Last Father’s Day, I spent the morning watching the men of Millheim Harmonie Verein Hall baste and flip barbecue on large open pits. There were beef clods, pork shoulders, and whole mutton. That last one is something you don’t often see on barbecue joint menus in Texas, whole or not, but back in the days before barbecue restaurants it was nearly as ubiquitous on the pit as beef and pork.
In 1860, a journalist in Corsicana for the Navarro Express wrote a brief report on barbecue cooked by W.A. Lockhart. They described a table that “was well supplied with fish, flesh and fowl. That barbecued mutton did not go begging, and the man who barbecued the meats is evidently master of the art.”
One reason mutton was more regularly featured at this community picnics of yore came down to convenience. Smoking whole pigs, goats, and sheep was more physically manageable than smoking an entire steer. It was only when meat markets—whose business model was to break down whole animals into smaller cuts—started serving barbecue that beef superseded lamb and mutton in Texas barbecue.
Because American menus feature these proteins less often, many people are confused about the difference between mutton and lamb. The former is meat from a sheep that is older than a year. Lamb is younger, usually slaughtered at less than six months old. (You might also see the term “hoggett,” which is used outside the US as a way to describe animals between one and two years old.) Lamb has a distinct flavor, but it’s still quite a bit milder than the much gamier mutton.
Just because mutton comes from an older animal doesn’t make the meat any lesser than lamb, but given its flavor, one many palates are unaccustomed to, it’s not served nearly as often. However, there are a few places that dedicate energy to illuminating people to meat in all of its glory. In Owensboro, Kentucky, there’s an entire barbecue style centered around mutton. Both Moonlite Bar-B-Q and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q cook the whole animal, and customers can order it chopped, sliced, or get the ribs. When I ordered it, the leaner sliced version was about all I could appreciate. The fatty ribs have the sort of gaminess you can taste at the back of your nasal passages, and the chopped is somewhere in between.
At many places in Texas, even when a restaurant says its serving mutton, they’re probably dishing out lamb. That’s the case at Southside Market in Elgin (and Bastrop), where the “mutton” is actually lamb ribs (technically lamb breast). Owner Bryan Bracewell says it’s to keep the old-timers who still order it happy. They come for mutton, so Southside gives them MINO—Mutton In Name Only. Even so, this smoked version is about the mildest version I found in Texas. If you’re new to smoked lamb, Southside is a great place to start.
The lamb ribs Southside buys is IMPS cut #209. When the sternum is removed this creates Denver-style ribs (cut #209A). This rib rack, which comes from the front part of the ribs, has at least seven bones.
A lamb brisket is that same cut but with the bones parted out. Even with the marketing capital that now comes with the word “brisket,” there’s only one restaurant in Texas where you can find the lamb variety: at Chef Tim Love’s Woodshed Smokehouse in Fort Worth. It’s heavily seasoned, with a kiss of smoke, and was good enough for Love to feature the cut at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York in June.
I really enjoy this dish, but the tough layer of connective tissue that runs through the middle of the slice is impossible to chew. This is an issue with all lamb ribs, which has prompted me to custom-order them. Normally the ribs are sliced and served individually; now I just ask for three or four bones worth unsliced so I can easily peel the layers of meat from the bone and get at that tough, inedible layer out of the way. That also makes for a good taco filling like the one from Hot Spot BBQ (now closed) in San Antonio. Bob’s Smokehouse in San Antonio, which I visited recently, also does a good version of lamb ribs
, but it’s admittedly been far too long since I’ve tried them. They’re thick and fatty, but smoked long enough so you don’t have to work to pick out all that good lean meat.
In Dallas, one can find good barbacoa de borrego (whole lamb, pulled) at both Sanchez Panaderia y Taqueria (more commonly known as Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo) and Barbacoa Agave in Dallas. (Both places cook it fresh every weekend.)
In Austin, I visited a number of places that maintain the mutton and lamb traditions. Ed’s BBQ in East Austin, which took over the spot on MLK that once housed Danny’s BBQ, serves mutton ribs. Their offering has a strong flavor from both the mutton and the smoke, but they tame it a bit with a vinegar mop. If you grew up in western Kentucky, this mutton will take you back. Also in East Austin is Sam’s BBQ, one of the city’s most famous barbecue joints. Lately, they haven’t enjoyed the same accolades they once used to (probably because of their inconsistent brisket), but they sell some of the best mutton ribs in the state.
I stopped at Sam’s mid-afternoon and was denied. “Come back at 5:00,” I was told. Fresh lamb ribs (the menu says mutton, but this is more MINO) would be coming off the pit then, the man at the counter told me. When I returned, I was rewarded with layers of meat that alternated between buttery, and pleasantly chewy. The ribs were smoky and salty, and before I knew what happened, I realized I had eaten them all. Owner Brian Mays told me I wasn’t alone. “They’re real popular,” he told me over the phone on a Monday. “I bought a hundred pounds on Friday, and they’re all gone.”
Further afield, I’ve found lamb ribs at Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, which has had them on the menu since they opened in 1959. Owner Edward Davila said he thinks the popularity of the cut might be coming back. “We’re selling a lot of lamb. People call in from Houston and Austin to make sure we have lamb,” he told me. And the popularity is growing with the younger demographic too. “In the old days you could see the older generation eating lamb, and now you see the twenty- and thirty-year-olds ordering it.”
Nathan Novosad of Novosad’s BBQ in Hallettsville said the demand for lamb ribs has remained steady for him for as long as he can remember. That translates into four racks per day. He still sees more older folks ordering it. “Some of the younger ones are scared to try it,” he joked. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. The ribs are falling apart tender, but with crunchy edges that have gotten almost sweet over many hours in the smoker.
One of the most famous versions of lamb ribs in the state is at Gonzales Food Market on the square in Gonzales. The racks were piled high in the warmer when I visited on a weekday lunch. It was after trying to eat these individual ribs that I decided to order my future lamb ribs unseparated. They don’t hold together like a pork ribs, and so many of the meaty morsels are far less than a mouthful. At least they were all well seasoned and plenty smoky.
Davis Grocery in Taylor also has some tasty morsels on their lamb ribs, but it requires work to pick them apart from the chewy stuff. Up the street at Louie Mueller Barbecue you can find Wayne Mueller smoking his lamb chops, which he calls lollipops, every once in a while for special events. He says they’ll be on the permanent menu when his Houston location is open. Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas will also put them on the special board from time to time, and I wish Tom Micklethwait would still make his fabulous lamb chorizo a little more often.
Even though smoked lamb and mutton have a long history in Texas, it’s hard to trace. The U.S. raises less than half the sheep we did even twenty years ago. The wool industry, which once flourished in Texas, is now dominated by New Zealand and Australia, and because wool-producing sheep are the main source of mutton on the market, less wool means less mutton. A Modern Farmer article from 2013 noted that “We’ve long exported live ewes through San Angelo, Texas (the country’s largest sheep and lamb auction) to Mexico for barbacoa de borrego.” Because lamb production is down, so is consumption. An article from Harvest Public Media noted that in the sixties we ate 4.5 pounds of lamb every year. Today, according to the USDA, Americans eat less than a pound of lamb every year.
I think there’s still plenty of room for more lamb on barbecue menus. Lamb breast a little more expensive than pork ribs, and lamb brisket is hovering around $4 per pound. It cooks up a lot quicker than brisket or beef ribs, and the meat has the potential to be both halal and kosher certified. Most importantly, it brings back a flavor of Texas’s barbecue past that is unique and succulent. Lamb, and especially mutton, might bring a taste that needs some acquiring, but it’s worth the effort.
Where to find great lamb barbecue in Texas:
418 W Kingsbury St.
Seguin, TX 78155
Gonzales Food Market
311 St Lawrence St.
Gonzales, TX 78629
105 S La Grange St.
Hallettsville, TX 77964
5145 Fredericksburg Rd.
San Antonio, TX 78229
2000 E 12th St.
Austin, TX 78702
1212 Hwy 290
Elgin, TX 78621
534 Hwy 71 W
Bastrop, TX 78602
3201 Riverfront Dr.
Fort Worth, TX 76107