Only one Houston-area pitmaster served food at the fifth annual Texas Monthly BBQ festival in Austin on Sunday, but the Bayou City was still well represented.
After a 4.75 star review from the magazine's barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn earned Killen's Barbecue the title of Newcomer of the Year, Ronnie Killen closed his restaurant for a day to bring his crew to Austin for the festival.
"We're hoping to represent Houston well," Killen told CultureMap about 30 minutes before the gates opened. "We have a ton of food. It's cooked good. Hopefully, we do a good job."
Killen says he was up until 2 a.m. Sunday morning, and his crew started back up at 5 a.m.
Rather than focus on only one or two meats, Killen aimed to make an impression by bringing some of every meat he serves at the restaurant that's already considered one of the best in Houston. "We have 51 briskets, six cases of beef ribs, 20 racks of bone-in pork belly, which is about 400 pounds. We have sausage. We have turkey. We have pork ribs," Killen explained.
They towed two pits to Austin and stayed up almost all night in order to cook the meats. Killen says he was up until 2 a.m. Sunday morning, and his crew started back up at 5 a.m. All the preparation paid off once the general admission attendees entered the festival at 1 p.m., because Killen's featured a consistent line of people eager to try a restaurant they'd mostly only read about.
Although only Killen's was serving, three Houston pitmasters also attended the event as eaters: Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ, Wayne Kammerl of The Brisket House and Nichole and Will Buckman of CorkScrew BBQ in Spring. In all, that means four of CultureMap's Top 10 Houston Barbecue Restaurants were represented at the festival on Sunday, or five if one counts Killen's employee Patrick Feges, who's a skilled pitmaster in his own right.
Asked about why he would drive 200 miles to eat barbecue on his day off, Gatlin explained. "This is my one time in the quarter that I can eat barbecue, and I don’t have to cook it myself."
"I think it's great to see everybody come together to try a bunch of amazing places from across the state. It’s crazy to see these long lines," Kammerl added.
While The Brisket House is becoming well-known for its beef ribs, Kammerl still hoped to pick up a few tricks. "The way these guys play with the different spices is really interesting. Everyone’s fairly similar in how they smoke their meat, but the spicing is what makes it unique."
Gatlin offered a similar thought. "You can always learn something. If you’re not growing and you’re not learning, you’re dead," he said.
An unofficial poll of the pitmasters and a few other Houston attendees produced a quick consensus about the best bites of the day. For brisket, no one could touch Austin's la Barbecue. Killen's scored with its spicy, juicy jalapeno sausage. A cherry-glazed rib from San Antonio's Two Bros. BBQ Market was an unexpected surprise. Naturally given its James Beard Award-winning pedigree, Louie Mueller Barbecue delivered spectacular beef ribs and a special lamb chop with jalapeno mint jelly.
Regardless of any person's favorite bite, the spirit of camaraderie that's an essential part of the barbecue scene pervaded the entire festival. Whether someone had driven three miles or 300, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Credit the pleasant temperatures and high quality meat for keeping everyone happy even when some places ran long lines.
Ain't Texas great?