Photo by University of College/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Goldee's Barbecue/Will Milne
Owned by five childhood friends, Goldee's is one of the freshest (and most delicious) upstarts in Texas's barbecue scene.
The tea is sweet and the only salad we got here is potato, honey.
For the uninitiated, Texas-style barbecue is completely unique in the savory world of smoked meat. To start, it is truly smoked. We’re not talking about grilling ribs over a bed of charcoal (*ahem,* Memphis) or roasting tri-tip with red oak (California’s Santa Maria style). Texas-style barbecue requires a low and slow method of smoking over a bed of post oak and sometimes mesquite. Lone Star barbecue also distinguishes itself by what doesn’t go on the meat. There are no 40-ingredient spice rubs and certainly no sugar ’round these parts. Rather, briskets are generously massaged with a simple mixture of salt and pepper. That’s it. Pitmasters aim for a bold, smoky flavor generated from slow-burning wood, which, if done correctly, renders the fat into a savory mass of tender goodness. The most serious of Texas ’cue joints won’t even provide barbecue sauce to go with your meal. It’s all about the meat, baby.
Texans take their barbecue very seriously—and for good reason. The tradition of barbecuing in America dates back to when the first Spanish explorers and colonists arrived and European livestock met traditional Native, open-fire cooking techniques. Pork is best known as the original barbecued meat of the United States (shout out to the Carolinas), but in Texas the star of the show is beef, specifically those tougher-to-cook cuts like brisket, which reflects the state’s storied tradition of cattle ranching. Given the size of the Lone Star State, there are a few variations of Texas-style barbecue: East Texas barbecue features sweet, glazed pork ribs and chopped beef, West Texas offers a more rugged style of ’cue cooked over direct flame, but the most popular and famous method of barbecue is Central Texas’s German meat market–style of smoking.
In recent years, the staunch traditions of the Texas barbecue scene have slowly been giving way to new talent and culinary innovation. Restaurateurs are remixing their low-and-slow cooked meats with modern and international influences that have delivered headline-making dishes. Folks like to say we’re in a golden age of barbecue: Whether you decide to go the way of the purists or are interested in tasting the future of smoking, there’s something for everyone in the world of Texas barbecue.
Here are the eight best places (in no particular order) to get your Texas barbecue fix, from a self-professed diehard Texan and barbecue enthusiast:
As any person from Central Texas knows, a trip to Lockart, Texas, is a rite of passage—an almost-holy pilgrimage that every meat-loving soul must undertake. Lockhart is the state’s official “Barbecue Capital of Texas” and the town of just 15,000 people has five different barbecue restaurants, with Kreuz Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Smitty’s Market the big three names. While Kreuz has to-die-for sides like its German potato salad and Black’s is known for expanding into Austin, Smitty’s has the most consistently delicious meats in the Lockhart game, in this Texan’s humble opinion.
Smitty’s was founded in 1948 and still occupies the same red-brick building in downtown Lockhart. Step through Smitty’s swinging screen door from its packed dirt parking lot and you will immediately find yourself in the smokehouse. (Tilt your eyes up to that antique pressed tin ceiling.) Fires smolder in open pits, the walls are stained black, and the menu on the wall has been tanned a dull shade of brown from years of smoke. Once you get to the front of the line, the pitmaster—dressed in a white apron, sweat on his brow, and grease stains down his front—will ask you what meats you’d like. Try a half-pound of the fatty brisket, some of the prime rib (not typical in ’cue joints, but heavenly nonetheless), and the jalapeño cheddar sausage. He’ll then ask if you’d like some bread—the correct answer being, yes, you would, thank you very much.
Next, you’ll move into the air-conditioned dining area of Smitty’s with your meat and bread wrapped neatly in butcher paper. Here, you can pick up any sides, such as beans or coleslaw, and drinks like Dos Equis, Big Red, and Dr. Pepper. A word of warning: As with many serious barbecue joints in town, Smitty’s does not offer forks—that’s what the bread is for, to sop up all that good grease and to be a perfect vehicle between the table and your mouth. Don’t forget to pick up some pickles, onions, and cheddar cheese at the counter to pair with your meal. Then, sit at one of the many long, cafeteria-style plastic tables in the mess hall, dig in, and embrace the meat sweats that will surely follow. Blue Bell Ice Cream—maybe one the best things to come out of Texas besides the frozen margarita—is available on site for a sweet after-meal treat.
Franklin Barbecue has long reigned as the king of ’cue in Austin. James Beard Award–winning pitmaster Aaron Franklin smokes some legendary meats and is regarded as one the most famous and influential barbecue chefs in the country today. His brisket is tender, never dry, and dripping with fatty rendered goodness. Other meaty items on the menu—like his sausage links, turkey, and pork ribs—are nothing to sniff at either. (Oddly enough, he admits he is sick of the stuff and doesn’t eat it unless it’s a special occasion or he has to.) Franklin began his business in 2009 out of a food trailer and moved to a brick-and-mortar location in 2011. Since then, Franklin Barbecue has enjoyed worldwide recognition and success—the restaurant was featured in Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations in September 2012 (the late chef called it the “finest brisket I’ve ever had”) and Jon Favreau’s 2014 film Chef. Former President Obama even dropped by in July 2014.
By now you might be thinking: Can anything live up to this kind of hype? Don’t just take my word for it—ask the people who begin waiting outside of Franklin Barbecue around seven in the morning for a few slices of its legendary brisket (since low-and-slow smoking can somtimes take up to 12 hours to complete depending on the chef, there’s a limited amount of brisket for sale each day). Before COVID, the lines would wrap around the block at their storefront in east Austin on 11th Street. And as many restaurants did when COVID hit, Franklin’s resorted to takeout only—no need to wait in line anymore! However, as of November 23, 2021, Franklin’s is back with in-house services and so are the lines. Thankfully, if waiting in line is not your thing, curbside pickup is still an option, but be sure to place your order far in advance (at least a few days to a week).
As you’ve probably gotten the impression by now, the barbecue game in Texas is most certainly a good ol’ boy’s world. But photographer and barbecue royalty LeAnn Mueller is shaking things up and not just the salt and pepper. Located in Austin’s east side, la Barbecue is considered one of the few serious rivals to Franklin Barbecue in the capital and often has lines wrapping around its building as well. Co-owner LeAnn (the other co-owner being her wife, Ali Clem) is a member of the celebrated Mueller family. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, was founded in 1949 by her grandfather, Louie; dad Bobby Mueller took over the smoke pits in 1974 and went on to win a James Beard Award in 2006. Established in 2011, la Barbecue initially was just a solo smoke pit and trailer but moved into its first building in 2017, a former Quickie Pickie. Last May, it moved down the street to what they hope will be their “forever home.”
LeAnn’s royal barbecue pedigree isn’t just a bunch of hot air (pun intended)—visitors to la Barbecue will no doubt enjoy some of the finest and most tender, all-natural prime black angus brisket their lips have had the pleasure of meeting. Don’t miss out on the sausage and hearty beef ribs while you’re there. In addition to the usual ’cue, there are also some unusual items on the menu that reflect barbecue’s quickly changing culture, such as frito pie, Chicago-style hotdogs, and kimchi.
Snow’s BBQ is a Texas institution that has had its praises sung from Texas Monthly to the New Yorker. This wood-sided, inconspicuous red building is in the small town of Lexington (pop. 1,400) in green farmlands between Austin and Houston. Rather unusually, Snow’s is open just one day a week: Its business hours begin on Saturday at 8 a.m. sharp and end when the meat runs out. To top it all off, the pitmaster is Tootsie Tomanetz, a woman in her 80s who also works as a custodian at the local middle school. Tootsie was 31 when she began smoking meat. Her late husband, Edward, worked at the City Meat Market in nearby Giddings and found himself shorthanded; Tootsie gladly stepped up to the plate and has been barbecuing ever since, winning accolades and awards. (She’s been a James Beard Award semi-finalist twice and was inducted in the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2018.)
People start lining up at Snow’s around six or seven in the morning (mercifully, free adult beverages are offered for those who wait . . . sometimes up to three hours). In addition to its staple item, brisket, Snow’s other star entrée is the pork shoulder steak—a rather unusual cut of meat for a Texas barbecue joint, but an incredibly luscious and savory choice nonetheless. Don’t skip the jalapeño cheese sausage or the pork ribs and finish your meal with banana pudding.
Located in Dallas’s hip Deep Ellum neighborhood, Pecan Lodge is known for its epic lines (a long queue is going to be a common theme in your quest for good Texas barbecue) and equally epic smoked meats. Pecan Lodge was founded in 2010 by husband-and-wife duo Justin and Diane Fourton, who left corporate jobs in management consulting to slow down and start serving authentic Southern food. Everything at their restaurant is made from scratch; most barbecue institutions focus their effort on the perfection of their brisket and sausage. Pecan Lodge, meanwhile, gets all the details right when it comes to its sides, from its creamy (but not mushy) mac-n-cheese to the crispiness of the pillowy fried okra. If you’re in the DFW area, this restaurant is not to be missed.
Texas Monthly’s annual Top 50 Texas BBQ Joints list is watched and received by both pitmasters and barbecue fans with a fervor reserved for major sporting events and maybe the Oscars. The restaurant that topped the list this year? Goldee’s Barbecue in Fort Worth. It was an unexpected choice for a few reasons—Goldee’s opened in 2020 during the height of the pandemic when all things culinary seemed so uncertain. All five of its pitmasters (who are co-owners and have been friends since elementary school) are under the age of 30. Goldee’s is in the Fort Worth suburb of Kennendale in a red barn–style restaurant with a mural of a psychedelic cow painted on the side.
The menu is deceivingly simple, with the usual offerings of brisket, ribs, turkey, and sausage. Sides include classics like potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. Special menu items like Laotian sausage are occasionally offered. But visitors will soon realize that everything that the chefs at Goldee’s do, they do exceedingly well. As D Magazine reported in a 2021 profile on the restaurant, eating at Goldee’s is like stumbling upon “a young, talented, underground local band—one that you know is about to blow up and become crazy-popular once everyone else figures out what’s going on.”
Barbecue is changing in Texas, and nowhere is it changing more than in the exceedingly multicultural city of Houston. Blood Bros. BBQ is located in H-Town’s Bellaire neighborhood, an area known for its large Asian population and sprawl of strip malls—in one of these inconspicuous strip malls is Blood Bros. Founded in 2014 by brothers Robin and Terry Wong and their friend Quy Hoang (who also happens to be Houston’s first-ever Vietnamese pitmaster, and was also nominated for a James Beard award this year), Blood Bros. serves up mouthwatering Texas-style barbecue with a flare that reflects Houston’s diverse population.
As noted in both Texas Monthly and the New York Times, the restaurant does not have a set menu. Rather, the three Houston natives choose to follow their culinary (and seasonal) whims. Some items that may grace the daily menu include loco moco, brisket fried rice, char siu bánh mì sandwiches, and gochujang beef belly burnt ends. But don’t think that since Blood Bros. is remixing its barbecue that it’s neglecting Texas ’cue’s stalwarts: the brisket melts in the mouth, meat on the ribs falls off the bone, and its hand-stuffed boudin sausages are to die for.
When West Texas craft beer mainstay Big Bend Brewery filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in 2018, it left a big, beer can–shaped hole in this dusty (yet strikingly beautiful) area of the state. Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue quickly stepped up to the challenge. Admittedly, this pick is a little out of the way—it’s in Marathon, Texas, the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Big Bend National Park,” which has a population of around 400. There are just a few restaurants and only one hotel (the luxurious Gage Hotel, which owns the Brick Vault) in Marathon, all clustered around First Street, which leads into lonely Highway 90. To eat at Brick Vault is a purposeful pit stop.
With pitmaster and operations manager Phillip Moellering at the helm, Brick Vault serves brisket, spare ribs, and turkey. Sides include green chile mac-n-cheese, pinto beans, and green cabbage slaw. In terms of brews, the restaurant offers an ample rotating menu of ales and sours, including beers that reflect West Texas’s Wild West heritage like Captain Shepard’s Pecan Porter, named after the man who founded Marathon. Though it may be remote, there’s nothing like gnawing that last good bit off a pork rib while enjoying a brew under the big West Texas sky. Oh, and experiencing all of that after a long day of hitting the trails at Big Bend? One might call the experience simply divine.
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