Killen's Barbecue still brings it. (Photo by Kimberly Park)
Barbecue king Ronnie Killen loads meat into the portable smoker.
Owner Ronnie Killen surveys the scene in his Killen's Burgers.
Killen's STQ has excelled at dinner for a while.
Ronnie Killen isn’t one to skimp on quality. When the Killen’s Barbecue proprietor noticed major inconsistencies in his popular brisket, he took immediate action, enlisting the services of premium meat producer Snake River Farms, a company many credit with producing some of America’s highest quality beef and pork.
“Our previous ranch started feeding the animals different food,” Killen says. “You could see it in the color, and we started having some issues here and at the burger place. People started saying that our burgers were overcooked, and I knew they weren’t overcooked. So I had an inkling that something was going on with the meat.
“Basically the feed that they were giving the animal was causing it to not be pink or red. So you had the texture of a medium burger, but you didn’t have the color.”
Fast forward to a few months later, and now Killen is serving Snake River’s premium meat in his famed Pearland barbecue joint, a move that doubled the price he once paid for his sell-out brisket.
Luckily, customers will only see a $3 price hike per pound for the Wagyu-angus brisket, a blend that’s just a step down from Snake River’s Gold Grade Wagyu, which showcases the highest level of marbling. (Many pit masters, including Killen, use this for competition.)
“Once we told them how much we needed, they came back and said they could do it, but that’d we’d be the only restaurant they were supplying, and for me that’s even better, because when people hear you’ve got Snake River Farms, they’re going to want it!” Killen says.
For those that may attribute Killen’s change to fallout from Texas Monthly ‘s new 50 Best Barbecue Joints rankings, which saw Killen’s Barbecue left out of the list’s coveted Top 10 (it did however make the Top 50), the Houston barbecue maestro insists it was a change that was a long time coming.
But that doesn’t mean Killen doesn’t have some strong opinions about the Top 10 snub.
“The Texas Monthly deal, was I upset about it? …Not really. Because I had a feeling. I know what we serve, and I know what we go through on a daily basis,” Killen says.
“I posted a Facebook post the morning of because I didn’t think we deserved to be in the Top 10. I know a lot of people thought we did, but I personally didn’t think so because we’re different now than we were when we first opened. I don’t want to classify us as high production, but we are. We serve probably more barbecue than anybody on the Top 50.
“You know Snow’s is number one; Cattleack was number three; Franklin was number two; but those places aren’t really about accessibility. If you have a line that is five hours long, how many people can wait in that line? Not a lot of people unless you’re flying or driving in or you know that’s what you’re there for. The normal public wouldn’t necessarily pay for that.
“Yes, Snow’s, I’ve never been there, but they’re only open one day a week. That’s kind of like a hobby to me. If I could open one day a week, I wouldn’t be able to pay my employees what I pay them now. So I hand it to [Snow’s] that they’re able to do that.
To be fair, Snow’s also has a robust online business where they ship barbecue all across the country. That’s hardly a hobby.
Even still, Killen attributes the Top 10 selection to an obsession of sorts with novelty barbecue.
“You get the people that are barbecue enthusiasts going to these places that know they’re going to have to wait, and they’re happy to wait,” he says. “But we get people that are just the general public, and they want their stuff like yesterday. They care more so about quantity not quality. In my opinion, a lot of people care more about how much [food] they’re going to get.
“We don’t have that rush of people that says ‘Oh no I have to get there by 1 [pm] before they run out of food.’ We still have a steady line all day, but it’s different because people know they can come here all throughout the day and still get the same barbecue. Which is good, but it doesn’t have that I’m going to camp out in line all day factor.”
While Killen has made his peace with the famed barbecue rankings, which are only released every four years, he still hasn’t forgiven Texas Monthly for the characterization of his booming barbecue operation.
“The only reason I was a bit upset with Texas Monthly was because they said that our building was built for efficiency and not soul,” Killen’s says. “You know when you think of what this building used to be, it was a cafeteria for the schools back in the 50s and now it’s back to its origins. So as far as soul, I’m thinking do we just not have soul because we don’t have smoke all over the walls and we keep the space clean?”
But whether you feel Killen is in it for the money or you empathize with his soulful sentiment, it’s clear that his clientele hasn’t wavered. It’s a Thursday morning, and every seat in the restaurant is already full and the line is out the door before noon.
As for the future, Killen may scoff at those “camp out all day” type of barbecue joints for now, but even he can admit there’s an allure to five hour wait times.
“The next barbecue place that I’m thinking about doing would definitely be a small capacity type place,” he says. “More artisan style. But would I trade what we do in sales right now to do a fraction of that? No.”