The backyard barbecue business started on weekends in 1986 while Kenneth Laird kept his day job. A small sign and the smoke drifting across TX16 (Ford St.) on the south side of Llano attracted travelers - unfortunately, the small pit and early hours favored the locals, who often bought the day's fixings by early afternoon.
In Texas Monthly, writer John Morthland declared Llano to be "The True Barbecue Capital of Central Texas and Thus the World." A tough reputation to live up to, yet Laird is an artist when it comes to smoking a slab of meat to perfection. He began his barbecue career by working for nearly 10 years for Tommy Cooper, who founded his famous barbecue stand on the north side of Llano on TX29. Until Cooper's death in 1979, his barbecue dynasty was rivaled only by that of Rudy Mikeska in Taylor; many Central Texas barbecue chefs trace their beginnings back to Cooper's smokey pits.
It has actually been a little over a year since Kenneth and his wife, Esther, moved in to the two-story house that had stood vacant for over a decade. Upstairs is a banquet hall and spare bedroom for out-of-town friends. Downstairs is a small kitchen, office, and the dining room that takes up most of the floor.
Instead of seating 25 guests at picnic tables under the trees in his backyard, now Laird offers four separate serving times. "I got into this business because I enjoy meeting people," he says, adding that his secret to success has been to treat everyone like they're special. "Everybody's famous here," he says. And some are really famous: Actor Tommy Lee Jones, who has a ranch outside of San Saba, stops by occasionally.
Of course, Laird's barbecue sauce could have something to do with his success. A thin, deep-red vinaigrette, the sauce brings out the smoked flavor of the meats like a great sauce should. The ingredients are secret, of course; Laird would only admit that it was "a little of this and a little of that," making up a refinement of Tommy Cooper's recipe.
In addition to the usual offerings of brisket, ribs, and chopped beef, Laird's also has spare ribs and pork steak cooked over mesquite wood in the two pits behind the cafe. The side dishes are the usual beans, potato salad, and white bread, and they offer a Mexican food plate on Fridays. He offers cabrito when he can get it, "but it's getting too expensive."
Laird's Bar-B-Q Pit Restaurant & Catering Service is at 1600 Ford Street about five blocks south of the courthouse square in Llano. You can take the barbecue cook out of the backyard, but you can't take the backyard out of the barbecue cook: Laird describes the restaurant's hours as "flexible." They open Wednesday-Sunday before lunch (11am is a safe bet) and close around 7pm, "or when the crowds thin out." To be sure they'll save you a plate of brisket and ribs, call Laird's at 915/247-5234.
Coming up this weekend...
Harry's on the Loop in Willow City (northeast of Fredericksburg on FM1323) holds their official grand opening Sept. 16 with music and barbecue to benefit the local VFD. Stop by and then drive the Willow City Loop through some of the most beautiful Hill Country scenery to be found. 210/685-3553.
Diez y Seis de Septiembre is a special day in San Antonio celebrating Mexico's independence from Spain, Sept. 15-17. The weekend begins Fri. night with El Grito (Cry of Freedom) Ceremony, the speech by Father Hidalgo that sparked the revolution, followed by live music and a dance at Municipal Auditorium. Sat. & Sun. the festivities move downtown to La Vallita, the Arneson Theater, Market Square, and Guadalupe Plaza. At Travis Park, San Antonio's premier music festival, JazzSAlive, features rookies and stars, Sept. 15-17. 210/207-8486.
Heritage Day Festival in Llano isn't until Oct. 21, but they're looking for folks willing to get married under the gazebo on the courthouse lawn by the sheriff and JP during the festival. Reservations are due by Oct. 1. 915/247-5354.
Public Lands Appreciation Day is looking for volunteers to help with a restoration project at Canyon Lake, Sept. 30. 212/779-5223.
- Gerald E. McLeod Texas Heritage Music Festival is a moveable feast of Texas Music; Broken Spoke, Austin, Sept.14; Shiener College & Cowboy Aritists of America Museum, Kerrville, Sept.15-16; Caberet, Bandera, Sept.16-17. 210/896-3339.