Texas is synonymous with cowboys, cattle ranches, and its signature cuisine, barbecue. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and when it comes to brisket and pork ribs, that cliche rings true. And just like those slabs of grilled meat, Texas is big too (bigger even!), so there’s enough room for more than a few different styles of barbecue. There are some staples, however, in Texas-style barbecue that are important to understand before embarking on any carnivorous culinary adventures.
No matter where you are in Texas, the barbecue will be beef heavy and almost always cooked low and slow over a wood fire. Pork spare ribs (not baby back ribs) and brisket are specialties throughout the state — dishes that you’ll find in many other barbecue-heavy regions like Kansas City and the Carolinas — but what really stands out is Texas’ obsession with sausage. You’ll find sausage on every barbecue menu treated with just as much love as the brisket.
As for the all-important sides, you’ll see more white bread than cornbread in Texas along with sweet potato salad, pickles, baked beans, and coleslaw. And unlike in Kansas City, where the barbecue is doused in sauce while it cooks, sauce will typically come on the side.
The history of Texas barbecue really depends on where you are: For instance, in central Texas, the original barbecue is attributed to Czech and German immigrants who smoked meat to preserve it at their butcher shops. Meanwhile, around the time of the Civil War, African-American slaves brought sauce-heavy barbecue to east Texas. In west Texas, barbecue cooked over an open fire is known as “cowboy style” thanks to its invention by roaming cattle ranchers.
However, no matter which Texas region you’re visiting, barbecue represents much more than a simple meal: Barbecue creates community, celebrates regional ingredients, and carries on cooking traditions and techniques.
As mentioned earlier, German and Czech butchers are the original masterminds of barbecue in this region. In central Texas, dry rub takes precedence over sauce (though you can still get it on the side). The dry rub is typically a simple combination of salt and pepper. The meat is slow smoked over a combination of mesquite, oak, and hickory wood for 12 to 24 hours.
Brisket, which first gained popularity in barbecue restaurants in the 1960s, is beloved across the state, but it’s a speciality of central Texas. Fatty cuts of brisket are rich and buttery, soaked in salty, greasy goodness. The smokey outer crust adds a satisfying crunch. Two slices of white bread (included for free) round out the plate in case you want to make your own sandwich.
Unlike most barbecue, “cowboy style” barbecue in this region of Texas is grilled on an open pit or trench over direct heat, rather than smoked. The meat captures flavor from the mesquite wood, but it has less of a smoke note than you might encounter in other parts of the state.
West Texas barbecue is noteworthy because it’s not cooked low and slow, generally considered the best method for preparing larger, denser, fattier cuts of meat. Because cooking times are generally akin to grilling, you’ll see lots of chicken, sausage, and ribs on a west Texas barbecue menu. Brisket will make the occasional appearance, too, but it likely won’t be as tender and juicy as brisket cooked using traditional methods.
In this region of Texas, barbecue has absorbed Mexican-American cooking traditions. Here, barbacoa is especially popular. Traditional Texas barbacoa is made from the meat from the head of a cow and smoked in an underground pit for 12 hours. The meat ends up so tender and succulent it simply falls away from the skull. The shredded cheek meat is a popular taco filling, topped with cilantro, onions, and salsa, but all parts of a cow’s head can be used in tacos, including the lengua (tongue).
The art of cooking barbacoa in an earthen pit is nearly lost. Most restaurants have abandoned the practice except Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que. These days, barbacoa is mostly cooked in an oven or steamer.
East Texas barbecue is heavily influenced by the slaves that lived in the region during the Civil War, who imbued this now ubiquitous cuisine with all of their favored cooking techniques. The tender barbecue of east Texas is focused less on brisket and more on chopped meat for sandwiches. Though most Texas barbecue focuses on the dry rub, in east Texas, sauce is equally as beloved.
East Texas is distinctive in yet another way: The region’s specialty is pork ribs. In fact, while the majority of Texas is beef-focused, east Texas barbecue is split between pork and beef. You’ll likely encounter cajun flavors — like boudin, a type of sauce made with pork and rice — picked up from neighboring Louisiana. There’s a wider variety of sides in east Texas, too: The regular baked beans, coleslaw, and potato salad all appear on the menu, alongside banana pudding, okra, and mac and cheese.
Where to eat barbecue in Texas
James Beard-award winner Aaron Franklin opened Franklin Barbecue in 2009, and it has since become a Texas institution. Lines regularly form outside the chain’s Austin outpost, and Texas Monthly once deemed it the “best barbecue in the known universe.”
Where: 900 E 11th St, Austin, TX 78702
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is the last place in Texas that serves barbacoa de cabeza cooked in the traditional way for 12 hours in an underground, brick-lined pit. Tasting pitmaster Mando Vera’s barbacoa is a treat; he only serves it on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Where: 2404 Southmost Blvd, Brownsville, TX 78521
Pit boss Tootsie Tomanetz is the mastermind behind the award-winning barbecue at Snow’s. In 2017, Texas Monthly named this Lexington-based joint the best barbecue in the state, and this year, it earned the Reader’s Choice award.
Where: 516 Main St, Lexington, TX 78947
This Austin-based barbecue joint is off the beaten path, but well worth the journey. Specialties include brisket tacos and sausage, and though 2M opened relatively recently in 2016, it has already attracted a solid fanbase.
Where: 2731 S WW White Rd, San Antonio, TX 78222
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Louie Mueller Barbecue has a long history. It first opened its doors in 1949, and the restaurant became so entrenched in Texas barbecue culture that it won a James Beard America’s Classics award in 2007. It’s also been listed among the best barbecue in Texas by Bon Appetit and The New York Times.
Where: 206 W 2nd St, Taylor, TX 76574