Of all the inferiority complexes Houston allegedly suffers, barbecue should not be among them. And yet, when Texas barbecue is parsed — and it’s currently very hot as a culinary topic nationally — Houston isn’t part of the discussion. Austin and its satellites, including Taylor, Elgin, Lockhart and Luling, seem to get all the attention.
Two Houston barbecue lovers want to change that. After investing years of hands-on research to find the best Houston barbecue, J.C. “Chris” Reid and Michael Fulmer are launching the first Houston Barbecue Festival, an event designed to celebrate the unique barbecue traditions of a city refusing to remain cloaked behind a veil of smoke. Today the festival, to be held March 24, launches its tickets sales on houbbq.com and announces its lineup, which at press time includes Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue, Tin Roof BBQ, Gerardo’s, CorkScrew BBQ, Ray’s BBQ Shack, Blake’s BBQ, Virgie’s Bar-B-Que, Gatlin’s BBQ, Burn’s BBQ, Brook’s Place BBQ and Lenox Bar-B-Que. About four other barbecue shops also may be added.
The festival, which will be from 1 to 5 p.m. at Bayou City Event Center, 9401 Knight Road, is modeled on the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival: for one price attendees can sample tasting portions from all the participating barbecue joints. It’s an opportunity for some of the city’s newer and unheralded barbecue operations to get some well-deserved exposure, the organizers say.
“Why should central Texas get all the attention?” said Reid, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in 29-95. “You can get great barbecue in Houston, without having to drive to Lockhart.”
And yet the Houston Barbecue Festival wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without drives to Lockhart and other Central Texas temples of smoke.
About five years ago Reid and Fulmer, both barbecue aficionados, began making barbecue runs together and with friends, some from Houston Chowhounds, which also organized a run. With the May 2008 Texas Monthly article on best barbecue in Texas as a guide, the trips mostly led to the heart of the state. In one of their first runs, they hit five in one day: Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Louie Mueller in Taylor, City Market in Luling, and Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market in Lockhart. At each they ordered the “holy trinity” of brisket, pork, ribs.
“By the time we hit the last one we were so full,” Fulmer said. “But we were determined.”
To date, they have made about 20 runs as part of their Texas barbecue education. “The real bonus is we got to know these people,” Fulmer said of the dedicated, hard-working families carrying on barbecue traditions. “We’ve never had a bad trip or bad experience, because of the people we met.”
But Reid fretted that all the runs led them out of Houston. What about the undiscovered gems of Houston? The trailers and mom-and-pop shops? Or even the established, polished purveyors of Houston legacy barbecue? These places weren’t enjoying the same social-media buzz as newbie Franklin Barbecue in Austin, which became a must-do for every dedicated foodie in the country.
“At some point we said there’s got to be great barbecue in Houston,” Reid said. “We just weren’t looking.”
So a dedicated discovery of Houston led Reid to establish in September 2011 the Houston Barbecue Project, a painstaking canvassing of Houston barbecue complete with reviews and an interactive map. Reid and his contributors pay for their meals and do not announce their visits.
“We wanted to go beyond the barbecue restaurants we see from the highway, not that there’s anything wrong with them,” Reid said. “If you drive just a little into the neighborhoods, you’re going to find a whole lot of great barbecue.”
And great stories. In discovering unsung barbecue joints, Fulmer and Reid found a common thread: serious practitioners seriously invested in their work. “All these people are the most committed pitmasters rivaling anything in Texas,” Reid said. “These are places that tell the story of Houston barbecue.”
A festival celebrating that story seemed inevitable. “We’re not denigrating (Central Texas) barbecue. But we have people in our backyard who we want to celebrate too,” Fulmer said.
The festival, they hope, will give the participants a larger stage on which to play and, hopefully, a greater audience.
“Every barbecue joint we went to said, ‘Finally, there’s someone doing this.’ They empowered us to go forward,” Reid said. “If we didn’t have that support, we couldn’t do this.”
The festival also embraces the diversity that influences Houston’s unique barbecue, including Mexican-American, African-American, Creole and Cajun traditions.
And the timing couldn’t be better. Blogs about Texas barbecue (including Full Custom Gospel BBQ, whose author, Daniel Vaughn, will see his book “The Prophets of Smoked Meat” published in May), and seminars about perfecting Texas barbecue (offered by Texas Foodways with Texas A&M University) are hot. National food magazines and television shows are focusing on Texas barbecue. And Houstonian Robb Walsh, who already has written about Texan barbecue traditions in a number of books, soon will publish a new barbecue title.
Or, perhaps, it’s simply Houston’s time to shine.
“People all over love to eat it, argue about it, debate it,” Reid said of Texas barbecue. “Houston hasn’t been part of that discussion. That conversation can happen in Houston. Now it’s time.”
Houston Barbecue Festival
When: 1-5 p.m. March 24
Where: Bayou City Event Center, 9401 Knight Road.
Tickets: All will be sold in advance at www.houbbq.com (no sales at the door). General admission is $40 per person or $80 for VIP tickets, which allow guests to enter an hour early and includes a T-shirt, goodie bag and drink tickets. Admission includes tasting portions from all participants. Beer and mixed drinks sold separately.