Last year, Leonard Botello IV decided he wanted to open a barbecue joint. The big hitch in his giddyup? He needed a smoker. He started searching for a workable, used pit, and pretty soon “a Klose pit came up on Craigslist in Cleveland,” he recalled. Ohio, that is, not Texas. According to Botello, the seller didn’t really know what she had on her hands and asked for only $4,700. (They can easily go for up to three times that amount.) Botello assured her he was on his way, and he embarked north from his home in Brenham. After three blown tires on the way back home, he finally transported it back safely and set it up at his new restaurant, Truth Barbecue.
Botello opened his barbecue joint, a tiny restaurant just west of Brenham, last July. Even though it’s only been open less than a year, word of Botello’s pit prowess traveled fast in barbecue circles. By the time I visited here at 11:30 on a recent Friday, a dozen people were ahead of me in line. “Last week people started showing up at 9:30,” Botello told me, almost nervously. He added, “Everybody wants to be a barbecue critic these days.”
Lucky for Botello, the restaurant business is nothing new for him. The Botellos ran the well-respected Cafe Annice in Lake Jackson, outside of Houston. When the health of Leonard III, Botello’s father, took a turn, Botello, who is just 27, managed the restaurant and its fifty employees. The family got a break from the restaurant business when they sold Cafe Annice to an out-of-state investor and moved to Brenham. The idea was to take it easy for a while, but Leonard III got antsy. “After two weeks he was bored out of his mind,” Botello recalled. That led to the purchase of an old barbecue joint, formerly J’s Bar-B-Q, along Highway 290, just west of Brenham.
There isn’t much room inside. Botello slices meat behind the counter while his father dishes up sides and runs the register. Botello’s mother, Janel, keeps the few tables inside and picnic tables outside in order. She also bakes the stunning multi-layered cakes available by the slice, a holdover from their old restaurant. The demand for the barbecue is growing so rapidly that Botello is seeking some pit help. The smoker is maxed out at 25 to 28 Creekstone prime briskets, depending on size, and his current right-hand man, Marcus Terry, won’t be around for the long term. Terry, who goes by the nickname “Mumbles,” will graduate with his master’s degree soon, and plans to become a rocket scientist.
Botello has done some studying of his own. He counts Aaron Franklin and John Lewis as influences, and of the new Austin-style acolytes, Botello is doing one of the best reproductions out there. There’s a rush of fragrances as butcher paper is unfolded from the briskets. Beef fat, black pepper, and post oak smoke wafted into the air as my nose, intimately familiar with the smell of a Franklin brisket, did a double take. The slices were juicy, salty, and incredibly tender, while the smokiness lurked in the background. A final squeeze from the sauce bottle onto the pork ribs was a flourish learned at La Barbecue, and the peppery bark stood up to it well. The big spare rib could have been a bit more tender, but I’ll be happy to get another one next time through the line. I also know to wait until Saturday to get the big beef ribs.
Homemade sausage is available every day. The original link is pork heavy, with some beef. The spice is light, and they’re salt-forward. It ate more like a bratwurst, and had the juiciness to match. A slice of smoked turkey was peppery, buttery, and superb. With such a great line-up already, I didn’t expect the pulled pork to make much of an impression. Wrong.
They smoke Duroc pork at Truth, and they pull it to order. Botello’s combination of using the well-marbled breed for his meat and a technique of not pulling it all at once means I was served one of the juiciest pork sandwiches in recent memory. With house-made pickles, onions, and sauce on a warn bun, it made for a flawless sandwich.
The sides are nothing to ignore, either. Leftover chunks of rib meat float in the classic pinto beans, while sausage slices stud the tart and not-too-tender greens. The mac & cheese must have been jealous of all the extra protein elsewhere and demanded a topping of crispy bacon.
I asked Botello if, given his previous restaurant experience, he liked the closer interaction with customers, who he sees face-to-face everyday at his station on the block. “I enjoy it,” he admitted. “It’s more personal,” he said, noting that it could be good or bad. As for his choice to jump headlong into barbecue, where he had no previous experience? “It’s a bigger payoff.” The same could be said for a road trip out to Brenham. Just get there soon, because when the barbecue is this good, everyone else won’t be far behind.