Even a storm couldn't stop roughly 75 people from gathering outside Baileson Brewing Co. in West University one recent Saturday as brothers Don and Theo Nguyen of Khói BBQ scrambled to start their pop-up in the rain. The grub they’d serve up was worth the wait: There were the usual offerings of brisket, ribs, and sausage, of course, but the menu also featured pho, curry, and kimchi. The results—dishes like panang curry with beef rib—were all over Instagram, but that’s not exactly surprising. This kind of fuss about barbecue is common around here.
Welcome to the Houston barbecue renaissance, where pitmasters are building upon the Lone Star State’s long and rich history to create dishes that, in their mashup of cultures and traditions—both Texan and international, melting disparate influences together the way this city always does—are truly unique. And the results are being noticed, with stories chronicling some of these new approaches in Bon Appétit, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, and Washington Post.
“We kinda came from behind the pack of places like Austin, but all of a sudden we’ve surged forward almost to the top of the barbecue scene,” says Scott Moore, co-owner of Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue, another newcomer.
But how did we get here? And what is Houston barbecue, anyway?
Texas barbecue’s origin story is a complicated one, stretching back to the Native Americans, Czech and German immigrants, Spanish shepherds, or slaves, depending on whom you ask—and what part of the state you’re in when you’re asking. (Each region of Texas has its own distinct approach to the ’cue.) Houston barbecue was dominated by the East Texas style of slow-roasted meats and sweet, tomato-based sauces all the way through the 1950s thanks to hallowed spots like Pizzitola’s, the current name of one of the oldest barbecue joints in the city, and smaller smokehouses, like Matt Garner’s and Green’s BBQ, that specialized in hot link- and pork-heavy barbecue, with elements of Cajun cooking thrown in. By the ’60s, though, Central Texas–style brisket joints that focused on a good spice rub and cooking the meat over indirect heat in a pit smoker—like Bush family fave Otto’s—were taking hold in the Bayou City, putting their own stamp on our beloved meaty traditions.
And then Jim Goode opened Goode Co. Barbeque in 1977 and started a revolution. His original Kirby Drive setup pulled influences from every part of the Lone Star State: jambalaya Texana from East Texas, Czech sausage from Central Texas, mesquite smoking from West Texas, and South Texas–inspired heat—still used at Goode Co. today.
“Our barbecue is original in that sense,” says Levi Goode, Jim’s son and now the president of Goode Co. “This melding of four distinct, regional styles of barbecue within our state is really the unique differentiator for us.”
Goode Co. is still considered an institution today, but the first rumblings of another revolution were felt in 2010, when Greg Gatlin opened Gatlin’s BBQ in the Heights, gaining rave reviews for his mix of East Texas slow cooking and Central Texas reverence for brisket with an added dash of Creole. Then Ronnie Killen upped the ante in 2013 with Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, where folks would line up for hours to get their paws on the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef’s undeniably delicious beef. A year later Russell Roegels turned his branch of Baker’s Ribs into Roegels Barbecue Co. and transformed into a modern-day meat wizard unafraid of venturing beyond the Central Texas–style template, serving up exceptional pastrami and butchering and smoking whole hogs monthly in addition to the standard (exceptional) brisket.
The dam burst in 2015 with a steady stream of new pitmasters hungry to expand the boundaries of the barbecue experience with their own experiments. The result? The Bayou City is officially the place to be if you want to sample the wares of some of the greatest minds in smoked meat. (And sides. And desserts. Really, it’s all pretty remarkable.) And what they’re serving up draws on everything—the secrets of pit bosses who have been doing this for generations, the recipes inspired by Vietnamese heritage, this city’s avowed love of Tex-Mex, and more—to create something distinct, delicious, and very, well, Houston.
Like, say, Khói BBQ and that Insta-friendly panang curry with beef rib. And perhaps Khói’s Don Nguyen explains it best: “We just do stuff that we like to do, to be honest."