Restaurant Reviews

Killen's STQ Over-Delivers in a Blissful Marriage of Steak and Barbecue

The pecan smoked pork belly is swathed in a caramelized, cherry habanero barbecue sauce.
The pecan smoked pork belly is swathed in a caramelized, cherry habanero barbecue sauce. Photo by Troy Fields
At most restaurants, the daily specials spiel given by the server is something to be endured. Half the time the server delivers a forced, expressionless series of semi-memorized words, often stumbling or referring to a written cheat sheet. Richard, our server at Killen’s STQ, knew his specials by heart, and it showed, so our party listened.

Did we want the smoked 48-hour braised beef cheeks over mezcal-lime risotto by chef Teddy Lopez? It sounded good, but not as good as the last recitation: “And for our steak special tonight, we have a 48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu rib eye. I tried it earlier, and in my opinion, it’s the best thing on the menu today.”

That last special, and his delivery of it — the way in which he seemed to be savoring the taste of the meat while he described it — was the clincher. My eyes sought those of my table companion’s questioningly, and I saw my thoughts mirrored in her own. “To share?” I asked. “Sounds good to me,” she replied. Our table companions (we were four that night) enthusiastically agreed, and it was done.

click to enlarge The 48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu ribeye was perfection indeed. - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
The 48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu ribeye was perfection indeed.
Photo by Troy Fields
That long bone-in Wagyu rib eye was ours.

I’d had my eye on a version of that rib eye since dining at Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland years ago, before the steakhouse moved to larger, swankier digs. During that visit, I remember ordering a chicken-fried steak, only to spend the rest of the evening envious of my friends who had gone for the gold and ordered what was then the best cut in the house: a 32-ounce long bone-in dry-aged Wagyu rib eye attached to a bone that looked to be more than two feet long.

Many steak restaurants, like Eddie V’s or Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, offer “tomahawk” steaks, but the bones on those, though impressive, are more stubby, like the handle on a ping-pong racket. The Killen’s long bone was caveman-like in its presentation, like a baseball bat made entirely of bone. In fact, I’d never seen a bone so magnificent in proportion, and it was always something I had wanted to try. Now I had my chance without making the drive to Pearland.

Killen’s STQ, which opened in early December 2016, is chef and owner Ronnie Killen’s fourth brick-and-mortar restaurant, and the first to open in Houston proper. He’d been teasing Houstonians with the possibility for years. A highly publicized project at the former Stella Sola location in the Heights fell through, followed by a partnership with Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill that never made it to fruition. Until STQ, which is pronounced “ess-tee-kyoo” (the “ST” symbolizes steak and the “Q” stands for barbecue), those wanting to try Killen’s meat mastery would have to drive to Pearland.

Killen, who got a culinary degree at Le Cordon Bleu in London, is a bona fide chef. He’s also passionate and hardworking. His motto, which echoes through all his restaurants, is one that emphasizes quality over profit. His is a brand that always tries to over-deliver, and he truly cares about making his customers happy.

STQ is not Killen’s biggest restaurant. With only 60 seats, it’s probably not going to be his highest-grossing restaurant either. But there’s a disarming unpretentiousness about it that makes it as much a foodie destination as a Houston destination. This is the type of restaurant I want to bring my friends to when they come in from out of town, a place that captures the very essence of Houston’s well-known hospitality.

From the moment you walk through the doors, it feels warm and friendly. Just like the smell of cookies baking in the oven, the faint smell of smoke that permeates the restaurant gives the space a decidedly homey feel, something that is underscored by the one-room, all-wood interior.

Killen didn’t spend too much on renovating the place, opting to keep most of the design from the building’s former occupant, Bramble, and investing in things like high-end Italian linens by Frette, Laguiole knives from France — details that make the dining experience more luxurious — and a wood-burning stove.

The menu, a one-pager that is printed daily, reads a lot like his steakhouse menu, but with a stronger emphasis on starters, many of which have won prizes at food competitions. The first item on the menu — a must-order if it’s your first time at Killen’s and you want to experience what decadence truly tastes like — is the pecan-smoked pork belly. Swathed in a caramelized, cherry habanero barbecue sauce, and grilled until it’s charred on the edges with an almost molten center, it’s like taking a bite of the juiciest, fattiest piece of barbecue pork ribs you’ve ever tasted, only better, and without a bone.

A roasted corn ravioli, which comes four to an order in a bed of corn milk, leaves an indelible impression, the handmade pasta exhibiting a chewy resiliency that you can find only with fresh pasta. Biting into it results in a warm gush of smooth, sweet corn with a hint of spice and smoke to balance out the sweetness. But the thing that took that dish to the next level was the corn milk. Thickened to a chowder consistency and ladled generously into the shallow pasta bowl, it was like dessert before the dessert, and so good that I used my spoon to lap up every bit of it. My only criticism of the dish would be that for $14, I wanted more ravioli — six or eight instead of four.

The menu leans heavily on meat and protein, so if you’re looking for a bunch of vegetarian options, you’re going to be out of luck. Wanting to balance our meal with vegetables, we ordered both the butter lettuce salad and the spinach and strawberry salad on one evening, and while they were both fine, they won’t blow your socks off in the way the meat will. That said, on another evening, my companion and I were both impressed with a gorgeously plated vegetarian daily special in the form of a compressed watermelon salad with crisp and tangy pickled beets over a bed of whipped goat cheese.

Now to the important part, which is the meat. “You can’t go to a steakhouse and not eat steak,” my companion sagely pointed out during my second visit, when I asked her if the barbecue Maine lobster tail or the dry-aged long bone pork chop (when have you ever seen that on a menu?) was something she wanted to try.

So, while you have the option of ordering the Snake River Farms chicken-fried rib eye; or the very interesting-sounding smoked brisket pappardelle pasta; or the grilled gulf red snapper with crawfish lemon butter — dishes that would definitely pique one’s interest at any Southern restaurant — at STQ, you will be best served by focusing on the beef.

The choices offered can make your head spin a little. Do your taste buds lean toward wet-aged beef? If so, there’s 28-day wet-aged USDA Prime, Nebraska corn-fed fillet, rib eye, New York strip or bone-in rib eye. For the dry-aged-steak lover, STQ offers USDA Prime, Illinois corn-fed, 21-day dry aged 32-ounce porterhouse, rib eye and New York strip.

Those wanting to go for premium meats can try Mishima the Ranch Wagyu filet mignon. Or, for an over-the-top experience, the Japanese A5-grade Wagyu beef from Kumamoto Prefecture is available, a beef so rich and buttery, its standard cut is just four to six ounces (additional ounces can be added to the minimum order at the market price of about $40 per ounce).

While my companion chose a dry-aged rib eye (our server suggested that it would be more deeply flavored than the wet-aged bone-in rib eye), I was determined to try the Post Oak smoked salt and pepper beef short rib, which dominates on the STQ Instagram feed. One of Killen’s signature items at his barbecue joint, here the gargantuan, two-pound rib is a steal at just $35.

Presented on a Boos Block wooden carving board side by side with my companion’s 16-ounce rib eye, the beef rib stole the show. Cutting into the blackened outer crust yielded succulent and jiggly, melt-in-your-mouth beef rib reminiscent of a moist cut of beef brisket, with a more concentrated flavor. The rib was so big and the meat so rich, however, that my companion and I probably finished only a fifth of it. The lesson learned: Order the beef rib when you have enough people to share it with, and you’ll have room in your stomach for other things.

You should definitely save room for Killen’s sides, which are all served in round Staub cast-iron serving dishes. His famed, award-winning creamed corn — spicy, creamy, sweet and worth craving — is a must if you haven’t already ordered the corn ravioli. Over two visits, we also enjoyed sides of braised collards, Kennebec potato black truffle parmesan french fries, sautéed mushrooms, and truffle mac and cheese, which the kitchen was nice enough to make for us when we requested a mac and cheese without the standard gouda. An added bonus was that everything was generously portioned, so that we always had enough left over to take home. A skillet potato topped with fried egg was the only side that didn’t quite reach its potential, with the potatoes coming out soggy and underdone instead of crispy. Nonetheless, we were happy overall.

click to enlarge The maple bacon croissant tres leches bread pudding was pillowy and soft inside; brown and crisp on the outside. - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
The maple bacon croissant tres leches bread pudding was pillowy and soft inside; brown and crisp on the outside.
Photo by Troy Fields
Another thing that made us happy? The desserts. We looked at the menu and zeroed in on the two that were the most unique. Maple bacon croissant tres leches bread pudding? Yes, and yes and yes again. Inside, the bread pudding was pillowy and soft like custard, with a creamy ooze that hit just the right notes of sweetness. Outside, it was browned and crisp with bits of bacon for added crunch, and a light maple fragrance. Just exemplary.

The smoked chocolate cake with cherries was also excellent, even if the bread pudding overshadowed it somewhat. Presented on a round wooden block that looked like a cross-cut section of a tree trunk, the chocolate cake came with a glass lid, which when removed let out a whoosh of bourbon-scented smoke. It was a definite “wow” moment. The chocolate cake itself was terrific, too, like a devil’s food cake with a pleasing smokiness that wasn’t too overpowering.

With Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s Barbecue, Ronnie Killen has become something of a celebrity in Pearland. Born and raised in the area, he is the reigning king of that restaurant land, a big fish in a little pond. With celebrity endorsements by the likes of J.J. Watt, Killen could have gone big in Houston as well, but he chose to start with the modestly sized STQ, marrying his greatest hits — steak and barbecue. And that’s the best move he could have made.

click to enlarge Ronnie Killen opted to keep most of the design from the building’s former occupant, Bramble. - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
Ronnie Killen opted to keep most of the design from the building’s former occupant, Bramble.
Photo by Troy Fields
Six months in, STQ has already become one of Houston’s essential restaurants, a place where you go, not only for steak and ’cue, but for a quintessentially Houston experience. Reservations for the 7 p.m. prime seating are still booked at least a month out, and the quality of the service and the food are just as good if not better than what you’d experience at his well-established and highly lauded restaurants in Pearland.

And that 48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu rib eye that I’d waited years to taste? Ours came with an extra-big rib-cap, its crust intensely brown with a strong outer sear, and a deep rose-colored center that was the very definition of a perfect medium rare. I looked around the table as everyone took a bite, chewing slowly and nodding at the same time as involuntary moans of food pleasure erupted, making words completely unnecessary.

Killen’s STQ
2231 South Voss, 713-586-0223, Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sundays.

Pecan-smoked pork belly $13
Roasted corn ravioli $14
Watermelon salad special $12
Butter lettuce salad $10
USDA Prime, Illinois corn-fed dry-aged 16-ounce rib eye $50
Post Oak smoked salt and pepper beef rib $35
48-ounce Snake River Farms long bone-in Wagyu rib eye $165
Creamed corn $9
Sautéed mushrooms $9
Truffle mac and cheese $15
Smoked chocolate cake $9
Maple bacon tres leches croissant bread pudding $9

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham