Just back from a Super Bowl ring ceremony in Boston, where he’d received a parting token from the town he’d left behind for the Bayou City, Vince Wilfork, the Houston Texans’ new 325-pound nose tackle, was tucking into a meal of brisket, collard greens, dirty rice and fried mac ‘n’ cheese at Jackson Street BBQ.
“There’s a rumor you left the Patriots and signed with the Texans because the barbecue in Houston is so much better than the barbecue in Boston,” we said, prompting Wilfork to set down his fork and smile. “Let’s just say it didn’t hurt.” The fact that he could create the most fearsome defensive line in the NFL, along with J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, probably didn’t hurt either.
“There aren’t any barbecue joints in New England. I had to cook for myself,” said the Florida native, explaining that he loves to make ribs, pork chops and chicken. Wilfork even built his own barbecue smoker, something the internet caught a glimpse of last May, after his wife posted what became a viral video of her husband tending a batch of ribs, all the while singing and dancing to a chopped and screwed version of “Wanna Be a Baller” by Houston’s own Lil’ Troy.
And with that, Wilfork went from being an interesting addition to the Texans’ line-up to a fledgling Houston celebrity. “It's like he knew he was coming to Houston, already jamming to H-town music,” commented an excited new fan on YouTube. “Welcome to H-town, Vince. Looks like you [are] going to fit in perfectly.”
Eager to compare techniques, we asked him about his pork ribs, which he barbecues untrimmed and without either parboiling or braising them. “Cooking in the oven is not barbecuing,” he said. “I wrap them in foil when they are done and hold them in an ice chest.”
What about brisket, we asked. Turns out, Wilfork was initially reluctant to embrace the Texas favorite. “Back in Boston,” he said, “a friend of mine came over one day and said, ‘Let’s cook a brisket!’ We put it on at 9 o’clock at night. We got a 24-pack of beer to keep us awake. About midnight, we decided to take a little nap. I woke up in the middle of the night and asked him if he’d been checking on the fire. He said he had, but when I got up and went outside, there was snow on top of the smoker.”
Undeterred, Wilfork tried again and again over the next few months, each time with mixed results. “I cooked brisket a few times after that and got it right—it tasted okay. But the truth is, brisket is hard to cook—you’ve got to have 12 or 18 hours or whatever, and I like my sleep.”
The brisket at Jackson Street, however, seemed to be working its magic. “This is good” came the verdict. “I want to put this on a sandwich!” Overhearing the request, Jackson Street pitmaster Brandon Allen sent out the restaurant’s popular burnt-ends biscuit. Wilfork took a large bite before roaring his approval. “Gol dog it!”
Wilfork was given an up-close look at Jackson Street's twin J&R Oyler smokers, which are heated exclusively with wood but contain electric rotisseries that rotate the meat, necessitating little supervision. “You can even go home and get some sleep when you cook briskets on one of these,” laughed partner Greg Gatlin. Wilfork seemed to consider the idea, or at least store it away for future reference.
“Cooking is in my blood—I may want to open a restaurant some day after I retire,” he said, speculating that Houston might be a great place to gather ideas. “I want to learn all about Texas barbecue. I’m in the capital of barbecue, and I’m going to take advantage of that.”
Wilfork said he was only 6 or 7 when he started barbecuing with his dad. “I would keep an eye on the grill and move things around. And I got a little sample as my reward.” His father having passed away in 2002 while Wilfork was still in college at the University of Miami, he sees tending the pit as a way of connecting to his roots.
“I am carrying on a family tradition with my barbecue. I think of my dad every time I make barbecue sauce.”