Monday, November 16, 2015

On The Side: 2015 Houston BBQ Throwdown

The first annual Houston BBQ Throwdown went down last Sunday at St. Arnold’s brewery.  The challenge to local pitmasters was to fuse the flavors of Houston with the tradition of Texas Barbecue, all in one bite.  Fourteen area pitmasters took the challenge and showed up to a sold out crowd on Sunday.

This was a different take on the traditional Barbecue Festival and was a departure that I wholeheartedly welcomed.  It is quite possible to get brisket fatigue at most barbecue events.  But at the Throwdown, there were spreads of dishes that deviated from the norm in every direction.  Each dish was exciting and different.  And most impressively, there were absolutely no duds at the event.

The BBQ Throwdown was framed as a competition with awards going to the People’s Choice and to the Judge’s Choice as selected by a lineup of all-star judges (Alison Cook, Patricia Sharpe, Wayne Mueller, Greg Gatlin, and Robert J. Lerma).  Winners were named, but in all honesty, there were no losers.

Houston-area pimasters in general seem open to experimenting with their proteins.  This kind of event was perfect in capturing the cultures of Houston along with the playful nature of our barbecue proprietors.  Fusing Texas barbecue with flavors of other cultures is exactly what garnered acclaim for Blood Bros. BBQ pop-up events.  We have seen that Pappa Charlies’ Wesley Jurena isn’t afraid of melding flavors in unique ways as evidenced by a masala rubbed brisket he debuted on my recent visit.  This event also introduced me to Chopped N Smoked and their team that brought Lebanese flavors to Texas Barbecue, something I had never encountered.

There were also the more obvious, but entirely appropriate booths that drew from a Mexican influence with tamales and tacos and those that brought some Texas soul food.  The Brisket House made the Texas State Dish even more Texas-ier with a Beef Rib and Brisket chili.

The pitmasters needed little prompting to take the concept of the Throwdown and run with it, but an award, prestige and cooler full of briskets provided a little extra motivation.

A stipulation of the contest was that entries be something that they could feasibly put on the menu of their business.  So there is some hope that these dishes wind up as a daily special at a few of these joints.  And some of the entries, like BBQ Godfather’s godfather sandwich and Feges’ pig wings, already appear on the menu from time to time.


As for the flavors, here is the list of attendees and their dishes (alphabetically):

Blood Bros. BBQ – Pork Belly and Pig Ears on a Roti
The abundance of flavors worked well together on this bite. The flavors were unique as was the variety of textures from the crispy pig ear and soft pork belly
   
BBQ Godfather – The Godfather Sandwich
This sandwich featured Smoked Beef Rib with Candied Pork Belly and Sauteed Mushrooms.  It was the most “gourmet” item on the menu as the preparation went well beyond the smoking. Smoke, earthiness, sweetness and a garlic herb-iness provided a symphony of flavor on a picturesque bite.

Brooks' Place – Smoked Oxtails and Cabbage - Judge's Winner
The cabbage was well prepared, but the oxtails were clearly the focus of this Southern dish.  I’d never encountered oxtail like that. The perfectly tender meat sat on a bone that dripped with perfectly rendered fat.

Chopped N Smoked BBQ – Brisket Kibbeh
These guys were an unknown to me and served a dish unfamiliar to me.  I love trying new dishes and meeting new people, so this was the best of both worlds.  This Lebanese meatball came with a sauce that was completely different than you would expect at a barbecue competition and it absolutely worked.

Corkscrew BBQ – Prime Brisket Taco with Texas Caviar and Green Chili Ranch – People’s Choice Winner
If Corkscrew is serving brisket tacos, count me in.  Their exemplary brisket was topped with Texas Caviar, a mixture of corn, peas, tomato, onions and cilantro, then dressed with a jalapeño ranch sauce.  What’s not to like?

Feges BBQ – Smoked “Pig Wings” – My (Other) Favorite
This pork shank was meaty and well smoked. A healthy dose of black pepper combined with a delicious jalapeño mustard glaze to provide huge flavor with a nice bite.  It was near perfection for Feges.

Jackson Street BBQ – Cheddar Kolache (Klobasniky) with Smoked Brisket
As a nod to my Czech roots, I refuse to refer to a meat pastry as a “kolach,” but I will by all means partake in eating them.  This buttery and cheesy bread held a great bite of brisket.

Pappa Charlies Barbecue – Masala Rubbed Short Rib Burnt End with Cider Sriracha Slaw served on a Ritz
A very good burnt end benefited even more from the intriguing flavor of masala. He crowned the bite with some sriracha slaw, giving us two good bites in one.

Pit Room – Smoked Brisket Tamalito – My Favorite
Along with being my favorite item of the day, John Avila served up one of the best presented dishes at the event.  The smokiness of the meat permeated through the masa in this slice of tamal.  It sat in a house roasted chile colorado sauce that beats most I’ve had in authentic Mexican restaurants.  It was topped with fresh crema and burnt end bits and specs of habanero and salsa verde. This was a wealth of flavors all in one bite.

Pizzitola’s Barbecue – Brisket “Burnt Ends" Tamale in a Hickory Smoked Masa with Pork Sparerib Spiked Queso
Pizzitola’s was handing out whole tamales which I appreciated. I also loved the concept of smoked masa though it didn’t hold together as well as you would hope.  The sparerib spiked queso was an absolute winner as well.

Ray’s BBQ Shack – Smoked Oxtails
Ray’s was the 2nd booth offering up oxtails.  These were a little less smoky and a bit more sweet than Brooks’ offering but provided another nice take on the classic dish.

Roegel’s Barbecue – Smoked Lamb and Collard Greens
The smoked lamb was a generous portion and was lightly seasoned, allowing the natural flavors to shine through.  Lamb is a protein that not a lot of pitmasters try their hand at, but I wish they would.  Results like this are delectable.

The Brisket House – Beef Rib and Brisket Chili
Chili was one of the dishes I was looking for.  It begged to be featured at this event and The Brisket House did the Texas classic justice by injecting beef rib and brisket into a chunky chili base.

Tin Roof BBQ – Brisket Stuffed Shrimp Brochette and Dirty Rice with Beef Rib
This was a perfect concept for the Throwdown. This dish naturally combined jalapeño, cheese, brisket and shrimp into a perfect portion and had people raving.


Overall, I was very pleased with the event and the selected winners.  I wavered between about six places before performing my civic duty and casting a vote for the people’s choice award.  I was very pleased to see Brooks’ Place and Corkscrew take home the hardware.  They are two of the best places in the Houston area and served two of the best bites today.  I am glad their hard work continues to pay off.

As I mentioned before, there was not a bad bite at the event and I was satisfied by the end of the day.  This was a nicer feeling than the gluttonous misery that follows most BBQ Festivals.  The plates were well portioned and the manageable attendance allowed for quick queues.  This was not the kind of event where you spend most of your time waiting in line.  Instead, I had plenty of time to focus on the meat and leisurely talk to other attendees.  The people to food ratio was spot on.

St. Arnold provided a great backdrop for the day as a Houston institution in its own rite.  St. Arnold also provided free drinks for all of the attendees.  By all accounts, this will be an event that happens again (and again).  It will be interesting to see if St. Arnold is the permanent home or if it will make stops at other Houston institutions/breweries.

The Houston BBQ Throwdown reinforced the fact that Houston’s barbecue scene is here and demands to be respected.  There is no stopping the growth of Houston-area barbecue as it weaves into the culture that makes the Bayou City a diverse and unique city.


Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Lines moved quickly and efficiently through the event.
Pizzitola's tamales at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Pizzitola's was handing out whole tamales to attendees
A spread of selections from Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Brooks Place, Jackson Street, Pizzitola's, Feges, Brisket House, Roegel's
Pit Room at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Pit Room offered up delicious flavors as well as a picturesque presentation
Beautiful food from Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The food at the Throwdown was a delight to all senses
BBQ Godfather's booth at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
BBQ Godfather served up their Godfather sandwich
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Houston BBQ Throwdown was all you can eat and drink thanks to St. Arnold
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Chopped N Smoked; Pit Room; Pappa Charlies; BBQ Godfather
Ray's BBQ Shack at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Ray's BBQ Shack serving up smoked oxtails
Corkscrew BBQ at Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The Corkscrew Crew preparing their popular brisket tacos.
Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Clockwise from top left: Blood Bros; Ray's BBQ Shack; Corkscrew
Saint Arnold was the backdrop for Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Saint Arnold provided the backdrop for the Houston BBQ Throwdown
Corkscrew BBQ won the People's Choice award for Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
The Buckmans of Corkscrew BBQ celebrate their People's Choice award
Brooks Place was the judge's winner of Houston BBQ Throwdown 2015
Trent Brooks was awarded the Judge's Choice for the best bite of the day



*All Grades Are Based Solely on the Quality of Texas BBQ Offered at the Joint. We Aren't Looking for Burgers or Catfish!

My Grading Scale:


A = This is some of the finest BBQ you'll find anywhere. It is worth a roadtrip in itself along with any required wait.
B = This is very good BBQ, even if it is over an hour away, consider making the drive.
C = This is just average BBQ but it's worth a stop in a pinch.
D = This is a poor example of Texas BBQ. Even if it's the only place around, skip it. Apologize to any non-Texans that have eaten here.
F = This is not only a bad Texas BBQ, it is probably not suitable for human consumption.

 
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