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Three Days on the Texas Barbecue Trail

Three Days on the Texas Barbecue Trail

Texas is in the middle of a new golden age of barbecue, so there has never been a better time to go on a serious barbecue road trip and explore the Texas Barbecue Trail. And, conveniently, since all the very best barbecue restaurants in the state are clustered in or near Austin, your road trip can consist of a few day trips, using Austin as a central hub and base of operations. You’ll want to arrive by late Thursday night, rent a room in Austin for the weekend, and acquire some sort of large car, ideally a Cadillac. Not an eco-friendly choice for a road trip I’ll allow, but, well, if you wanted eco-friendly maybe a barbecue road trip was the wrong choice to begin with. Don’t worry—on Monday it’ll be back to kale, Priuses, and normality. This is all just temporary.

Day One: White Hat vs. Black Hat

Texas Barbecue Trail
Louie Mueller BBQ

On Friday morning (for this trip, you can’t be averse to meat in the morning), head north to take a side in a genuine family feud. Of all the grand ol’ temples of Texas barbecue, only one still holds its own at the highest level of competition, and that is Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, Texas. Hallowed BBQ ground for generations, Louie Mueller has been topping lists of Texas BBQ joints for as long as such lists have existed. Louie founded it in 1949, his son Bobby took over in 1974, and Bobby’s son Wayne took over in 2007.

But there’s a name missing from that list. John Mueller, not Wayne, inherited both his father’s virtuosic mastery of smoked meats and the restaurant. But like a tragic character straight from a Western ballad, he blew it all up and left town. Since then the “Dark Prince of Texas BBQ” has been a drifter, periodically opening another BBQ joint, earning some money, and then blowing it up again. His current establishment, Black Box BBQ, about a half hour from Taylor, serves phenomenal barbecue.

Texas Barbecue TrailSo, what will it be—white hat and brother Wayne, or black hat and brother John? The answer is both. But sacred places deserve respect, so head to Louie Mueller first. Avoid the interstate—better to head east to Farm-to-Market Road 973, which you can take north all the way to Taylor. Try to arrive before they open at 11 a.m. As you step through the rusty screen door, the world goes sepia-tone; everything is stained from years of smoke. The menu is extensive, but stay focused—you are here just for brisket. Beef brisket, slowly smoked over indirect heat from post oak and seasoned only with salt and black pepper, is the undisputed king of Texas barbecue, and Louie Mueller serves some of the best anywhere. The meat is toothsome and moist, without a hint of the elasticity that signals un-rendered collagen (the ruin of brisket) but also without the intense overindulgent richness that plagues so many of the recent stars on the barbecue scene. The fat is rendered beautifully, savory and delicious, and the whole thing is encased in the signature Mueller black pepper crust. The moist brisket is excellent, but the lean is Platonic; I always get both, to hedge my bets, but I always get more of the lean. The styrofoam cup of red-colored onion soup they give you is what passes for a sauce here; it is best appreciated as a curiosity rather than as a foodstuff. Ignore the forgettable sides—if you need something to cut the grease, I recommend pickles and onions, and maybe just a bite of white bread. Actually, this side policy will apply at all of these establishments.

Like many great anti-heroes, John Mueller has a superpower—he can do things with a beef rib that no other man on earth can rival.

No time to lose—there’s more barbecue to eat. So put on your black hat and some James McMurtry, crank the volume, and head north up Main to Highway 29, which will take you to Georgetown—fancier than Taylor, with old stone churches and picturesque houses, making Black Box BBQ stick out all the more. Located on a vacant lot on Church street, Black Box is just three trailers, 8 picnic tables, and a big pile of split post oak. Sometimes they run a gasoline generator to power the electric scale. They don’t have a liquor license so, the beer is free—help yourself from the cooler in the back, and nod thanks to John, the grumpy man with the beard. Black Box lacks the historical impact of grandfather’s establishment, but actually, sitting on a plastic chair outside, watching the fire and listening to Waylon Jennings and George Jones, you realize this place has ambience to spare. Now is the time to branch out and try some of those other meats. The pork spare ribs here are delicious, perfectly cooked and crusted with salt and black pepper rather than some unfortunate glaze or powdery rub. Even better is the handmade plain beef sausage (NOT the other varieties!), which with its coarse grind and snappy casing is some of the best in Texas. Of course, there is the brisket, both the slightly-too-rich moist with its crackly crust and the excellent lean. But none of these are the real reason you’re here. Like many great anti-heros, John Mueller has a superpower—he can do things with a beef rib that no other man on earth can rival. So you must get one of those, and probably just one—they are large and filling, with a rich, robust beefiness like a more flavorful, less tender brisket. They sell out fast, but it’s Friday, so I like your odds; by this time on a Saturday, they’d be long gone.

It’s time for dessert and coffee, so you should head five blocks over to Monument Cafe, which has the best banana puddings outside of Georgia. Served in individual ramekins, they are made daily with real custard and then baked under airy meringues. Pudding sounds dense, but these manage to be light and elegant, a perfect post-barbecue dessert. If you don’t like bananas, or if they’re sold out of puddings (which can happen fast), the cream pies here are also very good, though they can hardly be called light.

Now you’ve got a little time to kill. If you like the outdoors, you should stay on Highway 29 straight to Llano, then head south down to Enchanted Rock, the pink granite inselberg known to Texans as perhaps the prettiest spot in the Hill Country. Or, if that’s not your idea of a good time, you could wend your way on rural routes through the Balcones down to Marble Falls, and stop at the Bluebonnet Cafe for a slice of peanut butter pie before continuing west. In either case, you should plan to be in Llano by about 6 p.m. for dinner at the original Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.

Cooper’s is the outlier of the places on this list, and not just geographically. The barbecue here is less polished, less sophisticated, and so is the ambiance; the steel livestock fencing that guides you toward rows of giant smokers means you’ll feel like a cowhand at mess time. Instead of slow smoking with post-oak, Cooper’s uses direct heat from mesquite coals, a throwback to the earliest days of Texas barbecue. That means less smoke, but the smoke is from mesquite, so it’s more aggressive, more tang than caramel. Of course you must try the brisket (but maybe only a little bit), which here is a wild, chewy, intensely flavorful variant; do not feel obligated to eat all the fat they leave on. Their pork ribs are some of my favorite in the state, the rich fattiness of the pork balanced perfectly by the salt and the tangy mesquite. The same balance is at work in the enormous pork chop, for which Cooper’s is justly famous. But the reason we are here tonight is that Friday Night is Ribeye Night. The ribeyes at Cooper’s are well-seasoned medium-cooked steaks imbued with that beautiful tang of mesquite smoke. You might have to ask for these if they’re not in the pit, and you might have to wait. It’s worth it. As you select your meats, the pit-master, spearing them on a long fork, will ask you if you want them dunked into a bucket of dirty vinegar (they call it barbecue sauce). Why anyone would ever say yes to this is beyond me, but it seems inexplicably popular. Please don’t give in to peer pressure: Just say “no.” When you are done, wrap up the remaining 3/4 of your pork chop and take Highway 71 straight back to South Austin. Take the Lamar exit and head over to the Broken Spoke for a few beers and a two step, or two. Then, although it’s hard to forgo Austin’s famous nightlife, go to bed. Remember, you’re on a meat mission.

Day Two: Meet Tootsie

Texas Barbecue Trail
Slicing pork ribs.

Saturday morning is reserved for Snow’s, because Snow’s might be the best barbecue on the planet, and they’re only open on Saturday mornings. Also, the line can get very long, so you want to be there early; 8 a.m. would be ideal, 8:45 a.m is already getting a little too late. On top of that, it’s an hour away, in Lexington, Texas. So wake up early, grab some coffee, and try to hit the road by 7 a.m. No time for roundabout routes, so just head straight there—290 to Farm-to-Market 696. Fortunately, Farm-to-Market 696 in the dawn light is a beautiful road, so enjoy the drive.

Snow’s is a small red building with charming outdoor seating next to the outdoor smokers. It was only founded in 2003, but one of the founders, Pitmaster “Tootsie” Tomanetz, had multiple decades of prior experience smoking meat. Mrs. Tomanetz is an icon in the BBQ world, and rightly so—at 83 years old, she is still running the pit herself, and is producing some of the best barbecue available anywhere. Don’t skimp on the velvety brisket, which ranges in quality between exquisitely delicious and mathematically perfect. The pork steak is also astonishingly good, moist and deeply flavorful without being too rich. And, one morning, the jalapeno sausage forever altered the way I think about sausage. But really, everything here is great. And the dewy backyard, with Hank Williams on the speakers mixing with the sound of cattle lowing from the stockyard down the street, is as perfect a place to eat barbecue as one can imagine.

And the dewy backyard, with Hank Williams on the speakers mixing with the sound of cattle lowing from the stockyard down the street, is as perfect a place to eat barbecue as one can imagine.

Stop afterwards for gas, a bathroom break, and a bottle of Big Red at the Bastrop Buc-ee’s. Then you have a little time to kill before the next stop. Nature lovers could trek out of their way down to Palmetto State Park, to see a weirdly isolated little Lost Valley of the DinoPlants. Pie enthusiasts could head over to Round Top in search of a slice of pecan. Or you could do what I did after my first trip to Snow’s and sit half comatose on a rock in Bastrop State Park, staring at the sky while fighting back the Fear. What are you doing out here in the middle of Texas? What convinced you that eating this much barbecue was a good plan? Will you ever recover from this? But no, that’s just the meat sickness talking—some more Big Red will take care of that for now.

Press on to Lockhart. There’s lots of great barbecue available in Lockhart, but you just ate at Snow’s, so you’re here with laser focus, for just one crucial thing: the best sausage in Texas. Admire the beautiful old courthouse, then walk over to Smitty’s Market. As the screen door smacks closed behind you, it will take your eyes a moment to adjust to the dark flame-licked cavern you’ve just entered. The pits at the other end of the hallway are always roaring away; take a moment to marvel at the stalactites of ash that form above the fires, and try to get a good look at the pit filled with round sausage links. Those sausages are what you’re after—coarse ground, perfectly spiced, they are bursting with juice, and the casing has an ideal snap. You should really have at least one or two right now. Also, you should buy a bunch more, cold, to stuff into your suitcase. Pro tip: there’s a price break at 25. Twenty-five sausages, not dollars. Buckle up. 

On the way back into Austin, prep for tomorrow. Stop at the Whip In and buy plenty of interesting beer, then swing by a grocery store and pick up a cooler, plastic cups and some ice. Ice the beer down in the cooler, and leave that in your car overnight. Then take the edge off the meat sweats for good with liquor, maybe at drink.well, a cozy bar for the well-heeled hipster, or maybe stuffed into Techo, a quaint little rooftop mezcal bar on top of another bar. Again, though, not too late—you have another early morning tomorrow.

Day Three: It’s Not Just a Line It’s The Line

Texas Barbecue TrailSunday morning, it’s up at dawn again, this time to get in The Line at Franklin. Aaron Franklin opened Franklin in 2009 and changed everything. Prior to Franklin, the assumption was that any truly great barbecue restaurant had to be located in a small Texas town and had to have been there for years. Great BBQ joints somehow happened biodynamically, or by act of God, like wild truffles.

Texas Barbecue Trail
Lunch Tray pork ribs, smoked turkey, sausage, brisket and pulled pork. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden

If a barbecue restaurant did well in a city, it would become a chain and burn out—it just wasn’t stable. Aaron changed all that by hard work, careful planning, and deliberate action, and his model of success more than anything else has led to the current golden age of Texas BBQ. He has expanded slowly and carefully, making sure never to compromise quality for quantity, and, indeed, he has never had enough quantity—Franklin has sold out of BBQ every day since it opened in 2009. Hence: The Line.

Getting lunch at Franklin is an all-day affair, and The Line has its own code. I’m told by a reliable source that 8 a.m. is a safe time to arrive on a Sunday morning, but I’d rather be there closer to 7:30 a.m. Assuming you’re not doing this on your own, head straight there to establish your spot in line, then send runners out for coffee and maybe bagels (but no protein for God’s sake!). Once you’ve had a little coffee, it’s time to bust out those beers. Share with your neighbors—that’s why you got those cups, after all. The trick to a good trip to Franklin is to stop worrying and love The Line, and I find that that’s best done by building camaraderie via free beer.

If you’re going to wait four hours for your lunch, obviously you’re going to try some of everything at the end. And, as at Snow’s, it will be worth the ordeal; everything here is fantastic. The pork ribs are great, and the last time I was here I was very impressed with the deep beefiness of the sausage. One thing that is very different is that the sauces here are delicious, even worth putting on one or two bites of meat. But, of course, the critical thing is the brisket, and really you could just get that and be at peace. Franklin’s brisket is ethereal stuff, tender and moist without a hint of elasticity, silky and rich but not quite overindulgent, its perfectly rendered fat encased in a black pepper crust. If this brisket seems familiar, well, it should; Aaron Franklin learned the Mueller school of brisket when he was employed by John Mueller at one of those early independent joints. But Aaron was the ant to John’s grasshopper, and when John blew that joint up, Aaron bought the smoker and used it to start Franklin.

And now you have earned the right to judge, with some authority—how does Franklin stand up? Is it really the absolute best? How does his brisket compare with its immediate ancestors, still alive and well around Taylor? How do his ribs compare with the tangy pork chop from Llano, or the luxurious pork steak from Snow’s? Is his sausage as good as John Mueller’s? (It’s definitely not as good as Smitty’s.) And the truth is, Franklin’s is good enough that it just might win out, across the board. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have a wonderful time playing judge.

You made it! Celebrate by not leaving Austin today! You could go swimming at Barton Springs Municipal Pool, or play a quick 18 at Peter Pan Mini Golf. Or, if it’s too hot out, Pinballz Arcade or the original Alamo Drafthouse would be delightful places to endure the aftermath of your morning. However you spend your afternoon, end the day by toasting your triumph with a round of Margaritas on the patio at Matt’s El Rancho at sunset. Now, start your vegan diet. Congratulations you’ve survived the Texas Barbecue Trail.

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