Every Thursday morning Charles Brewer procures sliced oxtails from his local H-E-B. He sprinkles them liberally with TexJoy barbecue seasoning, then adds extra dashes of paprika and onion powder. After that, he smokes them over red oak and hickory for twelve to fifteen hours at his joint, Charlie’s Bar-B-Que, in Beaumont. That’s how long it takes a much bigger brisket to cook, so it might come as a surprise that a three-inch chunk of meat is equally stubborn. “It’s a long process, but the payoff is worth it,” Brewer told me. “We never have any leftovers.”

Oxtails are sliced from the tail of a cow. With nose-to-tail cooking being in vogue, the cut of meat, long prized for its richness, has found new fans. The bone in the center is surrounded by lobes of marbled beef that can dry out in the time it takes for the tough connective tissues to surrender. 

To make his oxtails fork tender, Brewer keeps a pan of water under the rack in his cabinet smoker. I asked him how he knows when the oxtails are done. “I eat one. But then it gets like Lay’s potato chips,” he said. “You can’t just eat one.” I can confirm that plucking the morsels from the bone becomes addictive. The savory seasoning is balanced with his barbecue sauce, a recipe from Brewer’s grandfather, to which he adds a splash of Big Red, for sweetness.

The price of oxtails has nearly doubled over the past five years, following the trajectory of other once undesirable cuts that are now barbecue standards. Brisket was once inexpensive because it’s so tough; spareribs were the bits left after the bones were removed from pork belly; and past-its-prime meat was ground, spiced, and stuffed into casings. Brewer remembers long-ago trips to the meat market, when “they’d have [oxtails] bagged up and just give you that stuff for a little bit of nothing.” 

Late last year in Houston, police arrested a couple of oxtail bandits and displayed the ill-gotten loot on the hood of the suspects’ car as if it were heroin from a drug bust. A photo of the scene went viral, prompting comments about the rising cost of the cut. Thankfully, Brewer is “locked in with a good price,” he says, and on Fridays and Saturdays he serves three or four slices of oxtail on a plate with two sides for just $18.75. 

Brewer’s grandfather taught him that no matter the meat, barbecue brings people together. Whenever a family disagreement lingered too long, his grandfather would invite everyone over. Arguments seemed to go up in smoke as everyone savored the bounty. “I just hope my barbecue has that effect on people,” Brewer said.   

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Smoker’s Tail.” Subscribe today.