There’s hardly a better way to discover a slice of Texas, so to speak, than with a barbecue road trip—especially one that takes you outside of the city borders. In Central Texas, Austin is undeniably the area’s greatest barbecue city, and its proximity to some of the state’s greatest smoked meats make it a good home base for exploration. But for the most impressive barbecue bounties, you have to travel to towns that aren’t necessarily on the way to anywhere.
If you’re in the Capitol City, the trips below are all easily doable in a single day, but you will likely not need dinner. If you can handle a little more smoked meat in your life, a few additional options are included toward the end to supplement your road trip. Safe travels, and happy eating.
*Denotes a Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ Joint
Lexington Loop: 122 miles, round trip
This full trip is only possible on Saturday because of the limited hours at Snow’s BBQ, one of our Top 4 BBQ joints in Texas (the other on this trip being Louie Mueller). The suggested departure time is no later than 8:00 a.m.
Snow’s BBQ* in Lexington — Being in line by 9:00 a.m. will give you a good chance of having your pick of the meats. The brisket is obviously the prize, but the pork steak is my personal favorite—and the favorite of Tootsie Tomanetz, the (nearly) eighty-year-old pitmaster whose smile will make you feel like you’re eating at grandma’s house. Use the picnic tables outside for some al fresco dining (if the weather permits) and you’ll leave wonderfully perfumed with oak smoke.
Louie Mueller Barbecue* in Taylor— They open at 10:00 on Saturday morning, so don’t worry about getting here too early from Snow’s. The lines at the height of lunch can be daunting, so try to make it here before 11:00. Those who like a little heat will crave the heavy black pepper rub, but amp it up a little with a link of the house made jalapeño or chipotle sausage. A whole beef rib will be tough to tackle for single diners—it can feed a family of four with a few sides added on—but it’s one of the signature trophy cuts in Texas barbecue. Settle in and enjoy the historic building before heading down the street.
Taylor Cafe in Taylor— Down by the tracks is an aged red building with a creaky screen door. Despite being 90-plus years old, Vencil Mares—the godfather of Texas barbecue—will be holding court at the end of the counter. Pay your respects then get a chopped beef sandwich with an extra link of the house made turkey sausage. It is said that Louie Mueller is a barbecue joint in town that serves beer, and Taylor Cafe is a beer joint that serves barbecue. Grab a cold one and watch the locals trickle in an out for lunch. Bring cash because they don’t take plastic.
Southside Market in Elgin — It’s not in the original building, but this is the oldest barbecue joint in Texas still in operation. They’re famous for their sausage, or “hot guts” which aren’t as hot as they used to be. Use the hot sauce at the tables to make a pool on your tray and dip the links into it for a kick. Do the same with the great smoked chicken and the mutton ribs which are a rarity in Texas.
Lockhart and Luling: 101 miles
Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas as designated by the Texas Legislature. It’s a small town that supports a big barbecue reputation, and it’s easy to get to from Austin. Using the Highway 130 tollway (with an 85-mph speed limit), I’ve made it there in thirty minutes from downtown Austin, but you better leave hungry.
Kreuz Market* in Lockhart — With new Sunday hours just starting here, you can now make Kreuz Market (since 1900) part of your itinerary any day of the week. I like the weekdays when it’s rare to find a long line. The pressure of a hungry, looming crowd can make one rush an order, but pay attention to what goes on the cutting block and make sure to tell the cutter—which might be the mutton-chopped Roy Perez—if you have a preference like end cuts or fattier slices of beef. Get the shoulder clod and the pork chop along with a link of the jalapeño sausage.
Smitty’s Market in Lockhart — It’s hard to find a better place to eat barbecue than this brick building that dates from 1924. Barbecue was first served here when it housed Kreuz Market which moved out in 1999. Smitty’s opened shortly after with a menu almost identical to Kreuz, but don’t miss the glazed pork ribs which are a popular departure. Prime rib comes off the pit at 11:00am and sells fast. Watch out for the open fires when standing in line, and be sure to leave some time to explore the historic building.
Black’s BBQ* in Lockhart — With the feud between Smitty’s and Kreuz, sometimes Black’s gets lost in the mix. If you’ve forgotten about it, the billboards in every direction will remind you when you get to town. Follow them to what is consistently the best brisket in Lockhart. There are also enormous beef ribs to enjoy and some incredible smoked turkey for barbecue dabblers.
R&G Bar-B-Que in McMahan — If Lockhart is too big for your liking, then head east to Whizzerville (population: not many) where Roy Jeffrey serves brisket and sausage Wednesday through Saturday. He was once the pitmaster at City Market in Luling, so the sauce is the same sweet mustard version. Get some barbecue and a can of High Life for $1.75 and enjoy a piece of small town life.
City Market* in Luling — There are three meats on the menu: brisket, pork spare ribs, and beef sausage. Try them all, but bring some cash (or use the on-site ATM). Ordering is done in the back room on the other side of the swinging doors, and don’t ask for potato salad. This room is only for meat, and the sides and drinks are sold at the front counter. One of my favorite bites in Texas barbecue is the sausage at City Market slathered generously with their signature sauce.
Hill Country Tour: 161 miles
If it’s the scenic route that you favor, this trip should be at the top of your list. The Texas Hill Country is stunning, and it’s all west of Austin. If you see someone referring to Lockhart and Luling as being in the Hill Country, they are geographically confused. This is hilly country where mesquite cooking is as common as oak, and cuts of meat outside the norm can be found, but of course smoked beef is still king.
HWY 29 BBQ in Bertram — Here’s a newer joint with an old soul. The menu is simple with just a few smoked meats and some classic sides. It might seem limiting, but it also allows you to order a little of everything. The peppery pork ribs are better than most, and it’s hard to find a banana pudding this good anywhere in the state.
Payne’s Bar-B-Q Shak in Burnet — Robert Payne runs this refurbished joint on the west side of town. He’s a former butcher, so you better bet the sausage is homemade. Brisket and ribs are an obvious option, but the thin pork steaks cut into strips are a sleeper on the menu.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q* in Llano — This is one of the old time joints still cooking over direct heat, although on a limited basis. Brisket and ribs are done in charcoal fired rotisseries, but come on a weekend and get some goat (I like the shoulder) cooked right over the coals. You can’t visit here without getting a “Big Chop” which is an enormous pork chop. The meat tends to the salty side, so balance it out with some pecan cobbler.
Opie’s BBQ* in Spicewood — Every time I visit, Opie’s seems to get better. The mesquite smoked brisket is now a highlight instead of being overshadowed by the ever-popular sweet and spicy baby backs. The meat filled pit at the entrance can make it easy to over-order, but save room for the excellent desserts and the free butter beans on Fridays and Sundays (free pintos anytime).
Driftwood Drive: 93 miles
The shortest of these road trips is also the most unconventional. You’ll find a joint next to the Interstate, smoked pastrami, suburban barbecue, and a famous barbecue joint that is more maligned than it deserves to be. Every stop along this route is easily accessible from Austin as a single destination, but it’s just more fun to string them together.
Hays Co. BBQ* in San Marcos — The location was chosen for its visibility rather than ambience, but there’s tons of room on the patio out back. Every item that comes out of the smoker is great, and the sausage is all homemade. Come early for the beef ribs, or even earlier if you want breakfast. They serve smoked meat tacos every morning.
The Salt Lick in Driftwood — The meat gets more praise than it deserves from amateurs, and the naysayers are generally too harsh. A good meal can be found and a fun time will certainly be had at this sprawling barbecue campus. The wait will probably be a long one, so bring some drinks and a few friends. The family-style option is the normal order when it comes to the barbecue, but ask for your brisket to be fatty and the sauce on the side. Also, add an order of beef ribs just to be safe.
Pieous in Austin — A pizza place on a barbecue tour? When they have some of the best smoked meat around, yes. Pizzas fill a wood-fired oven (one even has some excellent smoked sausage), but it’s the pastrami you’re looking for. You can get it on a sandwich or a platter, but not on a pizza. It’s okay. Get both, and an order of panna cotta when the pastrami’s gone.
Schmidt Family BBQ in Bee Cave — If you’ve been to Kreuz Market, this one will feel familiar. It’s run by the same family, and the menus are similar. The suburbanites wouldn’t order clod, so they have half chickens instead. The brisket is fantastic as is the sausage which is shipped in directly from Lockhart.
Of course all of the above road trips end in Austin, a city in which you can find some of the country’s best barbecue, but there are plenty of other rural joints to consider for your trip as well. More recommendations are provided below and they are arranged by their direction from Austin.
Meyer’s in Elgin — They have a full barbecue menu, but make sure to get the garlic pork sausage.
Old Coupland Dance Hall in Coupland — Barbecue is served only on Friday and Saturday evening, but there’ll likely be live music to follow.
Davis Grocery & BBQ in Taylor — James Davis offers the only mutton in town, and it’s a good one. So is his “come back sauce.”
Texas Traditional BBQ in Manor — I didn’t find anything bad here, but it’s the pork steak that I’d come back for.
Cele Store in Cele — The full menu can only be had on Friday and Saturday, but I’d make reservations (seriously) for Friday night when live music accompanies the family style barbecue.
Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q in Lockhart — The locals love it, but it’s usually ignored by barbecue travelers. I love the sausage, and everything here is a bargain.
Wilhite’s Bar-B-Que in Creedmoor — It’s as good as any gas station barbecue out there. Brisket, ribs, and sausage makes for a good start.
Luling Bar-B-Q in Luling — Unlike City Market across the street, this joint has a huge menu. Choose from a half dozen meats and twice as many sides.
Post Mountain BBQ in Burnet — The brisket is plenty good, but it’s the desserts that make it a must stop.
Laird’s Bar-B-Q in Llano — For a homier and quieter version of Cooper’s down the street, without the Big Chop.
It’s All Good BBQ in Spicewood — All the meats are solid at this joint just down the highway from Opie’s
Inman’s Ranch House Bar-B-Q in Marble Falls — The brick pits are as old as they look, and so is the recipe for their signature turkey sausage.
Peete Mesquite Bar-B-Q in Marble Falls — The ribs run out fast, but the pork steak is more than just a consolation prize.
Milt’s Pit BBQ in Kyle — A new location in downtown didn’t work out for the original owners, but a new family has it going strong.
Bonus Meat Market Tour: 169 miles
The Central Texas barbecue tradition was born in the meat markets of the region where off cuts were smoked to prolong their lifespan on the meat market shelves. At these locations the meat is still weighed up and served on butcher paper just like the old days. Suggested departure time is 8:00am. (It’s easy to make Snow’s BBQ the starting point for this trip on a Saturday morning, but I’d leave Austin by 7:00am to get them all in.)
City Meat Market* in Giddings — All that remains of the meat market is a sad counter at the main entrance, but walk to the back through the swinging door into the pit room. They start serving the barbecue around 7:00, and you’ll want it when it’s fresh. Try the homemade sausage and the peppery beef ribs. The brisket makes a good breakfast too.
Prause Meat Market in La Grange — If you walk in the front door, a wide glass case full of raw meat might make you wonder if you came to the right place. Enter around back like the locals and you’ll walk right through the pit room to order. Homemade sausage and the pork chops are the best options. Ask them if the brisket is fresh. If the answer it yes, get a few slices.
City Market in Schulenberg — Only make this stop if it’s a Saturday. That is the one day every week that they cook the meat. You’ll get leftovers any other day. Walk around the side into the pit room and order directly out of the smoker. It’s all good, and it’s all peppery. Grab some sausage from the meat market inside to take home for the next cookout.
Zimmerhanzel’s Bar-B-Q* in Smithville — It was never a meat market, but there is a slaughterhouse next door. The brisket is always a good option, but don’t miss the homemade sausage and the smoked chicken. If you’re getting all that, you might as well add some of the meaty pork spare ribs.
**All driving distances are calculated from downtown Austin