Are Texas Monthly’s barbecue rankings fair? Can you compare a joint open just one day a week to places open six and seven?
And a related, but more complicated fairness question: With so much of Texas Monthly’s overall business plan — events, tours, dinners, merchandise — now tied to barbecue, can the magazine look beyond its self interest when it comes to smoked meat?
After gurgling below the surface since the release of the latest Top 50 list last month, these issues erupted into full view this week when Ronnie Killen went public to the Houston media. He later elaborated in an electronic exchange with the Posse, which has heard similar comments from a couple other pit masters, though none would go public.
Killen owns Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, which is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. The place made TM’s Top 50 but was not ranked among the elite 10.
“Love the story and setting at Snow’s,” he wrote of the Lexington joint, open only on Saturdays and ranked No. 1 by Texas Monthly. “But it's a hobby not a business. Businesses are not open one day a week. You are not subjected to the very opinionated general public because they would never eat BBQ for breakfast and wait in a line for food and think people that do are crazy.”
Killen’s will be among the joints represented at Texas Monthly’s Meatup in Houston Saturday. Killen said his place is receiving $750 for the event and was told to expect about 600 guests. Tickets are $85 apiece plus tax.
“I'm spending exactly what they are giving and nothing more,” Killen said, who added that $750 was not much for the event and that he would not personally attend. "Again, it's all about money for them. . .”
Earlier this week, Killen told the Houston media that he was not doing Texas Monthly’s annual barbecue festival any more. In a couple of past years, he said, the festival gave him $1,000 and he spent $10,000 or more for food and other expenses for the event.
I reached out to Texas Monthly for reaction to Killen’s comments. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor, called me.
“I think this is the first time we’ve ever experienced a pit master being unhappy about being in the Top 50,” Vaughn said. Later, he added: “Killen’s is one of the best places in the state. We would happily send people to go eat there.”
Regarding the fairness of judging joints open limited days with those operating all week long, Vaughn acknowledged that a smaller place, open fewer days, cooking less meat might have some advantage when it comes to judging and TM’s rankings. Time and quantity are factors in quality control.
“But if we start making those kinds of rules, where’s the cutoff?” he said.
He has a solid point. The Posse itself is split on this issue. Some of us like the all-in-one-class (think of the movie “Hoosiers") approach to ranking joints. Some of us think it is unfair.
Regarding the more complicated question about Texas Monthly’s self interest, Vaughn said that from strictly a business point of view, it would have been more “advantageous” for the magazine to have Killen’s and other larger joints in the Top 10.
“We don’t go into it with the idea of which place will be the best draw for us,” he said.
Vaughn then talked about how the media landscape has changed, particularly in coverage of food.
“I do a lot more than a normal food critic,” Vaughn said. “I’m asked to be a public figure, asked to be a host at many of the public events we do and be right up there at the front of the room.”
He noted that in the past, restaurant critics tried to remain anonymous. But he said now everyone knows what Pete Wells (The New York Times) looks like and and everyone in Dallas knows what Leslie Brenner (The Dallas Morning News) looks like.
“Traditional food media magazines don’t make enough money so they need to do things outside the magazine,” he said. “For us, it’s events. And lucky for me some of the most successful have been barbecue events. People can’t get enough of barbecue.”