Pretty much everyone agrees Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland is just about one of the best steakhouses anywhere, but chef Ronnie Killen says there's one thing he does even better than steaks. And that's barbecue.
Killen, a native Texan, was born in Victoria but his family moved to Pearland when he was in the third grade. He started cooking at age eight and when he was 22, his dad bought an old ice house in Pearland.
"I helped him turn it into a barbecue joint," Killen says. "The next year, in 1991, I opened my own barbecue place, Killen's Kountry BBQ."
It was the only restaurant on 288 between Houston and Freeport and it did well.
"We had specials everyday," he recalls. "It would be barbecue chicken one day and then something else. But Friday was always steak day. A 16-ounce rib eye and baked potato for $6.99. To this day I have customers come into Killen's Steakhouse and tell me they used to eat there on Fridays for steak day."
Chef Ronnie Killen says there's one thing he does even better than steaks. And that's barbecue.
Killen opened a sports bar, moved the barbecue eatery to a bigger location and eventually closed them, deciding he wanted to learn about fine dining. He applied for a position at the old Brownstone, even though he didn't know what a sous chef was.
"I told 'em I didn't know what the position was," he says, "but I told them I could cook."
After he prepared a three-course meal for the manger, he started working that night.
But after six months he realized he would never be an executive chef without formal training so he applied to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in London. Killen graduated first in his class, went on to work at several restaurants in the U.S. and finally returned home and opened the acclaimed steakhouse in Pearland in 2006.
And now he's come full circle. Yep, he's back to barbecue.
The best barbecue, period
At first, he planned to move the steakhouse to a new location and open Killen's BBQ in the old location. That didn't quite pan out, but while he was looking for more real estate, he decided he couldn't wait to start serving the meats he'd been working on for almost a year, so he opened a pop-up barbecue restaurant inside the steakhouse on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
"There were 20 people waiting in line when we opened our first pop-up on March 30," Killen says. "We did $5,000 in sales that morning." Compare that to the $125 he did in sales on the first day of his first barbecue restaurant.
And there are other differences as well.
The menu is classic Central Texas barbecue: Pork sausage, brisket and amazing beef short ribs.
"With the first place I was just cooking," he says. "Now there's a whole chemistry behind it, the rendering of the fat, the way the smoke ring develops."
Killen buys prime meats, cuts and cooks everything himself. The menu is classic Central Texas barbecue: Pork sausage, brisket and the amazing beef short ribs that won him top honors at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Best Bites Competition this year. They are $12 a pound, but you have to get there early or they might be sold out. He also makes three types of sauces: A tangy one, a sweet one and a coffee-flavored one.
And, by the time you read this, he may have already closed on a building for the new venture.
"It was a cafeteria for the school next door in the 1950s," he says. "We have pictures of kids eating there from old year books."
It's also surrounded by hundred-year-old trees that will fit in perfectly with Killen's idea for an outdoor patio with picnic tables. But it's really the barbecue that this award-winning chef is excited about.
"I don't want to be the barbecue place that has the best brisket," Killen says seriously. "I don't want to be the barbecue place with the best sausage. I want to be the best barbecue place period."
It's about time the Houston area had a barbecue spot that can take on Franklin Barbeque in Austin. And chef Killen might just the guy to do it.