Justin Pearson had enough of tying sausage rings. Through high school and into college, the Luling native worked for his grandfather Floyd Wilhelm’s restaurant, Chisholm Trail BBQ in Lockhart. During the majority of his time there, he would tie the strings together at the end of the links to make the ring-shaped sausages found in most Lockhart barbecue joints. “To get that snug little tie on that sausage, you have to give it a yank,” he said.

In his normal twelve-hour shift, during which the sausage crew would tie a thousand pounds’ worth, the moisture would soften his hands to the point where the strings could break his skin. “I remember having duct tape on the ends of three fingers and I was down to my pinkie,” Pearson said. So when he opened San Marcos BBQ in 2014, he declared his sausages would have no strings attached.

Back in late 2013, a barbecue joint became available out on Hunter Road on the south side of San Marcos. The owner tried to raise the rent on the previous tenant, Hays Co. Bar-B-Que, after it made our Top 50 list in 2013, but management opted to move to a new spot along Interstate 35 instead.

Pearson was attending Texas State University in San Marcos at the time, and he was nearing completion of a degree in sociology. But he wanted to to be in the barbecue business like his grandfather. He said his pitch to the owner of that Hunter Road space was: “I’m a broke college kid, but I do know the industry. I know I can cook food if you help me get the doors open.”

One of the classes in Pearson’s final semester required him to do an internship, but he was already operating San Marcos BBQ. “[The professor] allowed me to be my own intern as an owner,” he said. It was a sharp learning curve. I first stopped in shortly after Pearson had opened, not knowing how new the spot was. I left unimpressed then and kinda forgot about the place. A couple months ago, Pearson asked if I’d come in for another look.

Pearson expanded to a second location along I-35 a couple years back, making his the only local joint with two brick-and-mortar locations in town. The new San Marcos BBQ is in the old Fuschak’s Pit Bar-B-Q, which closed in 2021, and within a slingshot’s range of Hays Co. Bar-B-Que across the interstate.

When Pearson took over Fuschak’s space, it had three rotisserie smokers and no offsets. He moved two of his four offset smokers to the new spot and sent a rotisserie to the original location. Now he could cook everything using the same methods in both locations, and he had the rotisserie he desired for sausage making.

The temperature control on the rotisserie is helpful to keep the smoker at 170 degrees for the first two hours of the process, which requires plenty of smoke. “If you don’t get enough of the smoke, you don’t get a brittle enough skin,” Pearson explained. The links are then chilled, and before the restaurant opens in the morning, the sausages are put back into the smoker at 275 degrees to finish cooking and develop a taut casing that snaps when you crack it open.

A spread from San Marcos BBQ.
The Rudy platter from San Marcos BBQ.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Pearson serves an original sausage and a gouda–and–green chile version. “It’s the original Chisholm Trail BBQ recipe,” he said, though he switched out the jalapeño and cheddar. Pearson said the sausage is about the only thing he was taught about barbecue at Chisholm Trail. “They would let me trim and season the briskets,” he said, but he wasn’t allowed to cook anything as an employee.

The sausages have that familiar Lockhart flavor, but the meat and fat are more cohesive. I enjoyed the mild heat of the green chiles and the big chunks of gouda. It’s a great sausage that feels both new and traditional. Pearson said the texture is about using the right binder and more pork (his mixture is a sixty-forty beef-to-pork ratio), but he also added, “The major difference between ours and the Lockhart product is the quality of the meat.” Pearson uses the trim from his Certified Hereford Beef briskets and pork shoulders in the grind. He also smokes the links horizontally on the racks, rather than hanging them by a string.

Instead of ordering barbecue by the pound, most customers at the new highway location order barbecue sandwiches. Many use the drive-through, just like at Chisholm Trail. At the original, where I recently ate, most customers choose from the many combination platters, which are all specific about which meats they include. For $28, I got the Rudy platter, which includes a quarter pound each of sliced brisket and smoked turkey, a pork rib, a link of sausage, and two sides. A drink and dessert come with the combo as well, and Pearson’s sister, Sabrina, makes all the desserts, which include pies, cobbler, banana pudding, and a seven-layer bar.

The ribs are simply seasoned with a peppery rub, and they’re also mopped with a sauce during cooking, although they’re not wet and sticky. The turkey was moist, and I enjoyed the tender and smoky brisket. All the meats besides the sausage are smoked in the offset, and you can taste that post oak essence. The sausage doesn’t sell out every day, so Pearson adds the leftovers into one of the better sides I’ve had out on the barbecue trail recently. The braised cabbage could be a meal, with all that sausage added, and it gets more meaty flavor from the brisket tallow it’s cooked in. The loaded mashed potatoes were also satisfying.

I asked Pearson if he ever gets back to Chisholm Trail after his grandfather sold the place to Mike and Melissa Capello in 2015. He does, but he has also recently sampled barbecue from some of the other legendary spots in Lockhart. “I didn’t start eating at any of them until my grandfather got out of the business,” he said. He really enjoyed the brisket at Kreuz Market on his last visit.

Back in San Marcos, Pearson said his focus is on building community. He joked about settling for that sociology degree (he originally went to college for business school but couldn’t keep his grades up), but he said it taught him about using his barbecue and restaurants as community gathering spaces. He’s even planning to open a bar called Bar BQ in the house across the street from the original joint. Some of his old professors at Texas State still celebrate the end of the school year at San Marcos BBQ. After almost a decade operating his own restaurants, Pearson got way more than a business-school education on his own.

San Marcos BBQ
2601 Hunter Road, San Marcos
1701 N. Interstate 35 Frontage Road, San Marcos
Phone: 512-938-1019; 512-667-9779
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 11–8
Pitmaster: Justin Pearson
Method: Oak in an offset smoker and rotisserie
Year opened: 2014