Sunday, March 24, 2013 will go down in Houston History as the first time over a dozen of Houston's best pit masters assembled and served BBQ to a devout congregation of over 1,500 BBQ enthusiasts. The Houston BBQ Festival was the first event of its kind, and hopefully not the last.

Despite unseasonably cold weather and strong winds, dedicated BBQ fans treked from all over Texas to south of the Astrodome to worship at the altar of grilled meat.

They were not disappointed.

Enjoying great BBQ with a thousand of my friends. Fortunately the lines
were moving fast.

Organized by BBQ gurus Chris Reid and Michael Fulmer, the event drew all sorts of enthusiasts from the Houston and Texas food scene, many of whom were volunteering to help the event run smoothly.

The media was in attendance: Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Eric Sandler of Eater Houston, and Robb Walsh of Houstonia were all devouring 'Q and comparing the offerings. Also making an appearance was Daniel Vaughn, newly named BBQ Editor of Texas Monthly magazine, who will be a major contributor to the epic BBQ issue expected out this summer.

The festival was perhaps the best run food event in recent memory, a tribute to the hard work of the staff and the organizing skills of Reid and Fulmer. And the staff, largely composed of the notable Houston foodies on Reid's and Fulmer's rolodex (OK, iPhone address book) was constantly in motion - we don't know how staff members like Gary Wise, Joanne Witt, and Nathan Ketcham each managed to be in four places at once. Their tireless efforts were impressive to behold.

Participating BBQ joints were Blake's BBQ, The Brisket House, Brooks' Place BBQ, Burns BBQ, Corkscrew BBQ, Fainmous BBQ, Gary Burns Old Fashioned Pit BBQ, Gatlin's BBQ, Gerardo's, Killen's BBQ, Lenox Bar-B-Que, Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue, Ray's BBQ Shack, Tin Roof BBQ, and Virgie's BBQ. Lines were long but moved fast as the BBQ pros served up samples of the meats and sides which made them famous.

Mother Nature and the Bayou City Event Center provided a beautiful but chilly backdrop for the event, and the high winds kept the crowds bundled up and gave the pit masters extra challenges. A handful of pit masters (Ronnie Killen of Killen's, Will Buckman of Corkscrew, and Jamie Fain of Fainmous) were on-site the night before and cooked their 'Q on-site, and fought against the winds to keep the fires low and the smoke just right.

Generous samples were provided by each pit master.

We sampled a wide variety of 'Q from the assembled Houston BBQ royalty. There wasn't a bad plate in the bunch - Reid and Fulmer demonstrated the value of expert curation for a food event. But a few items stood out from the pack for us:

Sausage - Houston generally isn't a sausage town, but there were some standouts. Our favorite was Fainmous BBQ's house-made sausage, with Blake's BBQ serving our runner up.

Pulled Pork - Traditionally not a Texas strength, we were impressed by the pulled pork from Corkscrew BBQ and Fainmous BBQ, with Corkscrew having a slight edge in flavor and Fainmous having a slightly more tender texture. These two pits confirm that Texans can do pulled pork that compares to the best to be had anywhere.

Beef Ribs - Killen's BBQ stunned us with a superlative example of this hard-to-find meat. Ronnie Killen hasn't even opened his BBQ joint yet, but he's shown that he's going to be a formidable presence on the BBQ scene in days to come.

Pork Ribs - Virgie's lived up to their reputation for stellar ribs - flavorful, tender, and with a delicious bark. Runners up were Gatlin's and Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue.

Brisket (Overall Best of Festival) - We concur with the sentiment we heard all over the festival - Corkscrew BBQ had the festival's overall best meat - their world class brisket. Pit master Will Buckman delivered his signature brisket:  Tender with great mouthfeel, and a masterful balance of oak smoke and beef flavor. Buckman took the risk of cooking it on-site, and it paid off for him. Runners up were Greg Gatlin's phenomenally tender slice from Gatlin's and the deeply smoky offering from The Brisket House.

There are worse ways to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon that walking around, talking with friends, and eating BBQ from over a dozen of Houston's greatest BBQ pits. We think that this first Houston BBQ Festival was a roaring success, and are already counting the days until Reid and Fulmer gather their tireless staff, the talented pitmasters, and thousands of BBQ fans for the second edition of this outstanding even.

We'll be there. You should be, too.

Many of our readers are familiar with Corkscrew BBQ, the food trailer that serves some of the best BBQ in the entire Houston area. They've had universally good reviews, including a rare two-star review from The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook. They've been so successful that they've had to expand from their original pit to a higher capacity model, and from their small food trailer to a modern, larger trailer. Even with these expansions, they still sell out of their BBQ every day. Rain or shine, in hot or cold weather.

Waiting for BBQ at Corkscrew

Just about everyone who's been to Corkscrew loves 'em... with one notable exception. There's another BBQ place, called Pit Master BBQ, that's in a shopping center on the main road near Corkscrew's side-road location. Unlike Corkscrew, Pit Master is a full restaurant, with walls, air conditioning, restrooms, and all the other accoutrements that come with a brick-and-mortar shop. Yet they don't seem to be able to compete with the little BBQ trailer. It's a classic David-vs-Goliath story, but instead of David being armed with a slingshot, he's got BBQ meats as his weapon of choice.

Pit Master is only lacking two things: Great BBQ and a sense of ethics. I've eaten at Pit Master a couple of times, and found their food to be utterly unremarkable - the type of corporate BBQ that's available all over the place, and simply isn't memorable. Until Corkscrew opened, Pit Master was the only BBQ spot in the area, and without competition their unremarkable BBQ wasn't a serious problem.

Apparently the appearance of a master pitmaster like Will Buckman upset Pit Master's apple cart, because according to reports, Pit Master's owners have tried to get Corkscrew BBQ shut down. Repeatedly.

Nichole Buckman, one of the owners of Corkscrew BBQ, shares the sad tale on her Facebook page:

"Well we are working on going permanent, starting the processes this week. We'll be staying in the same location in the trailer, we'll be getting bathrooms put in and we'll be able to sell beer and wine, yea!

"Everyone can thank Pitmaster BBQ for that...why you ask? They decided to go to the commissioner and try and have us shut down for having a pit room and canopy that was APPROVED but not written in the laws of having a food truck. So all those still frequenting them, this is how they treat other local family owned business, they try and shut them down bc they are loosing business, which has NOTHING to do with us but all with the quality of their food.

"I wish they would think that when they try and shut us down they are potentially taking the roof over my kids heads way, food from their mouths and clothes off their backs. I would never do that to a person, its shameful. We will not be bullied by them, it's not the first time they've been trying to shut us down since we opened."

We make no secret about being fans of Corkscrew BBQ and their world-class food. And we applaud Nichole's positive attitude, and her drive to make her business even better. Corkscrew is a perfect example of how hard work, customer service, and dedication to a superior product will enable a small business to thrive, even in a tough economy.

We hope Pit Master tries a new approach - serving better BBQ, as opposed to whining to local government to get a family business shut down. Until that happens, we ask each of our readers to ask themselves what sort of business they'd like to support.

And we welcome a rebuttal from Pit Master in the comments. We'd love to hear your side of this sordid story.

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Bon appetit.

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