Asian barbecue entrepreneurs let Houston's diversity inspire their meat
Quy Hoang is an unlikely Texas barbecue pitmaster. Tattooed and bespectacled, he's a millennial who emigrated from Vietnam with his parents when he was 2 years old. He has no formal culinary training. During the day, he runs an aquarium business with his uncle.
Brothers Robin and Terry Wong are first-generation Chinese-Americans who own the Glitter Karaoke bar in Midtown. The three grew up as friends in the diverse Alief neighborhood of Houston and attended Elsik High School.
A couple of years ago, the Wong brothers asked Hoang - a restless home cook and backyard griller - to cook for their weekly steak night at the bar. He would eventually start experimenting with smoked meats. The event became so popular that they decided to team up on a new venture - Blood Bros. Texas Barbecue. Today, they make some of the best and most innovative barbecue in Houston.
Blood Bros. is a barbecue "pop-up," meaning they don't have a brick-and-mortar restaurant or even a food truck or trailer. Instead, they partner with other local businesses, usually bars, to co-opt space and open on certain days to serve their barbecue. On a recent Saturday, Blood Bros. "popped up" at Lincoln Bar on Washington. Hoang and his team rolled a barbecue smoker into the parking lot and set up serving tables in a corner of the bar's patio.
A Blood Bros. pop-up is emphatically a party, with barbecue, music and cold beer at the center of the celebration. The Wongs, veterans of the Houston club scene, set up a DJ system in another corner and blast out hip-hop and dance music.
Heaping trays of smoked meats are shuttled from the smoker in the back to the serving table on the patio. The wide-eyed customers standing in line watch and smell the barbecue parade, fidgeting with their cellphones and making mental notes of what they'll order.
Brisket, ribs and sausage - the canonical "Texas Trinity" of barbecue - are present for sure. Hoang uses a traditional salt-and-pepper rub on his brisket, with additional ingredients like cayenne pepper and garlic for more flavor.
There are also generously sized beef ribs that pull apart along the seams of rendered fat and tender meat. Smoked boudin, a nod to the long tradition of Cajun influence in Houston barbecue, is presented as a smoke-infused link filled with rice, pork and herbs in a snappy casing.
The menu reflects both a commitment to Texas barbecue tradition as well as a willingness to experiment with the diverse culinary traditions that Houston is known for.
Hoang cooks his brisket "high and fast" for eight to 10 hours at around 300 degrees using a vault-style vertical smoker fueled with pecan and cherry wood. The resulting brisket is worthy of any Central Texas-style barbecue joint with the woods subtly infusing the well-rendered fat and crunchy outside bark with a mellow smoke flavor. Racks of pork ribs are studded with chunks of coarsely ground pepper and cooked until the crust glistens red-orange. Sausages pop and sizzle when cut into and evoke the spicy, savory tradition of classic Texas hot links.
The Blood Bros. don't stop there. This day's special menu item is something I've never seen anywhere - gochujang beef belly burnt ends. Hoang applies a spicy rub to beef belly and smokes it until cooked through and crusty on the outside. He then dices it into chunks, tosses it in a pungent, savory Korean gochujang sauce and returns it to the smoker to let the flavors marry.
It's the perfect crystallization of what might be recognized as a new style of Houston barbecue - traditional Texas barbecue infused by the rich diversity of Houston's international food scene. It builds on the African-American and Cajun traditions of the East Texas style of barbecue that Houston is known for by layering on the rising influence of Asian techniques and flavors.
Just don't call it "Asian-inspired" Texas barbecue.
"I think of it as Houston-inspired barbecue," Robin Wong said.
The Blood Bros. are making some of the best traditional Texas barbecue in Houston. They are clearly aware of and deferential to these traditions. Maybe too deferential. I'd love to see them continue experimenting with dishes like their gochujang beef belly burnt ends. As the rest of Texas and the U.S. align with the Central Texas style of smoked meats, it's fascinating to see and taste the early expressions of what may be a unique evolution of Houston barbecue.