The Third Annual Houston Barbecue Festival at NRG Park yesterday sold out, attracting attendees from all over Texas and even a restaurant owner from France. It was a great opportunity to catch up with several notable pit masters and get updates on their newest ventures, too.
More than 20 vendors gave out bites of brisket, ribs and sausage to a happy crowd. This year, though, there were unique offerings to be had as well. Wayne Muller of legendary Louie Muller Barbecue in Taylor tossed lamb chops in sweet jalapeño sauce with a salt-and-pepper rub. Why did they make lamb chops? "Because no one else is and lamb is the other red meat," he said with a grin. "We're always looking to extend ourselves. It's going back to our roots in a way. Lamb was one of our original meats and they've been off the menu for a few years."
Muller is looking to open a restaurant on the east side of Houston. To Houstonians, he says, "I'm coming ASAP! I will be here as soon as I can get that deal done. We may be on the bayou in EaDo. We're moving quickly and the spring of next year looks realistic."
Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ had his own unique offering: a whole, crispy-skinned pig from Black Hill Ranch. He seasoned it with salt and pepper and mopped with vinegar during the cooking process. It took 15 hours from start to finish. (Feges is also on-board to be the sous chef at forthcoming restaurant Southern Goods.)
Felix Florez of Black Hill Ranch was at Feges' booth when we visited and was able to tell us more about the poor soul who gave up his life for barbecue. "It's an 'Iron Age' hog," he said. "It's 50-percent domestic and 50-percent wild. The marbling, the color and taste is just fantastic compared to one or the other."
Southside Market and Barbeque was also among the participating restaurants. The original location in Elgin was established in 1882, which makes it the oldest barbecue joint in Texas. Owner Bryan Bracewell's family has been involved since 1968, starting with his grandfather, who was an Armour meat salesman and bought the business.
We asked what brought them to the Houston Barbecue Festival. "We live off the Austin-to-Houston traffic, so it was just a nice fit for us," explained Bracewell. "There are over 2,000 people here who are going to drive to Austin at some point. They can't get around us," he said with a grin. For the festival, they cooked brisket, beef sausage, pork and beef sausage with jalapeño and "sausage slammers" (cheese-stuffed jalapeños wrapped in sausage).
The award for "longest distance traveled by an attendee" would likely go to Thomas Mato Abramowicz of The Beast in Paris, France and the French video crew who accompanied him for a documentary for a new online television channel called Tastee.
The Beast is a Texas-style barbecue restaurant. They import briskets from Creekstone Farms in Kansas and smoke them over French oak. "It's made in a completely traditional way, but I couldn't see myself importing wood. It wouldn't make sense."
Abramowicz actually moved to Texas for a time. He met Texas Monthly barbecue columnist Daniel Vaughn, who in turn introduced him to some of the best pitmasters in Texas. Those pitmasters included Wayne Muller, who he refers to as his mentor. Abramowicz trained with Wesley Jurena's of Pappa Charlie's Barbecue, among others, before going back to France to open The Beast.
We got an update from Grant Pinkerton of forthcoming Pinkerton's Barbecue, who might have been one of the first to start cooking on Saturday. They fired up the pits at 1 p.m. on Saturday to start their briskets and also made beef ribs, pork ribs and homemade sausage.
As reported last week, they're still seeking a storefront inside the 610 Loop, but Pinkerton was happy to report they're in negotiations on a place. "I'm even more excited about this one. We couldn't get enough auxiliary parking at the first one. We want to make it easy on the customers to pull in and park and want a full, sit-down, brick-and-mortar."
Speaking of new barbecue places, Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ reports that his new place is coming along. He expects the new Gatlin's BBQ to be open by July 1. His new joint venture with Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd, Jackson Street Barbecue, is already open. "We've kind of tempered the publicity because we wanted to have the kinks worked out, but it's up and going!" Gatlin and his crew started cooking at 3 p.m. on Saturday for the festival and offered attendees beef ribs, pork ribs, rib tips, smoked chicken wings, two different kinds of sausage and whole smoked catfish.
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The Killen's Barbecue team offered some unique items, too, including beef belly and Wagyu short ribs. As always, their beef ribs were one of the best bites of the festival. Other items included pork ribs and short rib burnt ends. Owner Ronnie Killen said they started cooking about 7 p.m. on Saturday.
When asked whether they encountered any special challenges, he said, "Offsite catering or cooking is always challenging because you have so many variables with wind and temperature. You're out of your element."
All of the barbecue masters we encountered handled the challenges with aplomb and the crowd was full of smiling faces despite some long lines--even for beer and water. With all the new places slated to open, the future of Houston barbecue promises a great deal of growth with a lot to look forward to.