Battle of the Briskets Champion: Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
By Jessi Cape, Fri., June 22, 2018
Thousands of votes came in over the past two weeks, and our readers have spoken: From the Group 5 division "Joey," Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que wins The Austin Chronicle's Battle of the Briskets. And their slogan says it best: "It's all about the meat."
Although the Austin location (217 Congress) has only been open since 2014, the Wootan and Cooper families have a long history of serving up Texas Hill Country barbecue. Tommy Cooper opened the original restaurant in Llano in 1962, and according to general manager and pitmaster Joshua Booth, Terry Wootan cooked there during high school. "He leased Cooper's in 1986 when the real estate market slowed in Llano. He then purchased it in 1992. When he took it over, his family became his team. His wife worked the cash register; his sons worked in the restaurant. Cooper's expanded to New Braunfels in 2008 and Fort Worth in 2009."
They're still honoring their roots by keeping things simple: "The original joint had two pits and a dirt floor! There was a knife chained to each picnic [table] for you to cut your meat. The barbecue was served on trays and butcher paper, just as it is today," says Booth. "Cowboy-style pit cooking is done over direct coals, in contrast to the offset smoking that has become so trendy. In an era where barbecue is becoming about smoke and sauce, Cooper's is all about the meat. We embrace and cook with this style, across all four locations."
The enthusiasm for Texas barbecue that our readers displayed during this competition continues all the way to the pit. Booth says, "I have been a pitmaster for five years now at Cooper's, and have loved every minute of it. From being trained by the best in the Llano Hill Country, to making Cooper's barbecue for everyone in Austin every day, this has become one of my joys in life, and my passion. I love everything about working with meat, and especially love giving this joy to other people, as they try our barbecue for the first time, or they have had it a thousand times. Consistently executing perfect barbecue every day is the reason I was born."
The Austin restaurant lives in a renovated historic building that also boasts a place in Central Texas history. According to the Cooper's website, "The 200 block of Congress has been the home to several pubs, saloons, cafes and restaurants over the years including the Bradshaw Saloon, Pearlhouse Saloon, Tradewinds Lounge, The Dew Drop, Avenue Cafe, Las Manitas and Copa Lounge. Across the street was home to the International and Great Northern Rail Road Depot, built in 1888. The upstairs space at 217 was once the Travis Hotel, rumored to have been a cat house! Cooper's features a live music stage, a rooftop garden, and a beautiful oak-shaded back patio."
And for the out-of-towners, the Cooper's online store has been streamlined to an art form, with vacuum-packaged and frozen meats and sides available for purchase. If you haven't yet tried Cooper's food, try ordering what Booth considers to be the perfect plate of food: "A half-pound of marbled brisket, Cooper's famous 'Big Chop,' and fresh cowboy-style pinto beans. This would be my last meal if I could."
Booth adds, "This award means the world to us at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. We are so grateful to have been embraced by Austin, and to be honored [with] this award. We would like to thank everyone at the Chronicle for making this possible, and all of our hardworking team members across all four locations. Cooper's thanks you guys so much from the bottoms of our hearts. It was our pleasure to be a part of this, and we are so grateful to have a community of barbecue-loving Texans that are so passionate about good barbecue."
See how it all went down at austinchronicle.com/brisketbattle.