There’s no such thing as a Texas-style barbecue sauce, no matter how often the corporate condiment marketing teams try to convince us otherwise. The red sauces of Kansas City are sweet and thick. The barbecue dips in Owensboro, Kentucky, are as dark as crude oil. And in North Carolina, the vinegar sauce comes with or without a squirt of ketchup, depending on which side you’re on. But Texas doesn’t have a signature barbecue sauce. Sure, you might find tomatoes (or more likely ketchup) used most often as a sauce base here, and adding a bit of chili powder or cumin can provide a flavor that evokes generic Texasness, but there’s no consensus.
La Barbecue in Austin recently teased a Sunday-only special of spicy smoked garlic sauce to go with its smoked half chickens (and I could have used it on the wings I grilled last night). I picked up a whole ham from Helberg Barbecue outside Waco last month and was given the option for one of three sauces on the side. I picked the white sauce because I was curious about how the joint interpreted the polarizing sauce that originated in northern Alabama. The smoked ham was excellent, but the sauce was too thick for me (I didn’t use the sauce on the ham), but it was more evidence of the variety of sauces you can find around the state.
That taste of white sauce got me wondering about what kind of unusual Texas barbecue sauces I could find for a taste-off at home. After searching for barbecue joints and sauce makers that shipped their products, I settled on eight sauces, none of which resembled the average sweet and thick bottled barbecue sauces found at the grocery store. All but one are made in Texas—I included an option from Lewis Barbecue in South Carolina because owner John Lewis is a Texas native whose love of Hatch green chiles came from his time in El Paso. I also really wanted another bottle of that sauce.
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Here’s the lineup of sauces, with first three ingredients in parentheses:
Boerne Brand Texas Style Red Sauce: Back in the early days of Central Texas barbecue, when meat markets sold smoked meats as a side business, the only sauce you’d find was bottled hot sauce on the store shelves. The tradition is carried on at places like Kreuz Market and Smitty’s in Lockhart, and Southside Market in Elgin. They still have bottles of hot sauce available for shaking onto your barbecue. This naturally fermented hot sauce is a new one out of Boerne that ramps up the proportion of peppers to vinegar, so it goes on thicker than expected. (Vinegar, Chiles, Salt)
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que BBQ Sauce: When the meat cutter at Cooper’s asks if you want your barbecue dipped, this is what they’ll dip it in. It’s a watery, thin sauce, with vinegar being the dominant flavor. It acts more like a mop sauce than one you’d pour on a chopped brisket sandwich. (Ketchup, Water, Vinegar)
LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue Beet BBQ Sauce: They do everything a little different at this Austin barbecue truck. The standard sandwich topping is kimchi and this sauce. Beets are the sixth ingredient, so their glowing red hue is more prevalent than their flavor. Instead, the coarse black pepper really dominates along with an almost floral mix of other spices. (Ketchup, Mustard, Worcestershire Sauce)
Lewis Barbecue Hatch Green Chile Barbecue Sauce: John Lewis didn’t just want to add green chiles to a tomato-based barbecue sauce; he wanted to build one around the famous New Mexico chiles. It’s a thin and sweet sauce with a kick from green chiles that’s not overpowering, so it doesn’t act like a hot sauce or a salsa. It might just be the world’s only green barbecue sauce. (Brown Sugar, Canola Oil, Hatch Green Chiles)
Luling City Market Barbecue Sauce: This Houston joint opened with Roy Jeffrey as the pitmaster in 1981. He was hired away from City Market in Luling, and he brought the famous sauce recipe with him. Regardless of which joint it’s from, this mix of ketchup and mustard (don’t let them tell you Texans don’t use mustard in their barbecue sauce) is one of my favorites, but City Market in Luling doesn’t ship its sauce. Houston’s Luling City Market offers shipping, but only by phone order. (Ketchup, Prepared Mustard, Sugar)
Salt Lick BBQ Original Bar-B-Que Sauce: This sauce is famous for being different, and it’s so beloved it’s easy to forget how strange it is. The ingredients read more like a bottled salad dressing, and it comes out pretty thick and almost orange. It’s one of those sauces that is universal. I love it just as much on a Salt Lick beef rib as I do on a raw carrot, or just about anything else. (Soybean Oil, Sugar, Distilled Vinegar)
Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q Clucker Sauce: Six years ago we raved about the Mother Clucker sandwich at Stanley’s. Since then, they’ve bottled the spicy sauce that’s poured over top, which is available for shipping or at Kroger stores. Both the bottle and the sauce look a lot like the Salt Lick sauce, but it’s much less sweet and far more spicy. (Canola Oil, Water, Vinegar)
The Jank Goodness: The Original Jank sauce, made in Weslaco, is as thick, dark, and sweet as molasses, so I was surprised to find Jank’s new sauce went to the other end of the spectrum. I must admit my skepticism when I saw it was diabetic-friendly and keto-friendly because it has no added sugar, but I ordered it anyway. I don’t have much to compare it with in the category, but it’s a really enjoyable barbecue sauce that is anything but bland. (Water, Tomato Paste, Vinegar)
To taste each one, I filled the grill with chicken wings and sausage for my family. My wife isn’t much of a barbecue sauce fan, so my daughter, my son, and I tried each one on its own, as a sausage dip and brushed onto wings as they finished grilling. The thinner sauces were great for slices of sausage, especially if you still wanted to taste the sausage. Favorites were the medium-bodied Luling City Market sauce, the Hatch green chile sauce from Lewis Barbecue, and the Boerne hot sauce.
The Boerne hot sauce and the Cooper’s sauce complemented the wings as well, but required an extra dip post-grilling for the flavor of the sauce to really come through. Lewis Barbecue’s sauce provided good browning on the wings from all that brown sugar and seemed to heighten the flavor of the chicken better than any other. The punch of flavor from the Jank Goodness sauce was welcome on the wings, but the low-sugar sauce didn’t allow for much browning. Sauces from City Market, Salt Lick, and LeRoy and Lewis were all great on chicken, but their bold flavors dominated. Not surprisingly, the Clucker sauce was perfect for grilled chicken. The oil in the sauce seemed to shed off the chicken as it cooked, leaving behind the sweetness and the spices.
Straight out of the bottle, we all agreed that the Luling City Market sauce is hard to beat, and it was good on everything else too. Overall, the kids really enjoyed the Goodness, while I preferred the spiciness of the Clucker and Lewis Barbecue sauces. I also confirmed my love of the Salt Lick sauce, and thanks to the pleasing heat and viscosity of the Boerne Brand, I may have found a new regular hot sauce for the pantry.