A gloved hand reaches into a vat of hot, stringy meat. The strands of pork are collected and compressed into the shape of a snowball—one of a size that could cause serious injury. The pale, naked pork ball sits on the tray, envious of the glistening turkey, ribs, and brisket nearby. The pitmaster—armed with a squeeze bottle—cloaks it in a drizzle of sauce (seemingly out of pity) that drips down the sides and only accentuates the shape that doesn’t exist inside any animal. This sad performance could happen at just about any barbecue joint in Texas, because, unfortunately, “Texas-style” pulled pork is bullshit.

I write this not to denigrate the cut of meat used for pulled pork. Trips around the areas of North Carolina west of Raleigh have provided many tasty bites of smoked pork shoulder. There they cook it with the skin still attached, and when it comes off the pit, the shoulder is separated into individual cuts. Menus there are more likely to identify it as chopped pork rather than pulled. Request the inside white meat, as many unadventurous eaters do, and you’ll get the same boring blob common here in Texas. But ask for the outside brown and you’ll learn why this style of barbecue has legions of fans. The bark and the fat that get all the seasoning and smoke cling to every bite of the juicy pork. As a Texan, it makes me jealous that North Carolina outdoes us when it comes to this cut of barbecue.

Typical Texas-style pulled pork starts with a skinless, bone-in pork butt. The whole cut is rubbed and smoked, and usually wrapped in foil for a good while at the end of the cook. It could easily be called competition-style pulled pork, because that’s how most competitors on the Texas circuit cook theirs. The goal is tenderness above all, as evidenced by the common boast that the wonky blade bone can be retrieved easily from the meaty mass. This tenderness also allows pitmasters to easily pull the meat into strands that are often squeezed into a ball for serving.

The most memorable bite of pulled pork I’ve eaten in Texas was served up by Gabriel Ritter at the Bodacious Bar-B-Q location in Hallsville, just east of Longview amid the Piney Woods of East Texas. I had sat down with a tray of brisket, ribs, and sausage when he walked over with a handful of pork for me to try. It was still in big chunks, coated in a near-black bark that had been pulled from the end of the pork butt. It was smoky, salty, sweet, and delicious, like a Texas version of outside brown. The fact that I ate it six years ago and haven’t had a better bite of pulled pork since says something about Ritter’s skill, and also about the many lackluster pork butts being served in our state.

Even Ritter admits that what I was served isn’t what you’d normally get when you walk into Bodacious. “If it was up to me, that’s how I would serve pulled pork,” he said, but that would leave a whole lot of leftover barkless meat from the interior portions. Instead, he pulls it all and mixes the interior meat, bark, and fat together to create as good a bite as he can. He also takes the advice of Roland Lindsey, the late founder of Bodacious, and cooks it in a pan on the smoker rather than directly on the rack. “Roland always said pork doesn’t have flavor like beef does, so you have to catch the juice while cooking,” Ritter said. “The flavor that cooks out of it you end up catching in the pan.” He puts in the work to get as good a product as he can, but Ritter does his best work with a different style of pork.

A pork steak from Bodacious Bar-B-Q.
A pork steak from Burnt Bean Co. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Thursdays are for pork steaks at Bodacious. Ritter slices the raw shoulders into inch-and-a-half-thick steaks, which are seasoned and smoked right alongside the whole pork butts. The steaks take up three times the space on the pit, pound for pound, as the shoulders, but Ritter said it’s worth it to make a truly special bite of smoked pork. The steaks are served sliced, and they still have a little chew to them compared to the ultratender pulled pork. They also have more surface area for seasoning and smoke to cling to.

I’ve said before that all corned beef is just potential pastrami—it’s just waiting to be made better. That’s also how I feel about every pork butt’s potential to become pork steaks. They’re as rooted in Texas barbecue as pulled pork, which is to say: not all that deeply. Pulled pork was arguably introduced to most Texas diners in 1986, when Hard Rock Cafe opened a franchise in Dallas. The following year, the Dallas Morning News wrote that the restaurant “has trotted the pig into steer territory, offering the famed Tennessee Pig Sandwich.” Hard Rock had to change the name after a successful lawsuit from the now-defunct Texas-based Pig Stand chain, which had trademarked the “Pig Sandwich” moniker. It’s now called a BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich on the Hard Rock menus.

“A well-cooked pork steak is hands down is better than any pulled pork,” David Kirkland, co-owner of Burnt Bean Co., in Seguin, told me on a recent trip to his restaurant. I was there for Pork Steak Thursday. A thick slice of the shoulder is served whole, coated in its own juices and made tender in the offset smoker out back. Burnt Bean also serves pulled pork, but co-owner Ernest Servantes, a veteran of the Texas barbecue-competition circuit, is honest about the typical method of preparation. “Here in Texas we just overcook it,” he said. “I would rather have pork steak.” 

Cade Mercer runs CM Smokehouse, in Austin, and agrees with the sentiment, but he prefers to cook his steaks over direct heat. “I don’t want to have to light up the BQ Grill every day,” he said, explaining why pork steaks are just a rotating special on his menu. As for pulled pork, “I’ve thought about taking it off my menu so many times,” he said, but it’s a moneymaker. And I get it. Pulled pork is a necessity on so many barbecue joints’ menus because it’s profitable. Pork is less expensive than beef. Servantes said in his last food delivery he paid $2.39 per pound for raw pork butts, compared to $4.45 for Prime-grade brisket. Barbecue joints can’t just get rid of pork butt, (except Terry Black’s, evidently), so I’m advocating for other uses for the economical cut that say more about Texas barbecue.

Reese Bros Barbecue, in San Antonio, has taken pulled pork off its menu. “It didn’t speak to who we were,” chef Jorge Flores said. Flores grew up eating carnitas with his father and worked for the well-respected Carnitas Lonja, in San Antonio, before joining Nick and Elliott Reese’s operation. For the carnitas, Flores cuts the pork butt into eight large chunks that are then heavily seared and placed in a deep pan with five pounds of pork lard, water, and salt. They simmer slowly in the pan on the plancha for a couple hours and are then transferred to the smoker to get some additional flavor while they tenderize for several more hours. The fully cooked pork is shredded and crisped directly on the plancha before being served. The most popular way to order it is on a torta with pickled onions, guacamole, salsa doña, and refried beans. “It’s something very symbolic that I get to bring to the table,” Flores said. Other great barbecue versions of carnitas can be found at Rollin Smoke, in Austin, and at Houston’s JQ’s Tex Mex BBQ, which will hopefully reopen after announcing an indefinite hiatus two weeks ago.

Carnitas need no marketing help in Texas, but evidently pork steak does. Even with pork steak being a signature dish of barbecue legend Tootsie Tomanetz, at Snow’s BBQ, in Lexington, its popularity doesn’t travel well. Ritter said his Hallsville location of Bodacious has become so well-known for its Thursday special that he sells more pork steak that day than he does pulled pork the rest of the week. So why not offer pork steak every day? “We tried,” Ritter said, but the steak’s many fans kept coming on Thursday, and customers who saw the phrase “pork steak” for the first time on a Saturday mostly ignored it. The same thing happened to Ritter with pork belly, so he changed the name to bacon burnt ends, and now he can’t make enough. So maybe pork steak just needs a new name. Texas-style sliced pork, perhaps? I don’t know, but I’m open to anything that means fewer balls of bland, wet pork on my barbecue tray.