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Meet Don and Theodore Nguyen of Khói Barbecue in Montrose

Today we’d like to introduce you to Don and Theodore Nguyen.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Don and Theodore. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I studied mathematics and economics for my undergraduate degree and currently work as an energy trader. I was around a lot of cooking growing up – my mom and aunts would always cook Vietnamese food and we were lucky enough to always eat home cooked meals. Sunday was the big day where they would cook a big batch of pho or egg rolls and we would have an extended family brunch. I really enjoyed cooking and did it more when I moved away to college at the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Texas at Austin. But the barbecue journey with my brother, Theodore, started when I went to Costco in April 2017 to buy some rotisserie chickens and then got talked into buying this grilling/smoking contraption and left with a Kamado Joe – a 600-pound ceramic egg. I grew up in Texas, so bbq was always around. I really wanted to figure out how to cook some of the bbq I had grown up eating and the mind-bending bbq I had when I was in college in Austin at a place called Franklin BBQ. It was a little trailer a few blocks from where I lived that served brisket I had never experienced before – even at places like Salt Lick, County Line, Goode Company.

I started making briskets and invited friends and family over. The first few weren’t very good but slowly got better. Then Hurricane Harvey hit and I had a cooler of uncooked briskets, ribs, sausages on ice in case the power went out or we got flooded in. Although we were lucky and neither happened, a lot of my friends had been stuck eating frozen corndogs all week because the grocery stores were cleaned out. So I fired up my egg and had a party at my house. Three different friends groups all came over for bbq and Game of Thrones. It was cool to see the power of food and the power of bbq to bring people together. Then we had the idea of doing a pop-up. I believed that in order to get good at something, you need to practice, but it’s hard to eat a brisket by yourself and my friends and family could only eat so much bbq, so we reached out to a friend that owned a restaurant, pitched him on the idea, and had a pop up where we donated all the proceeds to his charity for Harvey victims. It was a great time and we ended up selling out. By then we got the bug and got linked up with a brewery in Rice Village and started popping up there once or twice a month. We still pop up there, two years later.

As we got better with our bbq technique, I started thinking how we could incorporate different foods we grew up eating with bbq. Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Chinese. I asked my mom for her pho recipe and we found out that brisket pairs extremely well with pho. The brisket is smoky, tender, salty & peppery and complements the light chicken broth of pho perfectly. So we put that on the menu, along with things like beef rib nigiri and smoked Hainanese chicken rice and they were really popular specials at our pop-ups. Our idea was to execute Central Texas bbq to the highest level we could – where anyone that just wanted brisket, ribs, and sausage could come to but people could also get items they couldn’t get anywhere else.

We got a lot of traction when the Houston Chronicle came to visit us and profiled us in the summer of 2018. Then the Cooking Channel show Man, Fire, Food reached out to us and filmed an episode with us that debuted in May 2019. The episode was us cooking brisket pho and beef rib nigiri and Ronnie Killen of Killen’s BBQ doing his thing. It was surreal because we were just hobbyists and were featured on a cooking show with the meat king of Houston. We won our first competition in October 2019 – the HOUBBQ Throwdown at Saint Arnold brewery that consisted of 15 teams – all bbq restaurants around Houston. Allison Cook, the Houston Chronicle food critic, was one of the judges that rated our dish. We did smoked Hainanese chicken & yuzukoshō, a Japanese & Texas riff on a humble dish we grew up eating. We won with chicken in a bbq competition in Texas!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I feel we got really fortunate, in that the vision of what we wanted Khói Barbecue to be, hadn’t really been explored too much before, I think. There is plenty of amazing Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean food in Houston and plenty of awesome bbq places, but a place that was combining certain elements of all those culinary traditions wasn’t easy to find. So we were lucky in our timing.

But it has been difficult as I had a full-time job and we had no experience working in a commercial kitchen. BBQ in itself is a very labor-intensive, time-consuming activity, so we were spending a lot of late nights tending the smoker. We would have to go to Uhaul to rent a motorcycle trailer to pull our little front yard smoker to the pop-up locations. We would drive around to all the Costcos in Houston to buy briskets, only to find out they sold out when we got there. We would find wood suppliers on Craiglist, arrange a dropoff, and then they would never show up.

But I think it’s all a part of the experience of trying to start something new. There’s a big learning curve, but that’s what makes it fun. We learned how to adapt our processes to make it more efficient. We would become friends with the Costco meat employees and they would text us when new briskets were in and save some for us. We would eventually find good wood suppliers that charged more but we’re on time and delivered wood with a consistent quality. We learned to make checklists, but still forget things from time to time.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Khói Barbecue – what should we know?
We are a barbecue pop up. We specialize in Central Texas-inspired, Asian-influenced barbecue. We honor the Texas tradition of bbq by smoking everything with post oak wood in an offset smoker. We combine elements of that with Asian dishes we love – from growing up to my time living in Asia. We are known for our 18-hour smoked brisket, beef ribs, brisket pho, and beef rib nigiri.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Keeping our customers happy and putting everything we can into showing up with the best product we can. And the idea of always trying to innovate and create new dishes to tell our story.

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