Meet the Most Influential Man in Houston's BBQ Scene
There's a reason people wait hours in the Texas sun to get a taste of Ronnie Killen's brisket, ribs, sausage, and sides: his barbecue is truly next-level.
Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma. Additional photos by Hilary Pollack.
"You want to piss a true Texan off? Put sauce on the meat before you taste his meat," George, my cab driver, tells me as we roll into downtown Houston from George Bush Airport. As a native Californian who lives in New York and has spent little time in Texas, I feel like a dunce when it comes to the nuances and rules of Houston barbecue. But George, who is blasting music that I can only describe as a curious combination of bluegrass and trap, has an abundance of wisdom to offer.
"Anyone who boils their meat before it goes on a barbecue pit or a grill is not a true grillsman."
"Real pulled pork ain't slathered in barbecue sauce, either."
"Do not cook with sauce on your meat—it burns your meat."
I am frantically trying to commit all of this information to memory so that tomorrow I won't sound like an imbecile when speaking to Ronnie Killen, one of Texas's biggest barbecue legends and the owner of the explosively popular Killen's Barbecue in nearby Pearland. Just as many foreigners fear accidentally committing social offenses in Japan, I feel keenly paranoid about saying anything in front of Killen and his crew that might out me as a Texas barbecue know-nothing.
Arriving at Killen's the following day, I see a line snaking out the restaurant's front door, down the footpath, and nearly to the sidewalk. I meet Killen's rep, Kimberly Park, who remarks that the queue looks "really short today." Often, the line continues around the corner and up to a quarter of a mile down the road, with hungry carnivores waiting hours upon hours to sink their teeth into Killen's famed barbecue. I take a seat at a table on the outer edge of the dining room. Everywhere I look are families, groups, and couples digging into hunks of meat with delighted, reckless, greasy abandon. A grandmother glugs down beer and eats beef ends with a fork; a bearded metalhead with a Bongripper back patch heads to the patio carrying a tray piled high with brisket, turkey, macaroni and cheese, and creamed corn.
Killen's presence is powerful, not only in the restaurant—where many patrons appear to eye him with recognition—but in Houston's culinary scene. For starters, the man grew up immersed in it. His father owned a beer-and-barbecue spot called Killen Time, which was "like an old-school ice house." But Killen is quick to point out that his restaurant isn't a continuation of his father's.
"[Killen Time] wasn't really about the cooking. It was about the time spent watching the fire, putting wood on the fire. Back then, barbecue was the cheapest cuts of meat that you could buy, and you just cooked them. Now, it's progressed so much where it's all about the product. It's completely changed as far as the way you do it," he says.
Killen is now at the forefront of a new approach that reexamines the entire barbecue process with an unprecedented emphasis on technique and ingredients, to create food that offers another culinary experience entirely.
"We served a lot of bad barbecue [back in the 90s]. I mean, it was good, but it was all we really knew, because we didn't study it as much as I have over the past four-and-a-half years, about resting the meats, letting all the juices go back to the outer edges of it."
Killen is sitting across from me, and between us is a massive platter of every kind of barbecue imaginable—brisket, beef ends, sausage, beef ribs, pork ribs, pulled pork, turkey, bone-in pork belly, as well as a whole grid of sides: green beans, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, creamed corn. I pull at the brisket with a fork and it practically falls apart with tenderness. It's wonderfully fatty and flavorful.
Killen may be a red-blooded Texan—he opened his first restaurant, Killen's Kountry BBQ, when he was just 23—but he also has a seasoned background in fine dining, having trained at Le Cordon Bleu and served as head chef in a plethora of high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, including the Omni Mandalay, the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, and the award-winning steakhouse Brenner's. At one point, about a decade ago, he was nominated for the position of White House chef under George W. Bush. It was around that time that he opened his eponymous steakhouse, which recently expanded to a bigger location.
Killen's culinary experience was also informed by his time studying as a pastry chef, a role that he could have excelled in were it not for his sights being set on more savory endeavors. It has imbued him with a certain "mathiness" to his culinary approach.
"My pastry chef that trained me made Princess Diana's wedding cake. She is outstanding, and she used to tell me all the time, 'Ron, how come you're not a pastry chef? You could teach my class here, because you get it,'" Killen says. "To be a certified executive chef, you have to take certain classes. And the advanced pastry class—I aced it."
This is evident when you taste Killen's exceptional bread pudding, which is made with croissants and drenched in buttery caramel. Although he now gets plenty of press for his mastery of meat, his bread pudding was the first thing to earn him national recognition when he added it to the menu of his steakhouse. In 2008, Food & Wine named it one of the ten best dishes in the country.
But back to the barbecue.
As I learned from George the night before, Texas's barbecue is difficult to mess with. Purists abound. But Killen has found a way to combine the most crucial food traditions of his region with the attention to freshness and product that is more commonly associated with the farm-to-table movement. What started as a casual barbecue pop-up held in his steakhouse on the weekends soon became a local obsession. The high demand forced Killen to move to a larger venue—a restaurant built out of his former high school cafeteria, of all places.
As he flitted between positions at a variety 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 must be as fresh as possible.
When it comes to the preparation of that perfect brisket, he treats it "kind of like the soufflé in the French kitchen," he tells me. Typically, he'll cook about 1,500 pounds of brisket each weekend. Each brisket must cook for roughly 16 hours and rest for five, its doneness carefully monitored. As with a soufflé, if one gets messed up, there will be no fixing it. Although affable, Killen is nothing if not a perfectionist.
"You've got one shot," he tells me with conviction. "[People] go, 'I can't believe you're not open for dinner.' And it's like, 'Look, we have a 16-hour cook time. I'm not going to serve you something that's not off the pit. Because it's about quality. It's not about money. It's about who I am."
Killen puts a lot of consideration into what wood keeps the temperatures of his pit optimal and consistent. He uses greenwood, green post oak, green pecan, seasoned pecan, hickory, and mesquite, all depending on the weather that day and what's cooking.
In short, he says, "barbecue is just kind of a byproduct of controlling a good fire." But that would be a very reductive way of describing Killen's seemingly limitless attention to detail when it comes to his food. Killen's take on Houston barbecue, the closest relative of which is probably Central Texas-style barbecue, puts a fine-dining chef's values into the context of a backyard pit. It's a fitting, or perhaps inevitable, direction for the food scene in Houston, a city that's rapidly begun to embrace its incredible cultural diversity and wealth of regional farms and resources.
"Four or five years ago," he says, "[barbecue was] very generic. They had potato salad, normally one type of bean. And the protein list was basically brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, and that's what they call the Texas trinity."
Instead, Killen forgoes Texas beef—which he says is "terrible"—in favor of beef from Nebraska and Northern California. He serves pork belly, which, until recent years, was relatively unheard of in Texas barbecue. He puts coffee in his hot sauce, because when sprinkled on the fattiest parts of his brisket, its bitterness mimics the interplay of a great ribeye and the tannins in a glass of red wine. And he cares a lot about his pepper.
"The pepper that we use is $16 a pound. It's ground fresh every Saturday." he tells me.
There are four cheeses in his macaroni and cheese, including smoked gouda, and the baked beans take 11 hours to make. Despite all this, the environment at Killen's is unpretentious. There's still plenty of beer being swigged, and the wall is scrawled with appreciative notes from Texans players and local rap legends.
"With so much attention usually going to the smoked meat itself, lots of barbecue joints understandably slack off on sides and desserts. Not at Killen's," says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. "He's innovative on the meat menu with items like those fantastic bone-in pork spare ribs, but it's OK to love the creamed corn and bread pudding (almost) equally."
Houston rapper Bun B is another devotee—and a fan of Killen's housemade sauces. "If you 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 finding that sauce that fits for you."
Clearly, he's doing something right. The four pits at Killen's cook up to 3,500 pounds of meat every day, and the restaurant typically runs out of food by mid-afternoon. I, on the other hand, have barely put a dent in my platter of meat despite stuffing my face with brisket and beef ribs for nearly an hour. It's true: Everything's bigger in Texas.
For what it's worth, Killen agrees with my cab driver's assertion that barbecue shouldn't be slathered in sauce: "The good places don't [use lots of sauce]. That would just be terrible, you know? Because to me, they're covering up a bad product." Although he offers three sauces in his restaurant, he recommends using just a dab here and there if that's your thing.
And if not, that's OK too. Killen isn't really here to enforce the rules of perfect barbecue. He's here to create his own.