We Texans hold certain truths to be self-evident: Davy Crockett was the most fearless freedom fighter who ever lived, Buddy Holly was the greatest rock ’n’ roller, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s Team, and the best barbecue in the world is pit-smoked in Taylor, Lockhart, Bastrop, Elgin, and Luling, along the Central Texas Barbecue Belt.
But today I come to sing the praises of Llano, where in minutes you can get nearly every kind of barbecue available on that belt and then some. I submit that Llano, where the meat cooks directly over the fire, is the true Barbecue Capital of Central Texas and thus of the world.
Dubious? I could hardly believe it myself at first. After hours of extensive personal research, however, I reached my conclusion. My theory took shape during many drives through Llano (some seventy miles northwest of Austin), when I began to notice a disproportionate number of promising-looking barbecue restaurants for a town of barely more than three thousand people.
Three of those establishments (Cooper’s B-B-Q, Brother’s Bar-B-Que, and Inman’s Kitchen) are within a whiff of each other on Texas Highway 29, a couple of minutes northwest of the Llano River bridge, and when their pits are fired up in the early morning breeze, an irresistible aroma wafts down the highway. The fourth, Laird’s Bar-B-Q Pit, is nearly hidden just off Texas Highway 16 south of the bridge. That’s four fine eateries in a very small town. You would think barbecue fanatics would be flocking to the place. Certainly, the two larger restaurants—Cooper’s and Inman’s—do a good out-of-town trade. But for the most part, the four establishments are unknown outside the immediate area.
To satisfy my own curiosity, I visited each of the four and subjected myself to as much barbecue as I could manage. I ate big hunks of meat and “buns” (the local term for sandwiches) until my arteries laid down the law: No mas. And I became a Llano barbecue convert.
In barbecue terms, Llano is where the West begins. Most of the rest of the Hill Country uses the Czech-German method of pit-smoking, in which the wood (usually oak, more rarely mesquite) is placed at one end of the pit and the meat at the other. Ventilation draws smoke across the meat and out a little chimney overhead; the meat simultaneously cooks and smokes. In Llano salient differences prevail. First, mostly mesquite is used. Second, the logs are started in a separate enclosure called a firebox and moved to the cooker when they have turned to glowing coals. Third, and most important, the meat is cooked, not smoked (never say “smoked” in earshot of a Llano cook). Smoke is produced at the beginning of the process but not the whole time. The style is referred to locally as “old-time” because Llano barbecue is cooked more or less the way the cowboys did it.
The advantages of this cooking method are many. The flavor of mesquite smoke sweetens the meat but does not overwhelm it. The meat cooks slowly enough to make it tender but not so slowly that all its texture is lost. Brisket, for example, takes about an hour per pound as opposed to an hour and a half per pound in a smoker. Scoffers would say that this way of barbecuing is merely a glorified version of backyard grilling, but in the huge, enclosed pits of Llano, the meat is a couple of feet, not just a couple of inches, from the heat source, a powerful distinction.
All in all, Llano barbecue embodies the best of both worlds—smoking and cooking—boasting nearly as much campfire flavor as, and much more texture than, pit-smoked meat. It is something you can truly sink your teeth into.
The Big Three of Llano barbecue are Cooper’s, Laird’s, and Brother’s. The patron saint of them all was the late Tommy Cooper, who opened the first barbecue restaurant in town in 1964. (His father, George, ran a similar place in Mason, which likewise bears the Cooper name.) Tommy stressed that the secret was in the sear: If you don’t immediately sear and seal the meat, it dries out before it is cooked all the way through. He also created the sharp, savory sauce that the Big Three still approximate, with minor variations. Kenneth Laird, who got his start by cooking for Cooper, gleefully describes his own sauce as “ninety-grain vinegar, ketchup, Tabasco, and Llano River water, with minnows.”
Cooper died in a car accident in 1979. After that, Cooper’s was run briefly by his family and was subsequently bought by local businessmen, who leased it to Laird. Terry Wootan took over in 1986. Little else has changed. Cooper’s still offers the widest variety of meats in town. During my visits, I got through one of nearly everything. A textured, ultra-tender pork chop that was an inch and a half thick seemed to hold layers of flavor. The brisket was cooked evenly all the way through. The extra-thick pork-and-beef ring sausage was flecked with red pepper. (All of the Big Three use Hill Country Smokehouse sausage, a regionally made German-style product that’s not shy on salt.) A sirloin steak was seared dark on the outside and shaded gradually and perfectly to pink at the center. The chicken was moist and delicate.
Cooper’s also has goat, an increasingly rare offering. Mine was too old to be called cabrito, but it was still moist and light; the goat ribs were surprisingly tender and had a little bite close to the bone. The pork ribs yielded the right ratio of meat to fat and required just enough work to separate the meat from the bone. Only the beef ribs fell short; they had too much fat and gristle and were either overly charred on the outside or not cooked all the way to the center.
The routine at Cooper’s is typical Texas barbecue joint. The cook opens the big sheet-metal warming pit—the size of a pickup-truck bed—and waits while the savory aroma dissolves every ounce of willpower in your body. You make your selection, he pulls it off the grill and dips it in sauce if you want, then slaps it on a piece of butcher paper for you to carry into the adjacent cinder-block building. In the tiny front room, you pay for your meat by weight and order a drink and perhaps chips or potato salad.
Then you move to the back room to eat at one of the six picnic tables, which also hold white bread and giant jars of jalapeños; in the corner are onions, sauce, and a vat of excellent pinto beans (all at no extra charge). When you finish, you dump your butcher paper in the trash can and your silverware in the sink.
Laird’s and Brother’s are smaller versions of the same, except that at those two places you order by the plate rather than by the pound, and the pit man brings the food to your table. Many locals insist that Kenneth Laird is Tommy Cooper’s true heir, and my meal certainly reinforced that notion. His lean brisket was seared to a crunch on the outside but was firm and tender inside, and the sausage was hearty, if a tad undercooked. For my money, Kenneth Laird’s barbecued chicken is the best in town, full of flavor and bursting with juice. Laird personally presides over the whole affair, scurrying between tables, kitchen, and pit outside while keeping up his own constant line of chatter. Laird’s can be easy to miss. It’s on Highway 16, one mile south of the intersection with Highway 29—just head toward the orange water tower. Look for a small sign next to an unpaved driveway and drive around back to the restaurant, located in a rebuilt garage behind Laird’s in-laws’ house.
Brother’s proved the real surprise, mainly because it looks so unpromising. Jack Graham’s tiny diner occupies half of a service station shared with his brother, Ben. At Brother’s, the sausage was rich and juicy, and the well-seasoned pork ribs were almost falling off the bone. But it was Graham’s brisket that sold me. A slice of correctly cooked brisket has a single red ring just beneath the crust, as distinctive as the rings on a tree; it’s a natural phenomenon that occurs when nitrates in the smoke interact with the pigment in the muscle of the brisket. The ring on Graham’s brisket was precisely delineated and so red that I looked twice to make sure it wasn’t throbbing.
And then there is Inman’s Kitchen. The Inman family is locally famous, and anybody in Llano will tell you that the late Lester Inman was one of the town’s biggest civic boosters. The Kitchen was opened in 1967 by Inman and Myrtle Oestreich, and it is now owned by Myrtle and her husband, Horace. I hate to be the one to say it, but Inman’s is no longer a true barbecue joint. To begin with, it has carpeting and wallpaper. And the rest rooms are spotless. In the same vein, Inman’s cooks for cafeteria-conditioned taste buds, and a large portion of the menu is devoted to low-cholesterol items. To give credit where credit is due, however, the hallmark of Texas barbecue—brisket—was exemplary: moist, fine-grained, lean, with a ruby-red ring. The chicken was good, though its texture was spongy. But Inman’s novel turkey sausage looked weird—pink at the edges and brownish-gray in the center—and tasted remarkably like a hot dog. And the ham (yes, ham) was dry, lukewarm, and commercial-tasting. The barbecue sauce was bright red and had the creamy texture of bottled salad dressing.
All of which confirms once again that if you want the true barbecue experience, you can’t be too concerned with hardening arteries or escalating weight. If you’re willing to set those worries aside, even for a day, you can do it the cowboy way: Simply point yourself toward the western edge of the Hill Country and follow your nose.
Cooper’s B-B-Q, 604 W. Young (915-247-5713); open Wednesday—Monday.
Brother’s Bar-B-Que, 405 W. Young (247-3003); open daily.
Inman’s Kitchen, 809 W. Young (247-5257); open Monday—Saturday.
Laird’s Bar-B-Q Pit, 1404 Ford (247-5234); open Wednesday—Sunday.