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Hands hold up a smoked rib on top of a banh mi sandwich at Blood Bros BBQ.
Houston barbecue has built its recipes on East and Central styles of barbecue, but that’s not where it stops.
Joey Garcia

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The Future of Houston Barbecue Has No One Recipe

Local pitmasters and barbecue legend Aaron Franklin speak about the evolution of Houston barbecue as we know it

The Texas barbecue served today has roots in smoked meat served by Czech and German immigrants in Central Texas and practices honed by enslaved Africans and Indigenous people in East Texas, but over the last 100-odd years, the recipes have been adapted and refined into something wholly unique to the Lone Star State.

The core of Central Texas barbecue, the kind that shows up on national travel shows and sees hours-long lines, is deceptively simple. The Texas Trinity — tender ribs, juicy sausage, and smoky brisket — are all smoked over pecan, mesquite, or post oak wood, then served on a butcher paper-covered tray (grab a cup of banana pudding for dessert, if you’re feeling fancy). And like with most other Texas cities, barbecue has its grip on the Houston food scene. What’s unique here, though, is that Houston — the fourth-largest city in the U.S. — is also one of the most diverse, with 1.7 million immigrants and seemingly just as many unique restaurants. Here, the food is changing every day, rapidly showcasing new flavors, techniques, and cuisines from the wide array of people who call it home. That change has now come to the stubbornly old-school barbecue scene.

Pitmaster Greg Gatlin, who opened barbecue joint Gatlin’s BBQ in 2010, says barbecue was once seen as a sustainable, inexpensive, and often celebratory meal for gatherings growing up in Houston. “Barbecue was very traditional and old school. You put your meat on the smoker, seasoned it, took it off, and put some barbecue sauce on it, and you went to town. It gave a purist sense of where barbecue started,” Gatlin says. Now, he says, Houston barbecue has more complexity and range.

Though stalwarts like Pinkerton’s Barbecue in North Houston and Roegels BBQ near the Galleria are making the same beloved and traditional smoked meats, newer Houston barbecue joints are serving flavors that are unlike anywhere else. Places like Blood Bros. BBQ, the Pit Room, and Khói Barbecue are playing with their sides and desserts, stepping up their service, or throwing out the playbook entirely — crafting elegant main dishes with chopped-up smoked meat or reinventing traditional protein styles with new sauces and seasonings. To put it simply, Houston barbecue looks nothing like it did when it started, and many pitmasters say that’s how it should be.

A Pit Room spread of barbecued sausage, ribs, brisket, and chicken, with sides of beans, pickled onions, mac and cheese, potato salad, and more.
Montrose’s Pit Room is a go-to for its breakfast tacos, made with brisket fat tortillas, and its barbecue meats.
Jenn Duncan

The operators of Blood Bros. BBQ — owners Robin Wong, Terry Wong, Quy Hoang, and culinary director Arash Kharat — grew up in Alief in Southwest Houston. There, in a community surrounded by pockets of Chinese, Vietnamese, Nigerian, and Mexican immigrants, it was common, preferable even, for the teenagers to spend their money on heaping plates of food in Chinatown rather than American fast food, they say.

“I wouldn’t go to McDonald’s as a kid in high school. We would go hit up Chinatown and eat like a king for five bucks and still have money at the end of the week for fun,” Kharat says. “I didn’t eat cheeseburgers and stuff [at school]. I would go hit up banh mi shops and eat pho at a young age.”

That quintessential Houston culinary experience would help set the trajectory for Blood Bros. Hoang, the pitmaster, began experimenting with his backyard grill while building aquariums for his uncle as his day job. Originally, he was mostly putting chicken and other simple dishes on a grill, seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic. But soon, he was feeding people during events like Super Bowl Sunday or hosting steak nights with his childhood friends, the Wong brothers, who operated the bar Glitter*, which they later sold. Seeing the potential to scale, the Wongs chipped in for Hoang to buy a smoker, and he scoured barbecue forums for advice as he began catering and operating pop-ups.

“It’s a lot of self-learning, and luckily I knew a lot of people who were already in the industry. I just asked them questions. The great thing about the barbecue community is that everyone shares info,” Hoang said. “It’s not like we’re asking [for] each other’s recipes. It’s just a little here and there.”

Blood Bros BBQ owners Robin Wong, Terry Wong, and pitmaster Quy Hoang pose in front of the Blood Bros BBQ store.
Blood Bros. BBQ owners Robin Wong, Terry Wong, and pitmaster Quy Hoang are known for infusing their barbecue with Asian, Caribbean, and even Mediterranean flavors.
Andy HD Media

The Wongs and Hoang opened the Blood Bros. location in a Bellaire strip center in 2018, starting with just the classics: brisket, ribs, and sausage. But after two years, the same barbecue started to get boring, they say. To keep their interest, they began including flavors from their Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds, along with other Asian, Caribbean, and Mediterranean influences. With the goal of incorporating the same international flavors they grew up with, Blood Bros. served bao with sauced brisket burnt ends and vinegary pickled vegetables and zhuzhed up French dips on jalapeno cheddar buns with horseradish, dill aioli, and smoked sirloin.

“Those cuisines tend to use lots of fresh herbs and spices that I enjoy cooking with,” Hoang said in an email. “My favorite things to make and cook right now are probably our specialty sausages. It’s a great canvas to experiment with different flavors.”

The shift has paid off.

In the years since, Blood Bros. has gained more notoriety — snagging spots on best-of lists in numerous publications, and a James Beard Award nomination for Hoang. Critics have raved about the restaurant’s smoked meats, but even more, attention is paid to its entrees and sides. Dishes like smoked char siu pork on a banh mi, split chicken spiced with achiote or togarashi, and the fan favorite, brisket fried rice, offer flavors new to Texas barbecue.

“In the last three or four years, the barbecue industry, in general, has changed, where people are being more innovative,” Robin says. “It’s still, to me, Texas barbecue. It’s just the evolution of Texas barbecue. We’re still using the same wood, using the same techniques. We’re just adding our own personal touches to it.”

Khói Barbecue’s brisket pho on a tray with a slice of brisket, sliced and spiced sausage, and pickles, and onions.
Khói Barbecue owner Don Nguyen has made waves incorporating Vietnamese flavors into his barbecue.
Mark Champion

Erin Smith, co-owner of Feges BBQ, says that when she and her husband Patrick Feges launched the barbecue joint’s first location in an office building food court in Greenway Plaza, she wasn’t enthused by the local options. Smith, a culinary school grad who’s worked at Per Se in New York City, introduced souped-up sides to the menu as a complement to the meat her husband, pitmaster and Feges BBQ co-owner Patrick Feges, smoked. Many of those sides — like cornbread using leftover pig fat, and dishes with an international lens, like the Korean-style braised greens and Moroccan-style spiced carrots — captivated diners.

In many ways, Houston’s barbecue scene is getting increasingly competitive, with savvy diners expecting more than a perfect smoke ring on brisket or fall-off-the-bone ribs. Like the team at Blood Bros., Smith says adding new flavors and dish interpretations was a way to keep her excited about the food they serve. But in a city with dozens of barbecue restaurants, part of the appeal is also keeping the local customers excited, too. “How do you make sure [customers] are coming to you and not driving five more miles to another absolutely great barbecue joint, right? Because, let’s admit it, every five miles there’s a really great option,” Smith says.

Smith and Feges credit Houston’s diversity as motivation to add new flavors to their menu. Their employees who are familiar with or even experts in those flavors helped reshape the dishes on offer, too. When an employee, Kevin Cantu, brought his mom’s mole for the staff to try one day, Feges loved it so much that he asked Cantu to teach him how to make it for a limited menu; Cantu brought his mom in to teach Feges how to make it in the kitchen.

“Almost everywhere you go, especially the new places, you see them really having fun with what they’re putting on their menu. I don’t think it’s a ‘have to,’ I think it’s a ‘want to,’” Smith says. “You don’t get into barbecue because it’s lucrative. You get into barbecue because you like it. You open a barbecue restaurant because you have fun doing it.”

A person sprinkles seasoning over mustard-covered ribs at Pit Room.
Michael Sambrooks’ barbecue joint Pit Room offers a more traditional take on barbecue, with unique offerings like brisket fat tortillas. Its sister, Candente, however, builds on the restaurant, using barbecued meats in much of its Tex-Mex fare.
Jenn Duncan

Even Aaron Franklin, considered an authoritative figure on Central Texas-style barbecue, has branched out beyond the Texas Trinity. He first offered what has become synonymous with Texas barbecue at his lauded Austin spot Franklin’s in 2009, garnering hours-long lines, with people from around the country waiting for a taste of his brisket. More recently, the award-winning pitmaster opened Austin and Houston locations of his self-styled “Asian smokehouse” Loro with Uchi chef Tyson Cole, and just this year, his newest venture, Uptown Sports Club, a New Orleans-style restaurant serving smoked sausage.

Nowadays, Franklin says, barbecue restaurants must have their own personal “edge” — something they keep close that sets them apart. “Every successful restaurant has something about it that makes people feel comfortable, makes people feel loved, makes people feel cared for, makes people get sold, get excited about the food, have a memory — whatever the experience is,” Franklin says. “Anybody can make food, but it’s the other stuff that really makes it a truly great restaurant.”

Local pitmasters say that in some way, Franklin, as the face of Texas barbecue, has helped set the standard — or “raise the floor” for it, as Feges says. He published his first book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, in 2015, which offered instructions on how to smoke meat, followed by his 2019 deep dive into cooking a quality steak, Franklin Steak. And in May 2023, Franklin published his third book, Franklin Smoke: Wood. Fire. Food, which he regards as the most updated version of what he knows to be true about barbecue.

Don Nguyen stands among various barbecue pits.
Don Nguyen pop-up Khói Barbecue has built a following for the way he infuses Houston barbecue with Vietnamese flavors.
Don Nguyen

Now more than ever, Houston pitmasters are imparting their own styles that both change and build upon the perception of Texas barbecue as we know it. Brothers Don and Theo Nguyen, the owners of pop-up Khói Barbecue, credit some of their smoking skills to Franklin’s book, which they used as a basis for their craft. Today, they infuse their barbecue with Vietnamese and other Asian flavors to critical acclaim. Ribs, for example, take on a traditional Thai flavor profile when paired with spicy, aromatic Panang curry. “Sometimes people might be apprehensive. If they just approach Vietnamese food or Malaysian food or Chinese food, the stuff that I grew up eating and I’m familiar with, other people might not try it,” Don Nguyen says. “But if you put it within the purview of Texas barbecue, which has such strong traditions — Vietnamese food also has strong traditions — you frame it in a different way that’s familiar, then I find that people are more receptive to it.”

In other ways, barbecue has been an entry point for Houston chefs and restaurateurs to explore other ventures. Gatlin opened Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, an ode to fish fries in Independence Heights in 2022. In January 2023, Blood Bros. collaborated with pastry chef Alyssa Dole to open LuLoo’s Day & Night, a sandwich shop that combines freshly baked bread with smoked meats. Similarly, Michael Sambrooks, operator of Montrose’s Pit Room, branched out beyond smoked meat and the restaurant’s famous brisket fat tortillas to open Tex-Mex restaurant Candente in 2019, serving brisket enchiladas and a morning menu of breakfast tacos on brisket fat tortillas. In April 2023, he followed that up with the opening of the wood-burning, live-fire steakhouse Andiron on Allen Parkway.

A person slices a peppery brisket in half.
Feges is known to impart lots of flavors into its meats and sides.
Jenn Duncan

Sambrooks says he has seen a significant change in Houston since opening Pit Room in 2016, when the city didn’t have much craft barbecue. At the time, it felt like there was a race to see who would open the first barbecue joint inside the Loop, he says. Now, there are many options. “Everyone can do good brisket. Everybody’s getting into the [house-made] sausage thing. I like to think that there’s room for everybody and every barbecue place has its own personality,” Sambrooks says. “If you like it, and it’s what you get excited about when you think of barbecue, then you got to hope that everybody else will, too.”

Michael Sambrooks stands outside of his barbecue establishment, Pit Room.
For Michael Sambrooks, barbecue was just the start. He opened barbecue joint Pit Room in 2016, before opening Tex-Mex restaurant Candente in 2019, and wood-burning, live-fire steakhouse Andiron in April 2023.
Jenn Duncan

Franklin says Texas’s barbecue scene will continue to evolve and innovate, not only due to a desire to experiment and appease diners amid competition but to adapt to increasing labor and food costs. Sambrooks says high food costs forced him to increase his prices, while others within the barbecue scene made similar changes to their menus. Blood Bros., for example, reduced its signature whole chicken menu item to half and used all parts of its meat for featured items, like brisket bits for the restaurant’s burgers.

Though Sambrooks aims to keep diners’ attention by incorporating newer ideas and specials, he says he’s not interested in reinventing the wheel every week. Instead, he’s focusing on the dishes people enjoy, executed right every time. Feges will still strive to be the Cheers of barbecue, a friendly and familiar spot to stop in and enjoy some smoked meats and sides, Smith says. Blood Bros. plans to try out more upscale barbecue with live-fire cooking techniques, dinner service that expands past barbecue counter service, and using protein and meats like lamb and game — their way of keeping things interesting for both themselves and the diner.

“We’re representing the culture of barbecue,” Sambrooks says. “People want that traditional barbecue, and we’re going to be good stewards of that while keeping an eye on gaining traction from locals and doing things to keep them excited and keep them coming back. It’s having an eye on both balls.”

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to include the correct name of the bar, Glitter, that Robin and Terry Wong formerly owned.

Gatlin's BBQ

3510 Ella Boulevard, , TX 77018 (713) 869-4227 Visit Website

The Pit Room

1201 Richmond Avenue, , TX 77006 (281) 888-1929 Visit Website

Blood Bros. BBQ

5425 Bellaire Boulevard, , TX 77401 (713) 664-7776 Visit Website

Feges BBQ Spring Branch

8217 Long Point Road, , TX 77055 (346) 319-5339 Visit Website

Feges BBQ

3 East Greenway Plaza, , TX 77046 (832) 409-6118 Visit Website
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