Top Fifty

(alphabetical, by city)

May 2003By , , , , , , , , and Comments

Unless otherwise noted, all places take credit cards.

ABILENE: Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q We didn’t catch pitmaster Harold Christian singing gospel songs to his customers, but we’re told that isn’t an unusual occurrence. This cozy little room, packed with nine picnic tables, seven booths, and a congregation of athletic trophies, is where Abilene gets its primo meat, smoked for twelve to fourteen hours over oak in a fifty-year-old box pit: brisket, pork ribs, chicken (on Fridays), turkey breast, German pork-and-beef sausage, and ham. A thin, spicy sauce is poured over the meat, which we usually don’t like, but it just lightly seasons the brisket, which was all fall-apart tender. Specialties include hot-water jalapeño cornbread and blackberry cobbler that made us weak in the knees. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. 1305 Walnut, 915-672-4451. Open Mon, Tue, Thur & Fri 11-6:30, Wed till 2, Sat till 5. Katy Vine

AMARILLO: Beans N Things The plastic cow still stands guard on the roof of Shirley and Lawrence Bagley’s order-at-the-counter restaurant, with its knotty pine walls and lunchroom tables. At three-thirty in the afternoon, the hickory-smoked brisket and mesquite-smoked ribs had gotten a little dry and “shreddy” but were redeemed by honest flavor. The sausage was commercial, but the same was not true of the puckery-sweet coleslaw with a hint of tarragon vinegar or the eight-hour-cooked pinto beans. Take your pick of mild or spicy sauce, both opaque and on the thick side. Besides barbecue, the kitchen turns out a range of homey dishes, including breakfast burritos, fajitas, and Frito pie. Brisket plate $5.99. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 1700 Amarillo Boulevard East, 806-373-7383. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8:30-6:30. Patricia Sharpe

AUSTIN: BBQ World Headquarters Why this place hasn’t developed a huge following is a mystery, because in its six years of existence, it has quickly worked its way up the barbecue ladder in Austin. One reason is the quality of the brisket: Certified Angus beef. It’s slightly fattier than some but marvelously tasty and tender. The pork roast is not just picnic-quality but good enough for Sunday dinner. Pork ribs, baby back ribs, chicken, and (unfortunately salty) pork sausage from Mike’s Barnyard in Liberty Hill round out the meat menu, and everything is smoked over oak. The borracho beans bristle with bits of pork and sausage; the creamy coleslaw has character and crunch. You can eat inside the little corrugated-metal-and-cinder-block building, with its cheery red and blue vinyl tablecloths, or sit at a picnic table outside on the asphalt. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4. 6701 Burnet Road, 512-323-9112. Open Mon-Sat 11-4. PS

AUSTIN: John Mueller’s BBQ In 2001 John Mueller left the family business in Taylor—the famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, which was started by his grandfather—to open up his own place in East Austin, where he has quickly risen to the top of the local ‘cue heap. The bare-bones cinder-block building with a frame-house annex out back radiates blue-collar, duct-tape funk despite the parade of athletes (Ben Crenshaw, Major Applewhite), legislators (Mueller did a catering gig for Speaker Tom Craddick this spring), and other celebs coming through the screen door. And the oak-smoked meat tastes right. Mueller is usually at the counter, ready to slice it to order and serve it on a butcher-paper-lined tray. Just be sure to stipulate lean or fatty on the brisket (we’re fools for the latter). The pork ribs, pork chops, smoked T-bones, and prime rib rock too. The all-beef sausage, made according to John’s own recipe, comes from the Taylor Meat Company. Choose from two sauces at the condiment table—the runny, peppery kind that Louie Mueller’s is famous for or a thick, sweet one that will appeal to the Salt Lick and County Line crowd. Brisket plate $7.95. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1917 Manor Road, 512-236-0283. Open Mon-Fri 10-8, Sat till 6. Joe Nick Patoski

BELTON: Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que There’s something about a pit. At Schoepf’s, the cooking pits (where they smoke the brisket over mesquite coals for half a day) are out back and the serving pit is on the patio; you go there first and pick out your ribs, chicken, brisket, or—yum—pork chops, then take them inside to get your sides. The meat is sold by the pound and is so moist and smoky you don’t need sauce, though it’s dished out on the side—vinegar based and peppery—if you want it for occasional dipping. Afterward, Schoepf’s is a fine place to linger, sitting at your picnic table and watching the locals doing the same thing. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 702 E. Central Avenue, 254-939-1151. Open Mon- Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun 11-3. Michael Hall

BRADY: Lone Star Bar-B-Q Spare but spacious, with basic Hill Country hunters’ decor, Lone Star offers exemplary brisket and thick, flavorful pork chops with a light salt-and-pepper rub, cooked Llano-style over mesquite. The pork ribs are fatty but tasty; the sausage is so-so. The tart, pale-red vinegar sauce far surpasses its sticky-sweet companion. Good sides. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2010 S. Bridge, 915-597-1936. Open daily 11-9. John Morthland

BURNET: Burnet County Barbeque The counter sits at one end of this stone roadhouse and the smallish dining area at the other, with a wood-burning stove for wintertime warmth. Mesquite-cooked brisket (up to eighteen hours in a pig-iron pit) and substantial pork ribs exude smokiness and powerful flavor, as does beef sausage from Elgin; the thick tomatoey sauce does the meat justice. The fruity, almost nutty slaw has a hint of celery seed, the beans are fortified with jalapeños, and the potato salad is mustardy and quite chunky. Several kinds of scrumptious pies (dense pecan, puddinglike chocolate, and more) are baked by a local woman. Brisket plate $6.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 616 Buchanan Drive (Texas Highway 29), 512-756-6468. Open Sun & Wed-Thur 11-6, Fri & Sat till 7. Checks accepted, no credit cards. JM

CANADIAN: Cattle Exchange Patrons who come for ‘cue benefit from this Panhandle restaurant’s dual status as a steakhouse. The 1910 building has been beautifully restored, and the amenities include, believe it or not, cloth napkins. Smoked over mesquite, the brisket is tender and reasonably moist, the sausage full of flavor, the ham better than most. Two sauces—the spicy, snappy “original” and a milder “sweet”—allow for custom seasoning. Although the potato salad is a tad timid and mayonnaisey, the beans, cooked with tomato, green chile, onion, and bacon, would be hard to improve upon. The whiskey-sauce-drenched sourdough-bread pudding may make you woozy. Brisket plate $8.99. Rating: 4. Second and Main, 806-323-6755. Open Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri & Sat till 10. PS

CONROE: McKenzie’s Barbeque The strip-mall location didn’t bode well, but once we got a whiff of the oak burning in the pit, we knew this place was serious about its barbecue. The brisket is well executed, and the meaty pork ribs kept us gnawing and licking our chops long after we should have stopped. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the thick, A-1-ish sauce—the excellent meat can stand on its own. The McKenzies are yet another Texas family with barbecue in their DNA: Darin McKenzie runs things in Conroe; his brother, Kevin, runs the original McKenzie’s, in Huntsville; and their sister, Shannon, owns a Bodacious outpost in Longview. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1501 N. Frazier, 936-539-4300. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-8. Eileen Schwartz

CORPUS CHRISTI: Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant What is success? Not having to work on the weekend. So don’t expect to find Malcolm DeShields here on Saturday or Sunday (the original Bar-B-Q Man, DeShields’ father, M.O., kept the same sweet hours). The place does plenty of business during the week with refinery workers and white-collar types. They come for DeShields’ huge portions of mesquite-smoked Certified Angus brisket and spare ribs and a bronze-hued house sauce that bites back. An off-putting chain-link fence surrounds the property, but inside it you’ll find the Bar-B-Q Man’s spacious dining rooms and a patio with pool tables, a dance floor, and a bar. Service is cafeteria-style. Brisket plate $8.95. Beer and wine. Rating: 4. 4931 I-37 South, 361-888-4248 or 888-4296. Open Mon-Fri 11-8. JNP

DALLAS: Baker’s Ribs A sweet, spicy, gooey glaze puts the finishing touch on melt-in-your-mouth hickory-smoked pork ribs, and the lean, thick-cut brisket (cooked for twelve to fifteen hours) and zingy beef sausage are almost addictive. The pork loin is more flavorful than most, and the chicken breast has a smoky surface and a juicy white interior, but the ham, turkey, and sauces are humdrum. Standout sides include potato salad heavy on the dill, creamy slaw with celery seeds, brisk marinated-tomato salad, and jalapeño-spiked black-bean-and-corn relish. Though larger than Baker’s Commerce Street flagship, this outlet is just as good. Brisket plate $7.25. Beer. Rating: 4. 4844 Greenville Avenue, 214-373-0082. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-8. JM

DALLAS: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Now the flagship of a chain that gets justifiably mixed reviews, the original Sonny B’s can itself be erratic. But when the ancient, custom-built pit (stoked with hickory) is producing up to snuff, the burnt-crust brisket is almost, but not quite, falling-apart tender, and the pork ribs are almost, but not quite, falling-off-the-bone tender; the former dazzles on sandwiches. Ignore the other meats and the sides, except for the whopping golden-brown onion rings. The thick, sweet sauce is marginal. Customers still eat at one of about twenty cramped school desks or outside in (and on) their cars. Brisket plate $6.99. Beer. Rating: 4. 2202 Inwood Road, 214-357-7120 (other Metroplex locations). Open Sun-Fri 10-4, Sat till 3. JM

EAGLE LAKE: Austin’s BBQ and Catering You have to fight for one of the two picnic tables out front or sit on your car hood if you want to eat at Ron and Denice Janow’s converted gas station, where the old garage bays are filled with smoke from two portable cast-iron pits. Meat is serious business here in hunting country, and this is some of the most serious barbecued meat in Texas—outstanding brisket meant to be eaten with your fingers, five-star boneless pork, and pork ribs with a tantalizing pecan flavor and a peppery kick. Save room for the buttered potatoes and the usual sides, as well as banana pudding, coconut pie, and 7-UP cake. This place is definitely worth the thirteen-mile detour off Interstate 10. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 507 E. Main, 979-234-5250 or 800-256-0166. Open Thur-Sat 8-6. JNP

EAST BERNARD: Vincek’s Smokehouse The tan brick exterior is plain and institutional, but inside, Vincek’s exudes a sense of place, from the “Jak Se Más” (“How Are You?”) Czech welcome on the menu board at the end of the long meat counter and the homemade bread, kolaches, and tea rings in the bakery case to the local polka CDs for sale and the posters advertising the Triumphs playing Riverside Hall. Even the sweet abuela who cut our order spoke with a slight Czech accent. The pecan-smoked brisket was first-rate, with a salty bite and the obligatory red ring, and the ribs were exceptionally meaty, but it was the spicy, coarsely ground sausage that hit the spot. Choose between the too-sweet house sauce and a runny, vinegar-based type. Sides include Spanish rice and coleslaw with a pucker-inducing tang. Brisket plate $5.75. Beer. Rating: 4. Texas Highway 60 and U.S. 90A, 979-335-7921 or 800-844-MEAT. Open Tue-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3. JNP

ELGIN: Crosstown B-B-Q This unassuming little operation, with its bare plywood walls and minimal decor, was packed with folks when we visited, including what must have been the entire Elgin High School baseball team. We liked its lean, subtly spiced sausage more than any other local links we sampled. The oak-smoked brisket and chicken were moist, and the peppery ribs meaty and tender. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 3.5. 202 S. Avenue C, 512-281-5594. Open Sun-Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. ES

EL PASO: Chris’s the Brisket BBQ The beef rib is still king in El Paso, but unlike other ‘cue joints way out west, where the ribs come like snow cones (they taste like whatever syrup is poured on top), these ribs have no marinade. Instead, a simple salt-cayenne-and-black-pepper rub allows the ribs to taste like ribs: tender, rich, never stringy. Pit boss Chris Ivey treats the rest of his meat with the same care, producing a shiny black crust over a thin red ribbon on the brisket and a crunchy black skin on the sausage, all smoked over pecan. Ivey says his secret is never to leave the meat and the fire unattended, and he gets to his pits each morning at three o’clock. The early start allows him to make potato salad, chili beans, and coleslaw fresh each day and also whip up several cakes for dessert. His sauce is intentionally bland, and so is the restaurant’s interior. The only decoration was a tableful of slow-pitch-softball trophies and a Christmas tree, which was still up in April, festooned with yellow ribbons in support of the troops. Brisket plate $6.50. Rating: 4. 11420 Rojas, 915-595-0114. Open Mon-Fri 11-3. John Spong

EVERMAN: Longoria’s BBQ Using a custom-made oak-fueled, vertical-barrel steel pit, Fidencio “Fred” Longoria and his sons, Danny and David, turn out just-right barbecued chicken and succulent brisket and pork ribs that could use a pinch more smokiness. But the real star at this small, neighborly place is the astonishingly unfatty beef sausage: The Longorias make it by grinding their own brisket, which they also use in their sublime smoked burgers (that’s the way everyone in Everman cooks ‘em). Among other sides, the mustard potato salad is chunky and the ranch beans are seasoned with cumin and other Tex-Mex spices. The thin, brown sauce balances sweet with tart. The top desserts are banana-nut bread and carrot cake made by Kathy Williamson, the wife of employee Cliff Williamson. Brisket plate $4.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 100 Christopher, 817-568-9494. Open Tue-Sat 11-7. JM

FORT WORTH Angelo’s These brick pits still turn out the best brisket in Cowtown—hickory-smoked, fatty but not too, fork-tender but holding together, with a militantly beefy aroma. The pork ribs, seasoned with a dry rub, are black on the outside and pink at the bone, while the chicken squirts juices when its crusty skin is penetrated. The tomatoey sauce is thin and slightly sassy; the slaw, potato salad, and beans are standard. A combination hunting lodge, Western saloon, and cavernous warehouse, Angelo’s is famous for frosty beer in eighteen-ounce schooners. Brisket plate $8.50. Beer. Rating: 4. 2533 White Settlement Road, 817-332-0357. Open Mon—Sat 11—10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. JM

FORT WORTH Railhead Smokehouse Though the bright, upscale bunkhouse atmosphere fails to inspire, it’s hard to find much else to complain about at this popular, depot-size place launched some sixteen years ago. Smoky, mouthwatering brisket is cooked over hickory for so long it resembles Mexican shredded beef, and the ribs, though small, are state of the art and low on fat. The sausage is a judicious mix of beef and pork, and the moist chicken goes down easy. Barbecued bologna and salami are an acquired taste worth acquiring now and then. Thick red sauce, above-average sides. Brisket plate $7.75. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 2900 Montgomery, 817-738-9808. Open Mon—Sat 11—9. JM

FREDERICKSBURG Ken Hall and Co. Texas Barbecue The former Houston Oiler’s mesquite-smoked brisket was uncharacteristically leathery on one visit, but small pork ribs, heavily charred on the outside and pink on the inside, and a spicy, moderately fatty pork-and-beef sausage made up for it. The traditional sides are a much better choice than the bland green beans, corn, and the like. Utilitarian but comfy, the room is decorated with cowboy gear and sports memorabilia. Brisket plate $8.19. Beer. Rating: 4. 1679 S. U.S. 87, 830-997-2353. Open Wed—Sun 11—2. Checks accepted, no credit cards. JM

GLEN ROSE Ranchhouse Barbecue This place was recommended by a local, who declared that he expected his brisket to fall apart “just by my lookin’ at it.” That didn’t quite happen when we visited, but the small, meaty ribs and peppery hot links were well worth the drive. (The smoked bologna, served in a half-moon chunk, is the tofu of barbecue, in our opinion.) For dessert, the hot buttermilk pie, with its perfectly browned top and thin, crispy crust, almost beat out the foamy banana pudding and the homemade peach cobbler—but not quite. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 1408 N.E. Big Bend Trail, 254-897-3441. Open Wed & Thur 11—8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun till 5. Checks accepted, no credit cards. KV

HASLET Lee’s Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Q This small, cafeteria-style eatery has a hickory-stoked rotisserie cooker, which produces a less-smoky flavor than traditional pits, but the firm brisket yields easily to a fork, the rib meat pulls effortlessly from the bone, and the well-charred pork loin is pink inside. Pork-and-beef sausage, beef hot links, and chicken are also satisfying. The thin sauce, darkened by soy and Worcestershire, has a gentle kick. Sides include creamy slaw, canned (but customized) pinto beans, and hot veggies like steamed cabbage and corn on the cob. Brisket plate $7.80. BYOB. Rating: 4. 103 Schoolhouse Road, 817-439-5337. Open Mon—Sat 11—8 (closed third Saturday of each month). JM

HENDERSON Bob’s Bar-B-Que Bob’s operation epitomizes time-motion efficiency. You step up to the counter in the immaculate cinder-block building. Your order is taken; you pay and step back, joining the other customers patiently waiting. Bob Allen himself is slicing the brisket, smoked over hickory, its flavor a testament to the adjective “sweet” often applied to that wood; notably lean, the meat can be a tad dry. Bob’s sons, Michael and Mitchell, are cutting the beautiful, meaty little ribs. Bob’s wife, Billie, makes sure things run right. The mashed-style potato salad is seasoned with a dash of mustard; the beans are sweet, as they often are in East Texas. Folks order to go or tear into their lunch at four picnic tables under a small outdoor pavilion. Brisket plate about $7. Rating: 4. 1205 Pope, 903-657-8301. Open Tue—Sat 10—7. PS

HOLLAND Jackson’s Smokehouse Sitting by the side of Texas Highway 95 in the tiny town of Holland in Bell County, the Smokehouse feels more like a roadhouse from the forties: concrete floor, aged counter, picnic tables with tablecloths. Claude Jackson, who was born and raised around here, cooks his meat in one of the three pits out back. The brisket is moist and yields to the touch of a fork, and the pork ribs fall from the bone; the sauce is sweet and vinegary. We wish he put a little effort into the potato salad and the beans. The Smokehouse gets pretty busy at lunch, but while you wait you can sit and watch the cars roll north and south on the highway or check out the train sets for sale. Brisket plate $5.95. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 301 N. Franklin (Texas Highway 95), 254-657-7107. Open Thur—Sun 11—8. Local checks accepted, no credit cards. MH

HOUSTON Goode Company Texas Bar-B-Q Jim Goode outfitted this piece of his Texas cuisine empire with all the right elements 31 years ago, from the big barn exterior to the giant pit cookers out back and the Texana on the walls. Despite the massive volume of traffic, the place turns out surprisingly consistent, high-quality mesquite-smoked fare. The choice of cowboy-style meats includes jalapeño sausage, duck, turkey, and ham. Pork butt, which is typically “pulled” Memphis style when it’s done in these parts, is smoked here and finished with a red ring, like Texas-style brisket. The sauce could use some more market research. Jalapeño-cheese bread and Brazos Bottom pecan pie are house specialties. Brisket plate $7.65. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 5109 Kirby Drive, 713-522-2530; second location at 8911 Katy Freeway (I-10), 713-464-1901. Open daily 11—10. JNP

HOUSTON Thelma’s Bar-B-Que This three-year-old eatery in a Third Ward industrial ’hood occupies a sagging frame house that looks as if it’s been around since the Allen Brothers did their first land flip. At lunchtime, downtown workers enter through the screened porch, sidestepping the broken-down couch, for melt-in-your-mouth pecan-and-hickory-smoked fatty-brisket sandwiches and soul-food sides like okra and mashed sweet potatoes. There’s even catfish. But the real attraction is the place and the gracious Thelma Williams herself, who cruises the tables to check on how her fare is going over, addressing diners as “love,” “brother,” or “sister” while “Honky Tonk,” by Bill Doggett, “I Pity the Fool,” by Bobby Blue Bland, and a whole lot of Johnnie Taylor blare over the juke. Just be sure to get there before the brisket runs out. Brisket plate $6.75. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1020 Live Oak, 713-228-2262. Open Mon—Thur 11—7, Fri & Sat till 10, Sun till 5. JNP

HOUSTON Williams Smokehouse This little redwood cabin on the edge of the piney woods on the north side of town is a picturesque setting for enjoying country-style African American barbecue: meat that is smoked until it is falling-off-the-bones tender, usually served smothered in sauce. The firebox of the pit has been stoked since before dawn, and the brisket and ribs have been smoking over oak “a good little while,” reckons the young man overseeing the cooking. The proof’s inside. Instead of a sliced-beef sandwich, pay a few cents more ($3.19) for the chopped version. The bun is stuffed with big chunks of brisket swimming in a sweet but decidedly kicky sauce. It’s classic soul barbecue, only with more fire than usual and easily the equal of the vaunted Thelma’s (above). Otherwise, opt for a mess of ribs and take advantage of that bowl of thin, tangy sauce, because these bones, firm and well rubbed, are made for dipping. The sliced brisket is almost as righteous. Brisket plate $5.50. Rating: 4.5. 5903 Wheatley, 713-680-8409. Open Tue—Thur 11—7, Fri & Sat till 9. Cash only. JNP

KINGSVILLE CB’s Bar-B-Que The fifteen-table layout under the geodesic dome isn’t much to look at, but the barbecue more than compensates for the austere setting. Owner Jerry Wayne Miller, a.k.a. CB (short for Christian Brother’s), started smoking meats for social gatherings at the Peaceful Holiness Church, where he still preaches on Sundays. When the compliments from his flock kept coming, he decided to go secular. Now the whole town is getting religion over his mesquite-smoked brisket, ribs, chicken, and V&V sausage from Flatonia, all of which pack a wallop of woodsy flavor and black-pepper fire. The sauce in squeeze bottles has plenty of zing too. Heck, there’s even a hint of spice in the stellar sweet-potato pie that Miller’s wife, Cynthia, bakes, along with peach cobbler and bread pudding. Brisket plate $7.25. Rating: 4.5. 728 N. Fourteenth, 361-516-1688. Open Mon—Thur 11—8, Fri & Sat till 9. JNP

KIRBYVILLE Lazy H Smokehouse In a little log cabin on the side of the highway, amid the antique farm tools and clutter, we found 68-year-old Velma Willett running the show, as she has for almost thirty years. “Here, try this,” she commanded, handing us a piece of luscious hot ham. “It just came out of the smokehouse.” Willett slow-cooks everything there rather than over a fire in a pit. The result is amazing brisket—moist, tender, and smoky, with a perfect thin pink ribbon. The large, slightly sweet pork ribs are almost fat-free, and the sausage, made with only pure shoulder pork and no preservatives, is superlative. The homemade vinegary sauce is the perfect condiment—neither sweet nor thick, so it doesn’t mask the meat’s smokiness—and the thick, lean beef jerky is the best we’ve ever had (worth its $22-a-pound price tag). Brisket plate $5.85. Rating: 4.5. U.S. 96, six miles south of town; 409-423-3309. Open daily 10—8. ES

LILLIAN Casstevens Cash & Carry We didn’t believe that a Diamond Shamrock station could have such great food, yet there it was, just across from the batteries and the baskets of fresh farm produce. There’s only one little table, so don’t expect to sit inside while you enjoy 79-year-old Harold “Cass” Casstevens’ mesquite-smoked meats: tender brisket in thick slices, pork ribs, turkey breast, hot links, Eckridge skinless beef sausage, ham, and bologna. Casstevens rubs garlic, salt, and pepper on the meat and then lets it smoke and blacken for fourteen to eighteen hours in two gigantic old propane tanks in front of the station. Sometimes peach cobbler is offered (hot, with ice cream) but, wouldn’t you know, not the day we visited. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. FM 197, 817-790-2545. Open Mon—Sat 4:30 a.m.—8 p.m. KV

LLANO Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q The first time we did this story, in 1997, Cooper’s was one of our shining stars. The place is a “barbecue fanatic’s dream landscape,” we wrote; “the brisket fairly explodes with . . . flavor. . . . Everything else is fabulous too.” But these days, friends, there’s trouble in paradise. How so? Cooper’s has fallen victim to its own fame. At lunchtime the parking lot is a sea of pickups, minivans, and sedans and people are lined up practically around the block, waiting patiently for their chance to personally point to their selection of sirloin, mammoth pork chops, pork-and-beef sausage, chicken, goat, beef ribs, and more from the battalion of mesquite-stoked black pits. What this means is that, yes, Cooper’s can be glorious—the brisket, for one, is pretty much foolproof. But it can also produce a pork chop so oversalted and dried out it’s like an old catcher’s mitt or a steak so undercooked it’s still cold in the center—which leaves you feeling pretty burned if you were counting on this citadel of barbecue to make the earth move. We argued and debated—six years ago Cooper’s in Llano was one of our Big Three. This time we’re barely letting it into the top fifty. Is anybody minding the pit? Brisket plate about $5 (if the free beans are one of your sides). Beer. Rating: 3.5. 604 W. Young (Texas Highway 29), 915-247-5713. Open Sun—Thur 10:30—8, Fri & Sat till 9. JNP

LOCKHART Kreuz Market (See “The Best of the Best”)

LOCKHART Smitty’s Market  (See “The Best of the Best”)

LUBBOCK Whistlin’ Dixie A New Orleans-style restaurant in the middle of the High Plains of Texas? Well, why not? Just because it has white wrought-iron trappings, photographs of old-time jazz musicians, and fake ivy doesn’t mean Whistlin’ Dixie can’t do decent barbecue. Big piles of oak logs out front attest to the popularity of the meat that comes from smokemaster Jesse Castañeda’s pit. In keeping with the Old South shtick, pulled pork (average quality) is offered. But the two best things to get are the baby back ribs basted with homemade honey sauce and the so-called burnt ends, which are not charred at all but more like big chunks of well-cooked fatty brisket. Table service. Brisket plate $5.49. Beer and wine. Rating: 3.5. 3502 Slide Road, 806-795-9750. Open Mon—Fri 11—9:30, Sat & Sun till 10:30. PS

LUFKIN Stringer’s Lufkin Bar-B-Que No mere joint, Stringer’s is a big restaurant with waiters, real plates, and a nod to Western decor, even though it’s deep in the heart of East Texas. Its brisket, quite lean and moist enough, has a handsome maroon smoke ring and blackened edges that bespeak serious time in the pit. The large, meaty pork ribs boast a hickory tang and almost taste like bacon. Don’t bother with the sausage, which tastes commercial, as do the opaque, thick sauce and the sides (the pork and beans are fine, but the drippy coleslaw appears to have been run through a paper shredder). The sinful fried yeast rolls are another matter altogether. Brisket plate $7.10. Rating: 3.5. 203 S. Chestnut, 936-634-4744. Open Mon—Sat 8 a.m.—9 p.m. PS

LULING City Market (See “The Best of the Best”)

LULING Luling Bar-B-Que One reason Luling’s City Market is so consistently good is the competition a block away. Luling Bar-B-Que has been here for years, but it really started cooking in December 2002, when Ed and Lee Chambers, who used to run the Chambers Meat Market a few blocks west, took it over. On our last visit, they were doing a great job with their brisket: moist, packing a strong oak flavor, and tender enough to pull apart with a fork (or your fingers). The homemade beef sausage had a definite zing, as did the peppery red sauce. Unremarkable sides, though. Brisket plate $4.99. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 709 E. Davis, 830-875-3848. Open Wed—Mon 7—6. JNP

MASON Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q (See “The Best of the Best”)

MIDLAND Sam’s Bar-B-Q Owner-operator-pit boss Lee Hammond, 64, keeps things simple and in the family within the lime-green cinder-block walls of Sam’s. He still makes the same sausage—80 percent beef and the rest bacon scraps—that was sold at his family’s Odessa deli seventy years ago, and it is perfect, smoky and moist. The brisket, smoked for seven to eight hours over a mesquite fire started each morning by Hammond’s uncle, gets a basic salt-pepper-and-garlic rub, as do the small pork ribs and chicken. They’re served covered in homemade sauce (tomato-based, with pinches of brown sugar and pepper and a squirt of fresh lemon juice) and carry the slightest bite when the sweetness fades. Hammond makes sure the beans get the right amount of salt jowl and the potato salad gets the right mixture of mayonnaise and mustard. His 84-year-old mother, Myrtle, bakes the sticky-sweet cobblers. Brisket plate $6.75. Beer. Rating: 4. 1113 Scharbauer, 915-570-1082. Open Mon—Sat 11—9, Sun noon—7. JS

PLEASANTON McBee’s The exterior is Western (wood beams, hitching posts, metal wagon wheels), while the interior calls to mind a no-frills hunting lodge (deer heads, family photographs, and posters on the walls). It all adds up to a perfect setting for Robert and Lucy McBee’s peppery mesquite-smoked ’cue. They developed their style in Brady, where he was the county extension agent, and have passed on their knowledge to pit boss Fausto Rodriguez, who has been with them for eighteen of the twenty years they’ve owned this place. Crusty red rings circle thick slices of moist brisket. The stubby pork ribs are tender and delicious (although the meat doesn’t fall off the bone), and the flavorful smoked pork chops surpass even the ribs. The sausage, from Pollok’s in Falls City, holds its own against the other smoked meats (including fajitas). The usual sides are offered, plus chunks of cheese and, for dessert, peach cobbler and cake. The McBees’ sons run the McBee’s in Jourdanton, but the McBee’s locations in Hondo and New Braunfels are unaffiliated. All-you-can-eat pork ribs $5.25 on Fridays. Brisket plate $5.95. BYOB. Rating: 5. 309 Second, 830-569-2602. Open Tue—Thur & Sat 10—8, Fri till 9, Sun till 7. JNP

ROCKDALE No Teeth Bar-B-Que You can’t miss the handmade signs in front of Wallace Brandyburg’s cozy, friendly place. The fourth-generation barbecuer has been cooking meat since he was young, and for the past five years he has been selling it too, first at a stand by the side of Texas Highway 79 and now at his restaurant. His brisket, which he cooks over mesquite coals for 16 to 24 hours, is good and smoky, and he gives you a choice of lean, fatty, or in between; his ribs are thick and pink. He dishes out his homemade habanero-jalapeño-and-cayenne hot sauce by the drop; mix it carefully with his honey-sweetened barbecue sauce (“It’s my granddaddy’s recipe, which was his granddaddy’s recipe”) for a singular yin-yang effect. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1012 W. Cameron Avenue, 512-446-7024. Open Sun—Thur 9 a.m.—10 p.m., Fri & Sat till 2 a.m. Checks accepted, no credit cards. MH

SAN ANGELO RJ Catering Started just a year and a half ago by Charles and JoAnna Thomas, this little cinder-block take-out place is already making the best barbecue in San Angelo. Order at the window and enjoy the Thomases’ smiling, snappy banter as you peer into their tiny kitchen. All the meat is prepped with a secret rub, then cooked over mesquite on a converted 250-gallon steel water tank. You can taste a little pepper on the brisket as it melts in your mouth, pull the pork rib meat cleanly from the bone with one bite, and feel the sausage’s smoky flavor fade into a spicy pop. The mustardy potato salad includes sweet green bell peppers. Dessert is either Charles’s peach cobbler or JoAnna’s lemon pound cake, depending on which of them woke up early enough to bake that day. Brisket plate $6.25. Rating: 4. 1516 Martin Luther King, 915-659-4422 or 374-4317. Open Tue—Thur 11—8, Fri till 10, Sat till 2:30. JS

SAN ANTONIO Bar-B-Q Patio When pitmaster and co-owner Maurice Kemp starts talking physics while explaining why he uses a particular blend of mesquite, oak, and pecan, and co-owner Michael Chad Verstuyft says his inspiration for Texas barbecue came from growing up in Oklahoma, red flags naturally go up. But when the brisket comes out, the flags go down: It’s so skillfully smoked it cuts with a fork. The spare ribs, chicken, turkey, hot links, and Polish sausage are equally serious. Sauce lovers can choose from two homemade versions: hot and hot-hot, the latter loaded with chile paste that will flame your nostrils. This four-table operation surrounded by a red corral fence is definitely a cut above the usual. Brisket plate $7. BYOB. Rating: 4. 8791 Old Pearsall Road (one block north of Loop 1604), 210-622-0660. Open daily 11—9. JNP

SWEETWATER Big Boy’s Bar-B-Que Things are definitely homemade at Big Boy’s: The kitchen is a twelve-by-twenty-foot utility building constructed in pit boss Gaylan Marth’s back yard and plunked down in a parking lot. The dining room is enclosed in sheets of plastic, with one long picnic table on a dirt floor and a swamp cooler to keep things comfy in the summertime. But the draw here is the pork ribs, called “Your Ribs” (lean spare ribs) or “My Ribs” (a country-style rib with a piece of pork butt the size of a New York strip steak left on). The latter, which are the color of a red velvet cake from the paprika in Marth’s rub, may be the best specialty item in the state. Marth grills directly over a mesquite fire in—what else?—homemade pits, and the results (moist brisket, pork sausage, and chicken in addition to the ribs) taste smoked, not smoky. Still, the biggest sellers are the concoctions made by his wife, Jane: the Big Boy’s Special (a chopped- or sliced-beef sandwich with homemade coleslaw on a sourdough bun) and heavenly cakes and pies. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2117 Lamar, 915-235-2700. Open Tue-Sat 11—8. Checks accepted, no credit cards. JS

TAYLOR Louie Mueller Barbecue (See “The Best of the Best”)

TYLER Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ Stanley himself has been off the scene for more than a decade, but new owner and pitmaster Chris Smith, who took over the nearly sixty-year-old joint in 2000, has revived the quality of its barbecue—all the usual suspects plus ham and turkey—and spruced up the atmosphere: It’s now a cross between a fifties diner and a rustic hunting lodge. Smith also tinkered with the tangy house sauce, but his thick slices of lean brisket (hickory-smoked for fourteen hours) and his juicy pork-and-beef sausage taste better left alone. If you visit at lunch, consider a sandwich called the Brother-in-Law: sausage, chopped beef, and cheese. Yes, cheese. You’ll wonder why it hasn’t been a barbecue staple forever. Brisket plate $8.75. BYOB. Rating: 4. 525 S. Beckham, 903-593-0311. Open Mon—Fri 11—8, Sat 10—7. Christopher Keyes

UVALDE Haby’s Hot Pit B-B-Q Not much has changed at this family-run restaurant since our last report. The mesquite-smoked brisket is still fall-apart tender; the pork ribs are meaty and moist, with a wonderful salty crust; the chicken is near perfection. Yeah, the sausage is commercial, but we rather like the sweetish links, especially soaked in the runny, tangy barbecue sauce, whose ingredients are known only to certain members of the Haby clan. Standard sides, all homemade. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 529 E. Main, 830-278-5746. Open Mon—Thur & Sat 11—7, Fri till 9. Jane Dure

VIDOR Burr’s Country Store Bar-B-Q Despite its proximity to I-10, this place has an authentic country vibe, helped along by the antique farm implements hanging on the outside of the building and the vintage album covers—from Hank Williams to Johnny Mathis—that decorate the walls inside. Meat cases display several varieties of hickory-, mesquite-, and oak-smoked sausage (we like the Creole version with bits of green onion) and uncooked chickens and pork chops stuffed with jambalaya. The smoky brisket all but melts in your mouth, the pork ribs are admirably lean, and the tangy sauce is the kind we like: not too sweet, not too thick, and not greasy. The usual sides plus tasty jambalaya. Brisket plate $6.75. Rating: 4. I-10 at FM 1132 (exit 864), 409-769-2309. Open Mon—Sat 8—7. ES

WACO Tony DeMaria’s Bar-B-Que You can’t judge a joint by its cover. On the outside, DeMaria’s is a bland, corrugated-metal building that looks like a place that sells farm machinery; on the inside, it’s all meat. Tony DeMaria started a meat market in the early thirties; his son, Tony Junior, started cooking barbecue in 1946 when the men building the new interstate nearby came in looking for lunch. Tony Junior’s son Geoffrey put up the new building eight years ago. The brisket, cooked over post-oak coals, is tender and pulls apart easily, and the hot links are thick and tasty. You get little cups of gravy, kind of like beef jus, to dip your bread and meat in. DeMaria’s is very relaxed, with all ages and colors sitting at bowed tables in mismatched metal chairs. Get there early on weekends—the staff usually runs out of meat by one o’clock and goes home. Brisket plate $5.59. Rating: 3.5. 1000 Elm, 254-755-8888. Open Mon—Fri 9—2, Sat till 1. MH

WINGATE The Shed You know the place has to be good, because it’s a mile down a back road in the middle of nowhere and yet on a Saturday the parking lot is half full by the five o’clock opening time. Hollis and Betty Dean started the Shed in 1989 on their family farm, which lies just behind the yellow building. Take your choice of the one-, two-, or three-meat plate (brisket, sausage, chicken, pork ribs, or—on request—ham). The daunting three-meat version provides three generous slices of mesquite-smoked brisket, six chunks of sausage, and two hefty pork ribs that are meaty and tender. The strong, slightly sweet flavor of mesquite mingles magnificently with the fusion sauce, a brown sweet-and-sour concoction with Asian influences; take a bottle home for $4. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.95. Beer (when you buy a membership in the Shed’s private club). Rating: 4.5. One mile north of town on Texas Highway 153, turn left on County Road 226 and go one mile; 915-743-2175. Open Fri 5—9, Sat noon—2 & 5—9:30, Sun 5—9:30. Paul Burka

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