When most chefs aim for national acclaim, they start small: for example, by opening a 31-seat restaurant in a slightly obscure part of downtown Houston. Then they parlay that success into a lower priced, more accessible concept: for example, a “neighborhood business” in collaboration with a popular bartender.
Ronnie Killen isn’t like most chefs. Between Killen’s Barbecue, Killen’s Steakhouse, and Killen’s Burgers, he already serves the kind of popular fare that’s earned him both local acclaim and financial success. Still, he’s eager to show that his skills extend beyond any specific genre.
That demonstration begins Monday when Killen’s STQ opens in the former Bramble space on Voss. First announced in September, the eagerly anticipated restaurant had been slated to open this week, but Killen pushed it back due to a delay in receiving his final permits. That gives the restaurant some time for a couple of invite-only friends and family services to get the flow down. As the chef learned when he opened Killen’s Burgers, his name brings high expectations, and he wants everything to go perfectly when the doors open.
Killen has grand ambitions for his first restaurant inside the Houston city limits. If all goes according to plan, the restaurant’s blend of barbecue and steakhouse will propel him from a genre chef to being considered for honors like the James Beard Awards.
“What I tell everybody is it’s going to be food I like to cook and food I like to eat,” he says. “It’s not going to be a steakhouse where everything is all steak. It’s not going to be a burger place. It’s not going to be barbecue. It’s going to be whatever I like to cook. I’m excited about it, because there’s not limitations on what I can do and what I can’t do.”
At the Taste of the Texans charity fundraiser and the Houston BBQ Throwdown, Killen has demonstrated some of the dishes he intends to serve. Smoked short rib shows up in both tamales and ravioli. The reaction has been favorable so far; the restaurant won the top prize at both events.
“I’m bringing my A game, and this is something I hope is going to get me local media, national coverage,” Killen says. “Just because, we’re going to do something different here. It’s going to be special. If we get noticed for that, that’s what I’m shooting for. I don’t want to be mediocre in anything I do. I know that sounds cocky, but I’m setting out because I want this to be a top five restaurant. That’s what my goal is.”
To achieve that goal, the restaurant will offer a diverse array of dishes: everything from ambitious fare like octopus with fennel and arugula to comfort food like house-cured bacon, shrimp and grits, and even fried chicken. Killen thinks the restaurant’s dry aged pork chop will become a signature item.
Killen will be cooking on the line alongside his veteran sous chef Teddy Lopez. Plating and presentation will be more refined than at the steakhouse, but the technique of cooking over live coals is about as old-fashioned as it gets.
“The way we’re going to be cooking here is a lot different than infrared broilers and all the new technology. It’s about coals, it’s about burning a nice clean fire (and) wood combustion,” Killen says. “There’s a lot that goes into the process, more than we’re going to put some wood in and smoke it and that’s what it’s going to be like.”
That elevated food will be paired with a more elegant atmosphere and refined service in an intimate space that will seat about 60 diners. Killen has installed wood-patterned tile over the restaurant’s concrete floor and added storage for wine bottles and glasses. He’s purchased top quality dishes and utensils to rest on top of white tablecloths.
While that atmosphere and Killen’s reputation mean diners will enter with sky-high expectations, the chef says he’s trying to dial back his occasionally cantankerous social media persona. The chef says he’s learned that he can’t make everyone happy, but he still reserves the right to take to the keyboard every now and then.
“I’m not going to say I’m not going to fire back if somebody insults me or my cooks or the person shucking corn or my lady who taught me how to make tamales,” he says. “Me, I can take it. My staff, that’s when the claws come out.”
Potential social media kerfuffles aside, the focus at Killen’s STQ will be squarely on the food. Whether diners will embrace Killen’s “me on a plate” approach remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue with the chef’s track record of success.