The best statewide barbecue chain in Texas is housed inside grocery stores. With ten locations of True Texas BBQ and counting, H-E-B is opening its version of a neighborhood barbecue joint from Magnolia to Midland. They’re making sides and desserts from scratch, smoking all-natural meats on site every day, and serving it all in a restaurant setting with local beers on tap.
I was tricked into my first visit to a True Texas BBQ. After striking out during a barbecue search in Midland, I pulled up Google Maps on my phone. “BBQ near me” in the search bar yielded a dot over True Texas BBQ. I thought it might be some new local spot I hadn’t yet heard of, but a few minutes later I found myself in an H-E-B parking lot. The BBQ sign was right there in front of me, so I acquiesced and walked in, albeit with low expectations. My most recent grocery store barbecue experience had been some sad, pre-sliced brisket pulled from a steam table at Whole Foods in Uptown Dallas, but H-E-B has no self-serve barbecue.
Each location of True Texas BBQ is designed like a stand-alone restaurant—with an ordering counter, tables, and fountain drinks. It doesn’t feel like you’re in a grocery store anymore. The menu is vast but barbecue-focused. Smoked meat by the pound, sandwiches, and platters are joined by stuffed potatoes, a barbecue Frito pie, and monthly specials. I ordered pork ribs, pulled pork, smoked turkey, sausage, and sliced brisket ($19 per pound). The last of these, I was sure, would prove this barbecue’s illegitimacy. I took a seat until my name was called. When I retrieved my trays, I was stunned. It all looked so good.
Someone smart must’ve done Instagram research for plating ideas. Aluminum quarter-sheet trays were lined with butcher paper. The meats and sides were artfully arranged. A glaze on the pork ribs glistened, the turkey looked moist, and that brisket—it was juicy and smoky with just enough salt and not too much pepper. It was a tad overcooked, but that’s better than a tough slice every time. Simply put, it was impressive brisket and better than a lot of independent barbecue joints I’ve visited.
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Over the next few months I made stops at other True Texas BBQ locations. I enjoyed a sliced brisket sandwich in Huntsville and the Frito pie in Magnolia. Rather than being hidden under a bunch of toppings, the morsels of roughly chopped brisket were the star on the stuffed potato in Killeen. The consistency was so impressive that I decided to check in on a few other well-known barbecue chains to test my growing sentiment that True Texas BBQ had seized the state’s barbecue chain championship belt. What confirmed my hunch? The lean brisket at True Texas’s Huntsville location. With a line of well-rendered fat, a stout bark, and juicy meat, it was stunningly good, as was the smoked turkey.
I had to know who had decided to make the barbecue this good. “I don’t know if anyone at H-E-B would have been happy with anything short of that,” the grocery chain’s restaurant director, Kristin Irvin, told me over the phone. Her team developed the barbecue concept starting in 2013 at the in-store Café Mueller, in Austin, before opening the first True Texas BBQ-branded restaurant in Pleasanton a year later. Since then, nine other True Texas BBQ locations have opened, and fourteen H-E-B locations serve barbecue across the state. “My goal is to bring great barbecue to all parts of Texas,” Irvin said.
The cooking methods used in all the stores took shape before Café Mueller opened. Irvin and the restaurant team tested several high-capacity smokers and decided to use Ole Hickory rotisseries fueled with oak wood. They conducted a blind taste test of brisket varieties, and an all-natural Choice-grade brisket was the winner. “We had to eat a lot of brisket to end up where we’re at,” Irvin said. An important staffing decision was to have at least one dedicated pitmaster responsible for the barbecue quality in every location.
In Midland, the pitmaster duties are shared. Hayes Havins was a chef in Florida before a hurricane evacuation took him to West Texas. He was on the opening team of the Midland H-E-B, and the barbecue got so popular they had to install a second smoker. Havins is joined by Perla Urbina and Maribel Garcia. Urbina was a police officer in Mexico before she immigrated to Texas. Garcia left Cuba for Texas three years ago and became a U.S. citizen while working for H-E-B. I spoke with her at the Midland location through an interpreter. She hadn’t eaten beef before coming to Texas. “In Cuba you can’t actually eat cow because the government really doesn’t let you,” she said. Her first job was at Whataburger before she began cooking barbecue at H-E-B. That’s quite the crash course to becoming a Texan. She caught on fast to smoking meat. “I love cooking, so it came naturally,” she said.
The training to become a pitmaster at True Texas BBQ begins with a one-month apprenticeship at one of the existing restaurants. It includes eating plenty of barbecue, but not just the good stuff. “We have them purposely try improperly smoked meat versus good meat so they can see the difference,” Irvin said. “We spent a lot of time really just indoctrinating folks with the fact that the quality of the meat is the most important thing. If we cut into a piece of meat that’s not up to our standards, we won’t serve it.”
Of all the meats, sides, and desserts (get the beans, mac & cheese, and banana pudding), the only dud I encountered was this month’s banh mi sandwich special. The toppings and the generous serving of smoked brisket weren’t the problem. It was the bread that, instead of being airy with a good crust like a Vietnamese baguette, was doughy and dense. Stick with the standard brisket sandwich.
Brisket is the top seller at True Texas BBQ, and there are plenty of ways to get your hands on it. You can order at the counter, of course. Irvin said about half the restaurant customers visit the store just for the barbecue. There’s also an app for ordering ahead of time (just make sure you’ve selected the right location), or you can get barbecue delivered with your groceries if your H-E-B location supports that, or order from True Texas BBQ on Favor.
Most of the locations up to this point have operated in areas of Texas underserved by great barbecue. It’s not that hard to be some of the best barbecue in Midland, Odessa, or Killeen, but soon True Texas BBQ will open in the heart of Central Texas barbecue country. The next one will come to Slaughter Lane in South Austin, not far from one of Texas Monthly’s Top 50 barbecue joints, Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ. I don’t expect H-E-B to offer the best barbecue in Austin, but they’ve earned more than just accidental visits from barbecue snobs. Only now they won’t have the benefit of low expectations.