Make no bones about it – Texas barbecue is an obsession. It’s the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, from national press (including the New York Times) to regional favorite Texas Monthly. Some of central Texas’ smaller towns – Lockhart and Elgin, to name only two – maintain perennial reputations for their smokehouse cultures, and routinely draw dedicated pilgrims from miles around.
No self-respecting Texan would agree with another about who has the best barbecue, since that would take the fun out of it. But most do see eye-to-eye on a few things: brisket is where a pit master proves his or her reputation; seasoning is rarely much more than salt, pepper and something spicy; and if there’s a sauce, it’s probably made from ketchup, vinegar and the drippings of the wood-smoked meat.
The best Texas barbecue often comes from famous family dynasties that have been dishing up the same crowd-pleasing recipes for generations. Telltale signs that you’ve located an authentic barbecue joint include zero decor, smoke-blackened ceilings and laid-back table manners (silverware optional). At most places, you can order a combination plate or ask for specific meats to be sliced by the pound right in front of you. Of course, there are variations on this nowadays, but in Texas, where barbecue baiting is a bit of a pastime, some swear this down-home style is the only way.
However you like it – sliced thick onto butcher paper, slapped on picnic plates, doused with a tangy sauce or eaten naturally flavorful right out of the smokehouse barbecue pit – be sure to savor it…and then argue to the death that your way is the best way. Like a true Texan.
Texas Barbecue History
The origins of central Texas barbecue can be traced to 19th-century Czech and German settlers, many of whom were butchers. These settlers pioneered methods of smoking meat, both to better preserve it (before the advent of refrigeration) and also to tenderize cuts that might otherwise be wasted.
Credit also goes to Mexican vaqueros (Spanish-speaking cowboys), especially in Texas’ southern and western borderland regions, who dug the first barbecue pits in about the 16th century, then grilled spicy meats over mesquite wood. Anglo Americans who migrated to Texas brought with them recipes for a ‘wet’ style of barbecue, which involved thick marinades, sweet sauces and juicier meats.
Somewhere along the way, slow-smoked barbecue crossed the line from simple eating pleasure to statewide obsession. Maybe it’s the primal joy of gnawing tender, tasty meat directly from the bone, or the simplistic, sloppy appeal of the hands-on eating experience. Whatever the reason, dedicated barbecue eaters demonstrate nearly religious devotion by worshipping at the pits of Texas’ renowned smokehouses.
In today’s Texas, barbecue recipes are as varied as central Texas summers are long. Most folks agree on the basics: slow cooking over a low-heat fire. A cooking time of up to 12 or 16 hours isn’t unheard of – anything less and you’re just too darn impatient. It allows the meat to be infused with a rich smoky flavor of usually hickory or pecan in the eastern part of the state, oak in central Texas and mesquite out west. (Mesquite was considered all but a weed until someone realized how nice a flavor it lent to wood chips.)
Texas Barbecue Meat
Texas barbecue leans heavily toward beef – a logical outgrowth of the state’s cattle industry – and most signature dishes come straight from the sacred cow. The most common is beef brisket, a cut often used for corned beef. With a combination of patience, experience and skill, a seasoned pit boss can transform this notoriously tough meat into a perfectly smoked, tender slab of heaven. Even tougher cuts of meat enter the smokehouse and emerge hours later, deeply flavorful and tender to the tooth. Sliced thin and internally moistened by natural fat, a well-smoked brisket falls apart with the slightest touch and can rival more expensive cuts for butter-smooth consistency.
Carnivores seeking a more toothy challenge can indulge in beef ribs – huge meaty racks that would do Fred Flintstone proud – or relax with a saucy chopped-beef sandwich. Word to the wise: if you need to stay presentable, think twice about the ribs, which tend to be a full-contact eating experience (even as part of a three-meat sampler plate).
Lone Star cattle worship stops short of excluding other meats from the pit. The noble pig makes appearances in the form of succulent ribs, thick buttery chops and perfect slices of loin so tender they melt on the tongue. In recent years, chicken has shown up on the menu boards, mainly to provide beginners with a nonhoofed barnyard option. Traditionalists, however, stick with the good stuff – red meat and plenty of it.
Every self-respecting barbecue joint will also serve sausage. Texas hot links, the peppery sausage of regional renown, is created with ground pork and beef combined with pungent spices. Although it’s not technically in the barbecue family, sausage is cooked over the same fire so has the same smoky flavor. If nothing else it makes an excellent meat side dish to go alongside your meaty main dish.
Everyone knows that the word ‘barbecue’ is usually followed by the word ‘sauce.’ But not so fast, there. Good barbecue is more than just meat and sauce. The other key component is the rub, which is how the meat is seasoned before it’s cooked.
There are wet rubs and dry rubs. A dry rub is a mixture of salt, pepper, herbs and spices sprinkled over or painstakingly rubbed into the meat before cooking. A wet rub is created by adding liquid, which usually means oil, but also possibly vinegar, lemon juice or even mustard. Applied like a paste, a wet rub seals in the meat’s natural juices before cooking. This key step is just as important as the slow cooking in getting the flavor just right.
Wisdom about barbecue sauce varies widely from region to region and sometimes joint to joint. There’s huge debate over what kind, how much or whether you need it at all. In Lockhart, Kreuz Market’s meat is served without any sauce at all, and it’s so naturally juicy and tender you’ll agree it’s not necessary. But excellent, sauce-heavy barbecue is divine as well. We’ll leave it up to you to make up your own mind.
Texas barbecue sauce has a different flavor from other types – that’s why it’s Texas barbecue, y’all. It’s not as sweet as the kind you’ll find gracing the tables of barbecue joints in Kansas City and Memphis – more a blend of spicy and slightly sweet. There are thousands of variations and no two sauces are exactly alike, but recipes are usually tomato based with vinegar, brown sugar, chili powder, onion, garlic and other seasonings.
Side dishes naturally take second place to the platters of smoked meat. Restaurant-style sides usually include pinto beans, potato salad or coleslaw, while markets sometimes opt for simpler accompaniments like onion slices, dill pickles, cheese slices or whole tomatoes. (Not to worry, if your meat is served on butcher paper, the sides will come in a bowl or on a plate.)
There are people who will travel the entire state of Texas to sample all the various permutations of barbecue. But if your time’s a little more limited, you can always try one of the many organized cook-offs around the state. Amateurs and pros alike come together for the noble joint cause of barbecue perfection and, if they’re lucky, bragging rights. Cook-offs generally start on Friday afternoon so the pit masters have plenty of time to get their meat just right before the judging on Saturday, even if it means staying up all night. (You can’t rush these things.) Once the judging is complete, the public is invited to swoop in and judge for themselves.
One of the largest events is the Taylor International Barbecue Cook-off (www.taylorchamber.org), held in early June in Taylor (northeast of Austin), with up to 100 contestants competing in divisions including beef, ribs, pork, poultry, lamb, seafood and wild game. If you can’t make that one, a quick search on www.tourtexas.com will lead you to events, such as the Good Times Barbecue Cook-off in Amarillo.
Otherwise, check out the calendar on the Central Texas Barbecue Association (www.ctbabbq.com) website, where you can also read the incredibly detailed rules that competitions must follow (‘CTBA recommends the use of a Styrofoam tray with a hinged lid and without dividers or the best readily available judging container that is approximately 9 inches square on the bottom half’).
Texas Barbecue Etiquette
The first question that comes to most people’s mind is, ‘How do I eat this without making a mess?’ You don’t. Accepting the fact early on that barbecue is a messy, messy venture will give you the attitude you need to enjoy your meal. One coping mechanism is to make a drop cloth of your napkin. Bibs haven’t exactly caught on in the barbecue world – this is a manly meal, after all – but tucking your napkin into your shirt is never frowned upon, especially if you didn’t come dressed for it.
Which leads to another question: how does one dress for barbecue? First off, don’t wear white. Or yellow, or pink, or anything that won’t camouflage or coordinate with red. At 99% of barbecue restaurants (the exception being uppity nouveau ‘cue) you will see the most casual of casual attire, including jeans (harder to stain) and shorts, and maybe even some trucker hats.
Whether you eat with your hands or a fork depends on the cut of the meat. Brisket and sausage are fork dishes, while ribs are eaten prehistoric-style. (It also depends on the restaurant. Kreuz Market doesn’t offer forks. As the owner famously says, ‘God put two of them at the end of your arms.’)
If you’re eating with your hands, grab extra napkins. Ah, heck, grab extras anyway. You might also be provided with a small packet containing a moist towelette, which will at least get you clean enough to head to the restrooms to wash up.
A final thought on etiquette: if you’re at a restaurant that uses a dry rub and you don’t see any sauce, it’s probably best not to ask – it would be a bit like asking for ketchup to put on your steak.
Best Places to Try Texas Barbecue
West Texas & Panhandle
- A KD’s Bar-B-Q
- A Rib Hut
- A DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ
- A Franklin Barbecue
- A Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Cue
- A Black’s Barbecue
- A County Line Smokehouse
- A Kreuz Market
- A Lamberts
- A Salt Lick
- A Smoke
- A Vitek’s BBQ
- A Country Tavern
- A Joseph’s Riverport Barbecue
- A New Zion Missionary Baptist Church
- A Goode Co BBQ