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Killen’s Barbecue

By Comments

BBQ Rating


  • Opened


  • Pitmaster

    Ronnie Killen and Manny Torres

  • Method

    Oak, hickory, mesquite, and pecan in an indirect heat pit and a wood-fired rotisserie

“The Best Barbecue, Period.” That’s the motto Ronnie Killen has printed on the shirts that he and his staff wear, putting a daily target on every one of their backs. Making that declaration even after a good run of success toes the line between confidence and arrogance, but Killen had them printed while still serving his pop-up customers, five months before he opened the doors of his new restaurant. It was just plain cocky. I admire it.

I first tasted Killen’s barbecue at the Houston BBQ Festival in March of last year. A week later he started a pop-up at his well-respected steakhouse in Pearland. It got some rave reviews, and the barbecue I sampled in their first month was certainly promising, but Killen wasn’t aiming for promising. Earlier this year in a conversation with the Houston Chronicle, he made his target clear. He recounted a statement he made to Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. “You’re going to hear about me because you’re my benchmark. I’m coming after you.”

I was in Houston for another barbecue event in February. Killen’s Barbecue was just three days old, but I had to get a look. From all the praise that had flooded in over those couple of days prior, the expectation was that I would be rewarded with the finest smoked meat in the Houston area. The menu was as vast as the chasm between the quality of Franklin’s brisket and Killen’s on that day, but it was still early.

Ronnie Killen 05
BBQ Bus Tour Meal

In late May, Texas Monthly organized a barbecue bus tour through Houston with a stop at Killen’s. The staff served enough trays full of barbecue to feed sixty, and it was impressive. Those on the tour (myself included), mouths full of sausage and beef ribs, moaned with satisfaction. Pepper-flecked pork ribs were almost as juicy as the sausage, and I made three trips to the dessert table. To be fair, there were four desserts to choose from. Then there was the brisket. It was the kind of smoked beef Killen could go into battle with.

Last Friday, I flew down to Houston for a quick-strike barbecue day trip. Our party of four arrived at 10:00am and two people had beat us to the front of the line. A ticket dispenser sat next to the door, and every one in line is expected to take a number. The system is set up so you aren’t required to stand in one spot for an hour or more waiting for the doors to open. Theoretically, you could swoop in to take the first number, then go get a coffee or run some errands before getting back a few minutes before 11:00 to claim your spot at the front of the line. Surrounded by chatty barbecue fans, the hour went by quickly, with some assistance by free cups full of beer (tips encouraged) that are delivered by the staff.

Killens BBQ 01

The ordering system is straight-forward cafeteria style – fitting, considering that this building was once a school cafeteria. Killen is usually at the carving station along with other staff members slicing away to keep the line moving. I wanted the whole menu, so the order came out in rapid fire. Killen erred on the side of too much rather than not enough, so a request for a pound of brisket became a pound and a half, two slices of turkey became four and I got double the sausage that I wanted. It didn’t go to waste.

Killens BBQ 02

Walking to the table I was reminded that good barbecue can also be served in an air-conditioned building with real bathrooms. I don’t mind eating outside (as is required in many of Austin’s great barbecue joints), but the luxuries (has it come to that?) here are welcome. Seated comfortably without a bead of sweat on the brow, it was time for a tour through the menu.

Sides – The slaw was crisp and lightly dressed. Mustard lovers only will appreciate the potato salad, but you won’t hear a complaint that it’s bland. I preferred the peppery pinto beans to the baked beans, but I couldn’t choose a favorite between the creamy macaroni and cheese and the freshest tasting creamed corn that I can remember.

Killens BBQ 03


Sausage – There is an original version and a jalapeño sausage available, but you won’t find much difference. They both pack the heat. The original version is a beef and pork blend with red and black pepper. Adding the jalapeño was barely noticeable. Every link was bursting with juice and had a nice snap. Despite their pale color, there was just enough smoked flavor present.

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Turkey – I’ve consumed plenty of good and bad turkey, but it’s not usually a stunner. At Killen’s, the turkey is remarkable. Moist slices have the boldest black pepper flavor of any meat, and lots of smokiness too. I might even consider a poultry diet if I could get to this smoked turkey on a daily basis.

Bone-in Pork Belly – For the anatomically unaware, the pork belly (which is where bacon comes from) is attached to the lower portion of the rib cage. When the ribs are removed, they are called spare ribs. When the ribs are left on it’s called heavenly. That is, if all those layers of fat can be adequately cooked.

The additional lean meat of the spare rib brings a new dimension to smoked pork belly. The outer edge tasted like peppered bacon, while the interior was full of the juiciest pork imaginable. At a couple inches thick, it’s a showpiece, but every inch is worth savoring. This is one item that should be on every order at Killen’s.

Killens BBQ 06

Pork Spare Ribs – There’s nothing tricked up about these big spare ribs. They serve as a rugged counterpoint to the belly, with grown up flavors of just salt, pepper, and smoke. The mahogany bark created a protective layer of the tender meat beneath. Only a slight tug was needed to separate meat from bone, and plenty of discipline was required to not grab another.

Pulled Pork – Maybe the rest was so good that this one just didn’t register. It was more wet (with sauce) than moist, and the smoke flavor was just a wisp. It was hard to find any real fault with it, but it doesn’t bring any excitement to the palate like the rest of the menu.

Beef Rib – Killen played around with multiple beef rib options until he settled on these plate short ribs. This is the only meat that is served exclusively by the pound, and this one weighed in at a full pound. The peppery bark was thick, almost rigid, but the beef beneath was pull-apart tender. The two textures together made for one great bite, or several.

Killens BBQ 05

Brisket – It’s the smokiness that it most evident here. In these days of long offset smokers being tuned to evacuate air like jet engines, sometimes a good layer of smoke is shot right out the flue. Killen’s brisket has that smoke, and a great bark, and a restrained amount of pepper. I love black pepper more than most, but the trend has been to pack it on so thick that it sloughs off onto the butcher paper before you’ve had a chance to take a bite. It was the salt that came out most in this seasoning blend.

Another remarkable quality of this brisket was the juiciness, and not just in the fatty cuts. In the order was an equal amount of lean and fatty brisket. For those lean brisket haters out there, this one can be a reminder of how good a slice can be when it isn’t as dry as the paper it’s served on. Greater skill is required to get the lean right, which is why it’s so special when it comes out like this.

Killens BBQ 04
Bread Pudding

Now it’s time to choose between five desserts, or just get them all. A dense pecan pie is made with Mrs. Butterworth’s (I incorrectly guessed it was sorghum syrup), and if that’s not rich enough, opt for the bread pudding made with croissants. Peach cobbler was a classic loaded with fresh peaches. I also loved the lemony buttermilk pie and the unsightly banana pudding, but the winner was the bread pudding topped with banana pudding – a different kind of a la mode.

Pondering whether my final bite should be pie, brisket, or that last onion ring it sank in that this was one of the best barbecue meals I’ve had in recent memory. Taking into account the comfortable setting, the care put into preparing the sides, desserts, and primarily the array of smoked meats, there isn’t much in Texas that can touch Killen’s Barbecue.

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  • John Brotherton

    I couldn’t agree more on this excellent rating. Fantastic Q!

  • David F Morgan Jr

    My dad, my best friend, his son and my son happened to be there that day. We were the BBQ fans in line behind them. Was awesome to meet Daniel and David and the BBQ was very good. Beef rib was literally to die for. Ronnie was very cool and even gave my dad and I an extra cut of brisket to sample while he was slicing our order.

  • J. Moss

    I visited around the time of this review and again a few days ago. The first time, everything was very good except for the brisket. Usually Daniel is spot-on in his reviews, so after hearing similar plaudits from others, I decided to make the hour drive and give it another shot.

    Unfortunately, it was the same. Pork ribs, turkey, pulled pork, and sausage are all very good. But the brisket was only above average. It was tender, and the fat was well-rendered, but there was barely a smoke ring and the only flavor was a slight beefy flavor. There was plenty of bark and fat in the cut, so I was rather surprised that there was not much flavor. After trying several other places based on the recommendations on this site, I can’t think this brisket was to the same level as what was reviewed. But after two visits, I won’t be going out of my way to visit again, unless someone can change my mind. Gatlin’s, Brooks’ Place, and Corkscrew are all about the same distance from me and would be much more worth my time.

    Has anyone else had a similar experience, or was I just twice unlucky?

    • Greg D

      I think you were unlucky twice. The first time I went, everything was amazing and I would dare say some of the best I’ve had. The second time was just above average on the brisket which honestly was disappointing Bc I knew what this place could produce. The third trip was closer to my first experience and my last trip (4’th) was so amazing I put myself into a food coma and literally went home to take a nap. It also happened to be a day that a new show on food network was there to film. I’m not sure if he stepped it up another notch bc of the national coverage, but I can honestly say I’ve never had better Q than that.

    • M Jones

      J Moss, I agree with you fully on the brisket. Even right off the butcher’s block, the brisket was bland if not accompanied by some bark. Reheating some the next day was even worse.

      The tenderness, and quality of meat were great. I just don’t understand how so little flavor can come from the meat itself, especially at $20 per pound. I got only moist portions, so the flavor should have really been there.

      I also tried the pork ribs and beef rib. The pork rib was as described, with a nice peppery bark, and done just right. The beef rib was worth the visit. It too was very tender (not sure how they did that), but full of flavor.

      All said, its not worth a repeat visit in my book, unless I’m needing a beef rib fix. The prices are premium, but, if you can’t even make consistent brisket (by now, July 2015, you should have it figured out), how can you hope to tackle Franklin’s Q?

  • J Ortiz

    Simply the most outstanding! I ordered the pork belly and brisket and nearly fainted! Unfortunately the flavor, texture and taste have made it impossible for me to eat any other bbq.

  • Johnnie Taylor

    I’ve had the pleasure of eating here four times over the past couple of months and the consistency is amazing. The flavor and texture of the brisket is nothing short of remarkable and is definitely on par with Franklin’s. I’ve never had to wait more than 20 minutes so I guess my timing has been good, although I’ve never been on a weekend. I highly recommend trying this if you’re looking for an alternative to Franklin’s.

  • I wondered how Killen’s BBQ had only positive comments on their webpage. Now I know that they delete even fair questions about their products.
    I asked a question and instead of answering it, Killen’s BBQ deleted it and won’t allow me to comment on their page anymore. WOW! I gave their Brisket and fixins a great review and asked a question about the beef ribs and get deleted??? Here was the question: Our Beef Rib plate was $16 with only this large bone and small piece of meat with two sides. We received a rib with less meat similar to the third rib from the left even though I gave the slicer a tip in his jar. How can we get at least a medium portion of beef rib the next time? I am going to share the question this time so I am not sure if they will answer the question or find some way to delete this fair question.