Four years ago, I wrote that the best barbecue chain in Texas was True Texas BBQ. At the time, there were ten locations, all housed within H-E-B stores and with drive-throughs. Since then, the grocer has added thirteen new locations. When H-E-B opened its first outposts in the DFW area last year—in Frisco and Plano—I was excited to get up there from my home in Dallas to try them. I thought I’d write an easy article letting my North Texas neighbors know they were much closer to some incredibly convenient, relatively inexpensive, and impressive smoked brisket. But that’s not going to happen.

My first visit to the Frisco location was last September, the day before its grand opening. Just like every other True Texas BBQ I’ve been to recently, the staff wore shirts that read “Best BBQ Chain in Texas,” and attributed it to Texas Monthly, referencing my previous article. The same message is prominent on its website. I met with Kristin Irvin, H-E-B’s director of restaurants, and Randy Evans, H-E-B’s director of culinary development, who had invited me for a preview. Irvin said the restaurants have gotten so popular, the question went from “Should we put a barbecue joint in this store?” to “Why wouldn’t we put a barbecue joint in?”

The lines to get into the Frisco H-E-B store were notorious when it first opened. Customers were waiting hours just to get through the sliding glass doors. I waited until it had been open three weeks for my first official visit, and still had to stand outside for thirty minutes like I was waiting to hit the hottest new club in town. As one person left, another was let in.

I went a few more times to try the barbecue, and after three visits to both stores up north, I found some persistent positives and negatives. The smoked turkey slices were consistently dry, while the pork ribs were always a hit. The cooks apply a sweet and spicy rub (also sold in store) pretty heavily on the ribs, and it forms a great bark so red it’ll stain your fingernails. The meat is never falling off the bone, but also not tough. It’s a $2.75 upcharge to add ribs to an $18.99 three-meat plate (my usual order), but it’s always worth it.

It was easy enough to avoid the dry turkey and get smoked chicken instead, but it went off the menu in early February to make room for the current brisket cheesesteak special. It’s too bad, because I found the juicy half chicken to be the best item on the entire menu. I’d usually add one to my lunch order so I could bring it home for dinner or make a smoked chicken salad.

Ribs, turkey, brisket, and corn bread from True Texas BBQ at Slaughter and I-35 in Austin. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Another high note was the sides and desserts. In my various visits, I tried them all and was always impressed. The creamed corn and the hot buttered slab of corn bread studded with green chiles are both standouts. The classic trio of beans, potato salad, and coleslaw was satisfying. I also love that you can substitute the side that comes with the barbecue plate for a dessert. It’s hard to choose between the banana pudding and peach cobbler. Both are always on the menu, but I’m waiting to see when the glazed doughnut bread pudding comes back as a special.

Unfortunately, I witnessed a lot of lackluster, sloppily sliced brisket. Lean slices were on the dry side, and the fatty end was generally overcooked with a tough bark. It’s brisket I would have been fine with at any other chain, but it didn’t compare to the surprisingly great brisket I’d enjoyed at many locations several years before. To the restaurant’s credit, every location uses all-natural Angus brisket that is either choice or prime grade. H-E-B sells the same raw briskets in the store, but the restaurant uses 95 percent of its entire stock, according to Irvin. Still, from what I was served, I wondered if H-E-B was sending its lesser briskets to North Texas, or if True Texas BBQ’s quality was simply slipping due to rapid expansion.

“Nothing starts a good local restaurant Facebook debate better than somebody saying they like our barbecue,” Irvin told me during my preview in Frisco. A couple years ago, after a new True Texas BBQ opened at Slaughter Lane and I-35 in Austin, a friend whose barbecue opinion I trust posted a photo of fatty brisket from the location to Facebook. “This place makes great brisket,” commented Jordan Jackson, currently a pitmaster at Franklin Barbecue. This seemed like a good store to start with to see if the issues up north were spreading, so I ordered yet another three-meat plate.

The ribs were impressive, and the turkey was dry. Sliced fatty brisket was a notch better than what I’d found in North Texas, but still overcooked and sliced without much care. That could be attributed to strict portion controls for those combo platters or just inexperienced slicers. As quickly as the brand has expanded, finding enough employees with barbecue knowledge to staff them all is likely difficult. The slicing was even worse at the newest True Texas BBQ at the Lake Austin location, which had been open for just over a week when I stopped in.

I shared my recent experiences with Irvin and asked her if she thought True Texas BBQ was having growing pains from the rapid expansion. A few days later she replied via email:

“At True Texas BBQ, we understand the bar is set high when it comes to barbecue in Texas. Our Partners work hard every day to deliver the highest quality to everyone we serve, and we’re focused on maintaining our status as the Best BBQ Chain in Texas, a mark we will continue to strive for to make our fellow Texans proud.”

That new store in Austin did have plenty going for it though. An escalator up from the underground garage delivers customers to a coffee shop where I got a respectable cortado. At the next level, the first stop is the True Texas BBQ with a full bar. Along with my barbecue, I got a very impressive old fashioned on tap. Frozen cocktails, draft beers, and wine were also available. It will be a heck of a hangout when it gets the barbecue part settled.

During that preview visit to Frisco last year, Irvin and I talked about those “Best BBQ Chain in Texas” T-shirts. I told her it was a bold move by H-E-B to have them printed considering that claim wasn’t guaranteed in perpetuity. I’m not ready to rescind anything yet. True Texas BBQ is still quite good for a barbecue chain, and I hope for the best with new locations coming to Georgetown, Allen, and McKinney by the end of this year. If you’d like to be part of righting the ship, I saw applications for cooking positions at the McKinney True Texas BBQ, with no barbecue experience required. If you get the job, tell them to bring back the smoked chicken.