The Best Bar-B-Cue — Is There Such A Thing?
Carloads of enthusiasts have spent days traveling the Hill Country, armed only with a stack of napkins, trying in vain to find the “best” Texas bar-b-cue. There are few more truly Texas pastimes than loading a group of friends into the car on a beautiful Saturday morning and going from town to town to sample smoked brisket, melting marinated ribs and spicy, succulent sausages encased in crispy skin.
But is there such a thing as the best Texas bar-b-cue? The best way to find out is to taste for yourself. We’ve lined up some of the most legendary stops on the trail, so pack a bib and some wet wipes and get ready to try some of the finest smoked meat found anywhere in the world.
The Best Bar-B-Cue: Texas Myths and Legends
Let’s get clear about one thing — there’s no such thing as the “best” bar-b-cue. (Heck, there’s not even a best way to spell “barbeque”! BBQ?)
And that’s as it should be. Everyone in Central Texas has their own stories, their own favorite pit, and a particular blend of smoke, salt, spice and tender meat that defines what “best” is. That said, there are still a number of places that stand out from the rest, earning reputations that radiate far outside the borders of the little towns that they call home.
The Salt Lick, Driftwood
A perennial favorite on BBQ “best of” lists, this pit has been charring meat since 1967. Smoked over live oak wood, the sauce is applied four times during the cooking process, adding an extra layer of smoke as it drips on the coals. This an unusual blend of sweet and spicy that has won accolades around the country and a devoted following.
The combination of rustic, authentic atmosphere (you’ll be eatin’ off butcher paper and sittin’ at long tables with soon-to-be-friends) makes this an incredibly popular place. They smoke over 750,000 pounds of brisket, 350,000 pounds of pork ribs and 200,000 pounds of sausage each year — almost 2,000 tons of meat.
Kreuz Market, Lockhart
More than 100 years ago, Kreuz Market was opened in the location now occupied by Smitty’s. As with most things Texan, there’s a story behind it. Edgar Schmidt bought Kreuz Market in 1948 and left it to his children in 1984. For some reason, an old-fashioned family feud erupted between the brothers and the sister, who settled their dispute by opening two restaurants. The sons kept the name, Kreuz Market, which is now housed a few blocks away, and the daughter kept the location, now known as "Smitty's".
Even though it’s in a new place (new by bar-b-cue standards, anyway), there’s still plenty of tradition to be had at Kreuz. There’s no sauce served with these platters; there’s just no need for one. (There aren’t any forks allowed in the restaurant either — when they say “tender,” they ain’t kiddin’.) The only sides are bread, pickles, onions and cheese. These folks do one thing — meat — and they do it to perfection. This place is a bar-b-cue mecca, with over 250,000 visitors per year consuming around two tons of sausage per week.
Smitty’s Market, Lockhart
And while you’re in Lockhart, stop by Smitty’s and engage in what has become a regional pastime — deciding which branch of the family has the best bar-b-cue. Since Smitty’s retained the location, you can still walk the hallways of this Texas landmark, stained black by more than 75 years of smoke. Folks were scandalized when Smitty’s decided to break with tradition and — heavens! — offer a side of beans. That kind of dedication to the ways of the past is evident in their menu, serving only Texas beef and cutting it themselves instead of having it arrive already butchered.
This competition may have actually benefited Lockhart, dubbed the “Bar-B-Cue Capital of Texas” by the Texas legislature in 1999. A little feudin’ has given license to hundreds of thousands of self-appointed food critics who come here to find out just who has the “best” cue. (We may need to indulge in a few more years of research to reach a definitive conclusion.)
City Market, Luling
In the 1950’s, City Market began creating sausages, brisket and ribs along with an undeniable reputation. Over the years, this place has become a bar-b-cue legend. They’ve created a leaner sausage which they smoke over post oak, and they give it a tomato-based mustard sauce. Their recipes haven’t changed in more than 50 years: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A link is served with a hunk of cheese and some sliced onion for sides, on traditional butcher paper. It may be simple, but this is a meal you won’t soon forget.
In 1981, some people thought it would be a good idea to open a place called the Luling City Market in Houston, and the confusion created by that decision may just be deliberate. But if you want the best original cue, make sure you end up at City Market in Luling — fifty years of authenticity doesn’t come from a name.
Franklin Barbecue, Austin
As you can see, the stories that wind through the history of Texas bar-b-cue are long, tall tales. But it’s the absence of tradition and history that makes Franklin Barbecue so remarkable. In just two short years, these folks have gone from a food trailer to a building in East Austin. Each day, you’ll find long lines of aficionados trying to get their hands on a plate before the “Sorry! Sold Out!” sign is posted.
The change of venue isn’t the impressive part of this story — it’s the reviews. Bon Appetit magazine named Franklin “The Best BBQ Restaurant in America.” The New York Times referred to Franklin as “elevating a food tradition once thought to be timeless.” Texas Monthly mentioned the “meltingly moist brisket or the fluffy (yet crusty-edged) shreds of pulled pork.” The Austin Chronicle called Franklin “the most congenial pit boss in town,” the ribs “perfection” and the brisket “superb.” This may be one of the newest pits to join a storied tradition, but it seems to be doing a pretty good job of writing stories of its own.
Sidebar of Related Information
Don’t Want to Go Out?
Bar-b-cue can be a messy enterprise. Some folks would rather chow down on a messy rack of ribs in a loose pair of old, worn pants and a t-shirt that’s seen better days. Good thing, then, that most great bar-b-cue joints will ship via overnight delivery, allowing you to indulge your most scandalous bar-b-cue cravings behind closed doors.
Aspiring pit bosses may want to try their own hands at this time-honored tradition. Well — they can! Many of the most famous Texas bar-b-cue joints have bottled their sauces and rubs to give home-based chefs a chance to approximate (but not quite duplicate) their unique flavors. When generously applied to a good cut of brisket or pork tenderloin and allowed to roast slowly in a smoker or low oven, you’ll be licking your plate and lookin’ for another piece of bread to sop up the juices.
- Rudy’s — Buy Rudy’s rub and the “sause,” either Sissy or Original, online. You can also purchase the turkey breast, ribs and brisket and have it shipped 2-day air if you decide you don’t want to cook.
- Salt Lick — Buy sauce, salsa and rub online, as well as racks of ribs (beef or pork), sausage and brisket. They also offer a large gift box of everything for a special event.
- Stubb’s — Available in grocery stores around Central Texas, there are several flavors of sauce to choose from. Of course, the best things you can buy from Stubb’s (other than a rack of ribs) are concert tickets, also available on their web site.
- Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que — Brisket, sausage, pork chops and chicken are available on their web site, along with their sauces, seasonings and gift boxes.
- Southside — Famous for their Elgin Hot Sausage, they’ll send you sauce, meats and seasonings from their online store. Or, you can pick up what you need at your local H-E-B, Walmart or Randalls.
- Ironworks — Get some sauces and rubs, or just go ahead and order the brisket, sausage, ribs, turkey or some of their award-winning chili. All are available online.