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Houston, We Have A Barbecue Renaissance

1 March 2020

In a Texan city where almost a quarter of residents are born overseas, the traditional bbq is undergoing a cultural awakening

When outsiders think of Texas, we think of cowboys and ranches, maybe South by Southwest, and most certainly American barbecue. The cuisine has migrated as far as Sweden and Australia, with traditional replicas spotlighting the holy “Texas Trinity” of beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Visit the Lone Star State and purists will tell you there are rules: brisket is king, sliced white bread is a given, good meat is sold by the pound and shouldn’t need sauce, et cetera. In reality, Texas barbecue is in the midst of a seismic shift with the next generaion of pit masters and professionals innovating in what’s become a saturated market. In Houston, culture is a catalyst for new flavours.

To understand these changes, you must first understand BBQ. Who better to give an explanation than Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly for the last seven years. “American barbecue is different in every state. You have Texas barbecue, then North and South Carolina, which is different to what you’d find in Kansas City or Memphis. In California there’s Santa Maria-style barbecue. The one thing that connects them all is generally large pieces of meat cooked slowly with wood,” he says.

Vaughn agrees that the States’ most famous culinary export is Texas barbecue, and because beef reigns supreme in Texas, that means smoked brisket is on every menu claiming to serve American barbecue the world over. The quality of barbecue has risen and its dishes, though still true to their roots, are becoming more modern. “The biggest change comes down to an incredible focus on quality,” says Vaughn. “Any joint that opens know they have to be working at a certain level just to compete, and because of that, new barbecue joints opening up in what is already a flooded market have realised they have to do something different to really make themselves stand out.”

These words ring true for Quy Hoang, Houston’s first Vietnamese American pit master. Along with Robin and Terry Wong, Hoang opened Blood Bros. BBQ at the end of 2018. “We have a lot of chef friends who were just like, ‘Y’all should stick with Asian-style barbecue’, but we really wanted to show people we could cook the traditional stuff – we didn’t just want to be a novelty,” explains Hoang. Once the lines snaking out of their Belaire shop proved that the barbecue aficionados were on board, Hoang started experimenting with the flavours they grew up with. Now their best-selling side is brisket fried rice, pork belly burnt ends are seasoned with lemongrass and garlic, Thai peanut butter ribs and green curry boudin are a Friday special, and Hawaiian smoked loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg and gravy) is a popular order. “People are getting more creative to set themselves apart. You can go anywhere and get brisket, ribs and sausage, so we figured let’s do some other stuff so that if someone decides, ‘hey, I want this dish,’ only Blood Bros. has it,” says Hoang. “Now we see a lot of the regulars experimenting more, branching out and trying the specialty dishes.”

Vaughn says that the move away from tradition has been recent, gaining traction in the last four years. “And in about the last two years is when you stopped seeing people really complain about it,” he adds. “But there are still people who are uncomfortable with the new horizons for Texas barbecue.”

Whether steadfast loyalty to tradition or some form of culinary xenophobia, Texas barbecue purists must remember that much of the cuisine was born from external cultural influences. That smoky Texas pork sausage is a hangover from 19th century Czech and German immigrant butchers. Freed African-American slaves moved west after the Civil War and brought cooking methods involving sauces and vinegar with them. Barbacoa beef head traditionally slow-cooked in a pit – was pinched from Mexico and is often a special on Texas barbecue menus, especially those with a Tex-Mex slant. Introducing Asian spices is hardly far-fetched.

“You can go into Blood Bros. and happily order a sausage and ribs and brisket plate if you want, or you can branch out a little bit. It’s not something to be threatened by, it’s just something to enjoy,” says Vaughn. But how much change can tradition endure before it becomes something else? Is a restaurant that incorporates smoked brisket into pho and onto pizza still a barbecue restaurant? No, according to Vaughn. But if the foundation of a restaurant is its own smoked meats, yes. “Look at a pop-ups like Khói Barbecue in Houston: they are smoking their own meats and using them in Vietnamese dishes, recipes that they’ve borrowed from their mother... I think of them as a barbecue place,” says Vaughn. “It’s barbecue first because they’ve taken the time to understand and learn the craft and the foundation of their menu is those smoked meats.”

Both Vaughn and Hoang agree that the next big thing is Tex-Mex barbecue and Carolina-style whole hog barbecue – the latter perhaps even more of a stretch to incorporate than Mexican influence. “Feges was probably the first to do the whole hog and now others are starting,” says Hoang. “For Texans, [Carolina] is like going further away than Mexico to find a barbecue tradition,” adds Vaughn.

“Tex-Mex barbecue has certainly gotten much more popular too, and not just putting smoked meat in a tortilla, but really trying to bring those two cultures together.” He cites the smoked ribs at Candente made with Tex-Mex spices that are served with tortillas, cilantro and cotija cheese, and the tortillas at The Pit Room, which are made with smoked brisket fat.

“So often people who look at Texas barbecue from the outside just want another story about a classic place doing brisket, ribs and sausage,” says Vaughn. “But what defines Texas barbecue is expanding. If what we’ve seen over the last two years is any indication, I think we are only going to see more experimentation.

Five non-traditional Houston barbecue joints

Unsurprisingly, Khói translates to “smoke” in Vietnamese. Don and Theo Nguyen take Central Texas barbecue and merge it with their mother’s recipes, serving dishes like Thai red curry made with smoked beef short rib at monthly pop-up locations.

Unassumingly located in Greenway Plaza’s food court, Feges places as much empha- sis on its sides as the mains. There are more vegetable side options to choose from than there are meats, whether Moroccan-glazed carrots or sweet and spicy brussels sprouts.

In the barbecue business for two decades, Russell Roegels has more recently been leading the charge in Carolina-style whole hog barbecue, which he cooks each month in a custom pit.

JQ’s is famed for its tacos de birria – birria (a spicy Mexican stew) is made with smoked brisket, the rendered fat used to “wash” tor- tillas, which are then seared on a flat grill. Top with meat from the stew, cheese and garnishes and you’ve got one fine taco.

Trained in Switzerland, chef Ara Malekian worked with Wolfgang Puck before eventu- ally falling in love with Texas BBQ. Harlem Road has become known for its non-traditional smoked protein specials like duck, lamb chops and even octopus.

Words: Sofia Levin
Photo: Robert Jacob Lerma