General manager Michael Sambrooks tells CultureMap that he recruited Avila to helm the barbecue restaurant he had always planned to open in a former porn shop on Richmond, but that they've parted ways.
"I don’t want to get into the story of that," Sambrooks says. "John left to go work on his deal with El Burro & the Bull. We wish him the best."
Avila sees things differently, of course. He alleges that Sambrooks fired him immediately after he completed the restaurant's recipe book. In Avila's version, The Pit Room used him for the expertise he gained at Austin's celebrated Franklin Barbecue and then let him go.
"I had the strong feeling it was just a fuck job," Avila says. "That I was just getting screwed . . . At that point, I knew I needed to figure things out and protect myself."
In this case, figuring things out means focusing on El Burro & the Bull, the barbecue-based project Avila operates with his wife Veronica and his brother Jesse Gallegos. He's found a new home at Conservatory, the downtown beer garden that's opening below Prohibition Supper Club & Bar.
Ben McPherson, culinary directory for Conservatory owners the Silent Theatre Group, explains the reason he approached Avila about coming on board as one of the four providers in the food hall-style concept.
"Simple. Have you tried his barbecue? We did a tasting with him, and he literally floored us with his food," McPherson says. "He has an amazing track record and pedigree, too. The whole thing has come together very organically."
As soon as next month, Avila will serve standard barbecue plates and sandwiches at lunch. At night, he'll mix in some basket items like boudain balls, sausage plates and smoked chicken wings. If all goes according to plan, El Burro will even offer delivery of breakfast tacos to downtown offices.
Hot Bird restaurant
In addition to serving barbecue at El Burro & the Bull, Avila has also revived his plans to open a restaurant in a re-purposed shipping container on the Navigation Blvd esplanade. Now known as Hot Bird, the restaurant will feature smoked chicken wings with a global range of flavors like masala, fish sauce with Sriracha, mole, and Jamaican jerk. Avila would also like to add South American-style roasted chicken.
Plans for the container have been submitted to the City of Houston for approval, and Avila has a builder ready to start construction as soon as they're approved. Hot Bird could be serving as soon as March.
Pit Room moving forward
Meanwhile, The Pit Room is moving forward with former Coltivare sous chef Bramwell Tripp as executive chef. Construction has finally begun on that space, and it's on track to open in April. Ultimately, diners may not care much who's making the food as long as it's delicious, but Tripp and Sambrooks will have to execute at a high level to match Avila's skills.
If it all works out, the Houston barbecue boom will see two high-quality additions for the new year.