Finding the best barbecue in Texas is like looking for the best cheese curds in Wisconsin, the best lobster roll in New England, or the best microbrewery in the Northeast. It’s a he-said, she-said type of debate and what it really boils down to is personal taste. The one thing nearly all Texas barbecue aficionados can agree on is this: beef is king, and more specifically, brisket. Recently I was fortunate enough to take a small tour of Texas barbecue joints. What I found is a wide array of juicy brisket, both lean and fatty, smoky hand-made sausage, tender smoked turkey and sticky-sweet stick-to-your-ribs ribs.
Texas barbecue has a storied past and much debate rolls on about whose brisket is best. As everyone’s opinion is different there is no clear winner, but what I do know is that after you’ve had Texas barbecue for the first time, the smoky slabs of meat begin to pull at your heartstrings. When you walk out of the grocery store, leave the gym, even when you wake up in the morning, you smell barbecue. Ok, maybe not, but you can convince yourself to the contrary. The pink smoke ring on a slice of brisket, the slabs of butcher paper they cut for you to put your feast on and the sliced white bread and pickle spears are just a few of the things that keep people coming back for unhealthy indulgences of meat day after day. With the myriad barbecue joints in Texas, along come just as many if not more barbecuing methods.
The intricacies from one pit to another can be very similar and very different. Brisket is giant wedge of cow that comes off the pit very dark, a color that the paint department at Home Depot might have some fancy name for but we just call black. It appears burnt, looking more like a giant hunk of coal, but inside is moist and juicy. However, brisket can be compared to a John Wayne character: it can be an arduous and unforgiving thing, make one wrong move and it’s over. Most pit masters swear by the low and slow method; where the meat is cooked over low heat for a long time. Most cooks like to keep the temperatures between 200-300° Fahrenheit, the latter being less common, as brisket can become very tough if it’s overcooked. When the meat reaches temperatures around 140° it starts to break down and the collagen in the connective tissue begins its conversion to soft gelatin. Some ‘cuers will cook their brisket for six, seven, eight, and even up to twenty hours. Others will pull the brisket off after just a few hours, pack it into a cambro or cooler with a tightly fitted lid and let it steep, or something like it, in its own juices and aromas until it’s ready to go back onto the pit for finishing or ready for slicing. What makes this succulent brisket so good is the fact that you don’t need to do wild and crazy things to make it taste good. Most cooks use what they call a Dalmatian rub; simply salt and pepper. Now this could be any type of flavored salt or cracked peppercorn, say rosemary smoked sea salt and cracked black peppercorn. Sometimes you will hear that you need to slather the meat with a layer of mustard to help the rub stick, but that’s certainly something that’s unique to each pit master or restaurant.
Just like the varying smoking methods for brisket, there are varying methods for sides and sauces as well. Some of these joints in Texas don’t serve sides at all, but because of the changing times they have opened up a place NEXT DOOR where you can buy sides, but not at THEIR joint. Another place doesn’t provide you with any sauces whatsoever, and may be a bit insulted if you ask. Sides range from warm potato salad made with celery seed, onions, diced potatoes and barbecue sauce to skillet baked beans and cornbread. Staples at most Texas barbecue locales are white bread and pickles.
Stops on this mini-tour included City Market in Luling, Texas, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart Texas, and The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas. All of these stops are within sixty miles of Austin and I know that doesn’t cover much of Texas, but when it comes to barbecue in Texas this area is a breeding ground for good solid barbecue.
The first stop was Black’s, whose claim to fame is “Texas’ Oldest and Best Major Barbecue Restaurant Continuously Owned by the Same Family-Since 1932”. That’s a bold claim, but it’s supported by some pretty solid ‘cue, a well-worn but tidy restaurant that oozes small town pride and a hefty selection of sides. Upon entering through the front door you’re immediately met by a small serving line where you pick your sides, hot or cold, types of bread if you choose, and then on to the meat where they cut it right in front of you to your specifications. The brisket was tender and smoky, no need for a fork, the ribs pulled right off and yet had the perfect amount of resistance and the creamed corn had just the right amount of sweetness. After leaving I was disappointed I had eaten so much considering I had two legendary barbecue stops left, but I chalked it up to research and pushed on. There was a stop at the Shiner brewery in Shiner, Texas, between meals for a tour and some tasting, so it was a well rounded day!
Next up was City Market in Luling, Texas. An unassuming store front in Luling’s active downtown, you wouldn’t guess that behind that door lies smoky barbecue paradise. Once inside, you see a room tucked into the back corner of the restaurant about the size of a studio apartment. Enter into the small room and you’re blasted by smoky puffs of barbecue goodness, instantly realizing why everything in the room is the color of molasses. Three or four gentleman, one tending the register, one asking you what kind of meat you like, cutting you a piece of butcher paper and slapping it on, one tending the pit, and another watching SportsCenter. You are directed to a kiosk in the middle of the restaurant for sides and drinks, and are sent on your way. The sides aren’t anything to write home about, but the rest sure was. The brisket was extra smoky and because we couldn’t find utensils, we ate with our hands, which seemed perfect for this. The brisket melts in your mouth and the handmade beef link sausage were more than enough to make up for the decidedly so-so sides.
How was I going to eat any more barbecue? Quit complaining, right? Luckily I had about an hour drive between my last two stops and we made it even longer by driving through Wimberley, a quiet little town with plenty of character. Arriving at The Salt Lick, it’s strikingly different from both of the first two stops. Set on a huge property right outside of Driftwood, it encompasses multiple buildings, a pavilion and mansion to rent for functions, a vineyard, tasting room and of course, restaurant. This is the type of place that makes you feel good about living in Texas, glad that places like this exist. A fairly large open room is flanked by picnic tables lining a screened in porch. The real highlight of the room is the large open pit just to your right as you walk in. Rings of sausage hang over hefty pit lined with ribs and brisket as smoke billows out the back. The sides are above average but not worth eating compared to the meatier selections. The turkey is smoked just right, the brisket has just enough fat to keep it moist and the sausage and casing alone are worth the drive.
Nearly two hundred miles were driven during this mini tour so you can see how easily a barbecue obsession could develop, and what better place could there be for it than Texas? People always say everything is bigger in Texas, and when it comes to selection of barbecue joints, that’s certainly true.