribs and sausage, as well as a slab of cheddar cheese, a whole pickle, onions and plenty of bread.
“BBQ, beats & brews” is the tagline for the pop-ups that brothers Robin and Terry Wong host with friend and pitmaster Quy Hoang. Longtime owners of Midtown’s popular Glitter Karaoke, the Wong brothers invited Hoang to man the kitchen on steak nights, which quickly evolved into barbecue nights in 2013 when Hoang purchased his first smoker and began hauling it up to the bar for special, one-off dinners. Pretty soon, the meats Hoang was turning out of his smoker had become such a draw, the three decided to partner up as Blood Bros. BBQ. Today, Hoang’s barbecue draws huge crowds to Glitter Karaoke in Midtown and Lincoln Bar on Washington Ave., the two spots in which Blood Bros. is most often found, and acclaim from barbecue writers across the state.
Make no mistake, though: Hoang isn’t giving up his day job anytime soon, and his day job is not pitmaster. Born and raised in Alief, Hoang has owned a neighborhood aquarium store, T&T Fish and Reef, with his uncle for over 20 years. “The cooking thing for me was a hobby that’s taken off,” he says. “Both give me a balance and keep me sane.”
Less than a year and a half after selling their first slices of brisket, Blood Bros.—which still crops up only every other Saturday or so—is now mentioned in the same breath as Killen’s or Roegels. Credit goes to Hoang’s creativity, which isn’t hampered by preconceived notions of what barbecue should be.
Though Blood Bros. offers the classic Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs and sausage (boudin, in this case), and though Hoang grew up eating at the decidedly old-school Swinging Door Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Richmond, which has served its own pecan-smoked trinity since 1973, his own best-sellers are items outside of the traditional paradigm: giant, Flintstones-sized beef ribs (“People like to take selfies with them,” he laughs); beef belly burnt ends with fiery gochujang (“I’m a big pepper head so everything is spicy”—his barbecue sauce is laced with Sriracha); and even a donut from Doughmakers HTX, glazed with Dr Pepper and stuffed with smoked brisket, the result of one of Hoang’s many collaborations with area food trucks.
“The flavors here aren’t just your typical salt and pepper,” Hoang says, offering the understatement of the year. “Houston’s such a big melting pot, so we try to use some of those flavors. There’s so many places you can go grab traditional barbecue, so let’s step it up a notch.”
Like many of the city’s new breed of pitmasters, Will Buckman got his start not as an apprentice at an established barbecue joint but in his own backyard. When cooking for family and friends turned into catering jobs, the next logical leap was opening his own al fresco barbecue joint in Spring, in 2011, which featured entirely outdoor seating. It's since moved to a colorful location in Old Town Spring with plenty of room inside to sprawl out with your spread. Buckman’s barbecue mixes a crusty Central Texas brisket with East Texas–style pork spareribs, while his tart, vinegary pulled pork is influenced by Southern traditions. Along with the rest of the team, his wife and business partner, Nichole, makes excellent side dishes, including coleslaw and mac ‘n’ cheese, from scratch.
Classic East Texas–style barbecue is the specialty at this small but growing barbecue joint run by pitmaster Steve Garner and wife Sherice along the northern reaches of Kuykendahl Road just south of Spring. Garner started making barbecue for his church on Sundays before quitting his job as a truck driver to smoke meat full time in 2010. Garner is rekindling East Texas traditions like smoked boudin made from his own recipe, as well as smoked turkey legs, a staple of Houston barbecue for decades.