Bad brisket is nothing new on the barbecue trail, but there are some days when you just can’t catch a break—or, as was the case for me recently, two consecutive days where I searched high and low for a good slice of smoked beef in Beaumont and Southeast Texas.

It began in Cleveland, Texas, where a sign along the highway informed passersby that Rock’ N R BBQ serves “The Best BBQ On The Planet.” I’ve written before about the dubious claims of billboard advertisements about barbecue, holding fast to the notion that if the food is that good, let someone else say it for you. But seeing how I eat at places like these to save you from the bad stuff (or direct you to the good stuff, as the case may be), I had to stop in. What I found inside of Rock’ N R was decidedly not the best barbecue on the planet. As I stood in line, waiting my turn, I watched the cutter struggle to slice through the brisket. When she finally liberated a piece, I saw a light shade of pink striping through the middle of slice, a signal to me it would probably be in my best interest to forgo the undercooked beef and save room for the rest of my eating excursion.

Interior of The Shack Barbecue

I traveled to the town’s north side to visit The Shack Barbecue, a well kept but aging wooden structure houses what, on this day, was surrounded by a gravel lot with puddles big enough to make the pickup trucks wary. Stepping inside, it took a while for my eyes to adjust. A single fluorescent bulb above the pit and the red glow of heat lamps provided most of the lighting. Service was friendly, and the sides were homemade, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the bland barbecue. The ribs and brisket weren’t bad (and as the day wore on and I had more meat memories to compare to the Shack, their brisket tasted retroactively better and better), but it’s hard to recommend anyone go out of his way for them.

I then ventured to the south side of town and Bailey’s Barbeque, which is tucked into a bright shopping center, a stark contrast from the dim mood lighting of the Shack. I ordered the brisket, which was pulled from a steam table. Holding meat this way makes it hard to keep fresh—especially if it’s not wrapped, as was the case at Bailey’s—and the resulting slices were dry and uninspired. The saving grace was a link of smoked boudin. (It may be a Louisiana import, but smoking it Texas-style gives the casing a nice crispness. The filling on this one was pleasantly spicy as well.) It was early in the day, but after the three brisket misses, I was tempted to turn this into a scouting trip for smoked boudin.

Smoked boudin at Bailey’s Barbeque

I soldiered on in my quest for commendable brisket, trekking further east to Beaumont. My first stop in the city was Gerard’s Barbecue (full review here) on the south side. I ordered everything on the menu (don’t judge; it’s minimal): brisket, chicken, and pork ribs, as well as SETX favorites like spicy beef links and pork bones. “Pork bones” is a vague term for what is actually pork neck. Most of the meat is trimmed away, but what remains becomes crisp and smoky after a trip to the smoker. It’s a menu item falling out of favor, but deserves to be celebrated when done this well.

The spread at Gerard’s Barbecue

Their other specialty is a spicy, all-beef link, from the casing to the filling, which is spiced with garlic, chile powder, cumin, and a few other things. The origin of this type of link isn’t certain, but it probably started in the Beaumont area. In 2000, Robb Walsh wrote The Art of Smoke for the Houston Press and interviewed legendary Houston barbecue man Harry Green for the story. Green credited Matt Garner who hailed from Beaumont for bringing the links to Houston.

“Matt was the oldest around here. He came from Beaumont, must have been in the 1920s. …Matt Garner made the first beef links around here, and he passed it on to Joe Burney. And Joe passed it on to me. It’s still a big part of black people’s barbecue.”

Those beef links are no longer as popular as they once were in Houston, but in Beaumont and Port Arthur, they continue to be menu staples.

While Gerard’s version is good, the best in town is at Patillo’s. Owner Robert Patillo told me that his great-grandfather Jack Patillo Sr. started serving spicy beef links back when he first entered the barbecue business in 1912, and while the Patillo family probably wasn’t the first to make them, they’ve certainly been making them longer than anyone else—and practice makes perfect.

Patillo’s beef link

But I was here to check out the brisket. Which in this case is actually clod. And sliced too thin, a technique that doesn’t mask the beef’s toughness. (The chewy ribs and the smoked chicken, both of which are bathed in the house sauce, are better options, but the best bet is probably to order the jambalaya with a side of the sauce).

The mission (seemingly, by now, impossible) continued down Washington Avenue to Broussard’s Links + Ribs, where I ordered beef links and ribs to go. I’d had this brisket before and was more interested in the items in the restaurant’s name. The links were fattier than I remembered them (a good thing), and the ribs were just as tender and saucy. Opening in the early eighties, Broussard’s might be the newcomer to the Beaumont beef link crew, but they’re helping to maintain the local tradition.

Links and ribs from Broussard’s

Based on local recommendations, I made Boomtown BBQ my final stop of the day. Unfortunately Boomtown was a bust. Thin slices of brisket from the lean end were dry and trimmed of most of their fat. To add insult, the dry St. Louis ribs were only available by the half rack.

Ribs and brisket from Boomtown BBQ

On day two, I set off for Orange, Texas, about half an hour east of Beaumont. My first stop there was JB’s, which has the makings of a great story. It’s a family-run place on the edge of Texas with a tidy detached smokehouse out back. I came in hoping for more of the excellent pit ham I’d had here a couple years back, but it’s not on the menu anymore. Jay Mathews took over the business from his father-in-law recently, and I can only guess the ham wasn’t a big seller. I asked for brisket and he pulled back the plastic wrap from a plate piled high with pre-sliced brisket, then cut each slice into chunks. Even the sauce couldn’t save it. The sliced pork was dry and flavorless, and the spare ribs were tough and acrid. Only the smoked turkey was decent. They should have kept the ham.

Combo plate from JB’s BBQ

Over in Vidor, just outside of Beaumont, I visited a couple of joints, including Bar-B-Que Depot. Their drive-thru menu was dominated with various options (ten in total) for a big barbecue tater. The tater focus didn’t instill much confidence in their sliced beef and ribs. They met those low expectations, but at least the boudin was fine.

Combo plate from Bar-B-Q Depot
Three meat combo plate at Wright’s Bar-B-Q

On the other side of the highway in Vidor is Wright’s Bar-B-Q. Open since 1977, it’s quantity that’s keeping the doors open these days. Sides were all dumped directly from a can or a tub. The smoked boudin was a good version, and the smoked chicken was another bright spot (a three-meat combo plate came with a full 1/2 chicken). The spare ribs were cracked and dried on the cutting block, but I couldn’t find the brisket. When I asked for it, a young woman putting together my order pulled a slotted spoon out of a vat of barbecue sauce on the steam table line. I presumed it was brisket in the spoon, and she gave me a sideways look with squinted eyes, and said “Do you want brisket?” For the second time in two days, I didn’t bother.

Beef link at Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ

Making my way north to Evadale, things seemed to pick up almost immediately. The sliced beef at Chuck’s Bar-B-Q and Burgers was above average as was the smoked chicken and pork steak. The burgers alone are worth a return visit (full review here). Further north was Jasper where Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ, a Texas Monthly Top 50 joint, set up shop thirty years back. The ribs and thick cut brisket came with plenty of sauce, but they were both well smoked. A spiced-up beef link was so finely ground so that it slid out of the casing after I cut into it. It was unique compared to what I’d just eaten in Beaumont, but was certainly of the same tradition. It showed how far the influence of that recipe has spread (I haven’t seen any such link further north than Jasper), but thankfully I was far enough away to escape the gravitational pull of the thoroughly bad beef of Beaumont.

This isn’t my first trip to SETX, so I didn’t go in expecting to find Central Texas style brisket on butcher paper. I just thought with a concerted effort I could uncover at least one version really worth crowing about. It wasn’t until I got home with some time to ponder that I realized that some parts of Texas just don’t place their barbecue focus on smoked brisket (I’m looking at you too El Paso). It’s no consolation for brisket lovers living in Beaumont, but visiting barbecue hounds won’t have any problem filling up on smoked boudin, pork bones, saucy pork ribs, and those unique spicy beef links. These are the specialties of SETX, and you won’t find those in Central Texas.

Recommendations in order of appearance:

Bailey’s Barbeque – Smoked Boudin
140 Truly Plz
Cleveland, TX 77327

Gerard’s Barbecue – Pork Bones, Beef Links, Ribs, Sides
3730 Fannett Rd
Beaumont, TX 77705

Patillo’s Bar-B-Q – Smoked Chicken, Beef Links, Jambalaya Rice
2775 Washington Blvd.
Beaumont, TX 77705

Broussard’s Links + Ribs – Beef Links, Ribs
2930 S 11th St.
Beaumont, TX 77701

Wright’s Bar-B-Q – Smoked Chicken
1096 N Main St.
Vidor, TX 77662

Chuck’s Bar-B-Q and Burgers – Burger, Pork Steak, Smoked Chicken, Brisket
268 FM 105
Evadale, TX 77615

Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ – Beef Links, Ribs
1601 N. Main
Jasper, TX 75951