Kenneth Laird is as big a draw as his barbecue. The seventy-year old pitmaster at Laird’s Bar-B-Q in Llano has a story to share with anyone looking for a chat. It’s hard not to overhear it all, whether you were meant to or not, in the small dining room. His Texas drawl comes with a drizzle of Mississippi, from his dad’s side he says, and its leisurely pace is captivating. When I mention his gift for smoking, he smiles. “You can go anywhere for food, but you can’t go anywhere for good B.S.,” he says. “And we give it away for free.”
I followed him outside as he abandoned the crowd to cook my ribeye steak on a barrel pit. After 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday he trades the barbecue menu for the best steak dinner deal in the Hill Country. A simple baked potato, a slice of homemade white bread, and a salad (get the version with strawberries, mandarin oranges, and poppyseed dressing) come alongside a fourteen-ounce ribeye for $18. Laird’s is known for barbecue cooked over direct heat in pits fueled by hot coals, and his steaks barely sizzle above fading mesquite. “I go out every Monday and cut my wood,” Laird tells me, motioning to the stacks of mesquite around us. He watches the single steak patiently, smoke building as the melting fat drips into the fire, waiting for the right moment to flip it.
“There needs to be a definition of barbecue,” he offers. “All that gas-cooked stuff on those rotisseries, that is not barbecue.” I asked if the ribeye he was cooking for me counted as barbecue. “No. That’s not barbecue, either. It’s steak,” he said without hesitation, as if he’d pondered this question before. Barbecue or not, it was steak night in the Hill Country, and I was hunting ribeyes instead of ribs.
Steaks are a weekend treat at many of the direct-heat barbecue joints left in the Hill Country. Look for them in the evenings (all of them mentioned here aren’t available until 5:00 p.m.), and pay special attention to whether or not the price includes sides. Down the street from the inexpensive meal at Laird’s is an unaccompanied $25 ribeye at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. There’s the usual free beans, bread, and pickles, but the thick steak comes at a comparative premium to the well-cooked version at Laird’s. Still, it’s a hell of a good steak.
The thick ribeye at Cooper’s is heavily seasoned with a salt and pepper rub, then cooked over coals on the flat pits out front. It came back a perfect medium rare and was plenty juicy. I don’t recommend dipping it into their famous vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but it was at the picnic tables at Cooper’s that I discovered a new steak condiment. After fishing out a whole pickled jalapeño from a large plastic jug in the middle of the table, I took a bite off one end. The other end erupted, sending pickled jalapeño brine all over my steak. I thought I’d ruined it, but after a bite or two, I squeezed out enough juice for every bite of steak. I was hooked.
Cooper’s has the best fixins—butter, sour cream, shredded cheese, and real bacon—for their loaded baked potato, and they always surprise me with the quality of their free pinto beans. A scoop of Cooper’s cobbler, pecan, blackberry, or peach, is a great way to finish a meal there.
Forty minutes down the highway in Fredericksburg I found something completely unexpected – A new barbecue joint cooking wood down to coals for fuel. One-year-old Backwoods BBQ uses this method because that’s how owner Michael Zavala’s dad did it before him, even though it means burning through two cords of mesquite every week.
Zavala moved to Fredericksburg from nearby Mason, where his family ran Zavala’s Cafe—which specialized in Mexican food and barbecue. (It was next to Texas Deadwood Barbecue, a great stop for beef ribs, run by Michael’s cousin Edward Zavala.) The restaurant closed when Michael’s parents’ health failed, but he couldn’t quit barbecue. Let’s just say the feeling of barbecue-as-destiny ran in his blood. When Michael was a kid, his father was a general contractor, and also ran a restaurant that he kept secret from his wife. The family was in Mason, but his dad’s construction project was in San Saba, where he decided to purchase a recently closed barbecue joint. All those late hours on the job site were really spent toiling in the pits of Fred’s Barbecue in the early 1980s. I guess it was better than a mistress, but when his wife found out, she made him sell it. That’s when they opened Zavala’s Cafe.
On Friday and Saturday steak nights at Backwoods BBQ, you can get a hand-cut ribeye or a New York strip (sixteen to eighteen ounces on average) for $29, which includes a salad and baked potato. If you’re earlier than I was, you can also choose the dry-aged, bone-in pork chop. Zavala cooks it all over coals in a specially designed steak pit with an angled grate. Steaks can be moved to the high (cool) or low (hot) side depending on how much heat they require. Even after two steak dinners immediately prior, this was the best of the bunch. The beef was juicy and salty with a great sear on the surface. For any city-dweller used to steakhouse prices, it was also a steal. The mile-high meringue pies, made by Micheal’s wife, Jennifer, were a bargain at any price.
I eat a steady diet of slow-smoked meat. It’s difficult and time-consuming to replicate at home, so letting a pitmaster do it for me is often an easy decision. Plus, there’s the whole job description that requires all those barbecue joint visits. For steak it’s usually the opposite. I cook ribeye or strips at home instead of paying exorbitant Dallas restaurant prices. But it’s different in this part of Texas where it’s easy to find a great steak at a barbecue joint. The bonus is that none of them are much of a splurge, which makes for a good excuse to partake in steak night in the Texas Hill Country.
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
505 W Dallas St.
Llano, TX 78643
1600 Ford St.
Llano, TX 78643