Keeping up with the rapid innovation happening in Texas barbecue is a challenge. A recent conversation with Don Nguyen of Khói Barbecue, in Houston, made me realize it might be impossible. He runs the once- or twice-a-month barbecue pop-up with his brother, Theo, and draws inspiration from their Vietnamese roots. I asked him why they don’t offer the seemingly obvious barbecue banh mi, which would couple the official sandwich of Vietnam with smoked meat. Without a hint of sarcasm, Nguyen pointed to a few examples and said it’s already been overdone in Texas. “We try to introduce different recipes and different foods that people haven’t tried before,” he says. That’s what makes eating Khói’s unique take on Texas barbecue such an adventure.
The barbecue journey of Don and Theo Nguyen started when they were kids in Houston eating at the Luther’s barbecue chain. “We’d go there and get the all-you-can-eat spareribs,” Don says. They also had family in Dripping Springs, so they would go to Salt Lick or County Line when they visited. At home, they’d grill plenty of meat but never smoke it, so the brothers didn’t know where to start after Don made an impulse buy at a Houston grocery store in April 2017. “I went to get a rotisserie chicken, and somebody was selling a Kamado Joe,” Don recalls, referring to the ceramic grill and smoker. “I left with a Kamado Joe and no rotisserie chicken.”
When they were without power during Hurricane Harvey later that year, the grill came in handy. They had a freezer full of meat that was thawing, so the Nguyen brothers threw a party and invited friends. “The power of barbecue and food to bring people together was really cool,” remembers Don, who says he was hooked on cooking and serving barbecue from that point on. Their first pop-up was a week after Harvey. They used the name Blue Smoke, which is also the name of a famous barbecue restaurant in New York. Don took it in stride when they were forced to change the name, saying, “We got like a twenty-page cease-and-desist, and we were like, ‘Mom! We made it.’”
Nowadays, Don and Theo are a team sharing nearly all the responsibilities of smoking, cooking, and serving for the Khói Barbecue pop-ups. “He gets the night shift because he’s younger,” Don said of Theo, who plays Fortnite while he watches the fire until 3 a.m., when he goes to bed. Don gets up an hour later to stoke the fire and finish the cook. To develop their barbecue skills, they studied Aaron Franklin’s book, and they also credit Amazingribs.com as an influential resource. For the rest of their recipes, they built on their mom’s cooking repertoire with techniques gleaned from chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi.
They chose the name Khói because the word means “smoke” in Vietnamese. That’s the main ingredient for the Nguyen brothers. Their menu is ever-changing, with dishes like brisket pho and beef rib dry ramen—items that can mesmerize the average barbecue consumer—but it’s built from a core of well-smoked meats. Back in November, when Khói Barbecue popped up at Eight Row Flint in Houston, I tried the basics and all the specialties they offered that day. I could see the new location of Truth BBQ (which made our Top 10 BBQ list in 2017) from the patio table where I was sitting. Truth’s owner and pitmaster, Leonard Botello IV, was eating brisket at the table next to me. Khói’s brisket was superb but not yet at Truth’s level (not many in the state are), and I asked Don later why he bothered selling brisket, ribs, and sausage by the pound when the specials were enough to draw the crowds. I was thinking practically, but for the Nguyens, the basics are a point of pride. “If you want to riff and play jazz and play blues, you gotta learn the basics,” Don explained. Then he told me a story.
During Khói’s early days, a group of young guys were passing by and saw the smokers, the menu, and a couple of Asian guys preparing to serve food from a fold-out table. They asked, “Where did you get the barbecue?” Don assured them they smoked it themselves, but the skeptical smirks from the group remained as they walked onward. The Nguyens don’t want to be dismissed as “the Asian barbecue guys.” They’ve served their beef rib in nori hand rolls and submerged smoked brisket into pho, but Don said when it comes to smoked meat on butcher paper, “We can compete apples to apples as well.” Nothing I tried would cause me to disagree.
The pork ribs are seasoned with salt and pepper, but the pepper is a mix of 12 mesh and 30 mesh Phu Quoc pepper, a pungent black pepper variety from Vietnam. The glaze is a barbecue sauce made with tomato, vinegar, fish sauce, and honey. Despite a few less-than-common ingredients, the ribs just taste like excellent Texas barbecue, smoked to the right tenderness and thoughtfully seasoned. The brisket is no different, and the pickles on the side are a step above the norm. They make their own kimchi, pickled daikon, and pickled cucumbers and onions. The Nguyens also stuff and smoke their own sausages, which vary depending on the pop-up. If they stopped there, it’d be a praiseworthy version of a classic Texas barbecue menu, but as Don says, “There’s always a nice balance to both honoring that tradition and pushing forward and trying new stuff.”
The new stuff is actually old stuff done with smoked meats. “A lot of it is driven from my mom [Tiffany Nguyen],” Don said. The pho is from her recipe, which it took Don a lot of begging to get. She told him, “I was afraid once I told you, you would never come home.” The base is a clean beef broth made with smoked beef rib bones. Rice noodles and fresh herbs form a nest that supports a thick slice of fatty brisket just above the surface of the broth. If you’ve had brisket ramen, think of this as its subtler cousin, where the brisket doesn’t have to compete with the broth for flavor dominance.
Even the smoked meat ramen was unconventional. The broth had been drained from the noodles, which held onto all the seasoning. It brought back memories of eating budget ramen from a package, and the aroma was like the waft that came after ripping open a ramen flavoring packet. “That dish is an homage to college days,” Don says with a laugh, but I certainly never got a velvety tender chunk of smoked beef rib on top back in college.
A simple bowl of chicken and rice has already become a signature dish for Khói Barbecue. “We ate that all the time growing up,” Don says, only that was poached rather than smoked chicken. Their mom’s recipe starts with raw grains of rice in a hot wok with chicken fat, chicken bouillon, and garlic. Water is added only after the rice toasts a bit in the fat. The Nguyen brothers copy those steps, which produce a rice that’s umami-rich almost beyond belief. They smoke brined, skin-on chickens, seasoned only with a pinch of salt. The smoke flavor is light, which allows the yuzukoshō garnish to shine. It’s a power-packed paste traditionally made with citrusy yuzu, but they substitute lime and lemon zest and add Thai chiles, grated garlic, ginger, and vegetable oil. “Barbecue is a rich culture, and we’re bringing another rich culture into it,” Don explains. This dish exemplifies that beautifully. It also brought Khói Barbecue the Houston BBQ Throwdown crown last year.
The Nguyen parents live in Houston and have come to a couple of pop-ups, but Don adds: “It stresses my mom out watching us do all this stuff. She wants to jump in.” For most of their life, she led them on culinary expeditions in her kitchen. “Cooking is a such a big part of immigrant families like ours,” Don said. It’s helped them feel a connection to their native Vietnam.
The family’s journey to America started with Don’s grandfather, who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. Don was born in Vietnam, but was able to come to the States with his mom in 1991. Theo, his younger brother by nine years, was the first of the family born in Texas. “I’m basically a Texan because a Methodist family in Austin decided to sponsor refugees from the Vietnam War, and the system matched them with my grandfather,” Don said in a Facebook post last week. Governor Greg Abbott had just announced that he would refuse all refugee resettlement in Texas, a decision that hit Don personally. He felt that the governor had sent a message to the Nguyens and so many others that there was no longer room in the state for success stories like theirs. “I just feel an overwhelming sadness,” Don told me, adding that they could fight the policy by cooking great food and sharing it as often as possible. “I feel like we’re carrying a torch and breaking down stereotypes,” he said. (A judge has since temporarily blocked such bans.)
If you’d like to see how Khói Barbecue is pushing the boundaries of Texas barbecue, their next pop-up is at noon Saturday, January 18, at Baileson Brewery in Houston, where the specials will be brisket phở and beef rib panang curry. The brothers are often limited by their day jobs to once-a-month pop-ups, but the very next week they have a collaboration scheduled with Bryan Bingham from Bodacious Bar-B-Que, also at Baileson Brewery in Houston on January 26. They’re promising smoked chicken and rice with yuzukoshō and a “slew of collaboration specials” that’ll include Vietnamese boudin sausages. You better believe they’ll also be serving the basics too, so don’t skip the smoked brisket and ribs if you want the whole story that Khói Barbecue is more than capable of telling.