A Texas legislator who should be ashamed managed to pass a resolution declaring chili the state dish twenty years ago. Pshaw. Chili is ridiculous. It may have grown out of a genuine tradition, but it has now become an overhyped casualty of chili-cookoff mania. Barbecue, on the other hand, not only has history but still has integrity. We cook it, we eat it, and we argue about it passionately. The ultimate roots of barbecue can be traced back to the Stone Age, when humans first discovered that fire can transform a haunch of raw meat into something magnificently edible, but its more-immediate Texas origins date from one hundred or so years ago, when meat markets cooked and smoked their surplus stock on Saturdays, selling the finished product to customers. 

Technically speaking, barbecuing is the simple process of cooking meat using the heat and smoke of wood coals. But the many variables involved invite endless dispute and contention, especially here in Texas, where the only thing agreed upon is that what passes for barbecue in Kansas City (see “Gone to Kansas City,”), Memphis, North Carolina, or anywhere else is inferior to our own well-smoked delicacies. Time and temperature are hotly debated. When it comes to beef brisket, preferred times run from 6 to 24 hours (one smoke-crazed zealot thinks 72 hours is about right), and temperatures range from 250 to 450 degrees. The choice of wood turns friends and family against one another. An old-school pitmaster utilizes whatever slow-burning, sweet-smelling wood is available locally, such as hickory in the eastern part of the state and pecan and oak in the central environs. In West Texas mesquite is often the wood of choice, although it burns hot and can leave a strong oily aftertaste, causing many pit bosses to import hickory despite the expense.

How barbecue is cooked invites further discourse. Interstate 35 serves as the line of demarcation between two dominant philosophies—indirect heat (with the coals off to one side) being the favored method east of I-35, and direct heat more common west of the interstate. In certain parts of central East Texas, the pits are open-air, not enclosed. Many modern Texas barbecuists contend that only good grades of meat can be turned into superior barbecue. Others counter that the real skill of barbecuing lies in making a tough, fatty cut of meat tender and delicious. The question of rubs is prickly. Many pitmasters would no more pre-season a brisket than they would eat bean sprouts, but others insist that a salt-and-pepper rub (maybe with paprika or cayenne) is essential. Perhaps the most divisive debate is about the optimal firmness of brisket, with those who like a close-textured, stand-up brisket casting snide glances at those who adhere to the falling-apart-tender school. (The depth and color of the red ring just inside the crust provides yet another reason to squabble.) Once upon a time there was a debate about whether serious barbecue could be served on anything other than butcher paper, but that has now largely been decided in favor of the contemptible plastic-foam plate. Unfortunately, plastic knives and forks also rule.

Every region has its own peculiarities, especially where sauces and sides are concerned. By far the most common sauce is doctored ketchup (with brown sugar, Worcestershire, cayenne, a little vinegar, and “secret ingredients”), but a thinner, more vinegary sauce is likely to be found wherever the meat is held in higher regard than the sides. Too many places drench the meat in sauce unless you ask them not to, but several pits in the Central Texas Barbecue Belt—the epicenter of all barbecue in the universe—are loath to even offer sauce in bottles as an option. Baked beans supplant pintos along a swath of East Texas we have informally designated Sugar Central, where everything from the slaw to the tea is sweetened. In South Texas black beans occasionally appear on menus. U.S. 59 from Laredo to Houston is a veritable garden of Southern-style sides such as macaroni salad, English pea salad, green beans, and carrot salad.

Yet even the standard sides pose delicate questions. Should potato salad be defined by mustard or mayo? Is coleslaw best if it is vinegary or sugary? How shameful is it if the side dishes come from a can or a restaurant supplier—as many of them do, despite what the servers tell you? Are beans, potato salad, and coleslaw even necessary, or will a slice of raw onion, a piece of cottony white bread, and a jalapeño suffice? Do crackers make a better sop than cornbread (popular around Abilene), white bread, tortillas (big in South Texas), or Texas toast (an East and West Texas staple)? Does barbecue taste better washed down with Big Red or beer?

Even with its many regional variations, Texas barbecue in 1997 has a certain sameness, which says a lot about the intrusions of the modern world on this elemental culinary art. When the owner and pit boss at Austin’s in Eagle Lake utters the phrase “al dente,” you know the twenty-first century is here. The introduction of gas cookers borders on blasphemy, even though those who use them claim they maintain an even temperature and save on wood. Aluminum foil and plastic wrap are now used to keep brisket moist, and at some benighted places, the meat is precooked in foil. Taste- and texture-altering marinades are also occasionally used to tenderize the meat, and microwave ovens are ubiquitous for reheating. Steam tables are fixtures at the Southside Market in Elgin, the motherlode of Central Texas barbecued sausage since 1882, as well as too many other places to mention. All of which raises the question, At what point does barbecue lose its authenticity?

The definition of “barbecue” has certainly broadened. For every aficionado who still believes that a balanced diet is a rib in each hand, there are ten new believers who swear by barbecued chicken, ham, turkey breast, and turkey sausage. These meats have elbowed their way onto menus alongside the basic triad of brisket, ribs, and sausage, but the addition is not always an improvement. Barbecued chicken is fine, but there ought to be a law against turkey breast and ham, both of which are usually cooked deli stuff that has been enhanced by a few hours of smoking. Ruby’s in Austin serves only organic beef. Even meatless barbecue could eventually be an option, if the cashier reading a copy of Vegetarian Times at Smitty’s in El Paso is any indication. At the same time that new meats are showing up, a cherished old one is disappearing. Barbecued cabrito can hardly be found anymore along the Texas-Mexico border, and in Brady, home of the World Championship Barbecue Goat Cookoff, it is vanishing from the menus of local pits because demand for goat by assorted ethnic groups from as far away as Florida has driven up the price.

Perhaps the most significant latter-day development in the ’cue cosmos is the successful cloning of barbecue restaurants. As a matter of principle, we champion the quirky independent, but the barbecue at the chains deserves consideration. It may never be stellar, but it is often very good. On the leading edge of this trend is the County Line—State Line chain in Austin, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, and San Antonio—renowned for its megasized beef ribs and forties-vintage roadhouse motif. The various Lines have elevated barbecue to an upscale cuisine. Similarly, Luther’s of Houston, Bodacious in East Texas, Bill Miller’s of San Antonio and Austin, Colter’s and Spring Creek in Dallas—Fort Worth and points east, even Sonny Bryan’s of Dallas—Fort Worth and Riscky’s of Fort Worth have packaged barbecue into an inexpensive fast-food concept loaded with family appeal. Perhaps the proper attitude is to wish them well. After all, clone barbecue is better than no barbecue.

During the month of March, a barbecue swat team consisting of Texas Monthly editors Joe Nick Patoski, Patricia Sharpe, and John Morthland, plus Austin freelance writers Jim Shahin and Richard Zelade, racked up more than 10,000 miles crisscrossing the state, eating at 245 establishments, gaining a cumulative 12 pounds, and risking life, limb, and clogged arteries to determine the fifty best barbecue places in Texas and ultimately to declare the Big Three of Texas barbecue: Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, and Cooper’s in Llano. The barbecue gang initially devised a five-point rating system, but ended up including only those places with a ranking of 3.5 or better.

You may not agree with all of the choices. In fact, if you do, your barbecue credentials are suspect, since true connoisseurs always defend the honor of their favorite pits no matter what anyone else thinks. Accordingly, we’ll vouch for the places listed here because what they serve is worth arguing about. And if it isn’t worth arguing about, then it’s not Texas barbecue.