Pit rooms bring an entertainment factor to Texas barbecue

The audience, as it were, sits on picnic tables in a courtyard in front of the building, consuming the product created on stage, in this case, some of the best Central Texas-style barbecue in the state.

In the pit room, assistants scurry about checking temps on slabs of meat, then pulling and wrapping briskets. This cast of characters is quick to welcome guests for a tour and to take pictures that will be beamed out on social media to friends, family and followers.

You get the feeling that the pit staff has been hired as much for their gregariousness as their ability to cook world-class barbecue.

Such is the state of Texas barbecue today: For many barbecue joints, it is as much about the entertainment factor as it is about serving the best smoked meats.

This, of course, is nothing new in the culinary industry. With the rise of the celebrity chef, restaurant design turned to open kitchen concepts in which the chef could perform in front his or her adoring fans as they sampled the delicacies cooked right before their eyes.

And so it is with the celebrity pitmaster. Perhaps the most famous barbecue stage in the world is at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, where an endearing hodgepodge of sheds and lean-tos cover an eclectic assortment of pits and smokers. This is the domain of pitmaster Tootsie Tomanentz, who roams among the pits every Saturday as fans stand behind literal rope lines, snapping pictures and scoring the occasional selfie with Tootsie herself.

Citywide, the barbecue entertainment factor is on full display in Lockhart, where legendary joints such as Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue have been joined by newcomer Terry Black’s to offer the platonic ideal of Texas barbecue for locals and tourists alike.

Other Texas cities, large and small, also play up the entertainment factor in barbecue.

Regrettably, this scenario is limited in the city of Houston. Due to a quirk in the way regulators here interpret building codes, the soaring, stage-like pit rooms of other cities cannot be built in the city limits. Specifically, if an offset-style pit is used, it must be covered with a ponderous and expensive exhaust hood and fire extinguishing appliance.

Fortunately, Greater Houston is large enough so that many barbecue joints set up just outside the city limits to be able to build pit rooms with a certain entertainment value.

Tejas Chocolate & BBQ in Tomball was one of the first craft barbecue joints in the Houston area to incorporate an entertainment factor into their operations, with their original offset smoker they called “Black October” installed in a small shed next to their outdoor patio.

Owners/pitmasters Scott and Greg Moore happily chatted with guests about the peculiarities of cooking on that particular pit. They’ve added more sheds, smokers and friendly staff in the intervening years.

Like Terry Black’s in Lockhart, where the entertainment factor goes hand in hand with the stellar smoked meats, a visit to the barbecue (and chocolate-making) facilities at Tejas in Tomball is still one of the hottest tickets in town.