The area around the Long Center in Austin smelled of delicious smoke on Sunday as Texas Monthly held its sixth annual barbecue festival. The event attracts pilgrims from all over Texas who want to sample food from 25 of the state's top barbecue joints all at one time.
Even an hour before the VIP gate opened at noon, dozens had begun to line up. After all, celebrated pitmaster Aaron Franklin brought 75 briskets (along with pulled pork and sausage) to the grounds, and waiting 30 to 45 minutes in line at the festival for a taste is a whole lot faster than four-plus hours at his nearby restaurant. Perfect weather made the waiting a little easier.
Truly well-prepared attendees roamed the grounds with cafeteria trays and gathered up tastes from several restaurants before finding a table to sample what they had accumulated. Those rewards ranged from expert-level brisket at places like Austin's La Barbecue and Dallas's Pecan Lodge to signature dishes like Louie Mueller's lamb chops and cherry-glazed pork ribs from Two Bros BBQ Market in San Antonio.
Freedmen's, this year's designated newcomer, made a strong first impression with two dishes that improvised on the conventions of Central Texas-style barbecue: King Ranch chicken sausage, which got all of the elements of the potluck classic into one bite, and a brisket chocolate chip cookie topped with a candied burnt end. The crowd seemed to enjoy the Austin joint's variety.
Killen's Barbecue served as the Houston-area's lone representative at the festival, and chef Ronnie Killen and his team did not disappoint. Toting a massive, trailer-mounted Oyler rotisserie smoker, the Pearland restaurant served brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs and sausage to a long line of attendees. Killen's steakhouse executive chef Joe Cervantez and chef de cuisine Chris Loftis assisted with the slicing.
Even though only one Houston barbecue joint attended the festival, the city still had a strong presence on the grounds. Houston pitmasters Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ and Wayne Kammerl of The Brisket House attended as spectators, while Misty and Russel Roegels of Roegels Barbecue Co assisted festival attendee Pody's BBQ.
Those who filled up on bites of salty, peppery, smoky meat could seek relief from some of the new-for-2015 dessert options including donuts from Austin's Gourdough's and chocolate from Dallas' Dude, Sweet Chocolate.
Great weather and better food certainly make the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival a must visit event for barbecue enthusiasts. Here's hoping more Houston joints elect to participate in 2016 and show the rest of the state what the city can do.