Along with longhorns, Stetsons and cowboy boots, the word "barbecue" is synonymous with the great state of Texas. Texans take their 'cue seriously, and contemplative outsiders have long tried to figure out the intense loyalty these hearty souls have to their meat of choice. There's no definitive answer to this burning question, but it seems most Texans are fiercely loyal to and fastidiously particular about their state's version of barbecue.
Mention barbecue ingredients from other areas of the country – pulled pork, vinegar or mustard-based sauce – and you immediately have Texans on the defensive, wrinkling their noses in disgust.
Next to the weather, barbecue is probably one of the most frequently discussed topics among residents in the Lone Star State. Their version of barbecue is beef that's carefully selected, seasoned, slow-cooked and sliced thinly, along with pork sausages and ribs cooked to perfection. Beef brisket, pork ribs and standard side dishes, such as potato salad and beans, are as much a way of life as are tumbleweeds, open stretches of road and country music.
Many claim that Texans love their barbecue because they always have, and that the tradition started with cowboys roasting meat in underground pits. Others don't really know why they're so dedicated to their BBQ, only that they are and always will be.
Most readily agree that barbecue is a fiber that's tightly woven into the very fabric of Texas, impacting everything from the family dinner table to the political landscape. A well-known Texan, media icon Dan Rather, has laughingly said that you can always tell who's going to win the next election in Texas by how he handles himself at a barbecue. President Lyndon B. Johnson regularly entertained political dignitaries from across the world around hearty plates of beef brisket at his ranch in Stonewall, TX. Heck, a 2003 documentary called Barbecue: A Texas Love Story even tried to chronicle the unique love affair Texans have with their barbeque.
So, it's always with great trepidation that a "master list" of places that serve up the best 'cue is formed. Given folks' intense feelings about the subject, it's no wonder that Texas Monthly editors received quite a bit of feedback, both positive and negative, from their 1997 piece naming the top 50 barbecue joints in the state.
And so, it's with tipped Stetson that we offer up our list of the best barbeque spots in Texas. It's important to start with what's known as the epicenter of all things barbecue in the state – Lockhart – located a little over 30 miles south of Austin. Interestingly enough, this town of about 11,000 has four major barbecue places that serve roughly 250,000 people each year. Kreuz Market (pronounced Krites by the locals) has been in business since the early 1900s, winning loyal followers with its large servings of savory beef proffered on brown butcher paper. A large piece of onion, fresh tomato or a slice of avocado perfectly compliments the legendary sauce-less barbecue.
A relative newcomer to the Lockhart scene, Smitty's Market has garnered fame since opening its doors in 1999. Owner Nina Schmidt Sells' father purchased Kreuz Market in 1948, and Smitty's now occupies the building that originally housed the market for more than 50 years. Her son is the pit master and turns out finger-licking good ribs and fired-just-right beef.
Heading north toward Austin, barbecue hounds are sure to hit pay dirt as the city has hordes of quality stops, with top names including Iron Works BBQ, The Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant and County Line on the Hill.
Iron Works's menu reads like a who's who list of barbecue favorites, featuring traditional Texas brisket, hot sausage, smoked turkey, smoked pork loin and, believe it or not, a salad bar. Long necks and sweet teas alongside fruit pies and cobblers wrap up things nicely. If you want to try your own hand at fixing some Texas style 'cue, grab one the store's bottles of seasoning rub on your way out.
Just outside of Austin in Driftwood, you'll find The Salt Lick, named as such because owners Hisako Roberts and her husband, the late Thurman Roberts, said, "A salt lick is something where all the animals congregate. There is something good, something essential about it." And so this place too has become an essential fixture on the area's dining landscape. Meats are available by the quarter, half, three-quarter and whole pound, and it's a cash only / bring your own beer arrangement the Lick's got with its guests.
Sitting "on the hill" in Austin, County Line is the original restaurant in what now has become a local chain of eateries. Housed in a historic speak-easy, this dining spot serves up fresh barbecue along with prime sunset-watching seats and a 20-mile view of the state's beautiful Hill Country. All that, plus happy hour and fish and chicken on the menu make this an unbeatable option.
Head northwest about 35 miles and you'll hit the small town of Taylor, population 15,000. It's here that Louie Mueller Barbeque makes its home. Louie Mueller's has been smoking briskets, jalapeno sausages, ribs and other meats over the giant pit in the middle of the building since 1946.
Traveling even further north leads you to the sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth area where you'll find Railhead Smokehouse. Cow Town knows how to do barbecue just as well as the rest of the state, and nowhere is that more evident than here, thanks to luscious ribs, tender beef brisket and juicy servings of chicken, available as sandwich, sandwich plate or dinner plate, depending on your appetite.
Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse in Dallas, has also earned its stripes as being above the fold among local BBQ joints. It's been a consistent producer of quality meats since 1910, with fried onion rings and outstanding sauces enhancing each plateful.
To the east and west of this central trek are two other top quality BBQ joints, probably none more well-known than Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, located about 75 miles northwest of Austin, and home of the "big chop." At Cooper's you stop at a massive outdoor BBQ pit displaying the goods, make your selection and then head indoors for slicing and filling up on all the fixings before finding your spot at one of the communal tables.
Goode Co. in Houston entices with its tantalizing array of brisket sandwiches, smoked duck and chicken, and world-famous pecan pie wedges. There are few better rewards in life than biting into Goode Co.'s melt-in-your-mouth BBQ. Go ahead, you'll be in good company!