Reading CultureMap’s list of Houston’s best barbecue joints in 2013 feels like a time warp. A lot has changed in six years.
Back then, Ronnie Killen’s had already begun earning raves for his barbecue pop-ups, but his namesake barbecue joint wouldn’t open for several months. Patrick Feges was still holding occasional pop-ups as a side project to his job as a line cook at Underbelly (he started working at Killen’s in 2014). Gatlin’s had a tiny location on 19th Street, CorkScrew was a trailer, and the location that would eventually become The Pit Room was still a porn shop.
Perhaps none of those single facts is more surprisingly than that Rudy’s, the San Antonio-based chain of barbecue restaurants, had a legitimate claim as a top 10 barbecue spot.
Now, Houston can confidently hold its collective head high as the home to a dozen top quality barbecue joints. Putting together a fully ranked list of CultureMap’s Top 100 restaurants required making some choices, of course, which meant only allocating nine spots to barbecue and leaving off a couple of worthy operations.
Blood Bros. BBQ might be the biggest snub of the whole list. Not only did the Bellaire barbecue joint win Best New Restaurant in this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, but it’s been flying high thanks to national attention from the likes of Texas Monthly, the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Smithsonian magazine. According to these outside observers, the Blood Bros. — actual brothers Robin and Terry Wong and pitmaster Quy Hoang — are changing Texas barbecue with their only-in-Houston, Asian-influenced ‘cue (Thai curry boudin, smoked turkey banh mi, brisket fried rice, etc), while serving a satisfying version of the classic Texas trinity.
Novelty is a good way to earn recognition, and the Blood Bros. worked hard for years before becoming a national sensation. I just wish it were a little more consistent from visit-to-visit. Sorry, guys. Tell people you’re 101.
As for the restaurants that did make the list, they hold their own with Texas’ best. Six years ago, one very good meat made a place a destination; now, any restaurant that can’t deliver consistently outstanding brisket, ribs, and sausage is an also-ran. Unique dishes, innovative sides, and creative desserts help elevate some places over others, but none of these restaurants rest of their laurels.
Tejas Chocolates + Barbecue
From the beginning, we made a decision that we would only ask CultureMap readers to drive to a restaurant far outside the loop if it were truly outstanding. Tejas certainly fits the bill.
The restaurant’s chile relleno sausage ranks as among the single most satisfying bites served in any Houston barbecue joint, and the signature carrot souffle belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Houston barbecue sides. Its creative specials — everything from tacos and soups to a smoked cheeseburger that spawned a new restaurant — mean even regular patrons will likely find something new to try. While people are definitely lining up for the barbecue, anyone who leaves without taking home some of Tejas’ bean-to-bar chocolate truffles has made a terrible mistake.
Let’s not underestimate the difficulty of what pitmaster Leonard Botello IV has achieved at his Houston restaurant. Working mostly by himself with a single 500-gallon smoker, Botello drew crowds to Truth’s first location in Brenham. That wasn’t going to work in Houston, which is powered by five, 1,000-gallon smokers, all of which need constant tending.
While Botello can frequently be found cutting meat during lunch service, he’s also built a team of professionals who replicate his exacting standards. The results speak for themselves; Truth’s barbecue is as precisely cooked and deeply flavorful as any in the state. Recent additions to the menu like brisket boudin and spicy Pepper Jack sausage demonstrate that he’s just getting started creatively.
First-rate sides like corn pudding and tater tot casserole and those sky high Mama Truth layer cakes almost make the restaurant vegetarian friendly.
Perhaps no owners in Texas barbecue are more devoted to perfecting their craft than Nichole and Will Buckman. Their Spring barbecue joint is only open when they’re available to run it.
That level of care manifests itself in the expertly prepared ribs, brisket, and other meats that emerge from the smokers, as well as the peerless daily cobbler and homestyle sides. Equally impressive, they’ve built a team that’s just as devoted to the restaurant’s customers as they are, which means the service in the dining room is relentlessly friendly and helpful.
Who would have imagined that Ronnie Killen would go from hosting barbecue pop-ups in the parking lot of his steakhouse to serving smoked brisket and beef ribs at Texans home games? Well, maybe no one other than chef Killen himself, whose relentless drive for excellence has made him a local star.
Adding dinner service — a move so successful that its fajitas and brisket enchiladas inspired a separate restaurant — and more seating means that the days when the line would start at 9 am on weekends are mostly over, but the restaurant still serves more meats than just about any other restaurant in the Houston area; brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, homemade sausage, turkey, pulled pork, and a full range of sides and desserts are all available six days a week.
The Pit Room
This Montrose restaurant certainly didn’t invent the idea of combining Tex-Mex and barbecue, but it did bring the concept inside the loop. Combining carefully smoked brisket, pulled pork, or chicken in a tortilla made with smoked brisket fat and topped with a range of housemade pickled condiments and salsas proves to be virtually irresistible. A rotating selection of both vegetable and Tex-Mex style sides and some truly excellent queso round out the experience.
A food court in Greenway Plaza may seem like an unlikely location for a top-ranked barbecue joint, but chefs/husband-and-wife Patrick Feges and Erin Smith don’t seem too concerned about conforming to other people’s expectations. Feges is one of the very few local restaurants to serve Carolina-style whole hog daily, and Smith’s eclectic range of globally-inspired vegetable sides makes it a legitimate option for vegetarians.
The diverse menu and location combine to sights that are probably not seen at many other barbecue joints; people in business attire splitting a tray laden with brisket and ribs in line behind colleagues with a combo plate of smoked chicken, Brussels sprouts, and Moroccan-spiced carrots.
Grant Pinkerton’s restaurant may look like a Hill Country hunting lodge, but the rustic charm hides a sophisticated restaurant with an expansive whiskey selection and carefully chosen wine list. Signature items like the hulking beef ribs and “candy” glazed ribs draw crowds of eager diners, as does can’t-miss sides like smoked duck and sausage jambalaya and the jalapeño cheese rice.
Pinkerton’s serves meat that complies with halal strictures, and they accommodate observant Muslims by using separate knives and cutting boards to prevent contact with pork. Allowing your neighbors to get their only taste of real Texas barbecue — that’s an only-in-Houston hospitality moment.
Greg Gatlin’s barbecue joint has been in its “new” home for about four years, which means a majority of his customers probably don’t even remember the tiny house on 19th Street where he first made a splash. That’s just fine; the bigger Gatlin’s exceeds its predecessor by virtually every metric.
Expertly rendered brisket, ribs with just the right pull, and signature sides like green beans and dirty rice still constitute the primary draws, but the restaurant has a creative side, too. Executive chef Michelle Wallace oversees a diverse menu of creative sandwiches, chicken wings, and specials, including the chef’s utterly essential smoked seafood gumbo.
Roegels Barbecue Company
Since breaking away from the Baker’s Ribs franchise and operating under his own name, Russell Roegels has indulged a relentless curiosity to experiment with barbecue. When the results are as delicious as the pastrami he serves on Monday and Thursdays or the recently-introduced whole hog that’s been popping up as a monthly special, barbecue fanatics are the big winner.
Misty Roegels oversees sides and desserts; her bourbon banana pudding remains an important component of any meal at the restaurant.