When a friend introduced me to someone at a San Antonio barbecue joint this summer, the stranger asked, “Does Daniel Vaughn work for you?” I replied that, at that moment, I was working for Daniel—and so were roughly three dozen colleagues. Daniel is our full-time barbecue editor—the only one, as far as we know, at any American publication. Most of the time, he works alone: roaming the state, seeking out the best new joints, and checking in on old favorites. But every four years, he leads a small army of tasters who help curate our list of the Top 50 barbecue joints.

This year, Daniel recruited a record 34 helpers. Combined, we sampled the ’cue at 411 joints and traveled tens of thousands of miles to every corner of Texas. Each taster first had to take a course from Daniel, and we used a rubric he’d developed for judging, say, the snap of a sausage link and the tenderness of a brisket slice. Once we turned in our assessments, Daniel and Patricia Sharpe, our fine-dining writer, revisited the joints that scored highest. The cost of this project in greasy receipts alone tallied about $30,000. And it was worth every penny to better inform our judgments and help us tell the stories of the state’s best pitmasters.

Our reporting reminded us that, with so much dividing Texans these days, our love of great barbecue unites us. The state’s pitmasters are setting a fine example for balancing change and tradition. Even as upstarts serve innovations such as smoked pork banh mi and brisket birria ramen, most also lovingly prepare the Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage. Meanwhile, veteran proprietors of traditional joints are experimenting with new sauces, side dishes (citrus-beet salad, anyone?), and desserts.

Daniel’s love of barbecue began when he was a teenager in Wooster, Ohio. His mom worked long hours cleaning houses, and Daniel helped out at home by doing some of the cooking, which included baking pork ribs in the oven and finishing them on a gas grill, with lots of red sauce. “That,” Daniel recalls, “is what I thought barbecue was”—until a family trip through the South. Stopping in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they dined at Dreamland Bar-B-Que, famed for its hickory-smoked pork ribs and heavenly sauce. “I learned that great barbecue isn’t just delicious,” he recalls. “It’s food for the soul.”

After earning a master’s degree in architecture, he got a job working for a design firm in Dallas and began making pilgrimages to the high temples of Central Texas ’cue, including Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor. He then started discovering joints in the Dallas–Fort Worth area that were excellent but little known. By 2008, he’d launched a popular barbecue blog as a side hustle. A few years later, we persuaded Daniel to quit his day job to cover ’cue for Texas Monthly. At last count, Daniel had sampled more than 1,900 joints, most of them in Texas, but also as far afield as Raleigh and Copenhagen and Madrid. He’s not only a world-renowned expert on barbecue but also an inquisitive reporter and a warm and vivid storyteller.

This year, instead of our big annual barbecue event—in which dozens of top pitmasters offer their meats in one location—we held smaller, socially distanced gatherings in Brownsville, Lubbock, and Tyler. We hope the pandemic eases enough for us to revive the big event next fall. We’ve also just relaunched our Texas Monthly BBQ Finder app; it will help you locate the best joints wherever you might be traveling in our great state. You can download it at the Apple app store and at Google Play. You’ll find Daniel’s latest reviews there and at texasmonthly.com. 

Whatever you like to drink with your ’cue—Daniel prefers Dr Pepper, Topo Chico, or champagne—I hope you’ll join me in raising a glass to our barbecue editor and all the fine Texas pitmasters featured in this issue.