Leonard Botello IV has spent the last eight years chasing smoked brisket perfection. It began with Truth Barbeque, which he opened in Brenham in 2015, and which made the top ten on our 2017 barbecue list. A gleaming new location in Houston followed two years later, which jumped up to the number-three spot on our 2021 list, based largely on the quality of that smoked brisket. The Truth brand got so big that Botello’s wife (and boutique hotelier), Abbie Byrom-Botello, hired a public relations firm that sent me a pitch. It was strange enough that, unlike every other PR pitch I’ve received in my ten years at Texas Monthly, I pursued it.

The subject line referred to the “fourth slice methodology,” which the pitch described as “the standard of quality of brisket that Botello has pledged to serve his customers each time they step into TRUTH’s doors.” The message was perplexing, which may have been the point, and did little to define what this methodology was, so I asked Botello. “It’s just a thing between me and my buddy,” he said.

The buddy in this case is Burt Bakman of Slab barbecue in Los Angeles. The two became friends in 2016 when Bakman was still serving brisket from his backyard in Studio City under the name Trudy’s Underground Barbecue. Bakman sought some guidance from Botello on how to use an offset smoker. They began trading photos of juicy brisket slices for mutual constructive criticism, and the conversation morphed into a smack-talk session that has endured over several years and hundreds of brisket photos.

The texts began with photos of the first slice from the fatty half of the brisket. It comes from the curved side that has a wedge of hard fat along the bottom, much of which is trimmed from the brisket before smoking. The first slice is always glistening with juice. “More often than not, the first two slices are going to be nice,” Bakman said, so he suggested they go deeper. He and Botello settled on the fourth slice as the true test, at least visually, of a well-smoked brisket. The thicker part of the point will reveal if the fat around the meat fibers has all melted away, which happens when a brisket is overcooked. The fourth slice also includes the seam of fat beneath the point, and the portion of lean brisket beneath that.

By the way, there’s not a name for that portion of the lean, but there should be. It’s the worst part of the brisket. The literal hanger-on to the fatty brisket slice has no fat cap and little bark because it’s on the bottom of the brisket. It’s like the bone on a big beef short rib. You know you’re gonna have to pay for it to get that good, juicy smoked beef on top, but you’re not excited about eating it. I digress.

fourth slice brisket

Once Botello and Bakman started comparing apples to apples using only their fourth slices, the real nit-picking began. Bakman always looks to see if “the fat is sparkling in a certain way, that the fibers of muscle are all together and not loose.” They comment on the color of the bark, how well the fat is rendered, and even if the knife used to cut the meat was dull. Going thin on the first three slices is considered cheating. “You knew something went wrong with the cook if one of us didn’t reply with a picture,” Botello said, adding that Bakman “probably has blackmail on me,” referring to those early brisket photos they shared.

The two have now brought more pitmasters into the fourth-slice fold, from L.A. to Atlanta. Dave Bonner of Green Street Smoked Meats, in Chicago, had a customer who recently asked specifically for the fourth slice. “He actually asked for three of them,” Bonner said, but he walked away happy with one slice and some burnt ends. The fourth slice had taken on a life of its own.

“It’s kind of a way of calling each other out, but a way for friends to also share how good their cook was,” Botello said. He’s kinder to anyone besides Bakman who’s seeking feedback. I asked Bakman if he’d ever seen the perfect slice of brisket from Botello. “There’s always something,” he said, and to prove his point, he agreed to provide some commentary on the incredible brisket slice Botello served me at Truth Barbeque. Anyway, Bakman said, the negative comments are really an existential favor to his barbecue buddy. “What if you cook the perfect brisket?” Bakman asked. “Now what?”

Bakman sent me all those comments, and then two hours later, maybe after gazing at the brisket for a while, he added, “Still a beautiful slice.”

As I hovered, camera in hand, over Botello at the cutting block inside Truth as he portioned out four picture-perfect brisket slices (the first four slices make up about a pound total), I asked him which slice he preferred. “My favorite slice is the last slice of lean, between the fatty and the lean,” he said. For the record, mine is probably the fourth slice from the tip of the lean, with the fat cap running the entire length. I also wondered if this story idea from his restaurant’s PR firm had Botello bracing himself for a bunch of orders for just the fourth slice? “Not really, ” he said. “People already come in asking for two pounds of burnt ends.” His rule is that if they ask for the fourth slice, they have to buy the first three slices too.