Ronnie Killen knows steak, and he knows barbecue. That much is obvious from the praise heaped upon Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s Barbecue, both in Pearland just south of Houston. Last year he decided it was time to combine the two in Killen’s STQ, which has been a hit with critics and diners. The restaurant closed for a week after Harvey with some minor flooding, but now it’s back, open with as creative a menu as ever.
With so many smoked meats offered, you might mistake STQ for a barbecue joint, but then the fine china laid out on white tablecloths say otherwise. Killen’s aim was upscale dining in a comfortable setting more casual than his steakhouse. He describes the restaurant’s in-between status succinctly. “We want you to smell smoke, but we don’t want you to smell like smoke when you leave.”
The smoke you smell is from a J&R Little Red Smokehouse and a wood-fired grill, both in the kitchen. Some of the meats, like the stunning ribeye cap special (just $36 for a trophy cut of beef, the spinalis), get just a kiss of smoke from the wood grill. The musky dry-aged brisket sees only the inside of the smoker. A smoked filet gets a little of both. Chef Teddy Lopez, Killen’s right hand man at STQ, smokes a whole tenderloin, slices it into portions, then grills off portions to order. These steps allow it to be perfectly cooked, while still giving off that smoky perfume and flavor. With just the outer edge getting smoke, it’s like a smoke-wrapped, rather than bacon-wrapped, filet. And that’s what Killen does throughout the menu. Instead of being the process, like in barbecue, smoke at STQ is used as another item in the spice pantry.
“Smokiness gives [traditional steakhouse cuts] another layer of flavor,” Killen told me. Thanks to the massive popularity of barbecue, he said, “People are more open to those kind of flavors.” That even means giving desserts the flavor of smoke, like when a cloud of it under a glass dome hides chocolate cake underneath. The server releases the lid with a flourish, and the rich scent hangs around the table for a few seconds. The smoke also makes its way into the tiny air bubbles within the cake, so every bite has a pleasant hint of smoke.
There’s plenty of items more familiar as barbecue too. The beef rib, which I didn’t try, is a massive short rib priced at $35, about what it would cost at Killen’s Barbecue. Some of those ribs are shredded and used as the rich filling in the short rib ravioli. That’s quite a departure from saving barbecue leftovers for a chopped beef sandwich. There’s corn ravioli, too: if you’ve had Killen’s creamed corn before, it has the same depth of corn flavor, but with the bonus of bacon jam.
Killen and Lopez know beef, but it was two pork dishes that enraptured me and my dining companions. Expensive pork chops are a gamble. So often they come out overcooked, and the thickness of a double-cut chop, with so little surface area, often makes for bland, flavorless meat. Such is the state of modern pork production, but not so at STQ, where Killen purchases Compart duroc pork that has been dry-aged (an uncommon step for pork) for 14 days, the optimal length for pork according to Killen. To stall the dry-aging, the pork is flash-frozen. At STQ, the thick chops get a simple seasoning and a sear on the wood-fired grill. It comes out a rosy medium-rare, and every incredible bite had us fighting over who would get the last one.
Almost as an afterthought, we ordered the pork belly just before dessert. Cubes of tender yet crisp pork belly (pictured at the top) were glossy with a cherry-and-habanero jelly glaze. As a balance of sweet, spicy, salty, and acidic flavors, it was a masterpiece. The layers of meat and fat were juicy inside and crisp outside. I asked Killen the secret. “We deep fry them,” he told me with a laugh. Whole pork bellies are seasoned and smoked, then chilled and cubed. For service, the chilled pork nuggets take a short bath in the deep fryer. They’re seasoned again with barbecue rub, and glazed with honey, brown sugar, barbecue sauce, and the cherry-habanero jelly. You may want to cap off your meal with this dish because there’s not a better one on the menu.
Killen was weary when we spoke. He’s dealing with a lot, including fatigue from providing so many free meals to those in need after Harvey. Thankfully, all of his restaurants are intact and have reopened, and he was eager to talk about STQ. “It represents the chef in me coming out,” he said. Killen came up with the concept after a 2011 dinner at the James Beard House he called “the art of smoke,” and that makes sense: if you want to be comforted by great Texas barbecue, elsewhere, like Roegels Barbecue Co., just across the parking lot. STQ is where Killen gets to be creative by using smoke in new ways, and the place you come to be surprised.