Texas barbecue is flourishing. The pace at which new joints, and more specifically great new joints, are opening is staggering. I’ve spent the two years since we published our 2017 list of the Top 50 barbecue joints trying to keep up by taking frequent road trips to every corner of the state. Now, no matter where you are in Texas—even on the Llano Estacado—you’re not far from great barbecue.
There has never been a simple definition of Texas barbecue. Cooking methods, wood types, and seasonings vary across the state. And now things are getting even more complex. Motivated by the competitive barbecue scene and inspired by the foods they eat out or at home, pitmasters are enlivening their menus with ingredients and cooking styles from all over the world. New spots in the Austin area are serving brisket banh mi, barbecue gumbo, and kimchi instead of pickles. A single joint in Houston does all those and more. Even in Waco you can find a bowl of brisket ramen. Moroccan-style carrots and Armenian coffee share the stage with Tex-Mex touches like pico de gallo sausage, barbacoa, and elotes. But don’t worry. The chopped-beef sandwich isn’t going anywhere.
This is the second time we’ve done a midterm barbecue report that focuses exclusively on new barbecue joints. We launched it in 2015 because the level of activity in the Texas barbecue scene had gotten so intense that it seemed wrong to make readers wait to hear about the worthy rookies until we released our next Top 50 list, which comes out every four years. (The next one is due in 2021.)
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And things have only gotten more intense lately. When I compiled my last midterm report, I easily narrowed my picks down to 25. This year, though, it was harder because there was a lot more great new barbecue to evaluate. Some of it could be found at pop-up operations. But our rules require that a place have a permanent address and regular hours. And then there are the top-tier places that have spawned second locations, such as Austin’s Micklethwait Craft Meats, which launched a satellite in Smithville, and Brenham’s Truth Barbeque, which expanded to Houston. While these places are technically new, their parent operations got plenty of accolades in our last Top 50 list. This time around, there’s so much happening in Texas barbecue that there’s no reason to repeat ourselves.
Opened: 2017 Pitmasters: Evan LeRoy, Brad Robinson, and Thomas Spaulding Pro tip: Incredible smoked burgers are available after 5 p.m.
LeRoy made our last midterm report as pitmaster of the now-closed Freedmen’s, but by the time the Austin joint appeared on our 2017 Top 50, he was no longer there. In March of that year, LeRoy and business partner Sawyer Lewis, who works the counter, opened a food truck, and since day one they’ve been ahead of the curve with barbecue trends. Their de facto beef option is smoked cheek meat, which is somehow even juicier than fatty brisket. Their sauce contains beets, kimchi is standard on their sandwiches, and you might even be treated to fried rice inside their smoked boudin. You may not always be able to find brisket here (it’s served only on Saturdays), but you’ll never be bored. 121 Pickle Rd, 512-945-9882. Open Wed–Sun 11–9.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Bram Tripp Pro tip: The smoked beef brisket is served only at dinner.
When Tyson Cole, of Uchi and Uchiko, teamed up with Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue, we knew the result would be unfamiliar and exhilarating. Their Asian smokehouse concept pairs meats with sauces more likely to contain fish and herbs than ketchup and molasses. Tripp left the Pit Room, in Houston, to oversee the smokers at Loro, and his skill is on display with proteins ranging from baby back ribs to cured and smoked salmon. The bavette steak, which is cold-smoked, cooked sous vide, and then finished over a wood flame, is the epitome of this technique-driven style of meat cooking, but there’s no doubt that it’s Texas barbecue. 2115 S. Lamar Blvd, 512-916-4858. Open Sun–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11.
Opened: 2012 Pitmaster: Charles Brewer Pro tip: Visit on Saturdays for smoked oxtails.
Juicy smoked links are a tradition in Beaumont that goes back more than a century. Brewer operated a food truck before opening inside a convenience store, in 2016, but I didn’t discover his links until late 2017, right before he moved into his current building. Most pitmasters in this area use beef casings for their sausages instead of the usual pork casings found elsewhere in the state, and Brewer is no different. His are a little leaner and have more of a smoky punch, but they have that recognizable spice from red pepper and chile powder. His St. Louis–cut ribs might be the best in town, and his wife, Shelia, makes the sweet potato pie using a recipe that’s been in the family for three generations. 3125 College, 409-767-7683. Open Mon 10:30–6, Tue–Sat 10:30–7.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Quy Hoang Pro tip: They hope to open for dinner soon and offer plenty of specials.
Long the darling of the Houston pop-up and festival scene, the Blood Bros.—Terry and Robin Wong (actual brothers) and Hoang—have finally opened a permanent spot. There’s plenty of brisket, pork ribs, and house-made sausage to sample, but the team also draws from their Asian heritage for items like the smoked turkey banh mi with a thick swipe of house-made chicken liver pâté. Or how about a link of boudin spiced with Thai green chiles? The brisket is smoky and tender; brisket leftovers are chopped up for a signature side of smoked-brisket fried rice, which could be a lunch all on its own. 5425 Bellaire Blvd, 713-664-7776. Open Wed–Sun 11–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmasters: Matt Lowery and Corey Cook Pro tip: Come here when the line at nearby Truth Barbeque is unbearable.
Plenty of Texas barbecue spots focus only on the meat, while some try to wow you with their sides. At LJ’s, you get the best of both worlds. I’m still craving the collard greens with bacon and the creamy macaroni and cheese, which starts with an Alfredo-like sauce, as much as I am the sweet and salty ribs and the tender, smoky brisket. LJ’s is also one of the few places in the state with pulled pork that is truly praiseworthy. 1407 W. Main, 979-421-8292. Open Wed–Sat 11–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Brad Doan Pro tip: When you think you’ve driven too far, just keep going a little ways down.
On the outskirts of College Station, on the way to Snook, is a building that looks like a storage unit. Parked at the end is a trailer serving better barbecue than this town is used to having. Whether it’s the peppery pork ribs, smoky brisket, or juicy turkey breast with a touch of smoked paprika, this barbecue will keep you coming back. Some regulars are so taken with the corn casserole and loaded mashed potatoes that they order double portions. 8203 Raymond Stotzer Pkwy, 979-492-6241. Open Thur–Sat 11–sold out.
Opened: 2018 Pitmasters: Chris McGhee, Bill Dumas, Troy Warlick, and Marco Oglesby Pro tip: Don’t miss the brisket Benedict for Sunday brunch.
For their second act, the folks who brought us Stiles Switch, a 2017 Top 50 joint in Austin, headed west, to just outside Dripping Springs, where they’re serving up their version of Cajun-Texan barbecue. You’ll find all the Texas favorites, like juicy brisket, sweet and spicy pork ribs, and some of the finest smoked sausages around, but be adventurous. Potato salad replaces the rice in a bowl of brisket, chicken, and sausage gumbo, prompting you to wonder why this version isn’t offered statewide. In the spicy boudin, you can almost taste the Tabasco barrel. Cool it down with some ridiculously good cobbler and ice cream. 166 Hargraves Dr, 512-212-7211. Open Tue–Thur 11–8:30, Fri & Sat 11–9:30, Sun 10:30–8:30.
Ernest Morales’s custom brisket knife at Panther City BBQ, in Fort Worth.
Opened: 2018 Pitmasters: Chris Magallanes and Ernest Morales Pro tip: Check their hours, as the transition from trailer to brick-and-mortar might affect their schedule.
Fort Worth’s Heim Barbecue is the originator of the pork belly burnt end, but when Panther City BBQ took over the lot where the Heim trailer once parked, they did their best imitation. It’s good, but more impressive is how they pair it with a jalapeño, which they cut in half, stuff with cheese, top with the pork belly, and wrap in bacon. There are plenty more smoked meats to love too. A brick-and-mortar on the site should be completed later this year. 201 E. Hattie, 214-532-3657. Open Thur–Sat 11–4, Sun noon–4.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: John Mueller Pro tip: Ask Mueller nicely and he might let you inspect the smoker.
If you’ve eaten Mueller’s barbecue at any of his previous joints, this one offers no surprises. The brisket is going to be generously coated in black pepper and cooked hot and fast, giving it a bark that bites back. He also makes a sauce that’s so good, with heat and plenty of beefy flavor, that I break my own rule against dipping; try it with the brisket or maybe a chunk of beef rib pulled cleanly away from the bone. The cheesy squash has a loyal following. 201 E. 9th, 512-962-1004. Open Wed–Sun 10:30–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Dustin Pustka Pro tip: A simple sausage wrap makes for a quick and inexpensive lunch.
When Austin barbecue lovers leave all the great local options behind and head toward Hutto, they’re usually en route to Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor. This is my plea to stop eight miles earlier at the Texaco gas station on FM 1660, just off U.S. 79, for a spot as good as you’ll find anywhere. Pustka smokes a mean brisket, ribs, and half chicken, and he also makes his own sausage from an old Polish family recipe that uses mustard seeds. The cold charred-corn elotes salad, dressed with mayo, lime juice, cilantro, cotija, and chile powder, is a must-order, as is the whipped potato salad. 550 S. FM 1660, 512-466-5949. Open Mon–Sat 11–4.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Patrick Feges Pro tip: Try as many sides as you can during your visit.
Erin Smith, a chef who’s worked at restaurants such as New York’s Per Se and Houston’s Main Kitchen, wanted a place to showcase her cooking skills, especially with vegetables. A barbecue joint seems an odd place to do it, but she’s married to pitmaster Feges. The barbecue menu is chock-full of quality Texas classics, and there’s even a smoked boudin. But the sides are wholly unexpected. Baby carrots are topped with a Moroccan-spiced glaze. Whole ears of corn take on a smoky flavor while getting browned on the flat top for elotes, and the greens taste like they’re straight from a Southern grandmother’s kitchen. Don’t miss the cracklin’s. 3 Greenway Plz, 832-409-6118. Open Mon–Fri 6:30–9:30 a.m. & 11–3.
Opened: 2018 Pitmasters: James McFarland, Michael Michna, and Wade Elkins Pro tip: There’s even smoke in the salad, a variation on a Caesar that uses smoked egg yolks in the dressing.
Opened as a passion project by McFarland, who works full-time in the oil and gas industry, and Michna, a full-time firefighter, Reveille has turned into a weekend barbecue destination for fans (it’s about a fifty-mile drive from Houston). The two friends have brought on Elkins, most recently of Feges BBQ, to help expand the menu and the operating hours. Try the peppery brisket, peppery turkey, or peppery beef ribs (there’s a trend with the seasoning here). The Taco Sausage tastes exactly like its name suggests; you’ll also do well ordering one of their ever-changing specialty sausages like the Banh Mi and Double IPA. 37421 FM 1774, 281-857-4338 and 346-413-3060. Open Thur–Sun 11–sold out.
Opened: 2018 Pitmasters: Nick Reese, Elliott Reese, and Phillip Moellering Pro tip: Bring a designated driver or stay at the Gage Hotel (which owns Brick Vault), because there are six beers on tap.
It used to be a challenge to find good barbecue in the Big Bend region, but several solid options have popped up just within the past few years. One of the best is Brick Vault, which uses oak brought in from Stephenville, almost four hundred miles away. The space doubles as a brewery, but it’s so small that “microbrewery” is too generous; they call it a nano-brewery. The cream ale pairs especially well with the barbecue. Try the house-made sausages, which are smoked until the casings have that proper snap. The brisket and ribs are impressive, and it’s not often you find fresh green beans at a barbecue joint, or slaw so good you can’t imagine the meal without it. 100 NW 1st (Hwy 90W), 432-386-7538. Open Thur & Fri 4–8:30 (or sold out), Sat 12:30–8:30, Sun 11–3.
Pitmaster Mark Scott at Convenience West, in Marfa.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson
A spread of barbecue and sides at Convenience West.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Mark Scott Pro tip: Carrot Dip Dip, a muhammara-like appetizer of fire-roasted carrots, isn’t barbecue, but it might change your life.
Yup—another Big Bend contender (see Brick Vault, above). This converted gas station on the west side of town opens for dinner only on Friday through Sunday, and there’s no doubt you’ll leave happy. Scott cranks out the best barbecue Marfa has ever seen from a hail-damaged smoker that sits in front of the building, right alongside the picnic tables. His sausage-making skills are also on full display, so be sure to try the weekly special; it was the pork al pastor during my visit. Don’t sleep on the juicy half-chicken that’s smoked to perfection, and don’t skip dessert. Mark’s wife, Kaki, makes lemon hand pies, and I’ll tell you from experience that one is good, but another for the road is even better. 1411 W. San Antonio. Open Fri–Sun 5–9.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Andrew Soto Pro tip: Barbacoa—beef cheeks smoked with oak and some mesquite—is available only on Saturdays and Sundays. Try it with their house-made salsa.
Butter’s is so inexpensive that when I stopped in I urged Soto to raise his prices. I want him to stay in business so that I can keep coming back for the decadently fatty brisket and the beef and pork sausages wrapped in flour tortillas made by his mother. Monster pork spareribs coated in black pepper and tender turkey slices also impressed. He’s selling enough of the stuff to add on a screened-in dining area. 104 S. Texas Hwy 359, 361-255-6108. Open Wed–Fri 11–sold out, Sat & Sun 9:30–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Aaron Rejino Pro tip: Time your visit with the Thursday evening special of smoked fajitas.
Aaron and Christina Rejino have already outgrown their smoker and purchased a new one to meet demand. Soon they’ll also have to widen their small trailer, parked along the sidewalk in Olton. The tiny town is thirty minutes off Interstate 27, between Lubbock and Amarillo, so folks must be traveling for a taste of their smoky brisket, sweet baby back ribs, and peppery turkey breast. Green chiles show up on barbecue menus in these parts pretty often, and the Rejinos put them to good use in their creamed corn. Smoked bacon-wrapped jalapeños also bring the heat. 514 8th, 806-200-0810. Open Thur–Sat 11–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmasters: John Brotherton, Dominic Colbert, Alanmykal Jackson, and Randy Estrada Pro tip: If enough of you ask about Brotherton’s crawfish boudin, he might add it to the menu.
You could eat here for a month straight and never tire of the barbecue sandwiches. Going far beyond chopped beef and pulled pork, Brotherton and his crew make a mean smoked cheeseburger, a pastrami Reuben that’ll easily feed two, and a brisket banh mi that’s sure to become a new favorite. A simple barbecue plate is a good call too; in mid-2017 they added standard barbecue cuts to the menu and ceased being a sandwich-only shop. The sliced brisket is some of the best in the state, and the turkey and ribs aren’t far behind. I’m powerless against the apple cobbler for dessert. 15608 Spring Hill Ln, 512-547-4766. Open Tue–Sat 11–7, Sun 11–4.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Joel Garcia Pro tip: Indulge in the El Chili Sueño, a brisket, chili, and jalapeño sandwich.
The place just outside McAllen is new, but the owners are no strangers to the restaurant business. Owner Joseph Salinas’s family had great success at the nearby Copper Moon Bar & Grill before deciding to dive into barbecue. They bought a couple of Oyler smokers in Mesquite and brought in Garcia, a pitmaster with plenty of experience at Freedmen’s and Terry Black’s, in Austin, so it’s no mystery why the monster beef ribs are magnificent here. The brisket is respectable, but I prefer the glazed spareribs. Try the brisket chili or the burgers made from brisket trimmings, and don’t miss out on the peach cobbler. 1617 W. Polk Ave, 956-884-7709. Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–midnight, Sun 11–8.
Smoked octopus at Harlem Road Texas BBQ, in Richmond.
Photograph by Jenn Duncan
Harlem Road Texas BBQ's pitmaster Ara Malekian slicing beef ribs.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Ara Malekian Pro tip: Ask Malekian for an Armenian coffee if you need a pick-me-up.
Malekian is easy to spot at his barbecue joint. Look for the hat, the rings and bracelets, and the unlit cigar in his mouth. If the Armenian native is cutting meat, he’ll probably be wielding a large blade that’s nothing short of menacing. He’s like the Indiana Jones of Texas barbecue and smokes one of the finest beef ribs I’ve eaten. The brisket’s not half bad, and neither are the freshly made sides. You might find the occasional smoked rack of lamb or even smoked octopus on the menu, but there’s nothing fancy about Harlem Road’s barbecue. It’s all about good meat, simple seasonings, and plenty of wood smoke. Just be sure to save room for the chocolate bread pudding made from croissants. 9823 Harlem Rd, 832-278-2101. Open Wed–Fri 11–8, Sat & Sun 11–sold out.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Brett Boren Pro tip: Ask for the fruity rib sauce of the day.
Boren is banking on Rockdale with his new barbecue truck, despite the recent closings of the Sandow Power Plant and the hospital. But the truck’s location, right on U.S. 79, in the center of town, seems to be working for it, judging from the happy customers filling up the picnic tables on a Saturday. In the works are a stage for live music and a series of gardens to grow ingredients. There’s nothing to avoid on the menu of well-smoked barbecue, but I find myself drawn to the bevy of sausages. An all-beef variety brings the Texas barbecue flavor; a little heat comes with the jalapeño link; and the pico de gallo sausage is like a smoked version of chorizo. Add a Nutter Butter banana pudding for dessert. 449 W. Cameron Ave, 512-688-7889. Open Wed–Sun 10:30–sold out (limited menu on Wed).
Opened: 2017 Pitmaster: Chad Sessions Pro tip: Garlic lovers should keep an eye out for the garlic Parmesan rib special.
Chad and Jessica Sessions moved their food truck one town over from Fate to Royse City last year and at press time were moving again, to a spot on Highway 66, where they plan to open a brick-and-mortar. But thanks to flawless smoked brisket, stunning house-made sausages, and an array of satisfying sides made from scratch, it’s worth the trip for Dallasites who are willing to drive an hour or so. Tuesday is taco day; I like the smoked barbacoa and brisket, both of which are served with pickled onions, cilantro, and crema. But things get wild with the pulled-pork taco. I never thought I’d enjoy a taco with chopped dill pickles and fried onions from a can until I tried it here. 307 W. Texas Hwy 66, 817-319-1080. Open Tue–Sun 11–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmasters: Jake Gandolfo and Jo Irizarry Pro tip: Get a cookie to go and warm it on your dashboard. You’ll want it later.
It might sound dubious to start by praising a barbecue joint for its fried foods, but you’d understand if you’d tried the catfish here. Then there’s the Luckenbach Lollipops, which are quail halves battered and fried. The barbecue is impressive as well. Brisket burnt ends have just the right amount of chew in the bark, with salty beef gushing with fat beneath. Specials include a brisket grilled cheese with a bowl of creamy tomato soup. 1123 Sisterdale Rd, 830-324-6858. Open Thur–Sat noon–8, Sun noon–4.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Isaac Arellano Pro tip: Thursday nights are dedicated to barbecue tacos.
Until recently, Pitforks and Smokerings, on the Llano Estacado, was an auto-repair shop as well as a barbecue joint. Monday through Wednesday, Arellano would change oil and fix flats in the place his dad ran for decades and then switch over to pitmaster duties the rest of the week, using two smokers beneath the awning where gas pumps once stood. But after a break-in in February, the auto shop closed; Arellano plans to convert it into a pit room this summer. Try the thick pork ribs with more than a hint of chile powder in the rub, the eminently juicy turkey breast, or a bite of peppery brisket. The beans, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese are all made in-house and are almost as good as the barbecue. 1808 S. U.S. 84. Open Thur–Sat 11–sold out.
Opened: 2017 Pitmasters: Reid Guess, Cade Mercer, and Charles Deason Pro tip: Try the brisket in a bowl of ramen, which comes from the Koko Ramen truck across town.
For seven years Guess ran the kitchen at Lambert’s, an Austin restaurant known for serving fancy barbecue alongside wood-fired meats. When he and his wife, Sara, decided to move to a city less saturated with barbecue, they chose Waco, where her family lives. He’s done well enough that he’ll soon open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Guess’s ribs—smoky, tender, and savory rather than sweet—are the ideal version of Texas spareribs. His brisket and sausage are good too, but I can’t wait to see what surprises he’ll be serving up with a full kitchen and a bigger staff. 324 S. 6th, 254-313-3436. Open Wed–Sat 11–4.
Potato salad, sausage, and smoked turkey at Helberg Barbecue, in Waco.
Photograph by John Davidson
Helberg Barbecue pitmaster Phillip Helberg with his wife Yvette and their baby.
Opened: 2018 Pitmaster: Phillip Helberg Pro tip: Ask for pastrami beef cheeks, one of the most unusual barbecue items in Texas.
When Phillip and Yvette Helberg decided to move their Southern California barbecue-catering business to Phillip’s native Texas last spring, they started small, serving locals from a well-worn truck (which they’ve since replaced) parked out in front of Pinewood Public House, on Austin Avenue. At press time, they were opening a brick-and-mortar on Highway 6; the truck will be renamed Helberg on Austin and focus on pub food. They offer smoked turkey like nobody else in Texas. The breast is butterflied, filled with herbs and spices, and then rolled up and smoked. Pair it with some jalapeño corn, a smoked Gouda macaroni and cheese, or mustard potato salad as yellow as a raincoat. 8532 N. Texas Hwy 6, 713-569-4166. Open Wed–Sat 11–9.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Wide World of Texas BBQ.” Subscribe today.
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