Restaurants / Openings

The True Scoop on Houston’s Most Anticipated New Barbecue Hotspot: Truth BBQ Pitmaster Dishes on the Secret Surprises Coming

BY // 10.02.17
photography Robert Jacob Lerma

Pitmaster Leonard Botello is holding his cards close to the vest as the opening approaches for the Houston location of his wildly popular Truth BBQ. Everything will be the same as it is at the original in Brenham, he tells PaperCity. Except that it won’t be. And therein lies the story.

In partnership with Johnny Carrabba and private wealth manager Jason Fertitta,  who introduced the two, Botello is kicking it up a notch, even though his barbecue has already earned a coveted Top 10 ranking from Texas Monthly after only two years at the smokers.

When the Houston shop opens in the former J. Black’s space on South Heights Boulevard later this year, it will be considerably larger than the original outpost on Highway 290, just west of Brenham. Purists need not worry as Botello allows that the down home, roadside atmosphere will be repeated and his venerated barbecue method maintained. And, yes, fans can expect a line outside the door just as there is in Brenham on weekends.

“I don’t think there’s going to be anything different about the barbecue. I’m going to bring the same type of cookers,” the 29-year-old says. “Everything’s going to be done the same way it was in Brenham for the barbecue aspect of it because that’s what got us here.” He won’t reveal how many pits (customized to his design specs) he’ll be firing up in Houston but it will surely be more than in the original location.

Botello does allow that he has some well-guarded surprises up his sleeve. “We’ve got a lot more stuff that we are going to do,” he says. “We’re just going to come out swinging when we come to Houston. We’re pulling out all the tricks in one location.”

With a considerably larger kitchen, Botello reveals that he will be expanding his stable of side dish offerings. But don’t even ask what they might be. The pitmaster is sensitive to copycats in the area who have already begun reproducing things like his style of plating, color coordination, his sandwiches and his dessert cakes.

Leonard Botello IV will open a second iteration of his Brenham-based Truth BBQ in Houston.

With the expanded kitchen and more cookers, Truth will be able to offer private dining opportunities, catering and take-out. Fertitta is particularly excited about this saying,  “I know for my private dining that having Leonard there is like the equivalent of having a master sommelier of barbecue. I know that a lot of the folks that we’ll be bringing in for private dinners will be excited to hear Leonard’s tips and how he does it and talk to him.”

It could be a few months before that opportunity arises. Botello had planned on opening before the holidays but with Harvey, “that made a mess of everything. The city needs to come back together before we open.”

When the doors finally do open, diners will have their pick of 44 Farms barbecued brisket, pulled pork, beef ribs, turkey and two kinds of sausage (jalapeno/cheese and garlic) made on site.

“I ultimately think that there are things that could be better in the barbecue but that’s just me being a perfectionist. Probably anybody else that I ask will tell me not to touch it. I’ll do something like cooking brisket on the left side rather than the right side to see if it comes out different,” he laughs. “That’s just the way I am.”

And then there are the cakes. If there were Lone Star honors for best baked cakes Botello’s mother, Jandel, would, er, take the cake. From recipes passed down through the generations, she pours the love into her batters for lemon pound cake, Italian cream cake, chocolate cake, carrot cake and banana caramel cake. The monster confections measure 12 inches high and 12 inches across. A single slice will feed two to three people.

“Everybody that comes there now, it’s turned into this thing of people getting a ton of barbecue and then saying ‘I’ll just take a piece of cake to go,'” Botello says. “It’s come to this situation where everybody thinks if you eat barbecue you have to eat cake. So it’s put us in this situation where we make as much cake as we do barbecue.”

And the secret to that success? “The same as barbecue, a lot of love.”

The Barbecue Bug

A biology grad from Texas A&M, Botello comes from a family of small-time restaurateurs though it was not his intention to go into the business.

“To start off, it really grabbed my attention that people were standing in line for barbecue. I mean, you see people do that for concerts or specialty items they don’t have a lot of. But it’s hot in Texas. It’s miserable in the summertime, humid and people are waiting in line for an hour.” he explains.

“I thought that was the coolest thing that people loved your food so much that they would be willing to stand in line in the heat.”

The self-taught pitmaster (YouTube, cookbooks, research and experimentation) was intrigued by the Texas Barbecue Trail and wanted to stamp another place for people to hop on.

“So we built it and did it the way we said we were going to do it. We didn’t really cut any corners or anything like that and it just took off.”

That perfectionist streak is what dictates the limited supply of barbecue available on any given day. “When you want to cook the best barbecue, it only stays good for so long and it has a holding life. The best time is when you open up at 11 o’clock until about 4 o’clock, unless you are cooking multiple batches,” Botello says. “And that’s why at a lot of these top tier barbecue places you can’t get barbecue after 4 in the afternoon. It’s just because they’re not going to sell you bad quality barbecue.”

When Botello first opened Truth, he worked straight through most of the week, leaving his home in Houston at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and not returning until 7 p.m. on Sunday. Sleeping on a Tempurpedic fold-out cot in the back of the eatery, he would take breaks only to go to his parents home in Brenham for a shower. The scheduled eased as he trained workers to assist with the butchering and other tasks. But now with Houston coming back on line, he’s at it again, working six and a half days a week.

The work ethic and the perfectionist edge are two factors that have put him at the top of the Texas barbecue chain far faster than he anticipated. And Botello is not settling.

“I think anything and everything can always be made better somehow or another,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who can be at one point and be ‘Okay that works, I’m good with that.’ That attitude is part of what got us here. I still think it can be made better.”

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