With 407 barbecue teams spreading across a major portion of the Reliant Stadium parking lot, the somewhat bizarre tableau of a western-themed tent city becomes the indelible image of the rodeo's World's Championship Bar-B-Q Contest. On Thursday night, the scene had the distinct feel of New Orleans Mardi Gras gone Lonesome Dove mad.
The high-decibel chords of competing Western bands, performing in most of the private party tents, pounded the ear drums while the fragrant smoke rising from hundreds of grills permeated every bit of clothing and every hair on your head. It was fabulous. Which explains why, last year, more than 220,000 western-clad revelers poured through the gates to join the three-day fest. As many if not more, thanks to better weather, are expected this year.
Imagine a network of mini-Bourbon Streets crawling with partying cowboys and cowgirls real and otherwise, a setting in which you actually can walk down the lane carrying your Miller Lite. If you're lucky enough to snare an invitation to the invite-only barbecue tents, the experience improves dramatically. Over the years, the cooking team venues have evolved from pokey tents (though some still exist) to elaborate club-like environments with flat screen TVs, historic paneled bars and over-the-top western decorations.
Probably no party tent is more fancied-up than that of the Club No Minors Cooking Team, the name derived from the back room of the El Patio restaurant on Westheimer. Scott Sullivan, El Patio owner, is a partner in the Club No Minors Team as is oilman David Nini (Lantana Oil & Gas) and Todd Johnson, president of Aztec Events &Tents, which explains the glam decor. Their vast tent with glass door siding is artfully draped in red satin and hung with chandeliers from the old Felix Mexican Restaurant. Add a huge flat screen where vintage Elvis and other old clips loop throughout the night. Their live band is Brotherhood, an eight-piece R&B group.
If you are really special, you can gain access to the super-private back room reserved for big-time clients and sponsors. It's carpeted in leopard print, has leather sofas and chairs and enjoys a very special cook-off amenity — air conditioning, especially welcome on this steamy Thursday night. Club No Minors, which has been competing in the barbecue challenge for 18 years, hosts around 1,000 visitors each day.
Across the way at CGGVeritas, Big Kahuna barbecue sponsor, things are pretty slick as well with enough real estate to allow for an outdoor, fenced-in dining area and an elaborate indoor tent with a dance floor large enough to accommodate the Gary P. Nunn fans. According to Mike Bertness, CGGVeritas vice president, Nunn performs there every year on Saturday night.
Highlight of this tent is the private back room decorated like a swank men's den with black leather sofas, wagon wheel chandeliers, a swell paneled bar and decorative rugs and cow skulls. VIP guests and entertainers only, thank you.
We were told about the Wild Game Crew tent where, in addition to all the requisite amenities, tinhorns could try their luck on the mechanical bull and where daring damsels could wriggle around the stripper poles. But, hey, we could handle only so much on one night. Missed that one.
If you're really traveling in tall cotton during the cook-off (or at anytime during the rodeo for that matter), make friends with one of the rodeo executive members such as Ed McMahon or one of the nicest former rodeo chairmen around, Paul Somerville, who provided us with a generous tour of the barbecue grounds on Thursday.
The barbecue action continues from noon to 11 p.m. on Friday and from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday. Barbecue winners will be announced at 6 p.m. Saturday.