No offense to chili, but barbecue is the unofficial state food of Texas. It inspires devotion and sparks fevered debate that reaches from small-town diners to the cacophonous echo chambers of social media.
Just as Austin has seen an explosion in the popularity of smoked meats, the rest of Texas has embraced and stoked the state’s barbecue renaissance. The craft — part science, part art — was even recognized by the august James Beard Foundation, which last year named Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue the Best Chef in the Southwest. It marked the first time a pitmaster had earned the best chef nod from the national organization.
Variations in technique, wood, rubs and sauces contribute to the creation of myriad versions of smoked meat, but much of what makes barbecue so great is the people behind it. I hit the road and traveled a good portion of the state to sample some of the best Texas has to offer and talk to the people responsible.
I didn’t hit the most famous, or any of my (previous) favorite, places, and I don’t put this list up as being a definitive Best Of. I just wanted to give folks a sense of the diversity and excellence in other parts of the state.
I started at the coast and worked my way up through Houston and Dallas and back down through Central Texas and out into the Hill Country. I traversed more than 1,200 miles in less than a week, hitting about 20 barbecue joints in 13 cities.
I discovered that so often the barbecue business is a family business. I met people happy to talk and found that behind most great barbecue lies an equally great story and sometimes no small about of drama. The people I met were passionate but never pretentious.
What follows are some of the best meals and most interesting folks I met along the way.
Smoke rises from Old Faithful on a Sunday evening. Hatfield’s BBQ is open. Kenny Hatfield no longer cooks on the small pit he first fired up 32 years ago, but he still uses it as a smoke-spewing lighthouse for passersby searching for a barbecue fix.
The cooking these days takes place on the Big Nasty, an oak and cured mesquite-fueled monster housed outside of the restaurant.
“It’s a redneck pit,” Hatfield says, showing off the fiery beast.
“I built it,” he adds with a laugh. Hatfield laughs a lot. Sometimes with just his eyes.
Hatfield hobbled from around the back of the bar when I initially entered the restaurant, eager to show me a cellphone video of how he chained the pit to the back of his truck and ripped it out of a restaurant he was previously partnered in with some former friends. The pit came flying through the wall like a metallic Kool-Aid Man.
First stop and I could already check the “colorful backstory” box on the Barbecue Bingo card.
Hatfield retrieved his pit and opened this location in 2013. His employee, Kiwee Hartigan, whom he playfully calls First Mate Burnt Bean for a not-forgotten kitchen mishap, pulls a massive beef rib from the Big Nasty.
The caramelization from the meeting of heat, fat and Hatfield’s rub has created a dark sugar cookie on the exterior of the flossy meat.
“It’s a sugary rub,” Hatfield said. Those eyes bulge and gleam.
The two girls working at the restaurant laugh, chide and roll their eyes like only daughters can. Chloe Hatfield, 17, closes out the register and settles up for the evening, while 14-year-old Madison Belle Hatfield finishes her first full shift in the kitchen. But she’s not new to the restaurant. She created the tangy sauce that lacquers the sweet and tender pork ribs. Among the ingredients: Italian dressing, yogurt and maple syrup. That’s tinkering only a teen could dream up.
The girls’ mother, a science teacher, arrives to pick up the sauce artist, as Hatfield explains his secret Brisket Mist: a spray bottle of brisket grease that works as fire multiplier and a last-second cologne option. He likes the stuff so much he even named his boat after it. Banged up from years as a high school tennis and basketball player and a career in the flooring business, Hatfield has an appointment with a knee surgeon the following day. That doesn’t keep him from trying to convince me to take a quick tour of the town he’s called home for the last 14 years.
“Best place on the Texas coast. No doubt,” Hatfield said.
Louis McMillan at McMillan’s Bar-B-Q in Fannin decided to take the day off, but one of the most entertaining characters I met during my trip did feed me some great stories with a side of boasting. I’ll definitely return, but in the meantime it was up the road with an empty stomach to Victoria.
The town is home to the Limon family, Quality Packers Smokehouse and a quintessential Texas barbecue tale: One involving detailed lore, excellent smoked meat, a family schism and plenty of gray area.
Brother and sister Victoria and Lupe Limon’s great-grandfather bought one of the original Oyler barbecue pits for their grandfather. That pit was passed down to their father, who started a catering business to supplement his Quality Packers meat packing and wholesale operation.
After the catering business waned, Lupe Limon left his job in 2014 and started selling cold summer sausage and chopped brisket from a trailer in front of an abandoned gas station off Texas 77. The popularity of the trailer led the Limon siblings to open Quality Packers Smokehouse in the old gas station.
The short and thick baby back ribs popped with sweetness, and slow rendering led to a satisfying pull. Some people scoff at chicken, but I’m down for anything good, especially in the middle of a week of meaty indulgence. A bronzed and peppered layer of crackling skin covered moist chicken that was not surpassed on this trip, Limon’s blend of post oak, live oak and pecan giving the bird a unique fragrance. And dueling potatoes, a mustardy salad and a buttery scalloped smash made for great side-dish bookends.
As for that gray area, I talked to Lupe Limon the last week of April and he told me he planned to open his own trailer as Limon Barbecue in early May, while Quality Packers was a week away from setting up QP Smokehouse at the historic Corral steakhouse in town. That would leave the Limon siblings operating separately. Then Lupe Limon added that he may end up taking over the current QP Smokehouse and changing its name. Where there’s smoke, there’s often confusion. A little internet searching should (might?) help you sort through things if you visit Victoria, but I’d follow Lupe Limon’s trail.
“This is just the beginning,” Limon said of the family business he helped to revive.
The crowds have formed early at Ray’s Bar-B-Q Shack, a converted barbecue restaurant built out of a converted gas station just south of Brays Bayou. Some of the ladies tease and cajole the tall muscular gentleman behind the counter who takes it like a good sport. Maybe that’s because he’s former Texas Christian University star offensive lineman and National Football League journeyman Herb Taylor. Several jerseys hanging on the walls document his career.
Taylor returned home after his football career to help his mother, Maxine Davis, and stepfather and longtime Harris County Sheriff’s deputy Ray Busch operate the restaurant that describes what some would call Southeast Texas barbecue. Taylor laughs at the classification.
“I don’t what that really means,” Taylor said. “To me, ‘I like that. You like that. Let’s go.’”
And go they did, with a large menu that includes fragrant beef and pork sausage wrapped in a crisp, snap casing and brisket with a soft caramelized edge. Call it Southeast Texas or South Houston barbecue or whatever you want, the catfish and boudin are unique and excellent standouts. The cornmeal breading made for alight salt-and-pepper crackle on the juicy catfish and a heaping portion of rice filled the robust and fluffy boudin link.
Following the end of their first careers, Taylor and Busch formed a winning team that appears to be just getting started. Ray’s Bar-B-Q Shack will open a location at the George Bush International Airport in Houston later this month.
Meanwhile, if you check out the weekend menu that includes masala-spiced lamb ribs and an afternoon lunch special of red pepper-piqued smoked meatloaf lacquered with a glazed cap of bacon, you might think the man in charge of Pappa Charlies Barbeque is a culinary school graduate with a barbecue obsession.
But owner Wesley Jurena is actually a former competition barbecue cook who, following decades in the Army, corporate America and government contract work, decided he would show folks that competition cooks can hold their own in the restaurant world.
He started Pappa Charlies, named in honor of his father, in 2014 as a trailer and opened his restaurant in the shadow of the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park and the Dynamo’s BBVA Compass Stadium last fall. The crowds were quick to follow.
“It’s been like drinking water from a firehouse,” Jurena said of his first seven months in business.
They come for the peppery brisket, the gentle sweetness of pork ribs (skip the sauce), the vinegar-and-iron brace of collard greens, a nice selection of local beers and creamy macaroni and cheese. And, of course, sports on the big screen.
Jurena has more than proven his point about competition cooks, while joining the ranks of the new restaurants helping advance Houston’s barbecue scene.
“I always thought Houston should be better at everything than anybody in the state,” Jurena told me.
Spoken like a true native.
Will Buckman, who owns Corkscrew Barbecue with his wife, Nichole, freely admits that, while they make their own barbecue sauce, “it’s pretty much an afterthought.”
You don’t need to worry about sauce when you have barbecue this good. Buckman bought a pit at a sporting goods store about a decade ago and taught himself how to cook. He’s a heck of a teacher and a student. His red oak gives a mild but deep smoke flavor to lush brisket rendered beautifully. The crimson-rimmed meat unpacks itself like a loose accordion.
While the stellar brisket, smoked for at least 12 hours, needs no accompaniment, the Buckmans trick it out on a few sandwiches, like the Bobert, which comes slathered with housemade green chili ranch dressing and studded with pico de gallo. I arrived well after the lunch rush but was still met by perfect brisket and moist, supple turkey.
The Buckmans started their business in a trailer but moved in October to a railside restaurant in Old Town Spring that looks like a train depot. Will Buckman grew up eating at the space that was once Hyde’s Cafe, and he’s now turned it into one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in the Greater Houston area.
Asked about the posters inside the restaurant advertising the Houston Barbecue Festival later this month, Buckman, who worked at a barbecue restaurant in high school, marveled at the change in the Houston barbecue scene in recent years.
“It was pretty much unheard of that people in the barbecue community here would get along and get together,” Buckman said.
Matt Dallman missed the sounds and flavors of home, so he brought a little of Kansas City to Dallas. With its cloth napkins, table service and thoughtful design, the beautifully appointed 18th & Vine defies most people’s expectations of what a barbecue joint should be. But don’t be fooled by the sophistication, this restaurant, named for K.C.’s historic jazz district, has plenty of soul. Dallman opened the restaurant last year after several years of competition cooking and catering.
Kansas City’s gastronomic gift to the world are the burnt ends, and 18th& Vine does its birthplace proud with their version. Caramelized cubes of fatty brisket smoked over oak and hickory are tossed in sauce and finished with more smoke for crunchy and melty pieces of meat full of smoky flavor and sweet sting.
I stopped in for lunch, which features a roster of sandwiches named in honor of jazz greats. The namesake sandwich of former Kansas City resident Lester Young is a gooey, meaty, rich brisket grilled cheese on sturdy toast served with a side of pickled onions and the vegetal twang of collard greens. We started that lunch with a whipped smoked salmon spread — because how often are you going to get a barbecue restaurant smoking fish for you?
If you go in the evenings, make sure to head upstairs to the Roost, the restaurant’s jazz-loving music venue lined with black-and-white portraits of legends like Charlie Parker.
Also in Dallas, Jack Perkins’ Slow Bone is a solid example that you don’t have to stick with the classics in order to enjoy yourself at a barbecue restaurant. I’d definitely order a pork rib with some nice wobble and crackle again, and the brisket was fine. But what I’ll remember about this restaurant that opened in 2013 are the things you don’t often find other places.
Country folks may scoff at cilantro taking a seat at a barbecue table, but it put a floral glow into juicy pork sausage. I haven’t seen fried chicken at a barbecue restaurant before, but it doesn’t get much better than the golden knobby versions here. And while some places put a sweet or spicy spin on traditional side dishes, Slow Bone rewrites the book. Caramelized Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are bound by cheese and a sweet potato casserole gives a creamy holiday tinge to lunch served on cafeteria trays.
Demographics, traffic flow, real estate prices … Hwy 29 BBQ co-owner Morgan Scott took a fairly business-minded approach in choosing the location for his barbecue restaurant about 45 minutes from Austin. But, he’s as much a barbecue man as a businessman, as proven by his small but excellent menu of smoked meats.
Hwy 29 has as much rustic charm as any barbecue spot I visited on my trip.The 133-year-old stone building that sits near the only stoplight in town weathered countless iterations — mental hospital, mercantile, bank and two separate barbecue restaurants — before Austin native Scott and partner Corey Thibodeaux opened the restaurant in August 2013.
Though he has some dedicated customers who only come for the chicken, the self-taught Scott says the brisket sells out first. For good reason. Despite its dry appearance, the beef had a pliability and tenderness coaxed from the slow rendering of fat. Scott has shipped briskets as far as Alaska.
The meal was outstanding, from the pepper-speckled beef-and-pork sausage with its fine but juicy grind to the surprise of the day, a supple and velvety pork loin with well-seasoned and seared crust.
I’d never been through Bertram, much less heard of it, before this trip. But I will return. And I’ll get the creamy banana pudding topped with vanilla wafers and dusted with cinnamon when I do.
“You’re driving me crazy,” Penny Payne told her husband Robert two weeks fter he’d retired in 2011.
So, Robert put an end to his retirement and opened Payne’s Bar-B-Q Shak in Burnet.
Sometimes the people running barbecue restaurants are so colorful and entertaining that they elevate the quality of the food just by force of their own charisma. Robert Payne is the jolly sort who can answer a fragmented question with a few paragraphs.
He has barbecue in his blood — his grandfather owned a Payne’s BBQ in the 1940s — and he’s spent decades around the food business, in sales for a bread company and running a fast-food restaurant in the late ’70s called the Korner Kitchen.
At 72, he jokes that more of his parts are fallin’ apart, but adds, “I love to cook and I have an ego. If people love my barbecue, that gets me goin’.”
He smoked a sweet pork loin over oak, leaving just enough fat to keep the stubborn meat manageable, and puts a subtle kick of spice in his pork sausage. His son-in-law, daughter and granddaughters all help out around the little restaurant that serves food from what looks like the kitchen of an old house. Even Penny helps out, making the side dishes. I guess he wasn’t driving her that crazy.
Johnson City has always just been another place to pass through without stopping on the way to somewhere else for me. Not anymore.
Ronnie’s BBQ doesn’t have much aesthetic appeal from the outside. It looks like a converted convenience store just struggling to hang on.
Half of that is true. Ronnie Weiershausen converted his convenience store to a restaurant about three decades ago. He’s hanging on just fine.
He had started selling smoked meat to supplement his business. Turns out the barbecue was a hit, so he had to clear the decks and focus on what people want.
I won’t even bother getting into the ribs and brisket because that’s how good the chicken and turkey was. The chicken stayed moist beneath its gold and blackened ripples of skin and the smoke of oak coals had deeply penetrated impossibly tender turkey. It was the best I’d ever had. Makes sense that a man seemingly as modest as the soft-spoken but proud Weiershausen could work magic with such a humble bird.
Barbecue road trip tips
Whether you follow my path or make a daily jaunt to one or two places, it’s good to remember a few key points.
Drink plenty of water. With so much smoke and meat, you’ve gotta stay hydrated.
Drink the local beer. It’s a good way to learn about the people and places you visit.
Call ahead. Even when a restaurant has listed hours, they might not always be accurate.
Get there early. Many places only serve lunch — and many sell out. And you don’t want food that’s been sitting around all day.
Talk to folks. Ask the employees or pitmasters what they’re known for — they’ll likely say “everything” — and ask those who look like regulars what they like. People aren’t shy with their opinions.
You can learn a lot on social media. Follow amateur and professional barbecue aficionados on Instagram like @packysaunders in Houston, @thesmokingho in Austin and Dallasite and dean of Texas barbecue writing, @bbqsnob Daniel Vaughn from Texas Monthly.
Keep an eye out for intriguing side dishes.
Don’t scoff at the birds: turkey and chicken.
Don’t snack on much between stops besides raw vegetables.
If a place catches your eye, whether a bakery or a bookstore, stop.
To steal a phrase from author William Least Heat-Moon, take the “Blue Highways” and really see Texas. If you’ve driven one interstate, you’ve driven them all.
Visit county courthouses along the way. My dad, who visited all 254 in Texas, taught me at an early age to appreciate these beautiful and important buildings. Stop and soak in their architecture and history.
Make sure your arrival and departure times from cities don’t correspond with rush hour. Unless you’re going to a place like Bertram, where there is no rush hour.
If you plan to stay the night, use websites and apps like hotel.com, hoteltonight.com and kayak.com to find deals on hotels and use airbnb.com and vrbo.com to look for private residences to rent for the night.
Take a walk in the morning and another in the evening.
Restaurants mentioned in the story, in order of my visits
Hatfield’s BBQ: 621 W. Market St., Rockport. 361-729-4227, facebook.com/hatfieldsbbq
Quality Packers Smokehouse: 3494 SW Moody St., Victoria. 361-572-3227, qualitypackerscatering.com
Ray’s BBQ Shack: 4529 Old Spanish Trail, Houston. 713-748-4227, raysbbqshack.com
Pappa Charlies Barbeque: 2012 Rusk St., Houston. 832-940-1719, facebook.com/pappacharlies
Corkscrew BBQ: 26608 Keith St., Spring. 832-592-1184, corkscrewbbq.com
18th & Vine: 4100 Maple Ave., Dallas. 214-443-8335, 18thandvinebbq.com
Slow Bone: 2234 Irving Blvd., Dallas. 214-377-7727, slowbone.com
Hwy 29 BBQ: 110 Texas 29, Bertram. 512-277-7020, hwy29bbq.com
Payne’s Bar-B-Q Shak: 616 Buchanan Drive, Burnet. 512-756-8227
Ronnie’s BBQ: 211 U.S. 281. Johnson City, 830-868-7553
Intro photo by Ricardo B. Brazziell. All other photos by Matthew Odam