Trent Brooks, a second-generation pitmaster, packed up his entire barbecue operation -- smoker and all inside a trailer the size of an Airstream -- and headed south from Cypress. Ronnie Killen stayed awake for 19 hours straight, tending to 1,000 pounds of meat smoking in his pits overnight. José Luis Lopez made a rare appearance outside his family store, Gerardo's, located in Lindale Park, to serve his famed barbacoa to a hungry crowd.
These men and more -- from a total of 15 barbecue restaurants, joints, shacks and trailers across the greater Houston area -- devoted themselves fully to the inaugural Houston Barbecue Festival at the Bayou City Event Center for one reason: to finally prove once and for all that Houston does have good barbecue. It's just a matter of knowing where to look.
This is exactly what prompted barbecue connoisseurs J.C. Reid and Michael Fulmer to create the city's first barbecue festival yesterday afternoon, a showcase in the style of the much larger Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival -- an annual event in Austin that brings in pitmasters from across the state -- but with a focus solely on Houston.
You'd never know that Reid and Fulmer aren't pros, however, nor would you have guessed from the smooth way in which the event ran that this was the first Houston Barbecue Festival. But it did. Lines were long but manageable and fast-moving. The weather was cold and windy, but the pitmasters were able to compensate and keep their smokers just hot enough. And everyone got their fill of barbecue -- which was more than worth the $40 admission.
Most important, the event showcased the best of the best around town for the guests lucky enough to get one of the 1,300 tickets before they sold out. (The cut-off was a smart choice, ensuring that lines wouldn't be too long and that food would be plentiful.) Fulmer and Reid -- inveterate barbecue hounds -- had carefully curated the 15 barbecue joints to this end. There was no filler here, just 15 solid examples of barbecue across the spectrum.
Jamie Fain brought his Tennessee-style barbecue, served at Fainmous BBQ in Meyerland. José Luis Lopez brought the Mexican barbacoa that he normally only serves on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And nearly everyone brought their best brisket, although the crowds I talked to generally agreed that husband-and-wife team Will and Nichole Buckman of Corkscrew BBQ won the unofficial "best brisket" award for the day.
Along with nearly everyone else in attendance, I tried a few new places I'd never even heard of -- Tin Roof BBQ, Brooks's Place BBQ -- and came away with mixed emotions. I was incredibly impressed with every bite of brisket and every nibble at a pork rib, with every vinegary sauce and spoonful of beans. So why have I always held fast to the idea that truly great barbecue doesn't exist in large quantities in Houston?
It's a commonly held opinion and one that I'm now embarrassed to admit I've perpetuated. I simply wasn't looking hard enough. It's easy to get too focused on the bounty of other food at our doorstep. And it's easy to get disappointed too many times by subpar executions of a genre you hold dear and to give up looking entirely.
Fulmer, Reid and the pitmasters at the Houston Barbecue Festival know better, though. This year's festival -- the first in what I hope will be a long and successful line of hickory-scented, eye-opening, finger-licking festivals to come -- was more than an all-you-can-eat buffet line of meat. It was a reminder that Houston does have a rich and prolific barbecue heritage -- if you know where to look. These men are here to show you the way.