Meet a Most Influential Man in Houston’s BBQ Scene

February 18, 2016 - bbq set

“You wish to piss a loyal Texan off? Put salsa on a beef before we ambience his meat,” George, my cab driver, tells me as we roll into downtown Houston from George Bush Airport. As a internal Californian who lives in New York and has spent small time in Texas, we feel like a blockhead when it comes to a nuances and manners of Houston barbecue. But George, who is blustering song that we can customarily report as a extraordinary multiple of bluegrass and trap, has an contentment of knowledge to offer.

“Anyone who boils their beef before it goes on a griddle array or a griddle is not a loyal grillsman.”

“Real pulled pig ain’t slathered in griddle sauce, either.”

“Do not prepare with salsa on your meat—it browns your meat.”

I am frantically perplexing to dedicate all of this information to memory so that tomorrow we won’t sound like an imbecile when vocalization to Ronnie Killen, one of Texas’s biggest griddle legends and a owners of a explosively renouned Killen’s Barbecue in circuitously Pearland. Just as many foreigners fear incidentally committing amicable offenses in normal societies such as Japan, we feel keenly paranoid about observant anything in front of Killen and his organisation that competence out me as a Texas griddle know-nothing.

Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma

Arriving during Killen’s a following day, we see a line snaking out a restaurant’s front door, down a footpath, and scarcely to a sidewalk. we accommodate Killen’s rep, Kimberly Park, who remarks that a reserve looks “really brief today.” Often, a line continues around a dilemma and adult to a entertain of a mile down a road, with inspired carnivores watchful hours on hours to penetrate their teeth into Killen’s famed barbecue. I take a chair during a list on a outdoor corner of a dining room. Everywhere we demeanour are families, groups, and couples digging into hunks of beef with delighted, reckless, greasy abandon. A grandmother glugs down drink and cooking beef ends with a fork; a bearded metalhead with a Bongripper behind patch heads to a patio carrying a tray piled high with brisket, turkey, macaroni and cheese, and creamed corn.  


Killen’s participation is powerful, not customarily in a restaurant—where many congregation seem to eye him with recognition—but in Houston’s culinary scene. For starters, a male grew adult enthralled in it. His father owned a beer-and-barbecue mark called Killen Time, that was “like an old-school ice house.” But Killen is discerning to indicate out that his restaurant isn’t a delay of his father’s.

“[Killen Time] wasn’t unequivocally about a cooking. It was about a time spent examination a fire, putting timber on a fire. Back then, griddle was a cheapest cuts of beef that we could buy, and we only baked them. Now, it’s progressed so many where it’s all about a product. It’s totally altered as distant as a proceed we do it,” he says.


Killen is now during a forefront of a new approach that reexamines a whole griddle routine with an rare emphasis on technique and ingredients, to emanate food that offers another culinary knowledge entirely.

“We served a lot of bad griddle [back in a 90s]. we mean, it was good, though it was all we unequivocally knew, since we didn’t investigate it as many as we have over a past four-and-a-half years, about resting a meats, vouchsafing all a juices go behind to a outdoor edges of it.”


Killen is sitting opposite from me, and between us is a large platter of any kind of griddle imaginable—brisket, beef ends, sausage, beef ribs, pig ribs, pulled pork, turkey, bone-in pig belly, as good as a whole grid of sides: immature beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, creamed corn. we lift during a brisket with a flare and it many falls detached with tenderness. It’s splendidly greasy and flavorful.

Killen might be a red-blooded Texan—he non-stop his initial restaurant, Killen’s Kountry BBQ, when he was only 23—but he also has a seasoned credentials in excellent dining, carrying lerned at Le Cordon Bleu and served as conduct prepare in a engorgement of high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, including a Omni Mandalay, a Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, and a award-winning steakhouse Brenner’s. At one point, about a decade ago, he was nominated for a position of White House prepare underneath George W. Bush. It was around that time that he non-stop his eponymous steakhouse, that recently stretched to a bigger location.


Killen’s culinary knowledge was also sensitive by his time study as a fritter chef, a purpose that he could have excelled in were it not for his sights being set on some-more delicious endeavors. It has flushed him with a certain “mathiness” to his culinary approach.

“My fritter prepare that lerned me done Princess Diana’s marriage cake. She is outstanding, and she used to tell me all a time, ‘Ron, how come you’re not a fritter chef? You could learn my category here, since we get it,’” Killen says. “To be a approved executive chef, we have to take certain classes. And a modernized fritter class—I aced it.”


This is clear when we ambience Killen’s well-developed bread pudding, that is done with croissants and soaked in buttery caramel. Although he now gets copiousness of press for his poise of meat, his bread pudding was a initial thing to acquire him inhabitant approval when he combined it to a menu of his steakhouse. In 2008, Food Wine named it one of a 10 best dishes in a country

But behind to a barbecue.

As we schooled from George a night before, Texas’s griddle is formidable to disaster with. Purists abound. But Killen has found a proceed to mix a many essential food traditions of his segment with a courtesy to mutation and product that is some-more ordinarily compared with a farm-to-table movement. What started as a infrequent griddle pop-up hold in his steakhouse on a weekends shortly became a internal obsession. The high direct forced Killen to pierce to a incomparable venue—a grill built out of his former high propagandize cafeteria, of all places.


As he flitted between positions during a accumulation of top-notch restaurants after culinary school, Killen learned “what to do and what not to do.” He is adamantly anti-freezer and anti-can-opener. Everything contingency be as uninformed as possible.

When it comes to a credentials of that ideal brisket, he treats it “kind of like a soufflé in a French kitchen,” he tells me. Typically, he’ll prepare about 1,500 pounds of brisket any weekend. Each brisket contingency prepare for roughly 16 hours and rest for five, a doneness delicately monitored. As with a soufflé, if one gets messed up, there will be no regulating it. Although affable, Killen is zero if not a perfectionist. 


“You’ve got one shot,” he tells me with conviction. “[People] go, ‘I can’t trust you’re not open for dinner.’ And it’s like, ‘Look, we have a 16-hour prepare time. I’m not going to offer we something that’s not off a pit. Because it’s about quality. It’s not about money. It’s about who we am.”

Killen puts a lot of care into what wood keeps a temperatures of his array optimal and consistent. He uses greenwood, immature post oak, immature pecan, seasoned pecan, hickory, and mesquite, all depending on a continue that day and what’s cooking.


In short, he says, “barbecue is only kind of a byproduct of determining a good fire.” But that would be a unequivocally reductive proceed of describing Killen’s clearly vast courtesy to fact when it comes to his food. Killen’s take on Houston barbecue, a closest relations of that is substantially Central Texas-style barbecue, puts a fine-dining chef’s values into a context of a backyard pit. It’s a fitting, or maybe inevitable, instruction for a food stage in Houston, a city that’s fast begun to welcome its incredible cultural farrago and resources of regional farms and resources. Offering his take on Houston barbecue, a closest relations of that is substantially Central Texas character barbecue

“Four or 5 years ago,” he says, “[barbecue was] unequivocally generic. They had potato salad, routinely one form of bean. And a protein list was fundamentally brisket, pig ribs, and sausage, and that’s what they call a Texas trinity.”


Instead, Killen forgoes Texas beef—which he says is “terrible”—in preference of beef from Nebraska and Northern California. He serves pig belly, which, until new years, was comparatively unheard of in Texas barbecue. He puts coffee in his prohibited sauce, since when sprinkled on a fattiest tools of his brisket, a sourness mimics a interplay of a good ribeye and a tannins in a potion of red wine. And he cares a lot about his pepper.

“The peppers that we use is $16 a pound. It’s belligerent uninformed any Saturday.” he tells me.


There are 4 cheeses in his macaroni and cheese, including smoked gouda, and a baked beans take 11 hours to make. Despite all this, a sourroundings during Killen’s is unpretentious. There’s still copiousness of drink being swigged, and a wall is scrawled with elegant records from Texans players and internal swat legends.

“With so many courtesy customarily going to a smoked beef itself, lots of griddle joints understandably tardy off on sides and desserts. Not during Killen’s,” says Daniel Vaughn, griddle editor during Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. “He’s innovative on a beef menu with equipment like those illusory bone-in pig gangling ribs, though it’s OK to adore a creamed corn and bread pudding (almost) equally.”

Houston rapper Bun B is another devotee—and a fan of Killen’s housemade sauces. “If we go to Killen’s, you’ll have sweet, you’ll have tangy, and you’ll have coffee,” he recently told VICE. “It’s a matter of anticipating that salsa that fits for you.”


Clearly, he’s doing something right. The 4 pits during Killen’s prepare adult to 3,500 pounds of beef any day, and a grill typically runs out of food by mid-afternoon. I, on a other hand, have barely put a hole in my platter of beef notwithstanding stuffing my face with brisket and beef ribs for scarcely an hour. It’s true: Everything’s bigger in Texas.

For what it’s worth, Killen agrees with my cab driver’s avowal that griddle shouldn’t be slathered in sauce: “The good places don’t [use lots of sauce]. That would only be terrible, we know? Because to me, they’re covering adult a bad product.” Although he offers 3 salsas in his restaurant, he recommends regulating only a dab here and there if that’s your thing.

Photos by Hilary Pollack. Additional photos by Robert Jacob Lerma.

And if not, that’s OK too. Killen isn’t unequivocally here to make a manners of ideal barbecue. He’s here to emanate his own.

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