It’s the journey, not the destination,” the old saying goes. Alas, the old saying doesn’t apply to barbecue. When it comes to well-smoked brisket, spicy sausage, and tooth-achingly sweet cobbler, it is the destination, as anyone who’s driven many hours to an acclaimed small-town joint only to find it sold out of brisket can dejectedly attest. Still, in Texas, there’s something to be said for the journey, as well as for the encounters with food-service workers, fellow smoked-meat enthusiasts, and judgmental physicians before, during, and after chowing down. Such experiences may be fun, they may be life-affirming, they may be embarrassing, and they may even be downright harrowing, as thirteen of our barbecue scouts attest in the stories below.
As I mapped out the thirteen establishments in the Valley that had been assigned to me, I decided I would get them all done in one weekend; I wasn’t going to do the ten-hour round-trip drive from Austin twice. My journey started on a Friday morning. Thirty hours later, after I had sampled eleven joints, I found myself lying down in my hotel room, air conditioner set to 60 degrees, the television screen slightly swirling as my body grappled with having ingested an unprecedented quantity of animal flesh. I dozed off. Then, at 1:30 a.m., I bolted upright, nauseated and drenched in perspiration. I rushed to the bathroom and stood over the toilet for what felt like an hour, hands on my knees, focusing on keeping the day’s grub down. I eventually dragged myself back to the bed and recoiled in horror and shame: I had left a full-body meat-sweat imprint on the sheet, like an obscene Shroud of Turin. —Josh Alvarez
On a barbecue trip to San Antonio, my husband and son quickly learned the drill: every time we reached a joint, I would exit the car first and try to take a few inconspicuous photos of the signage and exterior. When we pulled up to our second place of the day, around noon, they sat in the air-conditioning—the temperature had already passed 90 degrees—while I got out and stood between our SUV and a black truck (the only other vehicle in the lot) so that I could hide a bit while snapping pics. I suddenly caught something moving in the corner of my eye and turned to find that a couple was passionately making out in the front seat of the truck, just a couple of inches away. They didn’t seem to notice me at all. About ten minutes later, the guy emerged, looking a bit disheveled, to order at the takeout window. That’s one way to work up an appetite, I guess. —Kathy Blackwell
When I pulled up to what I thought was Capital G Barbecue, in Beeville, in July, I instead found a place called Ranch House Barbecue. Apparently, the original joint’s proprietors, Juan Gutierrez and John Gutierrez (no relation), had, just months after opening, experienced a “beef” with one another that began, I would learn, with a disagreement about pies. The argument culminated in the departure of John Gutierrez, who, according to a TexasMonthly.com story published last spring, was the actual barbecue guy of the partnership. Juan is carrying on without John (as of this writing, John has not found a new location) and had sold out of meat by the time I arrived. On a return visit a few days later, I was able to load up. The barbecue didn‘t reach top-ten levels, in my estimation, but it was pretty darn good. For a guy who wasn’t the actual barbecue guy in his partnership, Juan is doing pretty well. —David Courtney
Brook’s Place, in Cypress, has a “Firearms Welcome” sign hanging from its truck and offers a 10 percent discount for firearm carriers (the gun must be holstered). A man who appeared to be the owner walked around with his own firearm holstered, and when I asked if he was Mr. Brooks, he said “Depends on who’s asking,” then took a long drag from his cigar. I didn’t know what to make of this and said, “Me, Claire!” He laughed, but he never did answer me. —Claire Hogan
My annual physical came up just as I was completing my barbecue-bingeing responsibilities. I typically eat a fairly healthy diet and exercise regularly, so my previous physical had found my blood pressure, cholesterol, calcium deposits, and the like in a healthy range. The results of this latest physical were very different. My “bad” cholesterol had spiked. “What have you been doing?” my doctor asked. I explained that I’d been eating barbecue at least every other day for about three weeks and had also been required to sample desserts, which I normally avoid: banana pudding, peach cobbler, and so on. I promised him this bout of professional gluttony was over, and he agreed to redo my cholesterol test in a few months. —Dan Goodgame
Doing my barbecue-reporter due diligence, I asked the guy behind the counter at Oak’d, in Dallas, what kind of wood they use. He looked me in the eye, raised an eyebrow, and stood there silently until I remembered the name of the joint and sputtered, “Oh, yeah.” —Michael Hall
About 45 minutes into the wait at Jay’s BBQ Shack, in Abilene, I decided to grab a Coors Light and asked the woman in front of me, who was drinking one herself, if she’d hold my place. Upon my return, I handed her a second beer as a show of appreciation. As she thanked me, she mentioned it was a much-needed libation for a celebratory lunch. She’d had a doctor’s appointment that morning, where she had found out that she was finally cancer-free. —Emily Kimbro
At the end of our meal at Burns Original BBQ, in Houston, one of those classic Houston storms rolled in out of nowhere. We had to sprint to the car—well, “sprint” is a relative term after you’ve eaten as much as we had—and still got soaked. As we pulled up directions to the next joint on our list, lightning struck a tree so close to us that the car literally shook. Our next stop was Gatlin’s BBQ, about a ten-minute drive to the south on a normal day. Thanks to the storm, it took half an hour. After another dash through a parking lot, we were greeted with an age-old question: “What type of brisket would you like?” The answer, for once, was easy: “Dry!” —Joe Levin
Though one barbecue truck I visited had a sign advising people to wash their hands to protect themselves from germs, the pitmaster touched everything with his bare hands, which may or may not have been freshly washed. And I mean everything. Brisket and sausage? He sliced at them with a dull knife, but mostly tore them up with his hands. Chicken? He fished a thigh out of a pan for me with his hands. Did I want onions and pickles, he asked with his hands hovering over the condiments? (“Uh, sure.”) When I got home, I took a bite of the gray brisket and nibbled on the mealy sausage, but when I tried to work up the nerve to taste the chicken I realized that my appetite had long since disappeared. —Doyin Oyeniyi
Finding the Smokers Only BBQ trailer wasn’t easy. First, I visited its regular location, in Trenton, but it wasn’t there—in its place was a sign informing would-be customers that the truck would be smoking meat at the tractor pull in Whitewright, a few miles up the road. But when I arrived at the site, nothing was set up—I called the owner of the trailer and learned that I was several hours early. A few weeks later I headed to a summer fair in Leonard, about an hour northeast of Dallas, where, Facebook informed me, the trailer was serving. The third time was the charm, though the limited menu for the special event meant I still wasn’t able to try the most tantalizing item that Smokers Only serves: a brisket grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe next time I’m out in Trenton. —Dan Solomon
As I exited I-20 to dine at a barbecue establishment in West Texas, I saw an RV pulled over on the shoulder of the feeder road. Smoke was billowing from the undercarriage. A man was kneeling to look underneath while his wife and kids stood by. Some oil-field workers stopped to help and quickly grabbed the man and pulled him back just before one of the tires exploded. It was more exciting than any of the barbecue I ate that day. —Christian Wallace
My husband and I planned to visit two barbecue joints (DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ, in Terlingua, and Brick Vault Brewery and Barbecue, in Marathon) on the way back from a visit to Big Bend in mid-May. I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to sleep in a tent in the Chihuahuan Desert at that time of year, especially while pregnant and on the heels of a recent wildfire. Several trails were still closed, so we couldn’t hike them to work up an appetite even if we’d wanted to brave the heat. For two days, we sat under the Texas sun at our campsite, biding our time with books and popsicles from the nearby lodge. (The food we had brought was getting sweaty and gross in our cooler, which wasn’t appealing to this pregnant lady.) When we finally left, grimy and sad and more than a little hangry, we wanted to head straight home. But we stayed the course and were mightily rewarded for it: DB’s hearty brisket and friendly pitmaster lifted our spirits, and that first bite of Brick Vault’s banana pudding cooled us right down. —Alainna Wurfel
Even knowing that people begin lining up for Snow’s BBQ before sunrise, there’s something shocking about taking your place in line at 5:30 a.m., two and a half hours before opening, and realizing you’re number 220. Yet the 219 people in front of me turned out to be a blessing. I befriended a couple from Puerto Rico who first learned of Snow’s from Netflix’s Chef’s Table: BBQ. I chatted with a group of New Yorkers checking the place off their Texas bucket list. And I watched a family give up and head home after a couple of hours. Those of us who remained spent the morning watching fellow barbecue enthusiasts play cornhole and bonding over our shared persistence. Around 12:30 p.m. I was finally able to order. Yes, it was worth the wait. But next time, I’ll show up earlier. —Michelle Williams
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Tales From The Trail.” Subscribe today.