My Five Favorite Meals: Pitmaster Leonard Botello IV

·11 min read
Courtesy Robert Jacob Lerma
Courtesy Robert Jacob Lerma

As is so often the case with great success stories, Leonard Botello IV—the fourth Leonard in a row, and the fourth generation of restaurateurs—did not intend to be a chef.

Well, you know what they say about intentions. Fast forward a few years and somehow but deservedly, he is the winner of the Food Network’s Chopped Grill Masters Texas TV competition. In Texas, which considers itself the Vatican of BBQ, that title borders on being elected Pope or being canonized.

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But this is a man who truly just enjoyed barbecuing in his backyard. After all, it’s at his home pit where he perfected his signature techniques and flavors. This experience inevitably led him to opening a restaurant, his first Truth BBQ, in an off-the-highway shack between Houston and Austin.

After being in business for around a year, and having garnered some social media adoration, Texas Monthly’s BBQ Editor Daniel Vaughn—yes, Texas Monthly has a BBQ Editor—anointed Botello as star. A little while later he was number 10 on the magazine’s vaunted list of the top pitmasters in the state—he was the youngest person chosen and that’s quite remarkable because this honor is usually reserved for the wizened.

In early 2019, Botello moved his BBQ shrine, where wait times were regularly two hours, to a bigger spot and opened Truth Houston.

“My goal has always been to make the best barbecue possible,” he tells me. “What sets Truth apart from other BBQ joints is that we do not cut corners. From the meat to the wood to the seasoning, and even the sides and desserts. When you go to a great BBQ place in Texas, the requirement is great BBQ—not the dishes that round out that meal. I learned quickly that customers appreciated the fact that all of the sides at Truth are made from scratch every morning.”

Effecting a sudden knowledge of the magical arts of the grill, I posit: Barbecue is unique and seems to rely on so many factors and yet be about consistency and is not particularly open to experimentation or whimsy. Is that true?

“There are so many details and steps involved. You have to consider the weather, humidity, age of wood, size of wood, grade of meat you are cooking, fire techniques, chemistry and convection—and more. All of these play a huge part when cooking great BBQ and if any one of them is not correct, it can kill an entire cook. You really have to be in tune with each factor that goes into cooking the protein.”

Botello also pointed out that there are also natural changes in cooking styles and techniques, which over time subtly changes flavors.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Ben Sassani</div>
Courtesy Ben Sassani

“In order to evolve there has to be some type of experimentation involved. I do not cook brisket the same way I cooked it five years ago, but at the same time I do. It is ultimately the same process, but I am so fixated on improving that I have made little tweaks here and there.”

What’s the worst sin/mistake someone can make barbecuing?

“Man, there are so many! I constantly tell people sometimes you can do too much. You don’t need to inject your meats, use a rub that includes 15 different spices or even pick up some crazy expensive wagyu brisket. BBQ is like a good steak, you want to be able to appreciate the meat. People don’t realize that it is as simple as being patient and properly managing your fire.”

These are his five favorite meals.

Grilled Octopus at Pujol, Mexico City

Mexico City is one of my favorite places to visit. Everything from the art to the culture to the music and the history is amazing, but I personally go for the food. Enrique Olvera, at Pujol, does an amazing job taking flavors from all over and making them into something so unique, but that at the same time feels like Mexico. Anyone can tell you that Pujol is a must. The tasting menu is like the Rolling Stones… it’s just hit after delicious hit. Just when you think you’ve had the best thing you could possibly eat, another one comes along.

The one dish that has stuck with me to this day is the grilled octopus. My philosophy has always been to let the food speak for itself in my own restaurants, and that’s how I felt about this dish at Pujol. The octopus was covered in fresh herbs and marinated vegetables, with each bite containing the perfect char from the open flame. The flavor and the texture stick with me… in a good way. The dish was so perfectly cooked that the texture almost felt like butter. To this day, I have yet to find an octopus dish cooked as expertly as at Pujol.

Pastrami on Rye at Katz’s Delicatessen, New York

One of my first visits to New York City, late, late at night—I’m approaching the corner of Houston and Ludlow and see a line of people wrapping around the block. I then see the bright red neon glowing above the line of people that read Katz’s. You only see lines like this in Texas for great BBQ joints, so I couldn’t continue on my journey to the hotel without checking this out.

I remember walking in and being handed a ticket, waiting to be called to the counter for my turn. I had never seen a restaurant at this capacity at this hour of the night. The party was over everywhere else but it was just getting started at Katz’s, and it was about 3 AM. As I approach the counter, once it’s my turn, I panic and without looking at the menu I request the pastrami on rye. (Lucky call on my part). The server began cutting and I was mesmerized. There was so much meat piled up. You have to imagine how impressive this is to me, when we think everything is bigger in Texas. Especially our BBQ. The meat continues to pile up and the cutter pauses to ask if I want mustard. Of course, I state, hoping I’m blending in with the regulars. He then slathers the rye with mustard and aggressively chops the steaming pile of meat three times to allow it to fit on the slices of bread. I maneuvered down the line as my plate got piled with half-sour pickles and paid the cashier. At 3 AM in the morning, I’m circling the restaurant multiple times before finding a seat. Only in New York, right? I look down at this sandwich. It had to have been six-inches tall. It was a steaming masterpiece of meat, mustard and bread. My first bite of the cured meat told me all I needed to know about why that line was wrapped around the corner. A rush of pepper, smoke and citrus. Tender, juicy, with just the right amount of bark. Crunchy bites of the pickle to balance it out.

I think I felt that night what a visitor on a BBQ trip feels in Texas with that first bite of brisket. I’m always amazed when something so simple, so traditional is just one of the best things you’ve ever eaten. I haven’t visited New York since without treating myself to a pastrami on rye at Katz’s.

Los 3 Reyes, Mexico City

We were on the way to the airport but had one final stop. Cabrito and barbacoa at 3 Reyes. It was about as authentic as it gets. All the meats were slow cooked in the ground and the server would reach down in the hole to scoop out your meats by the pound. I felt as if I was home away from home, as they threw the meat on the scale and loaded it on your plate with parchment paper. In the process of ordering all of the meats I looked to my left and my heart drops. Right next to where they were scooping out the meat were fresh goat heads, hair and all, just laying there. There’s “authentic” and then there’s authentic. This was the real deal, evidence of a fresh butchered goat right there in front of me.

It was about 80 degrees and humid, but I’m forging ahead. At this point my meat is all on the scale and there’s no turning back. We sit down at the table and the staff brings over mounds of fresh onions, cilantro, limes, consommé and handmade tortillas, and, of course, beer. It was a family-owned place, way outside of where the tourists go. There were no Ubers or cabs in this neighborhood, but 3 Reyes was packed with locals and families that clearly ate there every week. That’s when you know you’re in the right spot. It was Sunday afternoon, and mariachi were playing. I left nothing on the table. I could not eat another bite, but then the server asked me in Spanish if I liked tripe. I nodded and he suddenly brought over a plate of tripas tacos. I devoured the tacos and pounded the beer, a perfect Sunday afternoon meal, steeped in history.

Fish Stew in Juneau, Alaska

One of the most exciting meals I have ever had was in Juneau when I was 19. I was on a group fishing trip and we suited up in waders, boots and heavy parkas to head out into the bay for a fresh catch. It was below 20 degrees Fahrenheit and I was in a canoe just praying I didn’t end up in the water. I really did not know what I was getting myself into, but there we were in the middle of nature, as wild as it gets. It was beautiful.

The wind was really strong and the water was freezing. We paddled for what seemed like forever until we found a large school of rockfish and set up shop. We were out there for quite a while, you know—just waiting out the fish. Something I’ve done in Texas all my life… but we don’t really wear jackets down there. After several hours of fishing and scenery, we all had built up a pretty good appetite and the desire for a hot fire. Once we’d caught our dinner, we then paddled back to shore, built a fire and cleaned and prepped the fish. Our guide had prepared for us a broth for fish stew that is a common recipe among locals. It was a hearty soup with tomatoes and onions, herbs and fish stock and potatoes. Everything was fresh right there, prepped simply and immediately tossed into the stock pot. I don’t think you can have fish stew anywhere else better than fresh caught from the waters of Alaska, and cooked over an open fire with a local, traditional recipe. Not to mention warming up by the fire and sipping the steaming broth in the frigid Alaskan wilderness—you can’t get that in any restaurant. It was an experience to say the least.

Burger at Minetta Tavern, New York

Minetta is one of my favorite spots to really experience New York. I’m not an old New Yorker, but to me it feels like what old New York might have been. I can remember my first time being introduced to this amazing place by my fiancée, who lived in New York. It was prime time on a Friday night, so, of course, it was booked up. After half-an-hour, holding cocktails and elbows to our chests just to fit in the bar nook, we were fortunate enough to get to spots at the bar. The art of the hold-out in New York bars for a good seat is part of the charm; and it makes the meal that much better knowing you fought for your chance to get a seat and order it.

What makes this meal so special to me is the whole experience. The whole restaurant is dark and romantic, with a bar for the purists and seasoned imbibers; and a menu as classic as it gets. Yeah, I know everyone gets the burger at Minetta Tavern; but it’s because they do it right. It’s exactly the perfect meal you want in a place that serves amazing beef, if you aren’t in the mood for a steak. What’s really better than a cocktail and a burger at a tiny, dark, restaurant on a bustling New York street in the West Village? I ordered an Old-Fashioned and the Black Label Burger. I guess this is one of those simple, quintessential dinners that is so well executed; it really makes you appreciate the little things in life.

My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers, and celebrities.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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