The Changing Faces and Plates of Texas BBQ
Barbecue culture in the Lone Star state has never been hotter— literally. After Texas Monthly recently released its annual list of the state's best barbecue joints, smoked meat enthusiasts have been road tripping the state's barbecue belt to queue up for 'cue despite record temperatures. These days though, it's not unusual for committed carnivores to find much more going on than just BBQ's holy trinity of brisket, sausage and ribs. The scene has transformed in Texas in recent years as pitmasters from San Antonio to Houston are experimenting in all sorts of ways with fire and smoke.
The Granary 'Cue & Brew, which opened in San Antonio's historic Pearl Brewery district in 2012, was one of the first spots to add a heavy dash of culinary license to their wood- and fire-fueled craft. Though the lunchtime market menu focuses on two- or three-meat plates with fairly classic sides, daily specials like pastrami ribs and smoked pork belly keep patrons on their toes. Once the midday masses clear out of the rustic wood-paneled dining room, the kitchen starts prepping for dinner dishes like smoked duck with mole negro, beef clod with coffee quinoa crunch and grilled quail vindaloo with pickled lime yogurt and puffed red rice.
"Having not come up in barbecue restaurants, I had an intense curiosity to explore the idea of barbecue using non-traditional ingredients and modern techniques," says Tim Rattray, who owns The Granary with his brother Alex. "We got some push back from purists, but overall the response was very good and supportive as we explored smoke and fire."
Around the time The Granary opened its doors, Micklethwait Craft Meats also started turning heads at its Austin trailer. Unorthodox offerings like pulled goat, brisket Frito pie, and pork belly kielbasa helped put Micklethwait on the BBQ map—an area of the map that happened to be right down the street from the lauded Franklin BBQ.
In the following years, Texas barbecue slowly started to diversify. Valentina's Tex-Mex BBQ opened, uniting pulled pork and carnitas as well as brisket and fajita, effectively proving that Tex-Mex and BBQ were meant to co-exist. Kerlin BBQ introduced its prime Angus brisket and pork ribs alongside memorable sides like 'cue-stuffed kolaches, bleu cheese cole slaw, jalapeño dill potato salad and smoked corn on the cob slathered with chipotle butter and sprinkled with queso fresco. Roegel's Barbecue in Houston perfected pastrami and Truth BBQ in Brenham has gotten almost as much attention for its massive beef ribs as it has for its baked potatoes stuffed with chopped brisket, melted cheddar, dollops of sour cream and green onion.
As the central Texas barbecue world evolves, pitmasters and chefs continue to push the envelope. A handful of inventive new smoke-worshipping restaurants opened across the state this spring. The menu changes daily at LeRoy and Lewis in Austin, depending on what's available from local farms and ranches, but recent offerings have included Countryside Farm duck wings and a 44 Farms beef cheek confit sandwich topped with spicy kimchi and beet barbecue sauce. Ronnie Killen's newest Houston concept, STQ, is a BBQ joint-steak house hybrid that has traded the picnic tables for white tablecloths, and dishes like smoked Vidalia onion soup, smoked short rib ravioli and smoked brisket pappardelle.
East Asian style barbecue has also found its way to Texas. Kemuri Tatsu-ya recently took over a former barbecue joint in East Austin, utilizing the inherited smoker to create a rustic izakaya with a Texan twist. Smoked brisket is served alongside barbecued eel and fish collar in a BBQ boat, and brisket and smoked jalapeños crown bowls of ramen and tsukemen.
At the brand new Ohn Korean Eatery in Houston, L.A. galbi (barbecued beef short ribs) and Seoul-style brisket share menu space and arrive with accompanying banchan like kimchi and pickled vegetables.
And last month Aaron Franklin launched Hot Luck, a new food and music festival which brought together chefs from across the country (like Kogi BBQ, Ava Gene's, Ivan Ramen and Pok Pok) to play with fire.
"I think that chefs are always excited to learn new techniques and to play with new tools and, for many, using fire is new and exciting," says Franklin. "There are some very creative minds pushing barbecue to new heights, but there are also those honing in on a special craft and making barbecue better across the board."
Though not billed as a barbecue festival, the meat-forward Hot Luck featured grilling and smoking spectacles aplenty. Contigo set up a rotisserie system for mammoth bone-in ribeyes which became cheesesteaks, Momofuku slow-roasted a whole hog on site for its smoked pork buns and chefs from The Country Cat and Old Major grilled tomahawk steaks on massive Country Cauldrons. In an industry where tradition has always been honored and passed down, this is the wild west of Texas barbecue — and it's more exciting than ever.
"When you have skilled people using smoke and fire in new ways, that can only bring good things for hungry people," reasons the Granary's Rattray. And the hungry people of Texas are seeing some of the best of it now.