Throughout the American Barbecue Belt, each region has its own preferred methods and its own favorite dishes. In North Carolina, whole hog or pork shoulder reigns supreme; in Memphis, ribs rule; and in Texas, brisket is king.
Yet, the best beef brisket sandwich in Texas arguably comes from a restaurant that specializes in swine.
Our readers recently voted for the best BBQ sandwich in Texas, and Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, a restaurant known best for its massive pork chops, took home the top honor.
And that’s not even the most surprising part about the victory. True to its “old time” name, Cooper’s has stuck to traditional methods since it first opened in 1953 – methods that are all but dead across Texas.
What is Cowboy style?
Llano only has a population of about 3,300 people, but BBQ fanatics come from far and wide to this small town about 65 miles northwest of Austin and 100 miles north of San Antonio to eat at the restaurant that put Llano on the map.
Despite being smack in the middle of Texas, Cooper's is probably the most famous example of Cowboy-style BBQ, a method of cooking most often used in west Texas (though it's rare even there).
It’s called Cowboy BBQ, because, as Cooper’s owner Jason Wootan says, “In the old days, [cowboys] would just round up some firewood, make a fire, and let it burn down. Then you’d put your meat, hang it across there once you got your coals. That’s basically the same we do it.”
One of the last of a dying breed
Across Texas, and particularly in Central Texas, BBQ joints use the low-and-slow approach, cooking their meat over indirect heat at low temperatures (about 200 to 220 F) for long periods of time. This ensures the incredibly tender meat for which Texas is famous. Cooper’s, however, is one of the few remaining restaurants that uses direct heat.
Just how rare is Cowboy style? Cooper’s is the only one of our 10 Reader’s Choice finalists to cook in a direct-heat pit, and of Texas Monthly’s list of the 50 best BBQ joints in the world (all of which – surprise, surprise – reside in Texas), only a handful use direct-heat pits. Of those, Cooper’s is one of three that relies solely on this method of cooking.
Cowboy-style barbecuing calls for meat to be cooked over direct heat, high above the heat source in a large pit. Barbecuing over direct heat is high risk, high reward, and in the cutthroat world of Texas BBQ, most places don’t feel like taking their chances.
How Cooper's makes the best brisket
Cooper’s burns mesquite wood until it turns to coals, then transfers those coals into a large metal pit before placing the meat on grates about two to three feet off of the heat source, cooking it at about 300 degrees.
The meat actually gets its smoky flavor from the fat that drips down onto the charcoal, creating smoke. By comparison, indirect-heat pits or smokers contain the wood and fire at the end opposite the meat and allow smoke to drift across, slowly cooking the meat.
Wootan says he can cook an entire brisket in five to six hours, compared to the 12 to 18 hours it takes for indirect smoking. But cooking BBQ faster also means less room for error.
The pros and cons of direct heat
Direct heat causes flames to rise and singe the meat to create a nice caramelized crust. Cooper’s, which bills itself as “Home of the Big Chop” is most famous for its one-pound, 2-inch center-cut pork chop. And for this in particular, direct heat creates a nice, juicy piece of meat.
But cooking brisket over direct heat at higher temperatures can be tricky. If it’s not done perfectly, you risk ending up with a relatively tough piece of meat instead of the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness people expect. The meat also comes out less smoky with the direct-heat method.
“In our opinion it’s the cleanest taste,” Wootan says. "it’s not overbearingly smoky, but it’s still got a lot of flavor. It’s just a real good even-tasting brisket."
The key to success
Wootan and his family run all four locations of Cooper’s – including three other locations in Fort Worth, New Braunfels and Austin – and they’ve been cooking brisket the same way since they first took over the original Llano location in 1986.
They use mesquite wood for its flavor, as well as its ability to get hotter and retain heat longer than other woods. They also make a BBQ sauce with a vinegar base and without a lot of sugar, and a simple rub that includes salt, pepper and various spices.
But Wootan says the keys to good brisket are starting with good meat (Cooper’s uses both choice and prime), keeping things simple and staying consistent.
“Start with good meat is the number-one key, and don’t try to do too much,” Wootan says. “That’s the number one thing I see people do, is they put 25 different ingredients on it before they cook it. Some people can maybe do that, I can’t. I like to keep it simple.”