Why Texas Barbecue Is the Best in the Country

Pitmasters give us the (slow and) lowdown
August 1, 2016
by Veronica Meewes

That statement, as big as the state itself, might incite controversy in the Carolinas, skepticism in St. Louis...heck, them's probably fightin' words to the whole-hog pitmasters of Tennessee. 

It's no secret Texas, now with over 2,000 barbecue joints across the state, has developed a cult following for 'cue aficionados from across the globe. Foodies plan trips to Austin just to eat their way through the city's best, standing for hours in line at Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, John Mueller Meat Co and more, while 250,000 people flock to the small town of Lockhart each year to enjoy barbecue from Smitty's Market, Kreuz Market and Black's BBQ.

And plenty of locals in the know will tell you the best smoked meats aren't found in any city; these folks usually swear allegiance to Snow's BBQ in Lexington or Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Those who haven't made the pilgrimage to either of these spots will be in for a meaty treat when they sample the goods at the annual Texas Monthly BBQ Fest, which celebrates its seventh year this fall.

Black's BBQ

But what is it that makes Texas barbecue the best? Pitmaster Barrett Black quotes his grandfather Edgar Black Jr. (whose father, Edgar Black Sr., started Black's in 1932): "It's not what we put in our barbecue, it's what we don't put in our barbecue that makes it so good," he says. "From the farmer who raised the animal to the many hours we spend caring and preparing each cut of meat, we don't want to mask the natural flavors of the meat and smoke we all worked so hard for." 

While other regions religiously mop sauce over their meats while they cook (and dispute the superiority of vinegar- versus mustard-based sauces), the only ingredients traditionally used to make Texas-style brisket are beef, post oak smoke and a touch of salt and pepper — plus lots of patience as it cooks low and slow for up to 18 hours. In fact, some joints have even abolished sauce entirely. At Smitty's, it's only available if you dare ask for it, and at Kreuz Market, the sassy signs explain it all: "No barbecue sauce, no forks, no kidding."

"Because the ingredients of Texas barbecue are so simple, it is very hard to hide your mistakes," says Black. "This level of challenge scares many away, so you know the few that are passionate enough to go into Texas barbecue are a special breed."

Salt Lick BBQ

"At its core, [Texas barbecue] is just meat on a piece of butcher paper that you eat with your hands," says Bill Kerlin, the owner of Kerlin BBQ in East Austin. "Sauce, sides and utensils are optional and not entirely necessary." A road trip to Central Texas inspired Kerlin and and his wife to relocate here from Arizona seven years ago, then open his own trailer in 2013. "We were really enamored with the central Texas barbecue culture," he says. "It was just very cool to be surrounded by all these old historic joints that are doing the same thing they've been doing for decades." 

When German and Czech settlers came to Central Texas in the 19th century, they brought with them traditions of sausage-making and pit-style smoking. Many opened grocery stores with retail meat markets, such as Kreuz, which opened in 1900, or Patek Grocery and Market, which opened in the small town of Shiner in 1937 and now distributes Shiner Smokehouse sausages across the state. 

Scott Roberts, the owner of Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, helped his father Thurman build the family's original pit in 1967. On the eve of the restaurant's 50th anniversary, the Salt Lick brand is now several locations strong, boasting vineyards, a wine tasting room and a line of sauces and rubs. Roberts says it's not only a long traditions of meat-smoking that make Texas BBQ so special, but the size of the brisket itself that inherently birthed our region's barbecue culture.

"Briskets take 12-18 hours to cook and during that time period, the smoke from the cookers wafts throughout the neighborhood," he says. "You start early in the morning, neighbors smell the smoke, come over and you spend the rest of the day cooking the meat, drinking beer and telling stories. At the end of this wonderful process you have a very large, specially cooked piece of meat — one that no one single family could consume by themselves. The rest of your neighbors bring a side dish, beer and even a guitar. Everyone sits around a picnic table in the backyard and you eat barbecue, sing and tell stories. That’s our culture, and that’s why it’s in our blood."

Andrew Cebulka

These days, Texas-style BBQ can be found well beyond the Lone Star state. Australians line up at Bovine & Swine in Sydney, where Wes Griffiths brings his years of experience working pits in Lockhart and Austin. Danish brewery Mikkeller partnered with 3 Floyds Brewing Co. to open WarPigs in Copenhagen, where head chef and ciccerone Andrew Hroza mans the pits. John Lewis, the pitmaster who helped put La Barbecue on the map, recently opened the doors to Lewis Barbecue in the middle of hog heaven, Charleston, while Salt & Time's Josh Jones left Austin to steer El Camino BBQ, a Texas-style spot in Chile. Aaron Franklin just recently shipped a 1,000-gallon smoker to Sweden, where he and Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly's BBQ editor (yes, BBQ editor) will teach a class this month

But the real question is this: can true Texas barbecue be crafted outside the state? 

Black believes it's possible with the right training and commitment. "There are a few pitmasters outside of Texas who are cooking some great Texas-style barbecue," says Black. "The difference, though, is these pitmasters spent the time, money and immense effort to travel our great state to taste, see, smell and soak it all in." He names Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn as his favorite spot outside Texas. "They get all that is Texas barbecue. Not just the meats, but the culture. Each of their customers is like family and the dedication to quality in all areas, especially the barbecue, is incredible. They do use Texas-style offset smokers and, for most of their meats, the seasoning is only salt and pepper."

Roberts thinks it's possible if all the elements come together. "Other places have good people who like to cook, drink beer and tell stories," he reasons. "The only holdback is they need our oak!"

Meanwhile, Kerlin sees it as more of a matter of surroundings, both environmentally and culturally. "Of course, there's always going to be some slight variations based on what wood and meat is available locally," he says. "I don't know for sure if the experience would be exactly the same, though. There's something to be said for context. Sometimes eating food in the place that it originated from adds significantly to the experience."

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