Ritual's surf and turf features a cut of pork it calls “poorman’s porchetta,” presented with rice grits and greens and topped with oyster, shrimp and a deep but loose gravy. Cutting into the porchetta, back in December when I reviewed the restaurant, I noticed the dark coloring in the meat and a band of fat that glistened through the outside layer. Right away I thought to myself, this can’t be pork; maybe the pork loin was wrapped with deckle (rib eye cap) because this meat looked and handled like beef. Indeed, I was wrong.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught up with Felix Florez, founder of Black Hill Meats and co-owner of Ritual, for a lesson on livestock. Florez explained that when pork is raised correctly outdoors, with plenty of sunshine and space, that’s the outcome: “Heritage hogs have a much redder-looking meat, similar to beef. Exposing animals to sunlight increases the vitamin D in its meat, raises the pH and improves the texture overall."
In 2009, while working as the wine director at Brennan’s, Florez made a startling realization that every product coming through the kitchen and into the dining room did not come from Texas. “I think I got into the business at the very beginning of the local farm-to-table movement."
A sustainable food culture had been growing in Houston throughout the great recession (between 2007 and the summer of 2009), and with Hurricane Ike came a dramatic increase in demand and supply. In a 2010 Houston Public Media article about the local food movement, Sharon Siehl (Recipes for Success and the Houston Food Policy Workgroup with Crossley) noted that the “food system in Houston is very fragile and very dependent on food items coming from far away.”
After finding three acres on the edge of Cypress near Katy, he rigged his dad’s old trailer and drove northeast to Nacogdoches to see a man about some pigs. Florez comes from a long line of ranchers and farmers, growing everything from watermelon and corn to sheep, cattle and hogs. Upon careful research, he decided that raising cattle would take too long, so he brought home three Berkshire hogs, one male and two females. Originally the idea was to acquire more property to increase product because of demand, but “$20,000 per acre was a lot of money."
Florez started making connections within the farming and ranching world, discovering pockets of people growing livestock the right way, without gestation crates, without hormones and without concrete, just naturally raising.
This system of contractors gave raise to Black Hill Meats. Florez was and still is involved with all parts of the process, from building fences and pastures, feeding and repairing pens, to dropping off and butchering. “I’ve sacrificed a lot of time with my family for this," he says.
Today, Black Hill Meats can be found in restaurants like Riel, Presidio, Underbelly and One/Fifth, and it sells eight types of heritage hogs, including Berkshire, Hereford and the elusive Ossabaw Island hogs. These island hogs are descended from the Spanish Iberian breed. Explorers during the 16th century left a herd of Iberian pigs on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The cross-breeding of the Spanish pigs with feral hogs that lived on the island produced this much sought-after breed, considered to be artisanal and most suitable for curing and whole-hog roasting.
In 2015, when restaurateur Ken Bridge approached Florez about the opportunity to collaborate on Ritual, they talked long and seriously about meat and what it means to honor local ranching and farming. The two men have a lot in common, says Florez.
“Ken is hard-working and dedicated to his projects and I am no stranger to getting my hands dirty. We don’t do anything half-assed. The Ritual concept is so well thought out, we’ve put so much heart and soul in that restaurant."
Florez wanted to add a feature from old European butcher shops, where guests could see actual hanging carcasses. The dry-aging locker and butchery are visible behind glass windows and diners are encouraged to watch as their steaks are cut to order.
“Transparency is important; people need to know where their food is coming from."
These days, Florez has more flexibility in his days; his 4 a.m.-to-midnight schedules have been replaced by more time with his kids and his wife, Jeanette.
Florez says his current plans include raising capital for a processing plant to handle his own slaughtering. "Being on someone else’s timetable is not the best scenario and with our own plant, we can expand the line to include poultry and rabbit."
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As for Ritual, he and Bridge are still honing the craft, and they've been leaning toward an elevated fast-casual or counter-service version of Ritual, offering the same high-quality meats and fresh local veggies. “We’re taking our time to research and doing things right,” he adds.
“We want to make sure we continue to offer dishes that are widely accepted by a large group of diners, not just the few foodies who may recognize the deckle-like tenderness of our porchetta," he says. Touché, Mr. Florez.
Ritual, 602 Studewood
Hours: Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Special brunch menu available on the weekends
Black Hill Meats, blackhillmeats.com
13410 West Road, Suite D, 713-937-1255