My December expense report was a doozy. In the past two months alone, I’ve taken barbecue scouting trips to Brownsville, McAllen, Harlingen, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Gladewater, Marshall, Longview, Lubbock, Sweetwater, Olton, and Levelland. Eating at so many new barbecue joints, I was reminded just how good we have it in Texas. We publish our Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ list knowing there are a lot more than fifty spots for great barbecue in the state. Here are the best bites I enjoyed over this past year outside our current Top 50.
Pork Belly Burnt Ends at All the King’s Men, Bryan
If any barbecue menu item defined 2018, it was the pork belly/bacon burnt end. They’re almost a requirement for new Texas barbecue joints, and they’re all a riff on the original at Heim Barbecue in Fort Worth (shall we say the #OGBBE). This version is one of the best I’ve eaten. The menu describes their pork belly burnt ends as “candied,” but the sweetness isn’t overwhelming. The thin coat of sauce melds together with the melting fat of the pork, and the gush of juice as you bite into one is so satisfying. They’re perfectly executed.
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Pork Steak at Bodacious Bar-B-Q, Hallsville
Gabriel and Kasie Ritter offer a different smoked meat special every day, and on Thursday it’s pork steak. The steaks are cut from the shoulder. They’re not as thick as the more famous version at Snow’s BBQ, in Lexington, but they’re not as thin as you’d find in the grocery store either. Each one is really enough meat for two people, but after one bite you’ll know why it’s safer to order one all for yourself.
Pig Apple Sandwich at Brendyn’s BBQ, Nacogdoches
Putting down a layer of sliced Granny Smith apple isn’t how you’d start any ordinary pork sandwich. The tart crunch of the apple works well here with the sweet brioche bun and salty, smoky pulled pork shoulder. A crunchy slaw on top and a dab of their mustard barbecue sauce don’t hurt either. It’s a great and throughly unique sandwich.
Dry-Aged Pork Ribs at The Brewer’s Table, Austin
These low-and-slow ribs begin with a fourteen-day dry age hanging in the Brewer’s Table’s cooler. A good jolt of smoke comes from an Aaron Franklin–designed smoker, then the ribs get a final dose of fire on a wood grill. A powder of dried herbs and vegetables is sprinkled in a fine layer over the top, like a more vegetal and refined version of a Memphis dry rub. This is the most unique bite of barbecue I had all year.
Smoked Sausage at Desert Oak Barbecue, El Paso
Richard and Suzanne Funk went through a lot of disappointing sausage recipes. Then John Lewis of Charleston’s Lewis Barbecue gave them some pointers. They got to experimenting and found a technique and seasoning that worked for them. Crushed red pepper and mustard seeds are added to the standard salt and pepper seasoning. The coarse grind on the brisket and spare rib trimmings keep it all juicy. It’s packed with flavor and plenty of heat.
Smoked Burger at LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue, Austin
These burgers, made from brisket trimmings, are smoked slow, then seared in a cast iron skillet heated in the smoker’s firebox. Onions are sautéed in the fat left in the pan, and they top the burger along with a slice of American cheese. Served on a sweet Martin’s potato roll, it’s simply a masterpiece.
Three-Meat Plate at LJ’s BBQ, Brenham
Sometimes it’s one bite of barbecue that’s memorable, and sometimes it’s the whole dang plate. At LJ’s I had one of the best combo plates I ate this year—every bite competed with the last for most memorable. I loved the creamy, alfredo-like mac and cheese and the tender collards almost as much as the barbecue. Their trio of juicy beef sausage, peppery and sweet pork ribs, and smoky brisket is also hard to beat.
Pork Steak at Matus Pit Bar-B-Q, Caldwell
Priced under $9 a pound, this pork steak might be the best value in Texas barbecue. Matus is open only Saturday and Sunday mornings, and if you wait until noon, the pork steaks (and everything else) might be gone. There’s no dining room, so I’ve enjoyed slices of the thick cut pork steak in my car in years past, but I suggest buying an entire two- to three-pound pork steak and taking it home, where you can leisurely eat slice after slice in peace.
Pork Belly Burnt End Stuffed Jalapeño at Panther City BBQ, Fort Worth
Priced at three for $5, these are easily the best deal at this food truck, which is about to become a brick-and-mortar. A half jalapeño is filled with cream cheese and a cube of pork belly burnt end, then wrapped in bacon before a final smoke. It’s genius. The thin bacon created a crisp exterior, while the burnt end underneath is more yielding and juicy. The seeds have been removed from the jalapeños, so the flavor of the pepper comes through. It’s creative and delicious.
Pork Ribs at Pitforks and Smokerings BBQ, Slaton
Isaac Arellano smokes meat under the canopy of his father’s old gas station. Father and son both still work at the auto repair shop next door, but on the weekends the place becomes one of the best new barbecue joints I’ve visited. They do it all well. The pork ribs, heavily seasoned with black pepper and chile powder, really shine. They’re cut thick and smoked until they reach the perfect level of tenderness.
Sausage Wrap at Pustka Family Barbecue, Hutto
Dustin Pustka runs a little barbecue trailer parked in front of a Hutto gas station. The sausage is made with an old Polish recipe. He adds a bit of brisket trimmings to the mostly pork links, and the mustard seeds are his own flourish. The links are juicy, smoky, and great for making a classic Texas sausage wrap.
Smoked Oxtails at Ray’s BBQ Shack, Houston
Ray Busch longs for the days when oxtail was an inexpensive cut, but he loves the way they come out of his smoker. Every Thursday you can get them as the daily special. The tails are rich in fat and collagen and come off the center bone in bite-size, salty, smoky nuggets. Give them a dash of hot sauce, and savor this distinctive bite of Houston barbecue.
Chili Cheese Brisket Sandwich at the Slow Bone, Dallas
The Slow Bone has offered smoked brisket and smoked brisket chili since it opened. The chili goes on just about everything, from Fritos to tots, but the best place for it is on top of a sliced brisket sandwich. Think of it as a meat-based barbecue sauce, and add some onions, pickled jalapeños, and even some cheese. That’s a sandwich that doesn’t need a side.
Beef Short Rib at Smokin’ Moon, Pharr
This massive short rib isn’t cheap at Smokin’ Moon. They don’t smoke small racks, and each rib could probably feed a family of four. They’re slathered in hot sauce and seasoned with just salt and pepper before smoking. The meat is tender beneath the stout and smoky bark, and it’s the best menu item at one of the greatest new barbecue joints in Texas.
Sausage Wrap at Tallent Sausage, Riverside
This place is a sausage wonderland. Packages of house-made sausage in a half dozen varieties greet you at the meat case. There’s a barbecue counter at the back of the store where you can find a standard menu of smoked meats, but the prize here is the sausage wrap. You can choose from German sausage or the original. Both are winners, and they come on a hot dog bun with pickles, onions, mustard, and barbecue sauce on request. Get it all for $2.99.
Bonus: Willow’s Texas BBQ in Houston couldn’t be narrowed down to one great bite. Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela made the finest complete barbecue meal I had all year. The brisket is spectacular, with a bark that bit back and a supremely supple fattiness. Pork ribs were just the right amount of tender with a simple rub that highlights the smoke and sweetness of the pork rather than adding more sugar to cover it. Sliced smoked turkey breast was well executed and juicy. In the cold of winter I’m yearning for the cool tomato salad, and their jalapeño cream corn is hard to top. It’s simply a great barbecue joint that Houston is lucky to have.