Our driver wondered if we were in the right neighborhood. My family and I were looking for a restaurant in a light-industrial section of Keilor East, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. We were closer to the airport we’d just left than our downtown hotel, hoping to spot the sign for Houston’s Barbecue. The problem, as it turned out, is that they hadn’t had a chance to put one up. The one above the door of the place, once we’d found it, still noted the previous occupant, “Ally’s Corner.” It was the first day in business for Kit and Prue Houston. They’d just gotten the keys to the building ten days prior, and they started serving their Texas-style barbecue a week earlier than they’d originally planned.
It’s not often I visit a joint on its first day, but I only had two days in Melbourne. I contacted Kit Houston before my trip to see if I could meet him to talk barbecue while I was in town. I’d hoped that maybe they’d be doing some test cooks in the new space. Instead they rushed through the (mostly complete) renovations, and announced their opening. We arrived three hours after the first customer of the day and ordered most of the menu.
This isn’t the Houstons’ first stab at serving brisket. Previously they were smoking meat in the driveway of their house and selling it from a food truck (now for sale) parked next to the smoker. Most of the orders came from Uber Eats, and they quickly learned that location wasn’t the most important factor for the brick-and-mortar they’d been planning. If you do well enough smoking Australian beef, the barbecue fans will find you.
“I find, with some of our customers, I can say ‘Central Texas,’ and they’ll know that,” Kit said, referring to his style of cooking. Such is the global popularity of Texas barbecue that even Aussie aficionados know our various styles. Still, for most Australians, barbecue means grilling, not smoking meat. “We’re educating people, and we’re happy to be trailblazers,” Prue said. Kit added that they require a modifier to accurately describe their food, especially online. “When we refer to it here, we do American barbecue,” he said.
Kit’s began down his barbecue career path when he got a job at a brewery after twenty years working in IT. Before long, they had him working the grill for the weekend crowd, cooking kranskies, a finely ground sausage found all over Australia. The Houstons serve a version with chunks of cheese in it that tastes like a bologna and cheese sandwich in a casing—meaning it’s great. After serving countless sausages, Kit wanted to get beyond grilling. He bought an offset smoker for backyard practice. The first pork shoulder came out great. He figured he was a natural, until he tried to make a second one.
Eventually he got the hang of it and partnered with another craft brewery to serve American barbecue to their Friday crowds. He started off with pulled pork, hot dogs, and wings, before adding brisket and beef ribs to the line-up. “We did that for a year, and they doubled our rent,” Kit said. So in February they moved the operation to their driveway while planning a Texas barbecue tour. “Kit was going to make sure he was on track,” Prue said, describing the purpose for the trip.
A collection on a shelf at Houston’s Barbecue displays hats from Stiles Switch, Franklin Barbecue, Snow’s BBQ, Micklethwait, and Louie Mueller Barbecue that were all gathered during a Texas road trip earlier this year. Starting in Dallas, the Houstons visited 25 joints over a single week traveling to Houston, Austin, then back to Dallas. It wasn’t all big-game hunting either. Kip said, “We ate highway barbecue all the way down,” while swearing they used the Texas Monthly BBQ Finder app.
The couple learned plenty on their tour, but the biggest revelation was our love for seasonings beyond salt and black pepper. Most rubs in Texas start with the duo, then add flavors like garlic, onion, paprika, and sometimes sugar. Kit said he also gleaned what he could from American pitmasters on the barbecue show Man, Fire, Food. Australia hasn’t yet built a commercial barbecue community, so it’s hard to bounce ideas off his peers. “The competition scene is much more further along,” on the continent, he said.
Kit thinks the secret to barbecue is hot-holding—moving the finished brisket to a warmer for several hours before serving it. “Holding really changes barbecue,” he said. It worked well for his briskets at the restaurant. He smoked three monsters—24 pounds apiece—for his first day, and slices from the fatty end were admirably smoked. The beef ribs needed a little extra time to tenderize if they plan emulate Louie Mueller, but Kit already knew that just from slicing the meat that went onto our platter. One big difference between Houston’s Barbecue and what you might find in Houston, Texas, is the beef. Australian beef is older when slaughtered, so it takes on a more robust, beefy flavor, similar to grass-fed beef in the US.
Smoked and fried chicken wings were superb, as was the pulled pork sandwich. The pork had a great smoke flavor, the slaw was crunchy, and the sesame seed bun was much higher quality than the standard white bun (this was common when I ate any kind of sandwich in Australia). A dollop of sweet, tomato barbecue sauce was just enough. The buns are also used for the smash burgers, which were as important an import as the barbecue. The worst thing I ate on the continent was a cheeseburger from another restaurant made with a beef patty that was closer to meatloaf than pure ground beef. Kit said that’s common. At Houston’s, they use their brisket trimmings to make thin, all-beef patties. Two of them come together with American cheese for a glorious burger, one that would be praised in the States.
One thing I liked most about the place is that it’s a real joint. There are just eighteen seats inside and a short serving line. The brisket isn’t cheap. It’s roughly $30 (U.S.) per pound, but dining out is expensive everywhere in Australia. Sometimes shockingly so. Most of the barbecue is offered at full-service restaurants that require reservations and charge as much for some sides as we’d expect to pay for a main course. Kit called these “fancy barbecue restaurants,” so I thought Fancy Hank’s in downtown Melbourne would be a good place to sample how the other half smoked. They let us in early without a reservation, as long as we’d finish up in an hour.
I swallowed hard ordering the braised greens and cornbread at Fancy Hank’s, which came out to roughly $10 and $6.50 respectively. The former contained lima beans, which delivered the message that they understood both to be Southern staples, but did not understand Southern food. An inch-thick slice of brisket, no weight specified, was nearly $18, and a full rack of baby back ribs, the only serving size available, was $35. The ribs were tender, well smoked, nicely seasoned, and with a sweet glaze as a finishing touch. But then the whole rack was doused in Alabama white sauce. It was like ranch dressing slathered on Neapolitan pizza—a culinary cross-contamination akin to Cheez Whiz atop Chicago’s finest Italian beef freshly dipped in a jus.
There’s no white sauce at Houston’s Barbecue, no reservations, and the sides are under $3 each. All the barbecue is cooked on a wood-fired offset smoker. The couple purchased it second-hand, which Kit says isn’t uncommon in Melbourne, especially once hopeful barbecue cooks realize how much work is involved in running a barbecue operation. “We’ve done it hard, and we’ve done it different because we’re not from a hospitality background,” Prue said, admitting that they didn’t really know what they were getting into either. She estimates Melbourne is home to at least 30 other barbecue pop-ups and food trucks like the one they previously ran. Not many have yet made the jump to a full-time location like the Houstons. I asked Kit what he thought would separate them as more competitors enter the market. Sporting a hat from Houston’s own Truth BBQ, he smiled, reminded me of their surname, and said, “I was born to do it, I think.”
99a Slater Parade
Keilor East VIC 3033