In August 1974, Steve Onstad watched his year-old barbecue joint burn to the ground. “I had put some fire in the pit, and went down the road to help a local gentleman jumpstart his car,” Onstad, the owner of Swinging Door Bar-B-Q in Richmond, recalled. “When I came back, the place was in flames.” He had originally built the shack on his family’s land southwest of Houston after flunking out of college. Two days before the fire, he had installed an air conditioning system in the newly enclosed patio, bringing the indoor seating capacity to 27. During the hot summer he chose that business expense over purchasing insurance, which he lamented as the garden hose he was futilely aiming at the flames lost water pressure. Onstad wasn’t sure he’d try to reopen at all, let alone celebrate fifty years in the barbecue business.
Up on the north side of Houston, right around the time of Swinging Door’s fire, another barbecue entrepreneur was looking for a better location. In 1973, the late Roy Burns Sr. began selling barbecue he’d cooked in his backyard in the Acres Homes neighborhood. A year later, he moved to the car wash that still sits behind the Valero station at West Montgomery and Little York. Roy’s sons Steve and Gary Burns, who still run the restaurant, remember him hauling his smoker full of brisket, ribs, and hot links to the car wash on Fridays and Saturdays. “It started with a little barrel pit,” Steve recalled, and as sales grew, Roy would buy bigger smokers to meet the demand. He eventually moved the mobile operation to an empty lot filled with pecan trees next to his sister’s house (which is now Burns Burger Shack) on De Priest. It was there where Roy and his family slowly constructed the building where Burns Original BBQ is housed today.
That’s how two Texas barbecue joints got started on opposite ends of town. Through the perseverance of the owners and their families, both are still serving smoked meats half a century later. It’s this perseverance the Texas Historical Commission (THC) wants to recognize with the Texas Treasures Business Award. Any business that has been open for fifty years or more is eligible, but this past year the THC and Texas Monthly worked together to identify barbecue businesses eligible for the award that hadn’t yet applied. In 2022, the THC inducted nineteen barbecue joints into the program, and eighteen more are in process.
Representatives of the THC attended last year’s Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in Lockhart to promote our barbecue partnership with families and representatives of Kreuz Market and Black’s BBQ in Lockhart, Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Southside Market in Elgin, and Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville. You can find a current list of all the past awardees at THC’s website (the newest barbecue class will be added to that list soon), which includes not only barbecue joints, but everything from boot makers to refrigeration companies.
The two newly eligible barbecue joints have both been witness to barbecue’s transformation and Texas history over the last fifty years. “It was probably a blessing that I didn’t have that many customers because the few that I had were very patient with me as far as being my Guinea pigs,” Onstad said, reflecting on those first few slow years when he was learning how to cook barbecue at the Swinging Door. He had friends at Pappas Bar-B-Q in Houston and at the Hickory Pit in Bellaire who would let him sit and watch their pit room process. Things changed in Richmond in 1978 when construction of the Pecan Grove development was underway just a couple of miles from the restaurant. The influx of new customers Onstad had hoped for finally arrived. The following year, he entered the Houston Livestock Show’s barbecue competition, and won the whole thing. Word of his prowess spread.
By the late 1970s, the “Luv Ya Blue” era of the Houston Oilers football team was in full force. Onstad had added on a dance hall to his little restaurant, and Oilers coach Bum Phillips had a ranch nearby. “He liked [the barbecue], started bringing some players out, and it became a weekly ritual on Thursday nights,” Onstad said of Phillips. “They’d come out and eat barbecue and drink beer in the back.” Dan Pastorini, Giff Nielsen, and Earl Campbell were among the regulars. “It all added to the aura of this little place out in the country,” Onstad said.
Back then, he served brisket, ribs, and sausage with sides of beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Nowadays he offers five meats and six sides plus dessert, and still cooks with pecan wood on those indirect-heat pits that went in after the big fire. The barbecue plates are more popular than the sandwiches that carried Onstad through the early years, and it’s still all about the brisket. “Beef is king in Texas,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Up at Burns Original BBQ, brisket shares the crown with pork ribs. “The rib sandwich and the stuffed potato are neck-and-neck in popularity,” said Cory Crawford, a Burns BBQ co-owner and Steve’s son. For the sandwich, three spare ribs are cut in half and piled between two slices of white bread. Pickles, onions, and barbecue sauce come on the side, and you don’t want to skip the sauce here. “The same exact recipe from scratch” is how Crawford describes the barbecue sauce served at the restaurant, which was developed by Roy Burns Sr. The joint also bottles it for Kroger grocery stores along with spice rubs, lemonade, tea, and barbecue-flavored chips all branded with the Burns logo. Roy Burns Sr., who passed away in 2009, never got to see this side of the business. After his passing, the restaurant itself nearly dissolved.
The Burns Original BBQ building was boarded up in 2010 while Gary opened his own Burns location, his sister Kathy Braden opened another, and Steve retired. After the closing, Crawford and his brother Carl, a former MLB player, got involved in the family business to revive it, and in 2012, Burns Original BBQ reopened with a renovated building, a new covered deck outside, and Steve and Gary working together again. The late Anthony Bourdain visited four years later to film an episode of Parts Unknown (Bourdain ate the ribs). It was a sort of homecoming after he’d helped raise the joint’s profile with a 2003 episode of his first show, A Cook’s Tour, and this follow-up visit also brought some new life into the legendary business. An image of Bourdain is included in a mural painted on the side of Burns Burger Shack that pays tribute to founder Roy Burns Sr.
The future of Burns BBQ isn’t in new brick-and-mortar locations, Crawford said, but rather in its partnership with Kroger. There are currently three Burns BBQ locations inside Houston-area Kroger stores. Crawford said with over a hundred Kroger locations in Houston, there’s no need to build new restaurants when they can just pull a food truck with a smoker next to a Kroger to cook barbecue and serve it inside the store. It’s something Roy Burns Sr. could have never imagined. “To look back now and see that it’s still going is rewarding,” Gary said.
Steve Onstad said there’s not much he would change about his fifty years at Swinging Door other than building the restaurant further from the road so he could have a bigger parking lot. “I’ve watched the evolution over the last five decades, and it’s been a fun ride,” he said, noting that for a recent catering gig he served smoked pork belly tacos with bacon jam, which is a far cry from the brisket sandwiches he started with. And at the age of seventy, Onstad still comes into work every day. “This was supposed to be a temporary gig,” he said, “and fifty years later I guess it’s what I’m stuck doing.”