Smoke Gets in Your Mouth

 	 	 

Artz Rib House

Artz Rib House

photograph by Kenny Braun

Nearly every geographic region in this country has some kind of ethnic or cultural culinary heritage. Lucky for us, Central Texas is the the confluence of several delicious culinary influences. In the late 19th century, the Chisholm Trail brought beef, and Czech and German immigrants brought their sausage-making and smoked meat traditions to the area, while Civil War refugees, black and white, left the deep South for a new start in Texas, bringing their recipes and cooking styles to add flavor to the mix. After more than 100 years of refinement, the result of this culinary congregation is an abundance of world-class barbecue. Whether it's smoked over oak, pecan, hickory, or mesquite, served on butcher paper in a historic family meat market, out of the window of a smoky, aromatic roadside shack, or in a comfortable sit-down restaurant with a wine list, barbecue is one of our region's best deserved claims to fame. It's cause for investigation, gustation, and celebration.

We at the Chronicle take this hallowed barbecue heritage very seriously. We embrace it, we promote it, and every few years, we spread out across Austin and the surrounding small communities looking for the best, the tastiest, the most remarkable examples of the pit master's art. This is our fourth big barbecue extravaganza in 10 years. As we researched the previous issues (Vol. 6, No. 21, 6/26/87; Vol 8, No. 40, 6/16/89; Vol 15, No. 41; 6/14/96), several clear favorites emerged, joints that warrant our constant respect and affection due to the consistency of their quality. Many of the rural area stalwarts have maintained successful records for more than 25 years, a few for more than 50. Some popular local places have long, satisfying track records, as well.

Therefore, the Chronicle food staff (Rebecca Chastenet de Géry, Meredith Phillips, Pableaux Johnson, Ronna Welsh, Mick Vann, Rachel Feit, publisher Nick Barbaro, and myself) set out to designate a Central Texas Barbecue Smokin' Hall of Fame. Whether you like your barbecue ultra lean and saucy, sweet and greasy, or blackened and smoky, we found a place for you. We considered nearly 40 joints before making our choices and their reviews are marked with a special Hall of Fame icon. If you're already familiar with them, drop in for another visit. If you're new to the area, feel free to use this issue as your guide to some of the best eating on the planet. And if we somehow managed to overlook or underrate your favorite joint, feel free to let us know. --Virginia B. Wood


TAYLOR

Louis Mueller Barbecue (1)

206 W. Second, Taylor, 512/352-6206
Mon-Thu, 9am-8pm; Fri, 9am-5pm; Sat, 9am-'til they run outta food.

Louis Mueller Barbeque

Louis Mueller Barbecue

photograph by Gerald E. Mcleod

Sit down and roll up your sleeves, because this is one place where eating is a serious campaign whose end may require massive clean-up operations. No plates, no trays, just butcher paper and meat. In Taylor, the Mueller family has been serving barbecue practically unchanged for more than 50 years from the little storefront with the rickety screen door on Second Street. Here, the legendary brisket, chicken, beef, and pork ribs, tenderloin and two kinds of sausage (jalepeño and regular) attract customers from all over Texas. The sausage is like peppered butter, the ribs are divinely tender. But the real star at Louis Mueller's is the brisket, one bite of which smoothly persuades diners again and again that this just may be the best this dish gets in Texas. What makes Louis Mueller's brisket so delectably moist is the way it's cooked. Each brisket is coated with the Muellers' peppery spice rub, then wrapped in butcher paper, where the meat cooks for just a little-long-while. The butcher paper keeps in the fat drippings, making the meat practically self-basting. The result is lean yet moist, smoky yet tender. Unlike most cooks in Central Texas, the Muellers shy away from sugar in all their food; you won't find sweet barbecue sauces here. Instead, you'll get a savory meat jus with each plate, delicious for sopping up with meat and bread alike. The same distaste for sugar applies to their potato salad, which explodes with the flavor of mustard and dill pickles instead of the usual sweet pickles.

This year, the Muellers have added an additional seating area. Architect-designed, the tall, open-air, rustic-moderne space of the new hall playfully counterpoises the meaty, smoke-stained walls of the original. It's a tastefully prosperous addition to a well-established business. If you plan to go on a Saturday, arrive early because the Muellers close when they run out of meat, which often happens around one or two o'clock. --Rachel Feit

Rudy Mikeska's (2)

300 W. Second, Taylor, 512/365-3722, 800/962-5706
Mon-Sat, 10am- 8pm; Sun, 10am- 2pm

Located one door over from Louis Mueller's, Rudy Mikeska's seems eternally fated to being the known as the other place in Taylor. Yet the Mikeskas have nevertheless carved a comfortable niche for themselves in the pantheon of Texas barbecue all-stars. All five of Rudy Mikeska's brothers have opened barbecue joints of their own in other parts of Texas. Called the "first family of Texas barbecue," the Mikeskas, like their neighbors the Muellers, have been serving reliable barbecue for almost 50 years, passing the torch from one generation to the next. If you're having a party and want some barbecue, then Rudy Mikeska's is your place. They cater barbecue to over a half-million people a year, serving food as effortlessly to gubernatorial inaugurations as to small-town weddings. At the cafeteria-style restaurant in Taylor, Rudy Mikeska's offers the standard round of barbecue fare, plus a few extras, such as smoked mutton, roast beef, and smoked ham. For catered events, they also serve fried catfish, steaks, and even fajitas. What makes Rudy Mikeska's stand apart from other barbecue joints is the nontraditional sides they serve. In their warming table, corn on the cob, hot buttered potatoes, and creamed green beans jostle for space beside the usual barbecue sentinels: coleslaw, potato salad, and beans. An efficient drive-through window around back makes Rudy's especially convenient for those who are just passing through and want to pick up a hearty snack for home consumption. --R.F.


ELGIN

Cross-Town BBQ (3)

211 Central Ave., Elgin, 281- 5594
Thu & Sun, 10am-8pm; Fri & Sat, 10am-11pm

Cross-Town BBQ

Cross-Town BBQ

photograph by Gerald E. Mcleod

Special thanks to Elgin resident (and Chronicle comptroller) Michael Schwarz for the heads-up about this place. If not for his tip, we would never have headed into downtown Elgin after visiting the more high-profile meat markets located on Hwy290 East. For the past 11 years, Cross-Town has been doing business in an unassuming little downtown building that you might miss if you weren't told to look for it. After a couple of visits, our advice is this: If you prefer your barbecue down-home, greasy, and full of flavor, look for Cross-Town on your next weekend visit to Elgin. This funky joint resembles a small-town bar with no windows, low light, and sports on the ever-present TV. One look at the wall of huge sports trophies and newspaper clippings from the New York Times, however, and you'll get the idea that the folks here are committed to hard work and quality.

There's a menu above the small meat counter where you can choose meats by the plate or the pound. Partners Carol Grady and Larry Morgan make their own spectacular all-beef sausage and smoke everything from brisket to pork ribs to mutton over a slow oak fire. We tried all the meats and found them to be juicy and tender, flavored so well with the pit-master's spices and smoking technique that there was no need for sauce. Sides of beans, potato salad, and coleslaw are available, as are pickles, onions and light bread or crackers. Whether you eat in or order a selection of meats to go, get plenty of napkins or papertowels. This is no ultra-lean, heart-healthy yuppie-fied barbecue. This is an old-time, deep South, eat-with-your-fingers-and-make-a-greasy-mess-style meal that you won't soon forget. --V.W.

Southside Market & Bar-B-Que
Home of Elgin Hot Sausage (4)

1212 US290 E, Elgin, 281-4650
Mon-Thu, 8am-8pm; Fri & Sat, 8am-10pm; Sun, 9am-7pm

Our unofficial Mother's Day survey revealed that more mothers in Elgin chose to eat at Southside Market than any other restaurant in town. We observed many car loads of families escorting smiling, corsage-bedecked matrons into the bustling Southside dining room for hours that Sunday. We returned on a less hectic weekday afternoon to sample the fare at this legendary Central Texas sausage factory and restaurant. A family named Moon founded the sausage factory in 1882, and it has been run by its current owners, the Bracewells, since 1968. They maintain the factory and meat market, which they expanded to include a folksy, barn-like dining room with two serving lines where you can order a variety of smoked meats by the sandwich, the plate, or the pound. There's even a mini-ice cream parlor, serving up scoops of favorite Blue Bell flavors to satisfy the sweet tooth.

After tasting several selections from Southside's hot meat counter, it's easy to see how the business has thrived for over a hundred years. The famous signature sausage is reliably delicious, piquant but not overly spicy, juicy but not overly greasy. (Spicier flavors are available at the nearby meat market counter, where you can also get steaks, ribs, and chops to cook at home.) The pork ribs, lightly rubbed with pepper, were a standout: pink, sweet, and tender. The huge beef ribs offered plenty of moist meat and a good crispy end to gnaw on. Speaking of crispy, blackened ends: If you're one who prefers the crunchy ends of brisket and miss them now that most brisket is trimmed and lean, Southside will win a spot in your heart. It offers Brisket Trimmings for $2 per pound and they are mighty good, a true guilty pleasure. --V.W.

Meyer's Elgin Smokehouse (5)

188 US290 E, Elgin, 281-3331
Sun-Thu, 10am-7pm; Fri & Sat, 10am-8pm

Since 1949, the Meyer family has been making sausage in Elgin from a precious heirloom recipe belonging to a German great-grandfather who emigrated to Central Texas. After years of operating a thriving mail-order business and successful wholesale marketing to grocery stores all over Texas, the current generation of Meyer brothers decided to expand the operation and added a restaurant last year. The sausage was already justifiably famous and the new restaurant is developing a following. In addition to two flavors of sausage, the smokehouse menu offers turkey breast, pork ribs, and beef brisket by the sandwich, the plate, or the pound. The traditional side dishes of beans, slaw and potato salad are available, plus pickles, onions, bread, and crackers. Everything comes on butcher paper or in plastic containers, with rolls of paper towels in strategic locations. Pull an ice-cold bottle of soda from the metal tub, find a table, and enjoy yourself.

While the delicious Beef Sausage ($4.75/lb) is the famous original flavor, we're partial to the Pork Garlic Sausage ($4.65/lb), also the best seller in grocery stores statewide. A simple link of these luscious "hot guts" with the pungent garlic flavor, doused with a little sauce and wrapped in soft, white bread explains why Elgin is now known as the "Sausage Capital of Texas." Fans of Meyer's plain, sage, or hot sausage can call ahead and request that their favorite flavor of links be thrown on the pit to be ready upon their arrival. The Pork Ribs ($6.89/lb) here definitely call for many paper towels and the Turkey Breast ($3.69/1*2lb) kept us in satisfying smoky sandwiches for several days. A pleasant discovery on a recent trip to Meyer's was a basket of cute little pie-lets from a company in Bastrop called Bluebonnet Pies. Though the miniature pies are in a machine-made crust, the fillings in the Southern Pecan, Chocolate Pecan, and Buttermilk Pies ($1.79 each) were very tasty. They were just the right size and sweetness to top off a hearty sausage meal. --V.W.


LULING

Luling City Market (6)

633 East Davis, near US Hwy 183, Luling, 830/875-9019
Mon-Sat, 7am-6pm

Luling City Market

Luling City Market

photograph by Gerald E. Mcleod

The City Market has been open since 1930 (1958 in its current location), and pretty much everybody swears that it hasn't changed much in all those years. But then, why should it? This a truly elegant operation -- beautifully simple in every detail -- a remarkable blend of brilliance and consistency.

Start with the brisket (of course). One of City Market's claims to fame is that they don't have any forks in the restaurant. That's because their brisket is so fall-apart tender you'll want to feel how good it is. These are not the lean, largely uniform slices of meat that come from closely trimmed briskets and long smoking over indirect heat, but the edgier, more idiosyncratic cuts that come from cooking heavily fatted briskets over just enough direct heat to seal in the juices and melt down the fat layer. This yields a stunningly tender inside, with succulent edges that are more or less sautéed in their own juices -- crispy yet still moist. It's a more exacting, less formulaic technique, and these folks have it down as well as anyone.

The meaty pork ribs are generously trimmed and smoked to perfection. Again, careful smoking and nice finishing over high heat gives the rib slabs an exquisite, pull-apart tenderness, and those crunchy yet inexplicably moist edge pieces that are the hallmark of truly great barbecue. The sausage -- the other leg of the holy triumvirate -- is a luscious, coarse-ground concoction, freshly made and dripping with both flavor and grease. (There's chicken as well, but to tell the truth, I've never managed to pull myself away from the more serious meats to give it a try.)

You buy all meats by the pound (or link) in the smokehouse in the back of the dining hall; they're served on butcher paper, with bread, but don't overlook the fixin's -- a surprisingly tasty selection of pickles, peppers, and onions are free on request, but you have to ask.

Side dishes are over at the other counter with the drinks -- and once again, simplicity meets excellence. Don't be put off by the little pre-packaged single-serving Styrofoam containers; these are unusually good, especially the slightly sweet, nicely seasoned potato salad, named "best in the world" in a recent informal taste test.

Then there's the real topper: a marvelous, sweet, peppery-hot orange barbecue sauce, from a family recipe, that's to kill for (or, to be less dramatic, just buy a quart to go).

That's all they do at Luling City Market -- six menu items, if I count right -- but they do each of them so damn well. This could be the perfect barbecue joint. --Nick Barbaro


LOCKHART

Kreuz Market (7)

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

Fanaticism, ascetism, promises of heaven, unconditional love... Barbecue inspires an almost religious devotion. And if any place will have you speaking in tongues, it's Kreuz Market.

The first time you stroll in the door, you feel you've narrowly escaped with your life. Only in Texas, the "Barbeque at Any Cost" state, is the public allowed so close to a post oak fire raging in the floor. Marvel at your luck in being alive as the smoke stings your eyes and the heat makes you cringe. Squint to see what you options are -- lean brisket, fat brisket, pork chops ($7.90/lb) and sausage -- or don't bother with all that and splurge for the prime rib ($12.90/lb).

Kreuz doesn't sauce, it seasons, and that's fine. Sauce is delicious, sauce moistens meat, sauce is fantastic, and we love sauce. But it's wholly unnecessary here, where "well-marbled" is an understatement for the tender, juicy beef with a deliciously salty crust of fat around the rim. Fat turns you off? I guarantee that you'll eat some here, then smack your lips, lick your fingers, and look around for more.

Meat is served on butcher paper with bread or crackers, and you carry your own into a dining area that sells RC Cola, cheese in wax paper, whole avocados, and plain serrano peppers. No traditional sides. It keeps the barbecue belly-aches to a minimum and lets you focus on the task at hand: eating phenomenal meat. Salt, pepper, and bottles of fluorescent Louisiana-style hot sauce are all the extras you get, and you won't dip too far into those, either.

Kreuz has been smoking meat in the German tradition since 1900. Now, due to family differences, Kreuz Market as we know and love it will close in August. Those who own the business will move to a building across from the cemetery on 183, and those who own the building will move on to something else. Unfortunately, it seems that never the twain shall meet.

Who knows what will happen. A restaurant can be great because of the food or great because of the experience. As it stands today, Kreuz Market, in an old brick building which will never not smell like smoke again, is both. --Meredith Phillips

Black's Barbecue (8)

215 North Main, Lockhart, 512/398-2712
Daily, 10am-10pm

Drive to Lockhart in search of true-blue barbecue and you won't have a hard time finding it. Signs on 183 advertising Black's, "the oldest BBQ house in Texas continuously owned by the same family since 1932," will direct you exactly where you need to go.

When you get there, take a deep breath and stop for a moment to prioritize. A salad bar with potato salad and slaw will be right in front of you, but you might choose to proceed past the cold sides and opt for the vinegary green beans cooked with pork and onion, or the mashed potatoes. You'll be asked to make these decisions before you select your meats, and we made the mistake of choosing too soon. Remember to keep a level head and focus.

As for the meat, Black's serves the post-oak smoked usual, seasoned with no more than salt and pepper -- brisket, pork ribs, pork loin, chicken, and sausage, but they've also got ham (a smoked meat, certainly, but not a typical ingredient in the barbecue experience).

Saying that the best thing about Black's is the people might detract attention from their deliciously peppery 87%-beef, 13%-pork sausage, the crisp, salty end bits of brisket, or sweet thick sauce, but it will give you an idea of the amiable service that Black's should be proud of.

And just in case you're in trouble with someone on one of the coasts or considering relocating yourself, always keep in mind that the Blacks will happily ship their wares nationwide. --M.P.


SAN MARCOS

Fuschak's Pit BBQ (9)

920 Hwy80, San Marcos, 512/353-2713
Daily, 11am-9pm

Fuschak's has been family-owned and operated since 1966. Morgan Fuschak's father began working for the original owners of the operation in the early Sixties, and his mom joined the fold a few years later as the cashier. The original owners were elderly, and a short while later, sold the operation to the Fuschak family. They kept the restaurant at the original location until 1988, when they moved to the current spot on Hwy80, about three blocks east of I-35.

Fuschak's has a rustic, warm wood interior, the walls decorated with antique farm implements and pictures of cattle and cowpunchers. You place your order at the counter, ordering from a very complete menu featuring pork ribs, sausage, brisket, beef fajitas, chicken, turkey, and on Mondays, sirloin steak. Fuschak's also has a very popular item called the Bar-Burrito -- a tortilla stuffed with brisket, refried beans, cheese, hot and barbecue sauces, and onions ($1.79). All the sides are available, with banana pudding and pecan pie for dessert.

Morgan Fuschak uses a dry rub only and, unlike most of his competitors, smokes over a combination of oak and hickory. He imports the hickory from East Texas for $200 a cord (definitely not cheap by firewood standards), and it imparts a unique sweet smokiness to the meats. He smokes his brisket for a minimum of 20 hours, 24 unless they're screaming for more on the line.

What struck me most about the meats at Fuschak's was how moist they all were. There's a reason for that. Morgan uses a rotisserie pit from the Fifties; as it circulates, the meats all constantly baste each other. The turkey I had was near the zenith of smoked turkeydom-- so moist that the juices dripped off my bearded chin. The ribs were smoke-alicious and fell off the bone. They have knives in the silverware holders, but trust me: You'll never need one.

Fuschak's has all-you-can-eat buffets Monday through Friday, 11am-8pm ($5.39 daily, except Thursday, when they feature three meats for $6.49). The plates are in the $5.59-$7.49 range, with meats by the pound $6.39-$10.55 (fajitas). They make everything in-house, except the sausage (half pork, half beef, and quite yummy), and do beaucoups catering and to-go business. Morgan runs a low-key, high-flavor operation with little advertising; as he says, he "just believes in letting the food do the talking." --M.V.


DRIFTWOOD

The Salt Lick (10)

18003 FM 1826, corner of 1826 & FM 967; 858-4959
Daily, 11am-10pm

On Mother's Day in 1969, Thurman and Hisako Roberts opened for the first day of business in a windowless 25' x 20' shack with one pit, no seating, and barbecue-to-go only. Now the Salt Lick seats 800 at a time, has five pits, three banquet rooms, and the Pavilion (for weddings and such). It ships barbecue all over the world and caters huge events. Times have changed.

The Lick is in a picturesque setting on the banks of Onion Creek, about 20 miles southwest of Austin. It's a rustic stone and wood compound with stone and concrete floors, and a constant smell of oaken smoke wafting about. Inside, it's a flurry of activity, with herds of waiters and expeditors scurrying around to the crackle of walkie-talkies. At peak hours, you're assured a wait, but most regulars come prepared, toting coolers filled with beverages.

Aside from the bucolic location, the crowds come here for the Family Style Barbecue Dinners -- all you can eat for $11.95 -- and I have yet to see a table not ask for seconds. It arrives in waves. The meat plate is mounded high with brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. The brisket is lean and tender, with a 1/4- to 1/3-inch smoke ring from 16 to 20 hours in the pit. The ribs are properly smokified and suck off the bone with little effort. The sausage is plump and fine-grained. The sauce is light-colored and unique -- vaguely oriental somehow, yet mustardy. The sides are fairly standard, but I really dig the slaw with black pepper and sesame seeds.

Meats by the pound and barbecue plates are $8.95, while sandwiches are in the $5-7 range. The night I was there featured some specials like Prime Rib ($18.95) and Baby Back Ribs, Habanero Chicken, and Beef Ribs (all $9.95).

The next time you go, take a cooler full of beer and a designated driver, gorge to the bursting point, then digest while watching the semi-domesticated nutria fight over scraps down by the creek. Enjoy the country and relax; life's too short. --M.V.


SPICEWOOD

R.O.'s Outpost (11)

Hwy 71W at Hazy Hills Dr. (17 miles from the Y, one mile past R.O. Dr.), 264-1169
Tue-Sat, 11am-9pm

R.O.'s is an unassuming little spot from the outside, but cozy and homey on the inside. The walls are plastered with autographed kudos from the likes of Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, Lyle, Jimmie Vaughan, and Dan Rather. Randy and Kathy Osban, who worked for years at the famous Clark's Outpost up in Dallas (owned by Randy's mom), run it. They've had the Outpost open for almost four years now, and tied for second in the Chronicle's Reader's Choice Restaurant Poll this year.

Randy uses a Southern Pride enclosed smoker with pecan wood, smoking his brisket for 52 hours with a dry rub for seasoning. The Outpost has a complete menu, including turkey, pork loin and ribs, ham, sausage, and chicken, as well as award-winning chicken-fried steak and pan-fried quail. All of the smoked meats are available as plates ($6-9), sandwiches ($3-4.75) or by the pound ($5-9.50).

I sat down to a table and was promptly given a warm, moist towel for the ensuing mess. I ordered a custom mega platter featuring brisket, ribs, turkey, sausage, and pork loin. The menu features a cornucopia of sides, with plenty to satisfy the vegan crowd. There are all the regulars, plus red beans, green beans, and fried okra. I settled on mini-portions of slaw, smoked BBQ beans, jalapeño black-eyed peas, and the oddball-sounding deep-fried corn on the cob.

The meats melted in the mouth and fell off the bone, just like they were supposed to, and were loaded with smoky flavor. The brisket had a half-inch smoke ring on the meat while the ribs clocked in with a quarter-inch. The sausage was bursting with flavor and not the least bit greasy. All the veggies were great, and the corn was a real treat; the sugars were caramelized from the fryer, real similar to grilled corn.

Kathy's pies have been featured in Gourmet, and she usually has four choices. I settled on blackberry, and it reminded me of my Grandma'sdewberry cobbler: sweet, dark, and zesty. I wolfed it down next to a herd of boat mechanics from next door, who were having pie and tea for their afternoon break while arguing about Fermat's Last Theorem. It's quite a place. --M.V.


MARBLE FALLS

Inmann's Ranchhouse BBQ (12)

Hwy 281 at Sixth Street, Marble Falls, 830/693-2711
Tue-Fri, 9am-5pm; Sat, 9am-2pm; Sun, 9am-1pm

Inmann's got its start back in the late Fifties when Lester Inmann started making the famous Smoked Turkey Sausage that has become the benchmark against which all sausages -- smoked or otherwise -- should be measured. He started selling it on a street corner in Llano during deer hunting season. Lester's brother Francis started the Marble Falls branch of Inmann's on March 24, 1964. They sell basically two products: smoked turkey sausage and beef brisket barbecue, with the requisite fixin's. You won't find ribs, pork, turkey, or any of that other jazz.

Inmann's is located in a simple white frame house with concrete floors and sparse decorations. You don't go there for atmosphere; you go there for serious barbecue. In the back room is a brick-and-steel, three-section pit, smoking away with oak wood. There are no mops or slops, just a sprinkling of carefully concocted and closely guarded spice mix. The brisket is smoked for eight hours, and it starts on the hot end and works its way down to the serving end. Everything except the white bread is made from scratch. Francis' son Billy Ray runs the place now, but Francis can still slice circles around the kid. Nobody comes or goes without a heartfelt howdy from Billy Ray, and tales and town gossip run rampant at the tables out front.

The brisket is so good that words don't do it justice. It's lean, moist, and fork tender, with rich, smoky flavor -- it's the kind of barbecue that'll make you want to slap your pappy. The turkey sausage is quite simply the best sausage in the world. It's a coarse grind that is hand-stuffed, then slow smoked on the pit, with a piquant finish redolent of garlic. I never leave Inmann's without a cooler-full destined for my freezer. The sauce is medium thick, garlicky, and slightly spicy -- they really should bottle this stuff. The brisket sells for $5/lb, the sausage for $3.50. A combo platter goes for $4.50, a single platter for $3.50. There is no better barbecue bargain in the state, and few (if any) can match it for taste and quality. Anticipation greatly shortens the 45-minute drive. --M.V.


LLANO

Cooper's Old Time Pit B.B.Q. (13)

506 West Young, Llano, 915/247-5713
Sun-Thu, 10:30am-8pm; Fri & Sat, 10:30am-9pm

Cooper's is a barbecue mecca that's been around for 43 years. It was started by the Cooper family and sold to the Wootan (not Woo-Tang) clan 15 years ago. When you drive up, the first thing you see under the shed roof outside is a line of six pits, cords of mesquite wood, and piles of folks waiting to give the meat slicers their order. You tell the slicers exactly what you want, how you want it trimmed, how much of it to put on your tray, then head inside for it to be weighed and priced (meats are in the $6-8/lb range, sides a buck). Once inside, you decide if you want any slaw or spuds, and pick a drink, then you're off to the self- serve beans, onions, jalapeños, and bread.

What you have to pick from at the pits is a huge assortment of meats: sausage, pork ribs, 2-inch thick pork chops, brisket (cooked six to eight hours), sirloin, chicken, and cabrito (young goat). It's all cooked over mesquite coals, with little emphasis placed on the smoke (although it gets pretty smoky outside under the shed), and the meat gets a sprinkling of spices. You have the option of having everything dipped in the sauce by the slicers. The sirloin and the pork chops get all the press, but all of it tastes damn good. One of my faves was the cabrito, which was smoky, tender, and rich, with an almost gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth texture. You have to go to Monterrey, Mexico to find cabrito that competes with Cooper's.

The sauce is of the thin variety, with a finish of jalapeño. The beans were rich and flavorful, the slaw sweet and tangy, with a vinegar-based dressing. I like the concept of bottomless jalapeños and onions.

Seating under the watchful gaze of deer heads and memorabilia is communal, at picnic tables. Where everybody was visiting from seemed to be a popular topic for small talk. Herbie Lynn, the manager, says you're just as likely to see Lady Bird or Guv' Bush, Madeleine Stowe or Lynda Obst, as you are camo-clad hunters. No barbecue pilgrimage in Texas is complete without a stop at Cooper's. --Mick Vann

Laird's BBQ (14)

1600 Ford St., Llano; 915/247-5234
Wed & Thu, 9am-5pm; Fri & Sat, 9am- 7pm; Sun: 9am-'til they sell out (~4pm)

Kenneth Laird of Laird's BBQ

Kenneth Laird
of Laird's BBQ
photograph by Gerald E. Mcleod

Laird's is a Llano barbecue fixture in a fine, old two-story house near the south end of town. It's been there for 23 years and is run by Ken and Esther Laird. Ken and Esther are two of the friendliest, most down-home restaurateurs you'll ever run across, and if you ever think your Texas drawl is over the top, go talk to Ken to see what a real drawl sounds like. Esther even offered me a bed upstairs for a recuperative nap before my drive back to Austin. They refer to folks from up north in San Saba as Yankees.

Ken cooks in a pit, using only mesquite wood, and smokes briskets about six to eight hours. He doesn't believe in mops or slops, just a sprinkling of secret spices. The sauce is of medium thickness, with a great balance of tart and sweet, moderate smokiness, and a spicy finish on the tail end. Everything on the menu, except the ubiquitous white bread, is done in-house. Normally, I'm not too big on spud salad, but Esther's version was nice and zippy.

The sausage is German-style: half-beef, half-pork, with plenty of garlic; next to Inmann's, it was my favorite. The brisket had a 1/3-inch smoke ring and was moist and tender. I was bummed big-time because they had sold out of pork ribs by the time I got there (Ken uses the small- sized racks, and they go quick). But I did get some of the succulent, smoked pork loin. Meats run $6.75-$7.25/lb, plates are $5.50 to $6.50, and sandwiches around $3.

You'd be wise to include Laird's on your Llano barbecue crusade. Stop in for some good chow and chitchat, maybe say hey to Marcia Gay Hardin (she's a regular), and ask Ken to pronounce Shapiro (he says "sha-pie-row"). --M.V.


AUSTIN

Old Chisolm Trail

900 Braker, 339-9577
Mon-Sat, 11am-7pm; Sun, noon-6pm

Under new management as of about three months ago, this little strip-mall eatery is better than you'd expect from its setting in a dumpy little center a block east of I-35. Inside, the decor is a strangely appealing blend of aesthetics. Old and not-so-old ranching implements line the walls -- lassos, yokes, branding irons, and the like -- but there's a decided biker overtone as well (perhaps related to the Harley-Davidson dealership next door). Taken altogether, it's an evocative presentation of a peculiarly Texan on-the-road-again subculture.

The food, too, is a pleasant surprise: Pretty good wet-style pork ribs highlight the standard brisket-sausage-rib menu, served cafeteria-style. The side dishes are better-than-average as well -- including some nice, cumin-laced beans -- and they have an unusual specialty in the boneless, skinless chicken, which is wrapped in bacon and seasoned with tarragon. There's also a pork roast on the menu, but only rarely is it actually on the smoker. --N.B.

Ray's BBQ

601 Montopolis, 385-8262
Tue-Sat, 11am-6pm

When Mr. Ray Williams took over Roy's last year, all he had to do was white out the "O," paint in an "A," and proceed as usual with the business that's been going on in the little brown building for 16 or 17 years: using a blend of mesquite and oak to smoke sausage, brisket, and pork ribs.

We sampled the rib ($5.50) and sausage ($4.95) plates, and though it was the fifth plate of barbecue in as many days, the experience was to our great satisfaction. Ribs were country-style, rich, moist, and delicious. (If you're not a rib aficionado, the phrase country-style may as well be the antonym for lean -- it refers to the untrimmed front ribs of the pig.) They didn't have a terrific amount of salt but were deeply satisfying nonetheless. Sausage is all beef, from the famous Southside Market in nearby Elgin. The plate includes a homemade potato salad made sweet with pickle relish, a side of meaty pintos (also slightly salted), and the soft white bread that defines Central Texas barbecue.

Neither meat came with sauce, but there are two to choose from on the few tables there are inside of Ray's (he seems to have an active take-out business). One was a thick, sweet red sauce in a plastic squeeze bottle, the other an elixir of ground red pepper steeped in vinegar, in a curiously round container.

We asked for desserts (the menu promises pie, cake, cobbler, and pudding), but we were out of luck. "I guess I didn't get around to it today," said Mr. Williams. "Most people don't ask for dessert on a weekday, and after all the dessert people ate this holiday weekend, I know I wouldn't want any."

In short, Ray of Ray's BBQ was imposing temperance, in at least one way, on the waistlines of his clientele. For that, and for the country style, we thank him. --M.P.

Ruby's BBQ

29th & Guadalupe, 477-1651
Daily, 11am-midnight

Ruby's wouldn't qualify as an orthodox Texas pit, but the skull-clad smokehouse is just perfect for its location, both general (Central Austin) and specific (just north of UT campus mere steps from the Drag). Behind the faded Dr. Pepper sign that boldly misreads "Fajita Flats," Ruby's stands as the perfect nuevo 'cue joint where the key to success (and steady traffic) is a deep list of menu options not found at traditional old-school joints.

The beef at Ruby's is trumpeted as all-natural and hormone-free -- which when you get down to eating isn't nearly as important as the fact that it's tender, tasty, and perfectly juicy. The pitmaster also smokes and slices flavorful sausage from Elgin (our regional hotgut mecca) and a mean rack of crispy/moist pork ribs -- served against a backdrop of bulletproof white wax paper. Cover the carnage with paper shot-cups of cayenne-heavy sauce, and you have a serious meal on your hands -- and dripping down the front of your shirt. All meats can be ordered by the plate, the sandwich, or the pound.

Ruby's list of side dishes reads like the fine print on a rodeo disclaimer -- all the better for potential customers of the vegetarian persuasion. There are two kinds of beans (black and BBQ), a couple of slaw options, mustard- or mayo-dressed potato salad, home fries, collard greens, and (heaven help us all) garden salads on the menu, not to mention numerous chalkboard specials. It's a selection that ensures vegans or fat busters won't feel stranded as their friends dive headfirst into a brisket fest. It's one of the only barbecue joints that can serve the needs of strict herbivores and unrepentant disciples of the flesh. And just to hedge their bets, owners Pat Mares and Luke Zimmerman fill out their offerings with a few Cajun staples (chicken/sausage gumbo, red beans, and jambalaya) and a deep stable of homemade desserts.

The recent downtown relocation of Antone's has cut down on Ruby's post-club walking traffic, but the dining room still sports posters from the days when blues legends would duck in for a quick bite before, after, and between sets. Gone are the weekend 3am closing times, but yellowing posters from Maceo, James, and the gang are still visible from the ordering line. New students will remember the nearby joint as a video store/laundromat crossbreed, but they'll still take a quick hike north whenever they need solid walking-distance barbecue -- or the perfect compromise joint. --Pableaux Johnson

Lewis' Bar-B-Q

1814 Harvey (at Manor), 473-2225
Mon-Thu, 11am-8:30pm; Fri & Sat, 11am-10pm

Lewis' Bar-B-Q

Lewis and Co. at Lewis's Bar-B-Q

photograph by Kenny Braun

Many barbecue aficionados are long devotees of the small, bubble gum-pink shack on Harvey Street and Manor Road. Herein awaits pounds of bulk barbecued meat that brings neighborhood folks out in regular droves. In this small takeout space is a veritable mini-meat market, where whole foot-long links of sausage drain on expertly wrapped butcher paper, and where family-size banana pudding, chock-full of Nilla wafers, and a popular peach cobbler beckon the impulse buy.

Ordering is simple, because Lewis' barbecue is of the no-frills kind: straight up smoked meat with a side of tomato-y barbecue sauce, accompanied by either a tower of white bread or a full bag of saltines. This barbecue is tamer than most -- its meat merely hints of smoke and its sauce is sweeter than it is hot -- but it is good quality eatin' at a steal of a price: $12 worth of meat feeds four for lunch. Barbecue here is available in three forms: by the pound ($4.50-$6.50), the platter ($4.50-$5.50), or the sandwich ($2.50-$3.00), in the brisket, sausage, mutton, or pork chops variety. Pickles and onions, potato salad, jars of fat jalapeños, and electric green dills are yours for the asking (and, except for on the platter, at a small charge). Join other knowing folks at the tiny order window on a lazy Saturday afternoon for a pickup of bulk lunch meat, or grab a hot sandwich and a seat at one of the shaded picnic tables, downwind from the smoker's campfire-like fumes and under the old Coke sign. --Ronna N. Welsh

Hoover's Cooking

2002 Manor Rd., 479-5006
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat & Sun, 9am-10pm

A barbecue lover's natural skepticism sets in when he finds smoked meat in mixed company on a menu. To a Texan, especially, barbecue is usually Feature Food, not an average menu item -- if it's good, it's something to boast about. So to order ribs in a place like Hoover's Cooking, which serves an array of Southern homestyle dishes, is like chancing the bagel at a diner; it may fit the bill for the menu, but it is suspiciously not given the singular accolades it usually deserves. Actually, if surprisingly, Hoover's barbecue is some of the best in town. The fact that Hoover's Cooking touts itself as a Southern style restaurant and not a barbecue joint only lets on how good all the food here is. It is a place that courts even light eaters of comfy vegetable plates and fresh salads.

Hoover's barbecue includes chicken wings or halves, pork ribs, and Elgin sausage, all in huge portions that alone fill up oversized plates. The ribs, especially, are so flavorful as to be decadent; it's like Hoover hand-fans the flames, coaxing the meat to smoked perfection. Though the barbecue stands well enough alone, Hoover's deep-red side of sauce -- a perfect elixir of sweet and spice -- tempts a serious addiction. Ask for extra napkins to wipe your frenzily licked hands dry. If you're with a crowd, ask for extra forks as well to share such prized house sides as macaroni and cheese, jalapeño creamed spinach, cole slaw, and pork-laden beans. Or try Hoover's for breakfast, when you'll find classic combinations of meat and eggs. Hoover's is not another barbecue place. It is all that and more. --R.W.

House Park Bar-B-Q

900 W. 12th, 472-9621
Mon-Fri, 11am-2:30pm

In all the hustle and bustle at 12th and Lamar, keep you eyes peeled for the "Need Teef to Eat My Beef" sign. It marks a neighborhood barbecue stand -- and a fine one at that -- in business since 1943.

Ask James Daniel, Pit Boss since '74, how he makes the meat and he'll tell you straight up: "Well, I just take the meat and lay it in the pit." He's not kidding. No salt, no pepper. No turning anything over, even. Just flaky brisket smoked in pits fed off a mesquite-based fire for between 14 and 18 hours, or pork/beef (50/50) sausage and pork loin.

Even if you're saving your teef for a special occasion, give them a whirl on the pork loin sandwich on a soft bun. Dress one up with onion, pickle, and the smooth, tomato-ish barbecue sauce -- closer to ketchup than most, and winner of the 1996 Rib Tickler, although you won't find any ribs at House Park. At House Park, they're open about the way they cook their meat, but the recipes for sauce and ranch beans are kept under wraps. Sweet beans, sweet coleslaw, and sweet potato-and-egg salad complement the good basic meat.

In a few years, Daniel may take off to travel. East, West, maybe even to Rio de Janeiro. A new pit boss will surely come to stand in his place, but he might be more interested in jazzing things up, things Daniel knows don't need to be jazzed. If you want to try meat that stands alone, you'd best try it now. --M.P.

Sam's

2000 E. 12th, 478-0378
Mon-Sat, 10am-3am; Sun, 10am-10pm

Ask Austin-based barbecue fanatics for the definitive in-town barbecue and, more often than not, Sam's will pop to the top of the list. For years, the simple white frame house on 12th Street earned a stellar reputation with its traditional selection of deep-smoked meats and short list of classic sides (beans, potato salad, and slaw). Inside the tiny dining room, there's a few tables, walls covered with customer photos, and a TV tuned to the latest sporting event. Nothing fancy or extraneous. When you've got meat this good, you don't need anything else.

Hot link fans will be hooked on Sam's fat, house-made sausages, but brisket is the star here, served in a tasty puddle of the tangy, salty sauce ladled hot from the serving table. And not your trimmed-lean brisket either -- this is the kind of beef that's marbled and ribboned with just enough fat to satisfy the beast inside. If you want a lo-fat experience, truck your carcass down to a salad bar in your favorite food court. The same general rules -- lotsa smoke, just enough residual fat -- hold for Sam's other pit specialties (pork ribs, mutton, etc.). When you're parked at Sam's, expect to have a truly spiritual meeting of the meats.

Sam's also holds to the great tradition of being open really late nights for post-club beef binges that hit after the bars close. After a long night of carousing, sometimes there's nothing more satisfying than a tray full of spicy barbecue chased with a sweet red soda. Sauce sopped up with slices of absorbent, pliable white bread and cleansing mouthfuls of sharp onion and crinkle-cut dill pickles. After 2am on any night 'cept Sunday, Sam's will be open and slicing -- a milestone public service that deserves (at the very least) its own state holiday. --P. J.

Ben's Long-Branch Bar-B-Que

900 E. 11th, 477-2516
Mon-Thu, 10:30am-7pm; Fri-Sat, 10:30am-11pm

Ben's Long-Branch Bar-B-Que

Ben's Long Branch Bar-B-Que

photograph by Kenny Braun

"Older people tend to like mutton more than the young folks," is what Ben's Long Branch manager Eugene Tumbs told me when I asked him about their mutton. As I am a youngster who also happens to be a big fan of barbecued mutton, I am grateful that there are still a few places left in Austin willing to sacrifice the lamb to propitiate the gods of the smoker. If you go to Ben's Long Branch, don't miss this old-time delicacy. Crispy bits of mutton rib meat are coated with Ben's special spice rub. Like all mutton, though, you've got to pick around the fat -- it's definitely not for the diet-conscious (although Mr. Tumbs insisted that mutton was actually healthier than beef). For those who prefer a less fatty meat, the brisket Ben's serves is some of the leanest in town. And people who have a hard time choosing their meats will find the best of two worlds in the Big Ben's Sandwich, which contains both brisket and sausage. The cafeteria-style service and simple no-frills decor inside the restaurant bespeaks the restaurant's lasting attention to one thing only: the meat. The smoke patina covering the walls attests to the fact that Ben's Long Branch has been in the business of serving smoked meat for 18 years now. Like most barbecue places in town, it serves the standard array of smoked meats: chicken, beef, beef and pork ribs, and, to please the old-timers, mutton. Don't forget to save room for dessert because at Ben's they make it fresh every day. They offer an excellent spiced peach cobbler and a creamy banana pudding good enough to make Southern Culture on the Skids singer, Rick Miller stand up and sing for more Banana Puddin'....! --R.F.

Stubb's Bar-B-Q

801 Red River, 480-8341
Tue-Wed, 11am-10pm; Thu-Sat, 11am-11pm; Sun, 11am-9pm

Stubb's Bar-B-Q

The pit door at Stubb's

photograph by Gerald E. Mcleod

Old wood tables, old wood chairs, old brick walls, and an old man's name. Navasota's Christopher B. Stubblefield cooked for as many as 10,000 soldiers in his all-black infantry unit in the Korean war, then came home to open the first "Stubb's" up in Lubbock. The current incarnation bearing Stubb's name opened in 1996, and the original has closed since then. Fortunately for the listening community, Austin's Stubb's has become one of the largest live music venues in the city over the past two years, and its presence has stoked the fires under a new entertainment district between 8th and 10th streets on Red River. This is not as fortunate for the eating community.

Barbecue, often a source of contention and always a source of pride, is an art and a science, but this isn't either. Stubb's may boast a thick, dark, spicy big-name sauce bearing the image of the legend, but neither the servers nor the manager even had an idea what wood (it's pecan) is used to fire the pits. Meat is supposed to be a focus, more than just a vehicle for sauce. Pork ribs ($7.95) are like ham on a stick, sausage ($6.50) is acceptable, gritty collards and saltless spinach disappoint, and even if the banana pudding is excellent, the overall experience is uninspired. Until that changes, who knows how many out-of-towners and musicians will carry away the sad, misinformed notion that Texas barbecue, a mainstay of our culture, is a corporate affair, and maybe even lacking in soul. --M.P.

The Iron Works

100 Red River, 478-4855
Mon- Fri, 11am- 9pm; Sat, 11am-3pm

Rising phoenix-like in 1977 from the smoking embers of Fortunat Weigl's historic iron workshop, the Iron Works Restaurant has in the last two decades incontrovertibly asserted itself in Austin's latter-day commercial scene. Located right next to the Convention Center, the rustic-atmosphered Iron Works does a brisk lunch business, in addition to numerous catering events. Serving the standard barbecue offerings -- beef brisket, ribs, sausage, smoked chicken, and turkey -- the Iron Works satisfies not only the numerous out-of-towners breezing through for conventions, but also local diners who just can't get enough of the Iron Works' smoked meat. Unlike many barbecue places, the Iron Works prepares its own brand of sausage, which in my opinion out-sparkles all other items on the generally competent menu. For those like myself who are growing bored with the standard barbecue sides, it also serves baked potatoes topped with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, or even chopped beef. During the winter months, the Iron Works prepares a zesty Texas chili as a sideline attraction to the already voluminous bill of fare. The real lure at the Iron Works, though, is the atmosphere, which draws heavily on its now mythical incarnation as an ironsmith shop. Old scraps of wrought iron cover the walls, while iron smithing tools from bygone days dress the place with quaint mementos of a tougher, more industrial Austin. Sit outside in the breezy shade of the covered porch and listen to the gurgle of Waller Creek as you suck down a Big Red with your barbecue. Although the prices here are slightly higher than most, the pleasant atmosphere of the Iron Works more than compensates for the few extra dollars spent. --R.F.

Green Mesquite Barbeque & More

1400 Barton Springs, 479-0485;
2700 W. Pecan (Pflugerville), 251-7388;
7010 Hwy 71 (Oak Hill), 288-8300;
Scholz Garten 1607 San Jacinto, 474-1958

An old-fashioned Texas country beer garden in the middle of the city -- times four. Tom Davis' flagship location, among the pecan groves on Barton Springs Road, was one of the first inhabitants of the now-thriving restaurant row. But it has retained its laid-back, rustic charm and unhurried pace through the years, and it's still a pure delight on a summer evening. Branches in Oak Hill and Pflugerville retain the original's comfy formula of hearty fare and live music on weekends; and the venerable Scholz Garten, added to the GM family a couple of years ago, fits in perfectly. (Scholz's, of course, has its own rich history -- as a traditional German bier garten founded in 1866 and as a notorious politico hangout immortalized in Billy Joe Brammer's The Gay Place.)

The menu at Green Mesquite has broadened some over the years -- it includes such Southern standards as burgers and chicken-fried steak, and the catfish plate has long been a staple -- but the barbecue has remained solid throughout. Their claim to fame is probably still the great pork ribs: plump, juicy, and absolutely gigantic. Along with the other standard meats -- sausage, chicken, and brisket -- they also serve smoked turkey and ham. There's a good selection of side dishes as well; favorites include the big, thick onion rings, the quite tasty cornbread hush puppies, and one of the better coleslaws in town. --N.B.

Artz Rib House

2330 South Lamar, 442-8283
Daily, 11am-10pm

Laid-back, comfortable Artz is known for many things. It's a live music venue that supports local singer-songwriters, it boasts an award-winning gumbo (only on Thursdays), and it has an excellent charbroiled South Austin Cheeseburger with grilled onions, jalapeños and bacon ($4.50) in addition to a full barbecue menu. That's all well and good. For the purpose of this exercise, we suggest, we implore, no, we insist that you focus specifically on Artz's ribs. They are as good as you're likely to encounter in this lifetime.

Gather up a rib-loving group of friends and prepare to enter rib heaven. Start with a platter of Artz Famous Country Style Pork Ribs ($9.25 for three, $7.25 for two), meaty wonders cut from the loin that resemble thick, delicious pork chops. Chunks of moist, flavorful pork separate easily from the hefty bones. They don't even need sauce; they're simply divine. Move on to a rack of Baby Back Ribs ($12.95 full, $8.50 half) where the pork is lean, sweet, and tender. An order of Jumbo Beef Ribs ($8.50 for three) looks big enough for the Flintstones and yields plenty of juicy beef and dark, crusty ends. Trade ribs around the table and when it's time to go home, you'll all be wearing big smiles and dabs of grease and sauce on your happy cheeks.

Artz also offers plates of smoked brisket, chicken, and Elgin sausage, which probably all have loyal followings. We couldn't tell you that because we're stuck on the ribs. Maybe someday we'll order a combo platter just for variety, as long as there are plenty of ribs All barbecue entrees come with rather unremarkable sides of potato salad, coleslaw, and beans, plus pickle spears, onions, and bread. That's really not a problem because we love the ribs. There's homemade banana pudding, very tempting sweet potato pecan pie, and raspberry peach cobbler à la mode. We might try them, too, if we don't fill up on ribs. --V.W.

South First BarBQ and Catering

7811 South First, 326-9328
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm, Sat, noon-10pm

From the outside of this mini-mall storefront, it's pretty obvious where South First BarBQ got its start. Parked in the empty lot next door is a sizeable pit trailer -- an imposing red barn on wheels that houses a well-stoked portable pit and shows the smoke-stained signs of heavy and constant use. On any given afternoon, oak ashes spill out onto the sidewalk and fragrant smoke fills the air of the barely developed deep South Austin neighborhood. SFBBQ's menu also includes nods to other neighborhood restaurant needs -- a selection of breakfast tacos, a few burgers -- but the real deal seems to be the idea of market-style takeout fresh from the trailer.

South First BarBQ has occupied the same plain strip-mall location for over seven years -- basically as an outgrowth of the owner's barbecue catering business. On the days when the trailer isn't parked on-site for large-scale serving, it's stoked up providing solid barbecue for the denizens of way South Austin.

Inside, the atmosphere is pretty much what you'd expect: a few plastic tables, mementos from satisfied customers (including the UT Pom Pom crew), and a simple menu that features solid 'cue from the trailer outside.

After ordering, the owner walked outside to pick our order off the smoker -- plump pork ribs and brisket smoked down to perfection without dryness. The pork ribs weren't your usual "baby back" affairs, but instead had huge chunks of meat between the bones. These aren't just teeth scrapers, but ribs that require a deep concentration for the full-contact experience. Styrofoam cups full of deeply flavored tomato-based sauce (a good mix of sweet and sour without excessive pepper kick) were just made for sloshing, and make for a 10-napkin meal. --P.J.

Five Star BarBQ

3638 Bee Caves Rd., Ste. 104, 328-2599

Now that Bee Caves Road is a congested commuter artery instead of a rural route, it pays to be a bit off the beaten track -- especially if you're hoping for outdoor restaurant business. And Five Star Barbecue seems to have the perfect distance from the road -- as well as one of the better decks in all of Austin barbecuedom.

Originally opened as a pure barbecue joint, the Five Star has responded to local tastes and become more of a full-service restaurant than a "choose one meat and two sides" establishment. They serve everything you'd expect from the barbecue canon -- sausage, well-trimmed brisket, chicken, chopped beef -- plus other offerings to increase their appeal to the non-carnivores (burgers, grilled items, veggie burgers).

The policy of appeasement seems to cut across generational lines as well, since kid-heavy families can take advantage of different levels of the beautifully renovated building. Kids can pump quarters into the video games upstairs while parents listen to live music outside on the Five Star's oak-shaded deck. --P. J.

BBQ World Headquarters

6701 Burnet, 323-9122
Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm

Years ago, when Duke Bischoff was one of the busiest restaurant equipment salesmen in Austin, he told a story about his response to civilians who thought they wanted to try their hand at the restaurant business. It seems that about once a week, some ol' boy would come in and say, "My wife makes a great potato salad (chicken-fried steak, cinnamon roll, etc.) and I'd like to take this $10,000 and set her up in a little restaurant." Duke swears that his stock answer was always "Buddy, I'm going to keep your 10K, take you out in the parking lot, and hit you in the head with a brick. In the long run, I'll be saving you some money and some pain, and definitely saving your marriage!" Lucky for us, Bischoff didn't take his own advice. He and his wife have gone into business with their daughter and son-in-law and the result is a friendly family barbecue joint on the grounds of Austin's Historic Farmer's Market.

After a relaxing stroll around the market to check out the fresh produce, settle down at a picnic table for a heaping plate of barbecue and all the fixin's made from Duke's own recipes. Meats are available by the sandwich (or wrap), the plate, or the pound, and they're willing to feed a handful or a huge crowd. The sausage is a good place to start; it's lean and flavorful, custom-made at Mike's Butcher Block in Cedar Park. It's also a key ingredient in the delicious, creamy (but beer-less) Borracho Beans, not to be missed. Be sure to sample the brisket, as the BBQ World HQ is Austin's only licensed certified Angus beef smokehouse.

While the store is only open for lunch, they'll be glad to pack your choice of meats, plus all the traditional sides and fixin's, for a deliciously affordable dinner. The Bischoffs are also fast becoming one of Austin's favorite barbecue caterers. They're more than willing to smoke or grill meats to your personal specifications and serve them wherever you'd like. Patrons at the busy Dessau Music Hall line up to vouch for the flavor of Duke's barbecue every weekend. --V.W.

Donn's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que

8624 Research Blvd., 459-5077
Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm

In the shadow of the new 183 overpass, Donn's Barbecue sits on the main artery connecting Old Austin (what we now call "central") with New Austin (the CedArbor Hill corridor). And if word gets out, Donn may just inspire commuters to stop for a well-smoked barbecue before returning to the far-flung suburbs.

Donn's is a renovated fast-food joint where traditional smokehouse values (good quality meats, full-flavored sauce) meet the efficiency of its previous incarnation. The cafeteria-style line feeds customers past a wall-height menu, past a rabbit-quick assembly line, and out through a waiting cashier -- all in record time. The staff at every stage were almost suspiciously good-natured, with the meat cutter even asking how lean or fatty I'd like my brisket. Fifteen seconds after this wonderfully unexpected query, I was loaded up and ready to hit the table. For its range of meats and near-frightening efficiency, Donn's is a strong, all-around joint that makes up in service what it lacks in atmospheric funk.

The menu features all the usual smoked barnyard suspects -- beef, chicken, and pig -- with the added treats of smoked turkey and delicate, melt-in-your-mouth pork loin. The latter was an amazingly moist cut of the noble hog, rubbed with spices and juicy without a hint of dryness or oversmoking. Donn's also serves its meats, including ham, chopped beef, and beef ribs, by the plate or by the pound.

Nostalgic soda sippers will appreciate the washtub of icy-cold soft drinks from Dublin, Texas -- the last Dr Pepper bottler to use real cane sugar instead of inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup. The nostalgic (and relatively rare) bottles of Frostie root beer, Big Red, Dr Pepper, and Grapette run $1.50 a pop and have a subtly different taste than their modern corny counterparts -- the perfect grace note for spicy barbecue. Iced-tea fans have another option to take the edge off a mouthful of meat: sweet tea that, unlike most crunchy Deep Southern versions, stops short of triggering spontaneous diabetic comas. --P. J.

Rudy's Country Store & Bar-B-Q

11570 Research Blvd., 418-9898
2451 Capital of Texas Hwy, 329-5554
Sun-Thu, 7am-9:30pm; Fri & Sat, 7am-10:30pm

Somehow, you just have to admire the confidence of an eat-in or out meat market that proudly proclaims it serves "the Worst Bar-B-Q in Texas." This old-timey gas station/conveniencestore/meat market combo with family-style dining facilities is a Brinker International restaurant concept born in San Antonio and successfully transplanted to the northwest and southwest sides of Austin. The emphasis is on the wide variety of very lean meats, flavored with a dry spice rub and slow-smoked over oak. Belly up to the counter and your meat selection will be lifted from the pit and cut while you wait, wrapped in butcher paper with some slices of fresh white bread, and handed over on a tray.

Rudy's is the place to go if you prefer your barbecue lean and spicy. Try the juicy Prime Rib ($6.99 1/2 lb), the X-Lean Brisket ($4.49 1/2 lb) and the St. Louis Pork Ribs ($4.49 1/2 lb). Other particularly toothsome choices are the Turkey Breast ($4.19 1/2 lb) and the Pork Loin ($5.49 1/2 lb) or the sausage ($2.79 per link) custom-made by Opa's of Fredericksburg. Deli side dishes (from Sysco) such as beans, coleslaw, potato salad, new potatoes, and sweet creamed corn are available in individual servings, by the pint and quart. There are also individual servings of banana pudding, carrot cake, and brownies, in case you don't fill up on meat. Grab your pickles, onions, jalapeños, napkins, and eating utensils, douse your meat with a liberal serving of Rudy's extra-spicy (house bottled) Bar-B-Q "Sause," sit right down, and dig in or head for home.

Early risers on the west side of town are becoming addicted to Rudy's homemade breakfast tacos and wraps ($1.29-1.39) featuring several traditional egg, potato, cheese, and sausage combos but also a hearty chopped beef and egg version to start the day. Rudy's offers handy meal packages groups from 10 to 50 people with 1/2 pound of meat per person plus bread, pickles, onions, and jalapeños, a choice of three sides, tea, and all necessary utensils -- even a checkered tablecloth. They also book off-premise catering for parties larger than 50. Their special house brand of dry spice rub and Bar-B-Q Sause are for sale in the store and they'll be glad to ship all over the country. --V.W.

Texas Rib Kings

9012 Research, 451-7427
Mon-Thu, 11am-8:30pm; Fri & Sat, 11am-9pm

The meat's the thing here. Big servings and one of the widest varieties of smoked meats around -- sliced or chopped brisket, pork or beef ribs, ham, pork, chicken, and lots more. Can't decide? All-you-can-eat runs $10.99. Major points off for the side dishes, which might as well come from the supermarket deli case, and for the undistinguished, ketchupy sauce. --N.B.


The Austin Chronicle's Central Texas Barbecue Smokin'

HALL OF FAME

Central Texas

Cooper's Old Time Pit B.B.Q. (Llano)

Inmann's Ranchhouse BBQ (Marble Falls)

The Salt Lick (Driftwood)

Kreuz Market (Lockhart)

Black's Barbecue (Lockhart)

Luling City Market (Luling)

Southside Market (Elgin)

Cross-Town BBQ (Elgin)

Louis Mueller Barbecue (Taylor)

Rudy Mikeska's (Taylor)

Fuschak's Pit BBQ (San Marcos)

Austin

Artz Rib House

Ben's Long-Branch Bar-B-Q

The County Line

Ruby's

Sam's