UH Grads Trying to Transform the City’s Culinary Scene with Oak Leaf Smokehouse
Lisa Kuhfeldt (’07) was never hog wild about barbecue.
It was either “too smoky or too fatty or too rich,” says the graduate of the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston.
When she married ’cue connoisseur Brian Lewis (’00), she might have become a barbecue widow had her husband not won her over with fire and passion. Indeed, the first few years of their marriage were hot and sizzling — charry, charry nights filled with the scent of his home-smoked pork butts, ribs and brisket.
In 2012, the pair of UH grads (he has a degree in political science, she a BBA in finance from Bauer) discovered that Pete’s BBQ in Houston’s Eastwood neighborhood was for sale and decided to buy it. In February, their culinary hobby became a business with the opening of Oak Leaf Smokehouse on Telephone Road.
Now customers are finding Lewis’ succulent meats and Kuhfeldt’s delectable sides to be a heavenly match.
“We are trying to make food that is over-the-top delicious,” Kuhfeldt said. “It’s what Brian has been making for me over the years, and I find it exceptional.”
As Lewis honed his barbecue chops, Kuhfeldt stirred her interest in sides. She felt that barbecue joints too often give their sides the short shrift, serving mushy potato salad, boring baked beans and sauce-slogged cole slaw.
Not Oak Leaf.
To complement Lewis’ Carolina pulled pork, Texas brisket, smoked chicken and sausage, she concocts Hot German Potato Salad, Corn Pudding, Purple Apple Cole Slaw and other thoughtful fixings.
Most of Oak Leaf’s sides are gluten free and vegetarian, because Kuhfeldt maintains a gluten-free diet, and she wants vegetarians to be able to enjoy the restaurant. “We do have a dish that has bacon in it,” she quipped of the broccoli salad with optional pork. “We are not perfect.”
Kuhfeldt — who manages the restaurant while Lewis continues to work as an IT applications manager at Attachmate — said she couldn’t run a business without the solid business background she gained at Bauer College. (Before making the journey from finance to food, she worked as an accountant for 15 years, ran an online T-shirt shop and served as payroll coordinator for Bauer College.)
“I have a finance degree, so I am going to be doing all the bookkeeping and the payroll, all the accounting,” she said.
From 1994-1996, Lewis attended Cornell University, where he played football and studied engineering. He later transferred to UH, studying at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management before switching to political science.
As the King of the Smoker and the Queen of All Sides, Lewis and Kuhfeldt’s entrepreneurial enthusiasm never flamed out. But their restaurant concept took a second to simmer.
“We were originally going to name it Cosmic Barbecue,” Kuhfeldt said. They had it all planned out — down to the logo depicting a “UFO beaming down and picking up a cow.”
But when they shared their idea with friends in the food and drink business, they were advised to scratch the themed approach. (Holy cow!)
So it was back to the drawing board.
The couple decided they didn’t want kitsch, and they didn’t want mom and pop, either. Eventually, they settled on Oak Leaf Smokehouse, a reference to the oak wood they use for smoking meats.
So far, Oak Leaf has received nice coverage from Houston Eater.Com, HoustonPress and Culture Map Houston. After initially serving lunch only, it recently expanded its hours to 8 p.m. And there’s good news for hungry UH family — in the form discounts to students, staff and faculty.
Maybe you’ll find you have a hankering for the smoked “baked” potato, stuffed with meat, or the messy nachos with queso, brisket and jalapenos.
Lewis sure made a ’cue lover out of Kuhfeldt.
By Wendell Brock
Oak Leaf Smokehouse
Address: 1000 Telephone Road, Houston 77203
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays