While standing in line at Kat’s Barbecue in Santa Fe (about 45 minutes south of Houston), it didn’t seem like I was in a restaurant that’s only been around for seven years. Employee Ernie Angel shared some familiar banter with most of the customers, and small talk with the rest, as he took their orders at the register. To his right, owner Andrew Steiner sliced the barbecue on a large cutting block and prepared the orders that he placed in the window, through which he surveyed the small, crowded dining room. “Is that Miss Alabama?” he shouted as a silver-haired woman walked though the door. She smiled and waved. Steiner already knew her order, and he says he knows the name of just about everyone who comes in.
Kat’s Barbecue is so tied to the community because locals basically willed it into existence. Barbecue was not Steiner’s forte when he bought the building in a small town he knew nothing about. “I could cook one good and one bad,” he said of his brisket hobby back then. The native of Erie, Pennsylvania, had worked as a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Houston in the nineties. After a divorce, he moved to Hawaii, which is where he met his wife Kazuyo, who is from the Tochigi prefecture outside Tokyo. They married and returned in 2005 to Houston, where Andrew worked as a country club chef. He quit in 2015 so they could start their own catering company. The couple chose a well-priced building in Santa Fe to be the catering company’s home base, as it was still close enough to Houston to be convenient.
A local woman named Judy Wright came by to sell raffle tickets for the Santa Fe Spring Fling when the Steiners were cleaning out the building. Andrew remembers her saying, “This is going to make a great barbecue restaurant.” He laughed it off and bought a few tickets. Wright came by every Tuesday afternoon for a chat, and would comment that she was looking forward to the barbecue. “I think this is an omen,” Andrew told Kazuyo. They switched gears and bought a smoker. On opening day of Kat’s Barbecue in 2016, Wright had sent word to her church members. “At eleven o’clock the whole church showed up with their own chairs and tables,” Andrew said. They sold out before noon.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Andrew admitted. The Steiners ran the show six days a week. Andrew cooked the barbecue while Kazuyo worked the front counter. A few customers were rude about her language barrier, and Andrew said he had to “fire” some of them. Still, the dining room was overflowing. They were exhausted, and had to reevaluate. They cut back to just four days a week. The couple switched roles and hired Angel to run the register. Kazuyo wanted to cook the barbecue, and Andrew was happy to give her the reins to the smokers. I asked him if the barbecue quality improved. “To be honest with you, it did,” he said. As the pitmaster, Kazuyo, on a work day, goes to bed at 5:30 p.m., rises for an 11 p.m. yoga session, then gets to the restaurant before midnight to light the pits. They now have three from East Texas Smoker Company. She left Kat’s just as I was getting my second tray of barbecue.
But let’s start with the first tray, which came only after I found a rare empty parking space. A line of customers snaked around the tables inside, and a large chalkboard displayed the menu. At $24.50 per pound, the brisket was a lot less expensive than at many Houston joints. I got some on a two-meat plate, and had to order the pork ribs separately because they’re not an option on combo plates. The ribs tasted of pork, smoke, and salt. I enjoyed the simplicity, and the options for sauce—an original and a spicy version are both homemade—that Kat’s provides on the tables.
Brisket is what the Steiners pride themselves in. Theirs is heavily rubbed, minimally trimmed, and sliced thick to keep it from falling apart. The generous serving was juicy, with well-rendered fat and an oak-smoke bite that remained after a good while in the foil wrap. It went well with the original sauce, and would be great in a sandwich with some pickles and onions. The smoked sausage comes from Chappell Hill. It’s got a pleasant saltiness with some garlic and black pepper. Andrew knows it’s not the best he can provide, but says “it’s a crowd pleaser.” On Wednesdays, they run different specials, and one of them is an all-beef German sausage made by a local butcher from the Steiners’ own beef, which they sell under the Kat’s Kattle brand.
To raise his miniature Herefords, Andrew partnered with a local rancher, who was also eating lunch during my visit. “They’re not tiny,” Andrew said of the cattle, but they are so named because their legs are shorter than the standard Hereford’s. Raw steaks and ground beef from Kat’s Kattle are for sale inside the restaurant, and Kazuyo smokes burgers made with the beef every Thursday. Fridays are for half chickens, and the smoked prime rib is on the menu every Saturday.
I was there on a Thursday and saw the special only after I’d tucked into my first tray. Angel smiled when I came back up to grab a to-go box and place another order. I was already becoming a regular in just one day. The burger is topped with American cheese and dressed with tomato, shredded lettuce, and a side of mayo. Don’t ask for bacon or another kind of cheese, Angel advised. “This isn’t a burger joint,” he said. The half-pound patty was thick, and still plenty juicy beneath the dark bark. After finishing my iced tea, I switched to the keg of Abita root beer to wash it down. A side of cabbage stewed with ham, sausage, and potatoes was a highlight, though the creamy mac and cheese and the meaty pinto beans were satisfying. By the time I’d packed away what was left of the second tray, I didn’t have room to order from the bevy of puddings, cakes, and cobblers on display.
If you’re wondering why this joint in a town of just over 12,000 residents sounds familiar, it’s because it makes headlines year after year. According to Yelp’s ranking algorithm, Kat’s Barbecue was the best barbecue joint in Texas in 2020. The following year, it was the third-highest-rated restaurant (not just barbecue) in the state, though last year it slipped down to sixth. I’ve tried to visit in the past, but it was always sold out. Andrew said to be safe, you need to arrive before 1 p.m., and you’ll usually see a closed sign by 2:30 p.m.
The accolades for Kat’s Barbecue aren’t as important as its ties to the community, according to Andrew. The Steiners supply their beef to customers in need throughout the year, and served free meals to those flooded out of their homes during Hurricane Harvey and to those without power during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. Andrew and I talked briefly about the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, which was painful to the Steiners because they knew so many of the people involved. They have organized swimming safety courses and bicycle donations for students, and Andrew opens the root beer tap to any local kids who want to hang out at the restaurant. “If they’re here drinking root beer having fun, then they’re not somewhere else doing something stupid,” he said.
Kat’s Barbecue is unlike many of the other barbecue joints that have opened during its short tenure. It’s an inexpensive place in a small town, and it’s getting enough support to thrive. An immigrant woman is tending the pits and running the place with her husband from Pennsylvania who didn’t even want to open a restaurant. During my meal, I watched as Andrew guided a new employee, whom he hoped could become his right-hand man at the counter, through service. It wasn’t clicking, so they agreed to meet Sunday evening, when the restaurant was closed, to go through a series of mock orders. It reminded Andrew of another employee Wright brought to him several years ago. He was a local student going down the wrong path. He wanted to join the Marines, but couldn’t pass the admission test because he couldn’t read. Steiner got him a tutor, and that former employee completed his four-year tour in the Marines last year. “There’s more to that restaurant,” Andrew said. “It’s not all about barbecue.”
3805 N. Farm-to-Market Road 646, Santa Fe
Hours: Wednesday–Saturday 11-4
Pitmaster: Kazuyo Steiner
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year opened: 2016