HouBBQ 2014: A View From The Other Side Of The Table

by Matt Gross

Last year, I went to the Houston Barbecue Festival as a ticket holder and had a blast. In fact, last year’s HouBBQ was one of the primary motivators for really getting BrisketMan off the ground.

This year, however, I went a completely different direction. I wanted to experience the festival from the other side of the table.

Over the past year I have formed a close friendship with Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Barbecue. On my last visit to Killen’s I was offered the opportunity to be part of the Killen’s team at HouBBQ 2014. Of course, I said “hell yes”.

Reliant Park at 8:30am was drenched in the glorious smell of smoke and beef fat. Ronnie had been cooking since the night before, so quite a few beef ribs were already in the warmer. The crunchy, peppery bark formed a magical, protective crust over the velvety beef. The mere sight of those beef ribs nearly brought me to tears.

Ronnie uses a very interesting type of pit called a “reverse flow”. Basically, there is a big metal plate that spans the length of the pit and separates the cooking space from the initial heat. The smoke initially flows under the plate and heats it up, turning the plate into a radiant heat source. Once the smoke reaches the end of the plate it rises a bit and switches direction, flowing back over the meat, then out the chimney. See the diagram below.

Reverse flow pit diagram.

Reverse flow pit diagram.

Ronnie’s reverse flow pit is one of the best cookers I have ever seen. Although it does have two hot spots, the rest of the pit cooks very evenly and clearly is capable of producing some of the best barbecue on the planet.

The actual cooking was done primarily by Ronnie, but his father (who reminds me so much of my grandfather it was freaky) was there to help as needed. My initial duties were limited to seasoning the beef ribs with the salt and pepper blend that contains three grinds of pepper (the finer the grind, the hotter the pepper).

Once the meat was on, there was minimal preparation to be done. So for a couple of hours we did the smart thing and started drinking beers.

If the beer drinking was a competition, I’m pretty sure I won :) Of course I was facing a “hair of the dog” situation because I had attended my friend’s wedding the night before. Nevertheless, as noon approached I was in place.

My duties in the booth were simple: explain the sauces to each person that came through. “The sauces?!?!” Yes, sauces. In fact, we need to have a discussion about sauces.

In Texas, and particularly among fellow barbecue connoisseurs, sauces get a bad rap. While I do agree that no meat should need a sauce, I can now say I am in favor of purpose built sauces.

So, what is a “purpose built sauce”?

Sweet, tangy and coffee sauces from Killen's.

Sweet, tangy and coffee sauces from Killen’s.

The best example is the coffee sauce we served. It was made with fatty cuts of beef in mind and pairs particularly well with beef ribs. Do the beef ribs need sauce? Hell. No. They are life changing straight off the pit. But the sauce complements them and the end result is greater than the sum of the whole.

Another example of a purpose built sauce would be Killen’s “tangy” sauce, which was also served at HouBBQ. While the sauce is tangy, it’s more of an homage to South Carolina mustard sauces and was created to accompany pork, specifically pulled pork. However, it works really well with the bone-in pork belly because the slight acidity “cuts” the almost extreme fattiness of the belly.

The third and final sauce Killen’s served at HouBBQ was the “sweet” sauce, which is a traditional tomato-based barbecue sauce. On the surface, this does not seem like a purpose built sauce. It’s just a really good version of a typical barbecue sauce. However, take a whole mess of chopped beef, add some sweet sauce, and something magical happens. In fact, when we were reloading meat between the VIPs and general admission, all we had was chopped beef and people LOVED it.

Ok, that’s enough about sauces :)

During the event we served a ton of people. I can only guess somewhere around 1000-1500. The Killen’s booth had one of the longest lines and from the time VIPs came in until we were out of meat, it was non-stop.

In a very unscientific manner, I would guess that 98% of the guests that came through chose to put at least some sauce on their meat. Somewhere around 50% sampled all three, 30% sampled two and the remaining 18% sampled one.

Initially, I viewed this as “everyone in Houston uses sauce!” But that is wrong. We were (as far as I know) the only BBQ joint in attendance that offered a variety of (incredible) sauces. And I believe we were also the only joint with a dedicated “sauce seller” (me!). So it only makes sense that folks tasted the sauce. Additionally, when I talked to Evan LeRoy about the sauce situation, he immediately said “I would have tried all three!”

This year’s HouBBQ was incredibly fun for me because I really enjoy getting face time with fellow barbecue lovers. The looks of amazement and awe as attendees stared at huge chunks of perfect brisket, succulent beef ribs, and lusciously fatty bone-in pork belly was extremely gratifying. After all, BBQ is primarily about sharing something amazing with others. And I was humbled to be part of the team delivering products that folks raved about.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bubba April 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Great article and you are a lucky man to get the opportunity to work with one of the Masters of Barbecue

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