A stout wooden skewer steadied the massive tower of a sandwich in front of me at Sugarfire Smokehouse in Dallas. The basic construction was familiar enough—two patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a brioche bun—but the patties were smoked portobello mushrooms. The melted American cheese draped over a massive mushroom, all nestled in a pool of burger sauce, made me appreciate that vegetarians can be gluttons too. The sandwich, which I could barely fit my mouth around, was proof that there is common ground between vegetarians and any self-identifying carnivores. 

For barbecue-joint owners, smoking vegetables just makes business sense. “It’s my fourth top-selling item,” Cade Mercer of CM Smokehouse in Austin says of his smoked cauliflower, one of a wide array of meaty options. At the food trailer parked at Bouldin Acres, you can get the cauliflower as a side or as a “wing” appetizer. Mercer smokes whole, unseasoned heads of cauliflower at 200 degrees for over five hours, then breaks them into smaller portions, which are deep-fried to order and finally coated in one of five wing sauces. The larger pieces are tender, but with crunchy outer shells from the fryer, and a surprising amount of smoke flavor. “Cauliflower is a canvas you can put whatever flavors you want on it,” Mercer says.

Some customers have found a new use for the smoked cauliflower. CM Smokehouse’s most popular menu item is the smoked brisket “crunchwrap,” copied from the Taco Bell original. Mercer will replace the brisket with smoked cauliflower for anyone who asks, and he can make the dish vegan by eliminating the queso. “Any vegetarian who comes up and asks me, I tell them all the options they have,” Mercer says. “You’ve gotta have something for them.”

Evan LeRoy of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue in Austin agrees. He makes sure to offer vegetables that are “meaty enough” to fit into a barbecue menu. He has several vegetarian options, including smoked cauliflower, which he markets as “cauliflower burnt ends.” I prefer his smoked beets, a vegetarian take on pastrami. After being steamed and skinned, the beets are brined in salt water with the traditional pastrami seasonings of coriander and black pepper. They’re then rubbed with a second dose of seasonings and smoked. The smoked beets are worth seeking out, especially on a sandwich with house-made kimchi, beet barbecue sauce, and fresh herbs.

vegetarian bbq
Look closely—those are smoked portobello patties on the burger at Sugarfire Smokehouse in Dallas.Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Before Kyle Stallings can offer a new smoked vegetable dish to his customers, he first has to impress his vegetarian wife. His Rollin Smoke food truck on East Sixth Street in Austin has plenty of seasonal vegetarian sides, like the impressive smoked tomatoes and okra, but he also wanted to serve a main course option. (The business relies on nightlife traffic, and he feared the vegetarian with veto power over a group’s dining options.) The result are his smoked mushrooms, served on a bun or in a tortilla. He starts with whole baby bella mushrooms coated in soy sauce, mustard, barbecue rub, and a squirt of Parkay to keep them buttery yet vegan. They’re smoked in a foil pan until tender, and they’re incredible. The juicy morsels of mushrooms have a meaty texture and tons of umami. To add some crunch to the sandwich, they’re topped with Rollin Smoke’s fresh-made jalapeño and cilantro slaw, which also brings some heat and acid. The combination really makes for a great barbecue sandwich.

Just once, I was almost fooled into believing the vegetarian dish in front of me was actually meat. My first bite into the smoked jackfruit sandwich at Intrinsic Smokehouse and Brewery in Garland had me doing a double take to make sure I wasn’t eating chopped pork. The dish took plenty of trial and error from owner Cary Hodson and pitmaster Joshua Browning. “It isn’t just an afterthought,” Hodson promises.

They steam canned jackfruit with barbecue spices, smoke it for an hour, then deep-fry it to crisp up the exterior. “It gives it a different texture, so it’s not just mush on a sandwich,” Hodson says. It’s the most popular item on their meatless menu, which they released on April 1, 2020, although it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke. The bulk of their menu will continue to be traditional barbecue, but the meatless menu isn’t going anywhere. “We’re trying to get more people to enjoy [barbecue],” Hodson says, including vegetarians. 

Good smoked vegetables aren’t a threat. Cauliflower and mushrooms are never going to replace brisket and pork in Texas barbecue, but thankfully we’ve come a long way from a time when smoked vegetables seemed strange at a barbecue joint. Texas pitmasters can continue to push the boundaries of barbecue with food picked from the ground as well as new cuts and preparations of beef, pork, or poultry. On a recent visit to Kemuri Tatsu-ya in Austin, I tasted yet another evolutionary leap. The Hippie Bone Marrow, a plate of smoked eggplant, miso, and roasted nuts, was as rich as any smoked meat. More dishes like that will make it easier for carnivores and vegetarians to happily share a table at a Texas barbecue joint.