Meet the Next Generation of Texas Pit Masters
A new wave of pit masters are revolutionizing Lone Star BBQ.
The sign outside says “Texas Barbecue.” A crowd of locals is lined up in the haze of post oak smoke. And the slow march toward black-barked brisket and juicy pork ribs is underway. But unlike the no-frills meat markets of Lockhart, Texas, or the unassuming roadside trailers farther north, you’re standing in a sparkling shopping center in Bellaire, Texas, a wealthy suburb in southwest Houston. And the “Texas” part of that sign? Yeah, that might be a little different than what you’re imagining.
Alongside the Lone Star State’s holy trinity of brisket, ribs, and hot guts sausage, Blood Bros. BBQ is slinging togarashi pulled beef, sides of fried rice, and beef belly burnt ends slathered in spicy Korean gochujang. Because here in Bellaire, a metro area near Houston’s Chinatown, this is the flavor of Texas. At least it is for co-owners Robin and Terry Wong—third-generation Chinese-Americans—and pit master Quy Hoang, whose family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975.
The three friends grew up together in nearby Alief, and like so many next-gen barbecue stalwarts, they’ve spun a backyard hobby into a full-time business. Predictably, part of that passion was fueled by trips to Kreuz Market and Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart and Luling City Market in Houston. But they saw a future for the category outside of the bovine-first, no-sauce edicts of the classic Central Texas style. And that personalized, paradigm-shifting approach is now being seen across the state.
A half-hour away, in Richmond, chef-owner Ara Malekian of Harlem Road Texas BBQ delves into his Armenian background (not to mention his experience working in the fine-dining scene in Switzerland) for inspiration. Barbecue sauce spiked with Armenian coffee accompanies a litany of smoked meats (lamb chops, duck, even quail) slow-cooked over aged wine-barrel staves. And further south, in San Antonio, Esaul Ramos of 2M Smokehouse has pioneered a movement of barbecue practitioners in which Mexican flavors are integrated across an array of sausages (try links stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and serrano chiles) and sides (mac and cheese capped with crunchy chicharróns).
Multiculturalism isn’t new to Texas barbecue. The injections of Cajun, Korean, Chinese, and a whole swath of Southeast Asian flavors are just the latest influences on a cuisine that has been shaped by African American, German, and Mexican cooks. But barbecue tourism (yes, it’s a thing!) now has more to consider: This latest spate of ingenuity has not only unleashed a wealth of culinary possibilities, but it has also further escalated the demand, with a more diverse demographic queued up to see what comes next.
“It’s been really cool to see Texas taking an outside-of-the-box approach to barbecue,” says Ramos. “To think differently. To evolve using all these flavors that we grew up with.”
What To Eat
It's never too early to start eating brisket in Texas, particularly if it’s tucked into the sweet yeasted dough of a Czech-style kolachke (or a klobasnek, if you want to get technical). At the newest Kolache Shoppe (kolacheshoppe.com) location in The Heights, the 50-year-old Houston institution has partnered with cult-favorite Pinkerton’s Barbecue to create savory combinations like their brisket with egg and jalapeño. Make quick friends by bringing extras to the early-forming lines at Blood Bros. BBQ (bloodbrosbbq.com) in nearby Bellaire, which is stretching the boundaries of barbecue with Asian-leaning creations like its Thai curry pork boudin and brisket fried rice.
Yes, Texas is beef country, but it’s also laden with superb lamb and game, a specialty of Ara Malekian at Harlem Road Texas BBQ (harlemroadtexasbbq.com). Before heading to the Hill Country, stop off in Richmond and try the chef’s deeply smoky lamb chops and a luxurious pecan pie that somehow extracts more flavor with half the sugar.
No doubt you’ve heard of (or experienced) the two-hour lines at Franklin Barbecue, but you’re going to the eponymous pit master’s other concept, Loro (loroaustin.com), which he opened last year with Uchi chef Tyson Cole. The two Austin luminaries have combined their expertise on dishes like a smoked bavette steak with shishito salsa verde and Aaron Franklin’s signature brisket, here sauced with a chili gastrique. On Sunday, don’t miss out on the brisket-heavy brunch offerings (hash, Benedict, etc.) at The Switch (theswitchdripping.com) in Dripping Springs. They’ll also pack you a to-go spread of their Cajun barbecue mash-ups like the shrimp po’ boy saturated in brisket gravy. Esaul Ramos at 2M Smokehouse (2msmokehouse.com) in San Antonio is known for another Sunday game-changer: his once-a-month barbacoa that’s smoked in banana leaves and served with fresh flour tortillas. Round out the spread with the chef’s house-pickled nopales and the uniquely porky “Chicharoni Macaroni.”
Where To Stay
Located near downtown San Antonio within the former Pearl brewery, the gorgeous Hotel Emma, designed by Roman and Williams, lies in the heart of the city’s most exciting culinary district. But you might never want to leave its historic confines with its on-site market, Larder; its American bistro, Supper; and bar, Sternewirth, where you can sit in one of the brewery’s old cast-iron tanks. Plus, there’s the library, a 3,700-book collection acquired from local novelist Sherry Kafka Wagner. Or just relax in your room with complimentary seersucker guayabera robes designed by Dos Carolinas. (Rooms from $350; thehotelemma.com)