Talking beef, smoke, salt, sweat and barbecue destiny with Kit Houston, Keilor East’s prince of the pitmasters.

Kit Houston thinks he might’ve been fated to get into barbecue. “With a last name like Houston, I think I was born to do it,” he says. It was also his way move on from working in IT. After 20 years at the digital coalface, he says, barbecue was his out. No more calls, no more traveling and most importantly no more emails.

“It’s funny, I’ve now been told many times by barbecue suppliers that it’s a thing for IT people, he says. “I think it might have something to do with barbecue being very process-oriented, calling for micromanagement of every aspect during the cook, as well as small changes over long cooks – things that you can’t judge the success of until you’re done cooking.”

He opened Houston’s Barbecue in an industrial estate in Keilor East in 2019, graduating from a food truck to bricks and mortar. Eighteen seats, all outside, counter service, no fuss, no muss. He scored a feature in no less august a journal than Texas Monthly, which described Houston’s work as “admirable”, saluting the fact that the venue was “a real joint”, and in the years that have followed, Houston’s has come to be known as one of Australia’s top barbecue shops.

How did you get good at barbecue?
Very slowly. It was over many years and thousands of briskets. Every week I’d just try and do better, tweak on the previous week, talk to Texas, research and apply. I’m still not there yet and I still think of the meats I ate in Texas all the time. 

Every cook for the first few years is new, every cook has problems you have to solve, and every slab of meat is different. Problem solving is a process and then making sure it doesn’t happen again sounds very IT to me.

It’s also hard work. Lots of people don’t believe me when I say that, but the meat is heavy, the fires are hot, and all the smoke and concentration over 16 or 18 hours leave you drained. I enjoyed it so much for many years and was always looking forward to the 4am starts, the 16-hour days and cooking few hundred kilos of meat ready for service. I’m fortunate enough that business is running well enough to have handed that over to a dedicated cook now, but I still get on the tools when needed.

Brisket is considered the king of Central Texas barbecue. Tell us about yours.
Our brisket is probably one of the lowest marbled briskets being used in business. You find many places using high-marble scored 4+ wagyu and wagyu-cross briskets. The extra fat in high marble scored briskets make them easier to cook but at a price to the business and to the customer. We use award-winning, certified Black Angus, 150-day-grain-finished briskets with a marble score of 2, and have worked with the same brisket for years. It’s harder to cook, but we pass the dollars saved per kilo onto the customer.

A heavy 50/50 salt/pepper rub is the start of any Texas style barbecue. We then add to that 10 per cent garlic and our mixed spice dry rub. We cook ours over redgum, our locally sourced hardwood, on a large LPG tank converted to a smoker – it’s seven metres long, 1.2 metres wide and weighs 3.5 tonne.

On the fork, what’s the difference between good brisket and great brisket?
Before the fork comes the resting. You’re told to rest steaks for at least half the time they cook, and same applies to brisket. Using food warmers and hot holding cabinets we rest our briskets for at least 12 hours. During this time, the meat continues to break down, reabsorbing the fat and juices as it rests. This process can’t make bad barbecue good, but it can make good barbecue great.

On the fork, a slice of brisket should hold its form when lifted off the plate. It should then also pull part with ease when you stretch it out. I’m looking for a fat cap of five or eight millimetres on the slice and a thick dark bark, the smoky outside part. Each bite should have a balance of meat, fat and bark. It’s very hard to tick every box but it’s something serious barbecue joints strive for.

Wayne Mueller, from Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, just north of Austin, Texas, is a key influence. Why?
Walking into Louie Mueller Barbecue for the first time is a religious experience. It’s an old dance hall, with dark timber furniture, and years of smoke covering the walls. The heart of the room is the main brick pit, with its chimney shooting up and out the roof. Light coming down from the high windows creates beams in the smoke, and then there’s the moment when you breathe it in: that smoked meat smell. And you know you’ve come to the right place, The Cathedral of Smoke.

The time I spent with Wayne was short. I was lucky enough to spend two long cooks with him and two weeks of downtime together here in Australia. It’s not just the food he showed me it’s his connection to the history of barbecue – the last 100 years that brought us to where we are now, doing Texas barbecue in Melbourne, Australia. This isn’t a fad food the world is just finding about, it’s a way of life for Texans, it’s community, family, good times and more.

I know hundreds of our customs by name. I know their families and I know their work, and we sit, have a beer and chat as we catch up over the food. Wayne helped make this all happen.

Beyond the brisket, you’ve got some other sought-after hits on the menu. Walk us through the essentials.
The beef short rib is, fatty, decadent and very popular. The heavy blanket of black pepper on it makes for an awesome showpiece. I’m also sad to say our buttermilk fried chicken is very popular, with people coming in for the chicken and staying for the barbecue. I must confess you’ll sometimes find me eating the fried chicken and the smoked and fried wings myself on occasion. Our desserts, which are supplied by The Cake House Collective, sell out every week without fail.

If you want to try a bit of everything, we do a mixed-meat meal: beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked sausage, smoked and fried chicken wings, all on fries with sauce.

And then the other days of the week, when you’re not selling burgers, you sell the best smashburgers in the northwest?
Our smashburgers are just as popular as the barbecue, as a matter of fact. We take our the trim from our brisket, mince it to a 25 or 30 per cent fat ratio, ball up all the patties and smash to order. There are no fillers, no fluff, just 100 per cent beef brisket, American cheese and a potato roll. We also recently introduced our version of Nashville hot chicken – we call it barbecue hot chicken – which we sell on Wednesdays and Thursdays. We smoke the chicken, then buttermilk it, crumb it and fry it. We use our HBBQ cayenne hot sauce as the base for the spicing: unique, delicious, and, yes, hot.

Houston Barbecue's smashburger
Houston’s Barbecue’s smashburger (photo Amy Taylor

And you sell hot sauces and barbecue gear?
Yep, we stock a massive range of hot sauces via our Blonde Chilli pop up store. I’m confident that the variety will even impress the biggest chilli head.

As for the barbecue gear, I understand that not everyone can afford to eat out as much as they once might have liked, so we offer the basics needed to smoke and smash at home. We sell meat, rubs, sauces, potato rolls, tools and more.

You also teach. What can we learn at one of your classes?
Smoke School is a 12-hour hands-on smoked meats class that teaches you how to prepare and cook the Texas trinity: brisket, pork ribs and sausage. In small groups you’re taught to set up, light and maintain an offset smoker. You get to trim, season and smoke brisket, pork ribs and sausage, you get walked through four different wrapping techniques, and get to see firsthand the key signs of a done brisket ready to come off the smoker. And you get breakfast, lunch and brisket to take home.

Let’s talk basics. If we’ve never been to Houston’s, what do we need to know? How does it work?
We open Wednesday and Thursday for smashburgers and barbecue hot chicken. Friday and Saturday we do barbecue. We open at 11am and close at 7pm except for Saturdays when we close at four.

You can just walk in or call to place an order. We offer a pre-order system on our website starting Sunday night to reserve on order for a set pick up time the following weekend.

If you want beef ribs, pork ribs or desserts, I’d recommend you pre-order, but the rest of our main meats usually last until close.

Barbecue is not quick to cook, so while we do our best to plan and stock for a full day, some days we’ll get smashed and sell out by one o’clock, but usually we’re good till seven.

Your neighbours in Keilor East are more in the powdercoating, car-servicing, laminates and joinery and welding trades rather than food service. How did you choose Slater Parade as a location?
Low risk and low rent and the hope that if the food was good enough people would come to us. Turns out the decision was right and over 98 per cent of our customers travel to us from outside the estate every week.

Houston’s Barbecue, 99a Slater Pde, Keilor East,, @houstonsbbq  

By Pat Nourse