"This is a celebration of Houston barbecue, and that's what it's all about."
Leave it to Wesley Jurena, pitmaster of Pappa Charlies Barbeque, to offer such a succinct summary of the third annual Houston Barbecue Festival. Sunday, 21 Houston barbecue joints and two central Texas stalwarts gathered at NRG Park.
Just as Houston's barbecue scene has exploded over the last three years, the festival has grown, too. A sold-out crowd of 2,000 filled the festival grounds (aka, the Green Lot), and, while lines for meat at popular places like Gatlin's BBQ, Killen's Barbecue and Louie Mueller Barbecue could be long, they moved swiftly.
Just as Houston's barbecue scene has exploded over the last three years, the festival has grown, too.
Not surprisingly, almost every participant served beef brisket. The consensus among attendees seemed to settle on Killen's and Blood Bros. BBQ as standing out, but everyone who served it turned out a high-quality product.
In order to stand out from the other barbecue joints, some turned to less traditional meats. Louie Mueller featured smoked lamb ribs, and CorkScrew BBQ served both smoked pork belly and boudain-stuffed pork loin.
While all of those dishes had their fans, it was Tastemakers Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Patrick Feges who wowed the crowd with his Carolina-style whole hog. Feges built a pit in the NRG parking lot using cinder blocks as well as a "burn barrel" to turn pieces of wood into coals that would maintain the proper temperature.
Why serve whole hog? "Why not," he replied. "Everyone’s doing brisket. Everyone does brisket well . . . No one does whole hog in Texas. I want to get that going." Hopefully, Feges finds an opportunity to serve whole hog in his role as sous chef at upcoming Heights restaurant Southern Goods.
In general, a spirit of camaraderie filled the festival grounds, but the event was not without one major problem. The crowd's size and hot weather combined to overwhelm the festival's only beverage tent with attendees waiting half an hour for soda, water or beer. NRG beverage concessions are handled by catering giant Aramark, who really should have enough experience to have been better prepared. If the festival continues to grow, organizers should arrange for at least one additional tent to better handle the demand.
Of course, the festival will grow, since Houstonians' demand for the new wave of Central Texas-style barbecue appears virtually limitless. Four of the attendees, Louie Mueller Barbecue, El Burro & the Bull, Pappa Charlies and Pinkerton's Barbecue, are making plans to open brick and mortar locations in Houston. El Burro looks to be the most imminent, with pitmaster John Avila working on a project that will see him serve from a repurposed shipping container on the East End esplanade on Navigation.
Check out the video above to see more of the sights and sounds of the festival. Let's do it again next year.