Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it.

Of all the stories published in this magazine over the past fifty years, the most popular by far is our now quadrennial Top 50 barbecue list. Never mind our prizewinning coverage of politics, business, energy, medicine, crime, music, outdoor activities, travel, and fine dining. The barbecue list defines us.

But what strikes me most about the endeavor is that it took 24 years for us to wake up and smell the smoke. That’s because barbecue was still an easygoing weekend treat back then, not the obsession or competitive sport it feels like today. Yes, we featured the cuisine during the magazine’s first two and a half decades—it was the cover story in April 1973, our third-ever issue. But the coverage was hardly systematic. Then, in the mid-nineties, we realized that Texas Monthly was positioned to do something that had never been seriously attempted: find the best barbecue in every corner of Texas. Three editors and two freelance writers set out to drive our interstates, state highways, and farm-to-market roads, armed with xeroxed newspaper clippings and tips from friends. We barely had cellphones (pay phones were more reliable), and there was no GPS, just paper highway maps.

We quickly developed protocols to stave off food comas. We asked for to-go boxes because we didn’t want restaurant owners wondering why we hadn’t finished our meals. In big cities like Houston and Dallas we ate only a few bites because the next plate of brisket could be right next door. In West Texas we actually kept the to-go boxes in case we got hungry on the long drives between barbecue joints. Finally, we never counted on company. Friends would beg to help with our tastings, but then they’d overeat at the first stop and beg to go home. Was there an upside? Absolutely. Discovering the next great barbecue spot was better than finding King Tut’s tomb. 

Back in 1997, our little squad of five visited 245 establishments—nearly
50 apiece. (Last year, for our most recent Top 50 list, 35 of us traveled tens of thousands of miles to sample ’cue at 411 joints.) The tradition we started has grown to include an annual festival, first held in 2010, and the hiring of a full-time barbecue editor, in 2013. Veteran pitmasters say that as Texas Monthly has paid more and more attention to fine barbecue, smoked meats have attracted legions of fans and the quality has gone through the roof. If it hadn’t been for that ragtag team in 1997, none of this might ever have happened.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Behind the Story.” Subscribe today.