For the tens of thousands of visitors flocking to Houston for Super Bowl LI, few goals will be higher on the list than getting a taste of authentic Texas barbecue. While Houston has become known nationally for its diversity — just ask anyone who watched Anthony Bourdain’s trip through the city’s Parts Unknown last year — the old stereotypes about meat-loving Texans still holds true, at least to a certain extent.
Thankfully, the number of restaurants serving high-quality barbecue has never been higher. Inspired in part by the success of Austin’s acclaimed Franklin Barbecue, a wave of new school restaurants have flooded the market.
Dubbed “big city barbecue” by Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, these restaurants embrace the Central Texas ethos of all-wood cooking and pepper-heavy rubs with a couple of twists. In addition to the Texas trinity of beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage (typically a pork-beef blend), these restaurants also serve classic Southern-style pulled pork and pay more attention to side dishes and desserts than their more old-school brethren.
Killen’s Barbecue, which opened in 2014, began the wave of “big city barbecue” in Houston. Ronnie Killen brought his chef’s training to the restaurant’s menu, with the result being that sides like creamed corn (praised by JJ Watt on an episode of the HBO reality series Hard Knocks) and desserts (banana pudding, carrot cake) are also as much a part of the experience as the juicy brisket and meltingly tender beef ribs. Hour-long waits are common, although the recent introduction of dinner service should help a bit.
Pinkerton’s Texas Pit Barbecue made the jump from underground pop-ups to a brand new restaurant in The Heights. Roegels Barbecue emerged as one of the city's most innovative barbecue spots when owners Russell and Misty Roegels decided to end their relationship with Dallas-based Baker’s Ribs and go out on their own. Fans line up for specials like lamb chops and pastrami.
The most exciting new direction in Houston barbecue involves a variation on the big city trend that blends Central Texas-style barbecue with Tex-Mex flavors. At El Burro and the Bull, pitmaster John Avila mixes the training he received during a stint at Franklin Barbecue with his heritage growing up in Houston’s Second Ward neighborhood. The result are housemade flour tortillas, boudain, and tamarind barbecue sauce that represent an only-in-Houston mashup of Tex-Mex, Creole, and Asian influences.
Attendees at The Big Texas Party (presented by CultureMap, ESPN 97.5 and SB Nation) will get to taste bites from several of these leading lights and other rising stars in Houston’s barbecue scene. Pinkerton’s will serve classic Texas brisket along with its signature smoked duck and sausage jambalaya. Tomball’s Tejas Chocolate Craftory will also serve brisket and a carrot souffle that was one of the best bites at 2016’s Houston Barbecue Festival.
Don’t worry, Falcons fans; we’ll have plenty of smoked pig, too. Roegels and Harlem Road Texas Barbecue are both serving pulled pork. Patrick Feges, a CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year with experience at both Underbelly and Killen’s Barbecue, will serve Carolina-style whole hog with cornbread and coleslaw.
Ray’s Real Pit BBQ Shack will mix offer a diverse menu of brisket, ribs, beef belly sliders and a brand new side dish. Located in Southwest Houston, MADMAX BBQ has earned an enthusiastic following for its traditional, East Texas-style barbecue of tender ribs, smoked chicken, and saucy brisket. Killen’s also has yet to commit to a menu, but its crowd-pleasing appearances at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival mean that lines will be long for whatever chef Killen opts to serve.
Although VIP tickets are sold out, determined barbecue fans may want to consider finding a ticket scalper. El Burro and the Bull’s five-course menu that includes a field green salad salad with crawfish tail croquette, a slider trio (chopped beef, pulled pork, and jalapeno sausage), mac and cheese topped with pork rib, and a boudain-stuffed pork tenderloin promises to be the party’s culinary highlight.
Thankfully, general admission tickets remain, but they're going fast. In addition to bites from eight Houston-area barbecue joints, attendees of the Big Texas Party will get to meet legendary football players like Cris Dishman, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, and Randy White and listen to music by rising star Bart Crow. Don't miss it.