Senior editor Patricia Sharpe, assistant editor Katy Vine, and others talk about this month's cover story, "Pit Stops."
texasmonthly.com: Are you a barbecue fanatic? If so, why? If not, why not?
Patricia Sharpe: I don’t crave it, but when I get fantastic ribs or a really good piece of brisket, I can’t quit eating. The whole experience is obsessive, like eating chocolate. And I do think that barbecue is a true artisan craft, like baking or cheesemaking or winemaking. It’s basic and simple—just meat and smoke and heat—but there is so much art and experience that goes into it.
Paul Burka: I’m a cautious barbecue fanatic. I rarely try places I’ve never been before unless they have been recommended to me. There’s a lot of bad barbecue out there, and I do my best to avoid it. But once I like a place, I keep going back.
Joe Nick Patoski: I’m a barbecue aficionado. Why? Because I’ve been eating it since I was three, and I like it more than ever.
Katy Vine: I didn’t realize just how big a barbecue snob I’d become until I found myself taking mediocre barbecue personally.
Michael Hall: Yes, but it’s not like I eat meat every day. I think I like the barbecue culture as much as the meat itself—the small places, the impassioned people who run them, the family histories, and the recipes.
Eileen Schwartz: I wouldn’t say I’m a fanatic, but I love eating barbecue. There’s something about eating meat with your hands that really appeals to me. I also love to eat outside whenever possible. Everything just tastes better outdoors.
texasmonthly.com: What area did you cover?
PS: I went first to the Panhandle; then I did a little strip of Central Texas along Texas Highway 71 west from Austin and up to Burnet; then I helped out with part of East Texas around Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Henderson.
PB: The northwest Hill Country and beyond, including the great barbecue capitals of Llano, Mason, and Brady. I went as far south as Big Earl’s in Kerrville and as far north as the Shed in Wingate, almost to Abilene.
JNP: South Texas, south of Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio and east of I-35 from Austin to Laredo, with a few exceptions.
KV: Austin to Abilene to the area just south of Fort Worth.
MH: Central East Texas, from Round Rock north to Waco and east to Oakwood, then back down along U.S. 79 to Round Rock again.
ES: East of Austin, from Interstate 10 and U.S. 190.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this assignment? How many places did you visit?
PS: I spent five days in the Panhandle, a couple of days in Central Texas, and about three days in East Texas. I ended up visiting around 35, plus 5 or 10 more in Austin.
PB: I packed everything into two days, the southern half on a Saturday and the northern half on a Sunday. I covered 1,100 miles and nineteen barbecue places.
JNP: I started eating for judging purposes back in December. I ate at 67 or so barbecue joints.
KV: I hit about twenty places in about a week.
MH: I worked on it off and on for three months, some while I was working on another story.
ES: About six or eight weeks, probably. I went to 29 places.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find out about most of the places you visited?
PS: We tried to visit all the ones we had listed in our Top Fifty in 1997. Then we called local newspapers and asked them for local favorites. That was a great source of information. And, of course, friends told me of the ones they knew.
PB: I found a great Web site, which I stupidly forgot to bookmark, so I started out with a list. Then I stopped at every barbecue place I saw, including a Fina station in Goldthwaite.
JNP: Advance word of mouth or reputation. I ate at very few places I just stumbled upon. There are too many joints in Texas to do that. So I talked to folks and worked off recommendations mainly.
KV: I got help from barbecue connoisseurs at small city newspapers, as well as some policemen in smaller towns.
MH: Most from past issues of TM and other magazines that have done barbecue features. But I found a good third of them by just driving through the little towns—the joints weren’t hard to find.
ES: Word of mouth, locals, readers’ recommendations.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything new about barbecue on this assignment? If so, what?
PS: The Panhandle has bad barbecue, with few exceptions. I think it’s because trees are not native to the area, so there is not a historical tradition of using wood to cook and smoke meat. All that craft had to be imported from outside the area. And when you don’t have people around with years of experience to ask and to train you, it’s hard to figure it all out on your own. East Texas is a little better—some good stuff there. Central Texas is the best. I hate to be discriminatory, but that’s just the way it is.
I’ve also decided that the time of day you visit a place is crucial to the quality of the meat. I think that brisket is very unforgiving, especially if it’s lean, and the very same piece that is fabulous at eleven in the morning is tired at two and a disaster at four. Pork loin is tricky, ribs less so because they are pretty fatty. Just think of what smoke and heat do to your face, particularly if you’re standing over a grill. That’s what happens to barbecue, so it’s no wonder that my most common criticism of brisket is that it’s dry, especially late in the day.
PB: I learned two things. One is that barbecue is an economic indicator. Show me a town with a lot of barbecue places, and I’ll show you a town with tourists and younger people who have good teeth. But a significant number of the places I had located on the Web were gone, most of them in towns where everybody looked to be over 55. Barbecue doesn’t seem to be a hot investment. The only new place I came across was the Log Cabin Smoke House in Goldthwaite. The other thing I learned is that if you are tempted to stop at a little hole-in-the-wall place, resist. Chances are they don’t get enough customers to go through a whole brisket in a matter of minutes. So they wrap their barbecue in foil to keep it warm, which changes the texture.
JNP: I learned that there’s more variety to barbecue than I first suspected, that chains have made considerable inroads on a tradition I once regarded as the domain of the independent entrepreneur, and that mesquite may have surpassed oak and pecan as the wood of choice, at least in South Texas. Also, I discovered barbecue is being served in more upscale environments than it was six years ago.
KV: I can get awfully sick of meat, but I can regain interest if a piece of meat is good enough. And there is such a thing as a lousy fried pie.
MH: The better the place, the less you need sauce. At terrible places they use sauce to cover up the poorly cooked meat or the poor cuts of meat.
ES: I came to the conclusion that sauce is pretty irrelevant. If you don’t start with good meat and good wood, you don’t get good barbecue. The places that turned out to be the best, in my opinion, were the ones you could smell before you even pulled over. The old adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” rings true when it comes to good barbecue.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you while you were working on this story?
PB: I love driving around Texas, you can never tell what you might come across. I stopped to check my map in downtown Coleman and noticed a historical marker at the old library on the square. I learned that when the city couldn’t afford a librarian in 1910 or so and the library was about to close, someone named Mrs. Miller volunteered to serve until they could afford a new one. She stayed there 41 years, always as a volunteer. I sat in my car for a long time, thinking of how she had spent her life, wondering if anybody in Coleman today had ever heard of her, and musing on the ravages of time.
JNP: Learning that I was leaving the magazine as a staff writer.
KV: My fingernails grew half an inch.
MH: Going to Mama Bobbie’s in Waco, which was in an old gas station that looked abandoned (I only realized it was open because of the smoke rising from the 55-gallon drum pit to the side). I knocked on the door, and they said to knock on the window for service, so I did, but then they said to go to another window and knock on it, which I did too and then gave my order. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good, or the story would be better.
ES: Depends on your definition of “interesting.” I got sick twice. I did meet a lot of cool people. And I noticed that the friendlier and happier the staff, the better the food.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite piece of meat? Why?
PS: There’s nothing like a beautifully smoked pork chop, those can be celestial. But they’re hard to find done just right. I do love brisket too, because it’s just so Neanderthal. There’s something about red meat that is inexplicably satisfying. It fulfills some animal desire. Don’t tell my vegetarian friends. The two things I will never order are barbecued ham and turkey, which are beyond pitiful because they are pressed meat to start with, with a little smoke applied. Now a fresh, whole turkey is another thing. And one of the best things I ever ate was a wild goose that somebody shot and gave me. We had it smoked—fabulous.
PB: I have been loyal to prime rib at Kreuz Market in Lockhart since 1966.
JNP: The chop at McBee’s in Pleasanton. I’d already judged it once, but as an afterthought after a run through the Brush Country and the Valley, I made a detour on the way to the house. It confirmed that it really is one of the best cuts on the Texas barbecue circuit.
KV: Brisket, because when it is done well, the texture is more satisfying than a T-bone or a chop and the flavor is more satisfying than the spice of a sausage.
MH: Brisket—you can really taste the smoke in it. The smoke in a well cooked piece of brisket permeates it. In other meats the smoke is just on the crust.
ES: Ribs. I just love the texture and shape, and of course, the fact that you eat them with your hands.
texasmonthly.com: Have you eaten barbecue since you finished reporting? If so, what and where?
PS: I haven’t finished reporting yet. But I’m not sick of barbecue, either. When it’s good, it’s good.
JNP: I ate at John Mueller’s [in Austin] last week. I’d just come back from Dallas, and I was hungry. It was better than I remembered. I had the brisket, a little pork loin, and some sausage. John Mueller’s is like a road trip to a small town in Central Texas without leaving the city.
KV: I just ate some barbecue about two hours ago in the conference room. And I had some ribs last week at Hoover’s in Austin.
MH: No way. Maybe next issue.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, where did you eat the best barbecue you’ve ever tasted?
PS: The pork chop at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, the brisket at Louie Mueller in Taylor, the sausage at City Market in Luling (and Smitty’s and Kreuz in Lockhart), and the lean pork shoulder sausage at Lazy H Smokehouse in Kirbyville—oh, and the jerky there is fabulous.
PB: It’s a toss-up between Louie Mueller in Taylor and the old Kreuz in Lockhart, before it had to move to a new location as the result of a family disagreement. The new Kreuz is plenty good, but it’s hard to beat one hundred years of grease.
JNP: Luling City Market. Time and again, it blows away everyone else.
KV: I had some fatty brisket at John Mueller’s in Austin that blew me away.
MH: Cooper’s in Llano before going to see a six-man football game in Cherokee last fall—the meat, the smoke, the vibe, the company.
ES: Lazy H Smokehouse in Kirbyville.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PS: Yes, I discovered that a good dry rub (salt, pepper) applied to the outside of brisket or ribs prior to smoking is the key to an interesting, tasty piece of meat. At a lot of places in the Panhandle, they don’t use a rub, or very little, and the barbecue there is boring, boring, boring.
JNP: With this article published, I have now officially retired as a member of the Texas Monthly Barbecue SWAT Team. From here on out, I’m eating ‘cue purely for pleasure. And, though it goes without saying, and as good as some of these commercial establishments may be, let it be known that I make the best barbecue in Texas.
ES: I never realized the ridiculous number of barbecue places there are in the state, and how many are just plain bad. Just because a place advertises “barbecue” does not mean that it has any standards. You have to be careful out there!