I arrive at Killen's Barbecue in Pearland, Texas, a short time before the doors open for lunch. Already, a line has formed below the massive oak out front. Following the trail of smoke, I wind my way around the back of the restaurant. Ronnie Killen has yet to arrive today, so I meet up with pit master Manny Torres. He's the guy feeding the pits that churn out the stellar barbecue Killen's has become famous for. “When people come up to me and tell me the food was amazing, it makes it all worth it. No matter how dirty I get,” says Torres. However, he is quick to give Killen credit for the food; he and Killen have worked together for more than 12 years, and there's a deep mutual respect.
As we walk over to the pits, Killen shows up and begins describing how he prepares his brisket: He cooks it at 225 degrees for 16 hours over a combination of smoking oak, pecan, and hickory wood. Hickory, he says, is too strong, and if you're not careful to add it sparingly, it can impart a bitter or acrid flavor to the food.
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Before the brisket hits the cooker, he seasons the meat with salt and pepper and then coats it with yellow mustard to make the spice rub stick—later, I'll taste the mild tanginess of the mustard beneath the bark. Finally, he applies a liberal dusting of their house rub, which includes chipotle, white and brown sugars, cumin, and black pepper.
I ask about the black pepper. Killen prefers it to cayenne for its up-front burn; he even tests the quality of the Tellicherry peppercorns he uses by placing them on a sheet of white paper for a few moments to see if they leave behind their oil, an indicator of freshness. He likens the peppercorns to grapes and the wine they produce: Every plant is different, every batch is different. Killen has a love of his craft and can speak endlessly about grinds of pepper or meat cuts or woodsmoke, drawing you in with his passion. “My Grandma told me, ‘Cook for people what you love, and everything else will come out fine.’”
As a kid, Killen worked in a watermelon patch. On days they sold their haul of picked melons, they were rewarded with barbecue, which they ate at picnic tables like the ones now installed on the outdoor patio at Killen's. He got into cooking because he hated doing the dishes, and if he cooked, that meant he didn't have to wash them. By the time he was in high school, he was cooking for his whole family. He learned to cook barbecue from his godfather, who also taught him to be meticulous and care for his food. I ask how those lessons impacted him as a cook. He responds, “We just buy the best product and try not to screw it up.”