Definitions, Distinctions, and Things to Remember

1. Restaurant Style vs. Market Style
There are two basic types of barbecue places -- where you order by the plate, and they serve you at your table, or where you order by the pound and serve yourself on trays or butcher paper. Of course, there are variations of each, and in many places you can order by plate or weight.

2. Wood
Most of the wood used for smoking meats in this area is either post oak or faster-burning mesquite; hickory is favored east of here. All three have their proponents and distinct flavors; and some places use other hardwoods, such as pecan.

3. Race
Sorry, but there's no getting around it: There's black barbecue and there's white barbecue, with differences in wood, sauce, and cooking style. Generally, white folks' barbecue is drier, basted less heavily with sauce while cooking (some, like Mueller's in Taylor, claim to use no sauce in cooking -- just meat and wood), and blacks' sauces are sweeter and hotter. Interestingly, while there are a good number of black-run barbecues in Austin, there are virtually none in the surrounding area. Black barbecue is more common in East Texas; this area is primarily Czech and German.

4. Sauce
Sauces come in all varieties -- it would be impossible to catalog all of the nuances of flavoring. Some stand out (The Salt Lick's almost Polynesian sweet and sour comes to mind), and a few places (Kreuz in Lockhart, Biggars in Elgin) don't really serve a barbecue sauce at all, but rather a tabasco, or a homemade pepper juice.

5. Spelling
We count at least six ways to spell barbeque. The spelling of Bar-B-Q in restaurant names has been recorded as faithfully as possible, though we've seen places with two different signs, and two different spellings of BBQ. When referring to the food generically, we use "barbecue," as recommended by most dictionaries.

Llano


Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q

604 West Young (TX29), 915/247-5713;
Mon-Thu 11am-7pm; Fri-Sun 11am-8pm

It's called "cowboy style": meat cooked fast directly over smoldering mesquite embers. Briskets take five hours. Ribs an hour and a half. It's sensational. The juicy, robust brisket and the meaty, tender ribs (rubbed with a dry mix prior to going on the pit) are state-of-the-art. The thin vinegar-and-ketchup-based sauce sits in the pit absorbing the smoke created from meat juices dripping on the coals. When you arrive, you wander up to the pit and choose your meat. They slice it up for you then and there. Just like on the range. -- J.S.


Kenneth Laird's Bar-B-Q Pit

1600 Ford St. (TX16), 915/247-5234; Wed-Sun, 11am-7pm

Kenneth Laird began his professional career working for Tommy Cooper across town at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q. He changed professions for a while, but continued cooking for the public on weekends in his backyard, building his own reputation. In 1994, Laird and his wife, Esther, took over a two-story house a block from their house and began offering their smoked meats five days a week. Like most barbecue joints, the hours and menu are flexible. The brisket and chopped beef are the best offerings here, but they also have a good pork steak and ribs (cabrito, too when he can get it). On Fridays they have a Mexican food plate that is not half bad. You can eat in their small dining room or on the deck under an old oak tree. -- G.E.M


Brother's Bar-B-Que

405 W. Young (TX29), 915/247-3003;
Thu-Tue, 10am-7pm; closed Wed

Brother's started as a small stand next to a gas station on TX29 catering to deer hunters. Business has been good over the years and they have grown to be one of the royal families of barbecue in a town known for great barbecue. They have added a small dining room, but still have the picnic tables out front next to the smokers. -- G.E.M


Inman's Kitchen

Hwy 29 & Hwy 71W, 915/247-5257;
Tue-Thu, 8am-8pm; Fri-Sat 8am-9pm

The folks at Inman's have been serving up barbecue in the heart of Texas for nearly 30 years, and their signature turkey sausage was famous long before the current "lean and low-fat" craze began. They also serve brisket, pork ribs, chicken and turkey breasts, and sell whole smoked turkeys, too. Meat is available by the plate or the pound, can be eaten in or taken out and they have one of the busiest catering operations in Central Texas. -- V.W.

Driftwood


The Salt Lick

FM 1826, 892-1433; Wed-Sun, noon-10pm

The Roberts family has operated an open-pit barbecue in rural Hayes County since 1969, and the old-style camp dining hall setting is a crucial factor in the total dining experience. Sit on plank benches at long picnic tables eating family-style fare while fans stir the evening air and country music plays in the background. The culinary influence of owner Hisako Roberts' Japanese heritage shows up in the thin, sweet barbecue sauce and in the uniquely delicious slaw tossed with toasted sesame seeds. The facilities can handle groups from 30 to 2,000, so invite your friends along. -- V.W.

Round Rock


Cooper's Pit Bar-B-Que

403 N. Mays (I-35 Business Loop), 255-5638; Tue-Sat 11am-8pm, closed Sun-Mon

Cooper's was founded by the brother of the founder of the original Cooper's in Llano, and like the original, produces a classic, dry-smoked, salt-rubbed West Texas barbecue, with the emphasis on meat and smoke, with sauce and the rest an afterthought. This is probably not for all tastes; the chopped beef sandwich is almost disconcertingly meaty -- particularly if you're expecting the sloppy-joe-style sauce and meat blend that's more common in these parts -- and the pork ribs have a distinctive, musky flavor almost like a perfectly done pork roast or an Italian porchetta. It's a carnivore's delight, though -- none of that namby-pamby, cut-with-a-fork, melt-in-your-mouth, fall-off-the-bone sissy stuff here -- this is hearty, rich, solid meat, and when you've eaten it, you know that you have partaken of the flesh of a lesser species. And it was good. -- N.B.

San Marcos


Fuschak's Pit Bar-B-Q,

920 Hwy. 80 (east of IH35), 512/353-2712 ; 10:30am-9pm daily

Often overlooked when "experts" talk about the great barbecue chefs of Texas, the Fuschak family has been selling consistently high quality smoked meats since 1966. The portions are large and the prices reasonable. The faux-log-cabin building gives the big dining room a rustic atmosphere, and in the winter there's a fire in the fireplace. Fuschak's excels at chicken, brisket, and banana pudding. They also offer a barbecue fajita and Bar-burrito. The meats are sold by the pound, plate, or sandwich; to go or to eat there. The drive-up window on the north side of the building makes express pickup even easier.

-- G.E.M

Gruene


Guadalupe Smoked Meats Company

1299 Gruene Rd., Gruene Historic District, 210/629-6121
Daily 11am-10pm (may close earlier depending on business)

At the Gruene crossing of the Guadalupe River, this place is popular with folks coming from the water-sport rental companies on the opposite bank, going to Gruene Hall, or shopping in the Gruene Historic District. The restaurant has a multi-leveled deck overlooking the river and a small dining room. The menu includes other items besides barbecue, and very good margaritas. The pork ribs are the best barbecue on the menu. The black pepper, garlic, and other herb rub gives the hickory-smoked meat a unique flavor. They also ship their meats -- cooked at a plant in Boerne, Texas -- around the world. -- G.E.M

Pflugerville


Knebel's Tavern

109 Pecan St., 512/251-4129
Mon-Thu 7am-12am, Fri-Sat 7am-3pm

Most days of the week this is an historic tavern that serves a good chicken-fried steak, but on Friday and Saturday nights they offer Big Daddy's Barbecue. -- G.E.M

Coupland


The Old Coupland Inn and Dancehall

off Hwy 95N, 512/856-2226
Thu-Fri, 6-10pm; Sat 5-10pm

After a long hiatus, this historic old spot in downtown Coupland is back in business and visiting here with a group really is a "two-step back in time." As pure an example of Texana as you're likely to find, the dining room has old wood floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and long tables covered in oilcloth with mismatched chairs. Thursday night is all-you-can-eat sirloin steak night, and barbecue is served Friday and Saturday. The meals are best ordered family style (although individual barbecue plates are available), and they make the best pie-style cobbler I found. -- V.W.

Luling


Luling City Meat Market

633 E. Davis, 210/875-9019
Mon-Sat, 7am-6pm

The fare here is touted as the best in Texas by none other than Robert Duvall and Bill Wittliff, so it must be worth the trip. The brisket is lean and tender, the sausage made on the premises, and it's served up on butcher paper as you go through the line. Pick up your own bread or crackers, pickles, onions and jalapeños to accompany the meat, beans and potato salad. There are glistening glass bottles of soda water in the dispenser. By the plate and by the pound, eat in or take out. Their very distinctive sweet barbecue sauce is available for sale as well, in bottles from six ounces to a gallon. -- V.W.

Taylor


Louie Mueller Barbeque

206 W. Second St. (US79), 512/352-6206
Call for hours.

When you enter, the black, wood screen door slams behind you. Inside, the green walls are browned from years of smoke. Behind the counter is the namesake's son, Bobby, who now runs the operation with the help of his son, John. They just salt and pepper the brisket, then cook it four to six hours over a fairly hot heat (John says they don't use a gauge so they don't know the exact temperature). Served cafeteria-style on white butcher paper set over orange plastic trays, the beef ribs are the best I've ever tasted and the brisket, especially the juicier slices from the fattier end, is a marvel. The watery tomato, onion, and black pepper sauce comes on the side and makes for perfect dipping. -- J.S.


Rudy Mikeska's

300 W. Second St. (US79), 512/352-5561
Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm; Sun 10am-2pm

The granddaddy of them all. Well, not literally, but Rudy, his five younger brothers, and their families, have been doing their thing, in different towns all over Central Texas, for over 50 years now, with Rudy the acknowledged patriarch of the clan. Rudy passed on about five years ago, but his daughter and son-in-law have carried on the torch without a hitch. Caterer for governors and presidents, weddings and huge banquets, Mikeska's has cooked their barbecue for up to 40,000 people at a time. The irony is, they're not even the best on their own street. -- N.B.


Taylor Cafe

101 N. Main, 512/352-8475
Sun-Thu, 7am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 7am-11pm

Taylor's two barbecue legends -- Louis Mueller's and Rudy Mikeska's -- sit virtually next door to one another up on the main road, but many claim that the best 'cue in town is around the corner at this funky little working-class bar (aka Vencil Mares) next to the railroad tracks, in the shadow of the Hwy. 95 overpass. It's particularly known for its own blends of sausage, and it's also worth a visit for the atmosphere alone. This is truly The Bar That Time Forgot: posters and beer signs that look like they've been up since the Fifties, farm and ranch implements on the walls that look not antique so much as just old, yellowed, hand-written signs, and even a pinball machine that gives you three plays for a dime. Oh, and did I mention that -- apparently by universal consent -- it's still essentially racially segregated? With the room split down the middle by a long, U-shaped bar, there's a black side -- with a jukebox jammed with classic old southern blues 45s -- and an anglo/Hispanic side, with its own jukebox offering country and Tejano hits. -- N.B.

Elgin


Southside Market

1212 Highway 290, 512/285-3407
Mon-Thu 8am-8pm, 8am-10pm Fri-Sat, 7am-6pm Sun

True, in deference to Yankee tastes, the "hot guts" -- homemade spicy beef sausage -- aren't as fiery as they used to be. And, having moved a few years back from its funky digs in downtown Elgin to an abandoned bank building on the highway, the digs are a bit more antiseptic. Still, the sausage is the local standard. And the rest of the food is also terrific. The (usually) tender pork ribs are seasoned with a pungent dry rub and cooked for two hours over a flaming post oak fire -- not smoldering, flaming. The pork steaks and brisket can be iffy, but when they're on, they too are delicious. Definitely still worth the trip. -- J.S.


Crosstown BBQ

211 Central Ave. (off Loop 109), 512/285-9308
Thu, 10am-8pm; Fri-Sat 10am-11pm; Sun, 10am-8pm

Crosstown sits a block from where the old Southside Market used to be across the railroad tracks from downtown. Besides the usual, they have pork chops and make their own sausage. Most customers buy to take home, but they have several tables inside and picnic tables in the vacant lot next door. This is an old fashioned black barbecue joint favored over the more "up-scaled" Southside Market or Bigger's. -- G.E.M


Bigger's Barbecue

US290 at Loop 109 (Main St.), 512/285-3402
9am-7pm daily

Their sausage is the hot commodity here, both in taste and sales. Folks stop on the drive between Houston and Austin to treat those waiting at their destination. They also have homemade pies and side dishes. Meats are served by the pound on butcher paper. You can't mention Elgin barbecue without mentioning Bigger's. -- G.E.M

Lockhart


Kreuz Market

208 S. Commerce, 512/398-2361
Mon-Fri 7am-6pm,
Sat 7am-6:30pm, Sun closed

No slaw. No beans. No potato salad. Just meat. And what meat! Prime rib (yes, prime rib) lightly smoked to sumptuous perfection. World-class brisket, fabulous pork chops, great clod (shoulder), and delicious homemade beef-and-pork sausage, all served on reddish-brown butcher paper. Established in 1900 as a meat market by the Kreuz family, the place was bought by the Schmidt family in 1948 and it has stayed in their hands since. In the original section, knives are chained to thick wood tables as they've been since 1924. Sides: cheddar cheese, avocados, tomatoes, pickles, onions, jalapeños. No nonsense. -- J.S.


Black's Barbecue

215 N. Main, 512/398-2712
roughly 10am-8:30pm daily (later if there's a crowd)

In the minds of many barbecue pilgrims, Lockhart barbecue begins and ends with Kreuz Market. But judging from the signs and directional arrows around town, you may think that Black's Barbecue ruled supreme -- and for some people it does. Searching for ways to distinguish itself from its crosstown rival, Black's bills itself as "the oldest and best major Barbecue house in Texas continuously owned by the same family since 1932." While Kreuz is a stripped-down meat market, Black's is an old-school barbecue restaurant as worthy of pilgrimage -- which joint you choose depends if you're in the mood for side dishes or not. Black's brisket, peppery sausage, or pork cuts can be ordered cafeteria-style (with your choice of tasty mayo-based side salads) or straight up on butcher paper. The real winners, though, are the desserts, made fresh on the premises and not to be missed. If you're fond of pie-style fresh peach cobbler, or homemade pecan pie, they've got great examples of both. In a perfect world, we could hope for a Black's/Kreuz merger, but for now we'll just have to make a choice -- or eat twice. -- P.J.


Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q

US183, south of Lockhart, 512/398-6027
Sun-Thu 8pm, Fri-Sat 8am-9pm

In a town known for barbecue, it took a lot of guts to open another barbecue joint. They may be number three, but they do a good job. Everything about the appearance of the restaurant seems to work against them, from the plain 1950s-style building to the linoleum-covered tables, but they're definitely worth a try.

-- G.E.M.

Giddings


City Meat Market

101 W. Austin, 409/542-2740
Mon-Fri 7:30am-5:30pm; Sat 7:30am-4pm

This is a real no-frills kind of place with pure small-town barbecue charm (complete with pressed metal ceilings). And the meat selection is extensive. Order brisket, pork, mild all-beef sausage, beef ribs, pork ribs, chicken, pork chops or steaks by the pound and they'll serve it up with sides of pinto beans and potato salad. Tea, water and soda water to drink, Eat in or take out. -- V.W.