For a cuisine that's defined by its adherence to tradition, barbecue in Houston has been evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. When I last tackled this topic in the summer of 2013, Killen's Barbecue was still a pop-up, CorkScrew Barbecue was still a trailer, Roegels Barbecue was still Baker's Ribs, and Rudy's BBQ was a legitimate choice.
Hell, I'm not even sure emerging pitmaster Grant Pinkerton was old enough to drink back then (okay, he was — barely).
Let's not mince words. Simply put, there has never been a better time to eat barbecue in Houston than right freaking now.
Not only do Houstonians no longer need to drive central Texas for quality 'cue, the city's pitmasters even have a few tricks that guys in Austin could learn from. As Chronicle barbecue columnist (something else that didn't exist in 2013) J.C. Reid noted in a column last summer, Houston barbecue is emerging as something that's distinct from both the central and east Texas styles that influence it.
Dishes like the gochujang burnt ends from Blood Bros or the masala-spiced tri tip at Pappa Charlies represent this new breed that infuses classic Texas barbecue with Asian flavors that restaurants like Oxheart and Underbelly have utilized in their rise to national prominence.
Even better, the city isn't remotely done when it comes to adding new concepts. Over the next few months, John Avila will bring El Burro and the Bull to Conservatory, the downtown food hall beneath Prohibition, 26-year old Pinkerton will open in the Heights, The Pit Room and Brookstreet Bar-B-Que should give Montrose two high-quality options, and Midtown Barbecue will combine the talents of a Louie Mueller-trained pitmaster with an accomplished local chef.
Swiss-born chef Ara Malekian will blend his experiences working for celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck with classic Texas flavors when he opens Harlem Road Texas Barbecue in Richmond later this spring. Someday, Louie Mueller Barbecue may actually follow through on its plans to open here.
That's to say nothing of the mini-boom happening in Houston's northern suburbs where places like Tejas Chocolate Craftory and Southern Q have attracted praise from barbecue bloggers and even Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn.
So, yes, this list will probably need another update in a year, but, for now, here are the top nine full-time barbecue restaurants in Houston. My apologies to pop-ups like the Blood Bros, who would probably have a spot on this list if they ever opened a restaurant, and to Southern Goods sous chef Patrick Feges, who only serves actual barbecue once a month — although the beef belly burnt ends on the Southern Goods menu may be the best barbecue-inspired dish in Houston.
Anyway, enough introductory chatter. Here are the updated ranks.
In the two years since he opened his brick and mortar restaurant, chef Ronnie Killen has raised the game for every other barbecue joint in the city. By bringing his training as a chef to the craft, Killen has developed excellent recipes for no fewer than seven different kinds of meats — brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, sausage, turkey, pulled pork and pork belly — all of which are properly seasoned, juicy, and smoky, as well as sides — just ask Texans superstar J.J. Watt about the creamed corn — and desserts like banana pudding and carrot cake.
If he had only done those things, dayenu, it would have been enough to cement his status as Houston's king of 'cue, but Killen's perfectionist streak means he keeps innovating. Whether serving tamales or fried chicken, Killen's specials could probably be standalone restaurants in their own right. Yeah, standing in line can be a pain, but just imagine how much longer it would be if he were more centrally located.
Making the transition from trailer to brick and mortar restaurant is a challenge for any restaurateur, but CorkScrew owners Nichole and Will Buckman have made it look easy. The quality of pitmaster Will's central Texas-style barbecue is at least as good, if not better than, it was prior to the move, and the restaurant's increased capacity means fans don't have to start lining up at 8 am on a Saturday just to get a beef rib (although being open past 4 pm is still pretty unusual). In particular, Buckman's brisket might be the best in the Houston-area: heavy with black pepper, always moist, with just the right amount of smoke.
Diners can also count on them being there every day, which means the owners have an eye on every order. It also means that Nichole won't let anyone screw up her signature cobbler, which is must order at the end of every meal.
Pappa Charlies Barbeque
Back in August of 2014, I wrote that "Pappa Charlies deserves to be busier." At the time, pitmaster Wesley Jurena was still serving from a trailer at Jackson's Watering Hole three or four days per week, and people could walk up and order without a line. Fresh off the heels of favorable reviews of his EaDo restaurant in both the Press and the Chronicle that have led to selling out of meat, I get the smug pleasure of saying I told you so.
Jurena's history in barbecue competitions means his pork ribs have a glaze that's balanced between sweet and spicy that are my favorite take on that particular meat in the entire city. His brisket and beef ribs are more classic, using salt, pepper, and smoke to excellent effect. Recent additions like bacon-wrapped, smoked meatloaf show that he's still got time to innovate a bit, too. Next up: buying a new smoker or two to deal with the increased demand.
Like CorkScrew, Roegels is decidely a family affair, with husband Russell tending the pits and wife Misty overseeing sides and desserts, including her peerless bourbon banana pudding. Just over a year ago, the Roegels broke away from the Dallas-based Baker's Ribs franchise and began serving more intensely flavored, central Texas-style barbecue. In addition to well-rendered brisket and top-flight ribs, Roegels has been experimenting with weekly specials like pork loin and lamb chops. He's even been testing a pastrami recipe. Meanwhile, Misty's bacon-spiked collard greens would hold their own at any of the city's wave of new Southern restaurants.
Next, Roegels has to see if he can train Grand Prize pop-up artist Willow Villarreal to replicate his style at Katy waterpark Typhoon Texas. If it's successful, the move will pave the way for Roegels to expand beyond their sole outpost in Briargrove.
The Brisket House
When a visitor from New York wanted to eat barbecue after a Texans game, I had to admit the options were pretty limited. By 4 pm, most places are either sold out (Killen's) or closed (CorkScrew). Thankfully, Brisket House owner Wayne Kammerl understands and keeps his restaurant open for dinner, even on Sunday. As the visitor sunk his teeth into moist, fatty brisket, peppery pork ribs, and a massive beef rib, the sting of the Texans' domination of his beloved Jets began to fade. Soon, Kammerl will add a Champions-area location that will bring him to a whole new audience, and people who live in the area will soon experience the same feeling of contentment that the New Yorker did.
Pitmaster Greg Gatlin has made such a successful transition to his new location that a recent Houstonia review of Gatlin's surely generated some chuckles from the restaurant's fans. In it, recent Vermont transplant Alice Levitt praised Gatlin's for its speedy service and lack of a line. What a change from the days at the old location on 19th Street when it could take 30 minutes or more after ordering to receive food.
Although its larger and more comfortable, the new location feels very familiar. Ribs still get a welcome dose of spice, and the brisket still has its peppery bark. Gatlin's dirty rice delivers some livery funk, and his mother Mary has a smile for every customer. That it's dropped a bit in my estimation has more to do with how well the newcomers have established themselves. Pushing forward with plans for plated items at dinner would help the restaurant stand out from the crowd and reassert its place at the top of Houston's barbecue scene.
Whether or not one agrees with owner/pitmaster Trent Brooks's vigorous support of Texas's recently enacted open carry law, let's not lose sight of how good his barbecue is. After all, it's one of the few Houston-area joints that made Texas Monthly's top 50 list in 2013, and Brooks has shown no signs of slipping. Both fatty and lean brisket are moist, and the fat is always well-rendered. Ribs have an excellent bark and good chew. Specials like smoked oxtails and bacon-crusted ribs show that Brooks isn't afraid to play around with tradition. Even the sides have taken a huge step forward recently thanks to additions like roasted Brussels sprouts and bacon-onion-garlic potatoes.
Jackson Street BBQ
Although Greg Gatlin may be focused on his Garden Oaks restaurant, pitmaster Brandon Allen ensures the barbecue he helped create for this venture with Reef owners Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd remains consistently good. The massive space is designed to feed a crowd, but thankfully the line moves quickly. The familiar menu of brisket, ribs, sausage, and chicken gets welcome additions in the form of a double-patty burger and the ability to order a barbecue sandwich on a jalapeno cheese biscuit. Expect the restaurant to be a popular pregame destination for Astros fans looking to avoid the doldrums of stadium nachos and hot dogs.
In general, the new wave of Houston barbecue joints have supplanted old favorites, but Pizzitola's still holds a special place in my esteem — and not just for its signature "grandfathered" brick barbecue pits. The brisket may be leaner and less aggressively seasoned than that sold by newcomers, but the signature ribs are still among the city's best. Their salt and pepper seasoning allows the pork's natural flavors to come through, and they're never overcooked or mushy. Table service from the ultra-friendly staff, the ability to get barbecue at dinner, and some of the best banana pudding anywhere make dining at Pizzitola's a throwback experience that's worth it.