Lyle Bento scooped shovelfuls of warm sand from a bathtub behind his restaurant. The claw foot tub was draped with strung-together grass skirts, signifying its new use as an imu—a Hawaiian barbecue pit usually reserved for whole pigs. Bento had layered pork shoulders and a Benton’s country ham between banana tree stalks and leaves beneath the sand. It was the Thursday night special at Southern Goods in Houston. Final preparations had to be made to the meats for service, which would start in just an hour. A television crew was arriving soon for a live spot, and a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico had just been upgraded to a hurricane. Bento was anxious.
But Bento was also excited to share his native barbecue style. He spent his first thirteen years on Oahu, in Hawaii, where his father often cooked whole pigs in an imu. The result is kalua pork, which you can find on menus all over Hawaii. Still, much like Texas barbacoa, most of the stuff labeled as kalua pork has been cooked in an oven. The real thing, however, spends hours underground over wood coals, so when Bento was planning to stage his first Texas luau at Southern Goods a while back, he needed a creative workaround. “I couldn’t dig a hole in the backyard, so I had to figure out a way to make a hole,” Bento explained. So he went searching on Craigslist where he found a free hot tub. After filling fiberglass shell with sand (he recommends sand from the hardware store instead of the beach), Bento dug a hole in it and started a fire. His fingers were crossed that the fiberglass would stand up to the heat, and it did.
After the successful luau, Bento once again employed the hot tub for a Texas Monthly barbecue event, selecting Benton’s country hams for the menu instead of a whole pig. The meat was good, but far too salty for any serving thicker than a credit card. The addition of unseasoned pork shoulders into the mix (a ratio of three shoulders to one ham) for this latest cook provided the necessary relief. The new cooking vessel, a bathtub, was also easier to heat up.
A proper imu uses wood for fuel, but also requires rocks in the bottom to retain the heat for the long cooking times. But the rocks found in the Houston aren’t up to the task, and would burst under the intense heat of the fire. You need rocks like they have in Hawaii, but “you can’t take rocks from Hawaii,” Bento reminded. “That’s bad ju-ju.” Some neighbors offered him fire bricks that had been rigorously tested. “They’re from the original kiln from Memorial Herman Hospital here in Houston,” Bento said with a wry smile. The kiln was used for cremations, he said, so “we just got them out of retirement.”
The process for the hams and shoulders takes hours. It starts with digging a reservoir on the sand-filled tub. The bricks are layered on the bottom and hardwood (Bento uses oak, but mesquite would also work well) is piled on top. The wood burns for a few hours until white hot coals remain. Smashed banana stalks, foraged from the back alleys of Houston, go on top to provide a mat for the meat. Bento stresses the importance of the banana stalks and leaves (that go over the meat), which provide most of the seasoning on the pork.
It all cooks overnight. Once the sand and leaves have been cleared away, the pork shoulders are revealed. After cooking for hours in its own fat, the meat is incredibly juicy. It easily shreds, so I pulled a bite directly from the pit, which was subtly flavored by the banana leaves. It’s perfect as a foil against the dense, salty richness of the ham, which goes directly from the pit to a hot oven to crisp the fat that covers its surface.
For service, the two types of kalua pork were presented together on a platter with Hawaiian rolls, mustard, and pickles. “You can’t have kalua pork without mac salad,” Bento insisted. His version of the Hawaiian specialty is made with Texas-shaped pasta instead of macaroni. It’s appropriately playful from the Hawaiian chef who mixes Tennessee country ham alongside pulled kalua pork—all at a restaurant in Texas. I wouldn’t be surprised if cow heads were next for some sort of Hawaiian barbacoa. Bento even hinted that emu might go in the imu for Thanksgiving.
Bento is back in Houston after spending several days delivering much needed food and goods to communities in Beaumont, Nederland, and Port Arthur. He’s happy to have the Southern Goods kitchen open again. Writing about food, especially in Houston, still seems trivial post-Harvey, but it’s heartening to see how chefs responded to those in need during and after the storm. Folks like Bento have earned the support from those who can give it now that they’re back in business. It just so happens that Southern Goods is celebrating its second anniversary this weekend with a Saturday barbecue event. Sure, there will be brisket, but Bento said folks should also be on the lookout for a bathtub full of pork.
632 W 19th St.
Houston, TX 77008