Tex-Mex Was Expected at Killen’s TMX in Pearland — But There Is Much More

“From the mesquite fires of the Spanish vaqueros to the taco trucks of modern taqueros, no American regional cuisine has contributed more to the nation’s grilling style than Tex-Mex. And no one is more fanatical about grilling and barbecuing than the people who inhabit the bicultural borderlands of Texas and northern Mexico.” — Robb Walsh, The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook

The grand symbiosis between the Texan and Mexican culinary cultures resulted in more than the tacos, enchiladas and fajitas normally thought of as Tex-Mex. Smoked meats are part of it as well. Historically, Texas and Mexico are both historically big meat-producing regions. Cowboys and vaqueros alike cooked over wood fires (when wood was actually available).In Mexico, slow-smoking whole animals in pits dug out of the earth and lined with maguey leaves was also common.

Even then, there were hints that new regional cuisines marrying meat, chiles and masa would be born near the border. According to Cowboys – Vaqueros: Origins of The First American Cowboys, a vaquero’s satchel might also contain a “canteen, red chile, dried tortillas, and charqui, which was eventually corrupted into today’s word jerky.”

It was inevitable the meat cultures would influence each other. In fact, the word “barbecue” evolved from the Spanish word “barbacoa,” a word that conquistadors used to describe the wooden structures an ancient Carribean tribe called the Taino built for smoking meats.

Adobo Short Rib Empanadas. Photo by Kimberly Park

Tex-Mex and barbecue are intertwined and some restaurants are now showcasing both. In 2016, The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation installed a big, wood-fired oven. In late 2017, Goode Co. — a name long synonymous with “barbecue” in Houston — opened Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina in the Woodlands and then followed up with a Memorial-area location. Now, chef-owner and meat-master Ronnie Killen has revealed his take on the Tex-Mex and barbecue union last week. It’s named Killen’s TMX and it opened at 9333 Broadway in Pearland, where he also runs Killen’s Steakhouse, Killen’s Barbecue and Killen’s Burgers.

Diners who recently visited Killen’s Barbecue likely already got a preview of what Killen’s TMX offers, as the smokehouse started serving a sampling of the planned dishes after launching dinner service last spring. So, they may be expecting the brisket queso and cheesy enchiladas filled with more of Killen’s impossibly moist brisket. These represent a much-needed facelift for the common Tex-Mex dishes and Killen deemed the smoked meat program so important for Killen’s TMX that he recreated the original Killen’s Barbecue program onsite, even using the exact same type of smoker.

Killen’s TMX Charred Octopus. Photo by Carlos Brandon

What visitors to Killen’s TMX probably are not expecting is the scratch-made, traditional Mexican food. That includes salsas, tortilla chips, masa for corn tortillas and mole. This incessant attention to detail is a result of Ronnie Killen’s hands-on involvement in every aspect of TMX’s creation — a project that evolved over the past year to become more Mexican than Tex-Mex.

Immediate highlights on the menu are the creamed corn empanadas. The quirky masa pastries marry southern home cooking with south-of-the-border comfort while finding an innovative dual use of the main ingredient, corn. (The creamed corn is also a fan-favorite dish at both Killen’s Barbecue and Killen’s STQ in Houston.) In the smoked meat department, the short rib tamales in housemade corn masa are mouthwatering and somehow still pale in comparison to the bone-in barbacoa short rib. A highly inventive take on a dish that transcends both interior Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex, the barbacoa slides effortlessly off the bone and melts blissfully in your mouth in a display of both barbecue mastery and creative Mexican cooking.

Barbaco Short Rib is the jewel of the new TMX menu. Photo by Kimberly Park

On a traditional, authentic note, Killen’s TMX’s charred octopus shines as one of the best incarnations of this type of dish in the Greater Houston area, giving even those at Xochi and Caracol a run for the money.

The biggest surprise of all at Killen’s TMX are pastry chef Samantha Mendoza’s show-stealing desserts. Mendoza first made waves at the now-shuttered Triniti before joining Killen’s restaurant group. For Killen’s TMX, she created a menu of Mexican-inspired desserts that are reason enough to make the drive to Pearland. These include traditional churros with chocolate dipping sauce and housemade cajeta ice cream and a deconstructed take on tres leches that single-handedly elevates the entire menu.

Churros with cajeta ice cream and chocolate dipping sauce. Photo by Carlos Brandon

Pearland diners are loyal to established Tex-Mex institutions and a more authentic take on Mexican fare would be a hard sell for most restaurateurs. However, Killen is not “most.” The veteran chef is a Pearland native and a recent James Beard Award semifinalist. His collection of unique eateries has put the small town on the map nationally as a dining destination. Killen’s TMX is set to raise that profile even higher.

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