Updated January 2024
At the end of February is The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest. It’s known to most Houston natives (or those who’ve been here long enough to call themselves native) as simply, Rodeo Cook-off. My dad has been on a team since I was 16, and at this point I’ve spent one weekend a year, for over half my life, in the NRG Stadium parking lot, basking in the smell of BBQ.
For non-natives and new transplants to Houston, Rodeo Cook-off is an enigma, they’ve heard rumor and legend, but they aren’t ever quite sure what it is or why it happens. Well, consider me, and this post, your guide to all things Houston Rodeo Cook-off.
A Short History of The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest
While the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo started back in 1932, the barbecue contest portion wasn’t added until 1974. That year a mere 17 teams competed. Today, 50 years later, over 250 teams from all over Texas and the world compete in brisket, chicken, ribs, dutch oven dessert, and a newly added open contest.
The word barbecue is pretty synonymous with Texas. Texans will defend their way of slow cooking meat with smoke until the cows come home. We will also celebrate it at one of the largest barbecue competitions in the world. So, let’s get one thing straight, there is NO chili at this cook-off. This is a competition of meat (and dessert) cooked over wood, charcoal, or wood pellets. There’s no propane or electric elements allowed, per official contest rules.
Visiting The HLSR World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest
Rodeo Cook-off runs for three days, Thursday dinner, Friday dinner, and Saturday lunch and dinner. It is always the weekend before The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the official kick-off to Rodeo season.
Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for kids. Admission gets you into concerts at The Garden Stage (sponsored by Miller Lite), admission to the Carnival (but no carnival tickets), admission to the Saloon & Chuckwagon, and a complimentary sliced brisket, beans and chips. Admission does not get you into private team tents (more on that to come).
The Houston Rodeo Cook-off is also some of the best people watching you can get. Folks are dressed to the nines in western wear, which shocked the heck out of my Philadelphia raised husband his first year. Aside from that a special breed of folk come out to cook-off. I’ve seen a man with a floor length duster jacket made entirely from Crown Royal bags. I’ve also seen a man with a jacket made of assorted animal pelts. In some ways it’s the Houston and rodeo version of the renaissance festival.
If you plan on attending with kids, my suggestion is to come Saturday, early, stay for lunch and leave before dark. It’s fun to walk around, listen to live music, eat some food and ride rides at the carnival. After dark, and on Thursday and Friday evening, it is truly an adult party atmosphere.
Houston Rodeo Cook-off Team Tents
Now back to those private team tents I mentioned earlier. Each of the 250+ teams have team tent space. Each of these tents are basically an all you can eat and drink private party. Private is the key word here. You have to know someone to get into any of these tents.
Even if you don’t know someone on a team, or sponsoring a team, it’s worth taking a walk through the rows and rows of tents. Teams spend a lot of time and energy decorating their tents.
If you’re imagining pop up canopies with party decor hung from them with scotch tape, erase that vision right now. Each team area is a giant event tent, like you’d see at a wedding, with facades, decor and themes worked in. I’ve been in tents with carpet and chandeliers. I’ve seen bbq pits shaped like trains, airplanes, and covered wagons. The entry and exit of the Waste Management sponsored tent looks like you are walking into port-a-john. It’s truly a sight to behold and strolling through the streets of team tents gives you an idea of how big this whole Rodeo Cook-off thing really is.
Being On A Houston Rodeo Cook-off Team
If you’re thinking you want to start your own team, you’ll have to get in line. People wait for years to get team space. And once they get them, they keep them. This will be our team’s 37th year. Having a team at this cook-off is expensive. A whole year of planning goes into the three day event, which includes reading the 72 page contestant handbook and understanding obscure rules like no stickers allowed and the rules and responsibilities of the Chief Cook.
Still, if you are dedicated to getting on a team, the best advice I can give is volunteer. I can’t speak to how all teams work, but for ours, volunteering is key. It takes a lot to build a tent with an operating kitchen, bar, serving area, dance floor, seating area and more. It takes significant man power to serve, clean and keep the whole thing going for three days. Even though my dad has been on the team for years, my husband had to volunteer for several years, for several days each year, before he was asked to be an official team member.
In my experience being on an HLSR Cook-off team is like having a weird dysfunctional family you only get together with once a year, but when you do see them it’s for 18 hours a day, for several days, outside in sun, cold, wind and rain. You are tired, and you always smell like BBQ smoke. Your feet hurt and you have indigestion from the insane consumption of smoked meats and potato salad. You huddle together under a propane heater in the cold years or pile clothing on chairs as you all strip down in the warm years.
You all know, all too well, what an overused port-a-john looks like and you’re ever so thankful for the members only port-a-john, hidden in the back.
You’ve celebrated births together. You’ve mourned the loss of cherished members. You’ve watched each others kids grow. You’ve tossed out glow necklaces to strangers together. You support each other and laugh together.
Each year you silently watch as the Chief Cook puts perfectly sliced meat in a pristine container under the supervision of officials. Together you clap them out as they walk to deliver the contest entry to the judges, holding your breath and hoping you’ll see a finalist banner later that day.
Most of all, when the exhaustion hits, you’ve learned how, in the middle of it all, to sleep in a chair in the corner for a quick power nap.
I’ve spent high school days in that tent. I introduced my north easterner husband to all things Texas in that tent. I waddled in at 39 weeks pregnant to eat my weight in smoked meats. We’ve watched our daughter get older year after year in that tent. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of what makes me feel most Texan, most Houstonian.
Being on a team is wonderful and messy and delicious and exhausting and one of the wildest things we do every, single, year. Our team is really its own weird family of assorted humans and we’re all working together to do this insane thing and celebrate it at the end of each season. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Tickets, Parking and More at HLSR Bar-B-Que Contest
Cook-off this year is February 22-24, 2024. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time online. You have two ticket options, individual day or Grounds Season Pass for $55. A season pass will get you into the Bar-B-Que contest every day and daily admission during the run of the entire rodeo season, with access to all public activities at NRG Park, NRG Center, NRG Arena, and admission to Carnival (but no carnival tickets). These season passes will NOT get you into the big concerts or rodeo in NRG Stadium or into Rodeo Uncorked! events.
Wearing your western wear is great, but also dress for the weather. In 2022 it was around 38 degrees, windy and raining all weekend. In years past we’ve been in tank tops and left with a sunburn. There’s nothing worse than feeling uncomfortable at the Houston Rodeo cook-off.
If you are lucky enough to have tickets to a private team tent, check out the contestant map on the HLSR website to decide on the best lot to park in, otherwise you might be taking a long walk through the carnival, depending on where you need to go.
Self parking is available in the OST 1, Yellow, and 610 Lots. New this year, the Yellow Lot is cashless. The other lots accept cash. It’s $25 per vehicle and paid when you arrive. If you can, come early to insure you can find a parking spot.
Ride share is always a great option. I’ve had friends call me and say they were turning around and going home because all the parking lots were full. So definitely consider this, especially if you plan to arrive later in the evening.
And please, don’t drink and drive. Have a designated driver or take a ride share or public transportation home.
If you are new to Houston or have never been to the Houston Rodeo cook-off, make this the year you come out!
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