Texas Monthly Top 50 Barbecue – over forty years of lists analyzed
In a world of barbecue lists, the Texas Monthly Top 50 is one of the most celebrated, discussed, and argued. Businesses proudly display their membership in the top 50, and the exposure and positive business impact is significant. In this article I’ve dissected and compared the published lists to see the shifts over the years in what is often considered the definitive listing of the best Barbecue joints.
This article of course would not be possible without the hard work and big appetite of the Texas Monthly staff. Without copying the lists and pasting here, see the links to the lists below.
In 1973 Aerosmith released their debut album, George Foreman beat Joe Frazier, Richard Nixon was elected to his second term, and a barbecue list was printed in Texas Monthly.
Forty two years ago, barbecue made the cover story in the April edition of Texas Monthly. The article was written by Griffin Smith Jr who previously had semi-jokingly launched the Texas Barbecue Appreciation Society but knew quite a bit about Texas barbecue. There were no individual ratings, but the list of twenty Texas barbecue joints was the genesis for barbecue guides to come. Only Texas joints were listed, and that tradition would continue.
Smith wrote of Texas barbecue in Manhattan, beef ribs, butcher paper, cooking briskets in four to five hours, and selling out of meat daily. Topics that feel much fresher than when this article was written, which was only five years after automobiles were required to include seat belts and well before the access to content that we have today. There was no Google, Yelp, GPS, Twitter, or easily accessible barbecue guide to provide a foundation. Building the list meant actually visiting joints and consuming the product. One point to remember is that many more joints are sampled than make the list; it is a serious endeavor and the task is not task is not taken lightly.
So you think Austin is the “new” barbecue capital? In 1973 it was Austin which was listed as the location for the most joints, with four out of twenty for 20% of the total. Compare that to 2013 when Austin hosted five out of fifty, for only 10% although still hosting the most of any city. This does not include nearby cities such as Spicewood (Opie’s),
Sadly, of those initial twenty, eleven have closed their doors forever. Of the remaining nine, three joints have made every Texas Monthly list since; City Market in Luling, Kreuz Market, and Louie Mueller Barbecue. Kreuz of course was located in the current location of Smitty’s Market as this was before the Schmidt family split the business into two in 1999. Smitty’s made the list on it’s own after the split in 2003 and 2008, but did not make the list in 2013.
That first list set the precedent. While it may have indeed been a listing of the best joints, it also set a standard for the list to include a balance of joints spread across the state.
The top list went into hibernation for twenty four years after the first list in 1973. Apparently there wasn’t as much of a fevered fan base as there is today, and I’ll discuss my theory in a moment. After the downtime the list reappeared in the March 1997 issue. This time it was a group effort and 245 joints were sampled before the list was whittled down to the now familiar number of fifty. Ratings were also introduced for the first time, and the minimum threshold was a rating of 3.5 out of 5. Of the five joints that made the list with rating of 3.5, only two remain open today.
Joints with 3.5 rating in 1997 Top Fifty:
- Bar-L Drive Inn Wichita Falls
- Jackson’s Bar-B-Q Thrall (closed)
- Lazy H Smokehouse Kirbyville (closed)
- Stubb’s Austin
- Tom’s Bryan/College Station (closed)
On the upper end of the spectrum the staff was more forgiving than they would be in future years, awarding eleven joints with a perfect score. Of those joints deemed as the absolute best, you might only be familiar with half of them. Oddly, along with that perfect score for City Market was also the comment “.. brisket’s a little leathery”. By 2013 the measure of quality to rate 5 stars was raised and only a single joint would be awarded that status
Joints with 5 rating in 1997 Top Fifty:
- Joe Cotten’s Barbecue Robstown
- Brown’s Country Store Swinney Switch
- CITY MARKET Luling
- COOPER’S OLD TIME PIT BAR-B-QUE Llano
- Haby’s Hot Pit B-B-Q Uvalde
- Kreuz Market Lockhart
- Louie Mueller Barbecue Taylor
- Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que San Angelo
- Sam’s Bar-B-Que Austin
- Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Belton
- The Shed Wingate
In 1973 barbecue was “pure” in that wood was the fuel for all of the joints. While there still were variations in cooking and debate over direct-versus-indirect methods, the now popular gas cookers had not yet been invented.
In the 1997 Texas Monthly article there are comments related to the rise of chain restaurants and specifically mentioned were County Line, Luther’s, Bodacious, Bill Miller’s, Colter’s, Spring Creek, Sonny Bryan’s, and Riscky’s.
What contributed to this rise of chain barbecue was the invention of the gas-assist smoker. Prior to the invention of gas-assist, good barbecue required a talented and dedicated pitmaster who would tend the pit during the cook, moving meat as necessary, wrapping when appropriate, and pulling and holding the meat at temperature when it was tender and moist. I’ve heard a number of stories of even normally reliable pit cooks who had a rough night and burnt the meat, not only ruining the profit for the day but also harming the reputation of quality for a joint.
As barbecue joints looked to expand and bring consistency to their business they needed something easier than open pit fires that had to be manually stoked, often overnight.
A barbecue restaurant in Illinois began working on a solution in 1973. By 1976 Southern Pride officially began selling their gas-assist smoker. Also in the 70′s, at Port Cape Girardaeu Restaurant in Missouri, the foundation of Ole Hickory Pits was laid after the first all wood burning design was found to be flawed. “To make a long story short, the third time the fire trucks came to put out the fire at the restaurant, it dawned on us that there should be a better way.”
Back then many barbecue joints were in the country or on the edges of town. There may be a meat market centrally located in a smaller town, but the large cities had a limited selection of quality Barbecue. A trip to a joint was quite a drive and with the oil embargo in 1973 followed by the energy crisis of 1979 road trips for pleasure were a luxury that wasn’t in the sights of many middle and lower class folk. If the people couldn’t come to the barbecue joints, then the barbecue joints would have to come to them.
While Southern Pride only built six cookers in 1976, it was the spark that allowed for barbecue joints to make that expansion deep into the cities and bring barbecue to the masses. Throughout the 80′s and 90′s those expansions continued, with chains growing quickly.
While some consider gas-assist pits the scourge of the industry, what I consider the dark days of barbecue during the 80’s and 90’s was not purely because of the use of these style of pits.
Don’t blame the barbecue chain restaurants, they thrived and sold plenty, and many still do today. It’s not that they put out a bad product, but they were/are capable of more. I give special credit to Roegel’s (who did not and does not use gas-assist) and Spring Creek Barbeque who have stepped up and changed their processes based on experiencing top tier Texas barbecue. Don’t blame the gas-assist pits as they are capable of turning out quality barbecue. If you must, then blame the consumers who accepted strip center barbecue as the norm for many years.
I grew up in Austin in the 70’s through the early 90’s. I remember those days and I ate some bad barbecue. But it’s not that all the barbecue was bad, it just wasn’t at the level that is expected by many of us today.
Gas-assist wasn’t the only option for barbecue joint expansion, however. In 1968 J&R manufacturing began offering a steel rotisserie pit branded Oyler. This design was 100% wood burning, but by automatically rotating the meat through the fire a more even cook was obtained. The capacity was also improved over a standard brick pit since more area could be used. Often with a rectangular brick pit there will be hot and cool spots across the pit which require manual movement of meat during the cook and the rotisserie design of an Oyler eliminated this.
A.N. Bewley began building a unique smoker in 1971 that combined an automated damper with all wood fuel. While some chains such as Bodacious used these, it was the gas-assist pits that really pushed the growth of chains, in particular the strip center type locations. Prior to 1970, a barbecue joint would almost certainly use an all wood burning pit but in the 80’s they had fallen out of favor for the push button simplicity of gas-assist.
I had done some research on chains, expansions, and pits but I’ve decided not to pick on them. I will say if you see a barbecue chain, there is a high likelihood that they expanded in the 80’s and 90’s, and if they did, there is an even higher likelihood that they run gas-assist pits.
During those dark days, there was no Texas Monthly top barbecue list. Was that because of the high volume of mediocre barbecue precluded a list, or was it that the popularity of mediocre barbecue was due to the fact that there wasn’t a Texas Monthly list; that there was no crowning of the best which other restaurants could strive to match?
Although there was not a solitary joint crowned as the best in this list, six joints shared a perfect rating. Most of those are familiar names, and although not all of them made the 2013 list, they all remain open today; Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market, City Market (Luling), Louie Mueller Barbecue, Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q (Mason), and McBee’s Bar-B-Q (Pleasanton)
On the other end of the range, seven joints made the list with a 3.5 rating. Time has not been as kind with these as four of the seven have closed. One of those joints made the list in 2013; Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano.
Joints with 3.5 rating in 2003 Top Fifty:
- Beans N Things Amarillo (closed)
- Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Llano
- Crosstown B-B-Q Elgin (closed)
- Jackson’s Smokehouse Holland (closed)
- Stringer’s Lufkin (open as Stringer’s Lufkin Bar B Q)
- Tony DeMaria’s Bar-B-Que Waco
- Whistlin’ Dixie Lubbock (closed)
The 2003 article didn’t list the fuel type, but it was documented for 2008. Quality barbecue was coming from gas assist pits in nearly 20% of the joints; 9 out of 50 with one more joint flagged as primarily wood but including use of gas or electricity. Only two of those returned to the list in 2013; Hashknife on the Chisholm west of Fort Worth, and Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue in Austin, but one shouldn’t dismiss visiting a barbecue joint solely on the type of smoker. I know at least one chain using an Oyler and putting out mediocre ‘cue, and a number of quality joints using gas-assist. Click to read my opinion on “gassers”.
2008 was the first year that Texas Monthly would award an overall number one. Snow’s barbecue was quietly cranking out their great Barbecue in the sleepy town of Lexington, Texas when staff writer Katy Vine’s husband brought some home. Six hours old, the meat was still so good that a call went to Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharp who left a party just to get a taste.
While Snow’s might have been profitable prior to their appearance on the list, the exposure launched them into superstar status. They went from selling a “couple hundred” pounds a week to over 1,200. Snow’s opens at 8am and in the weeks after that 2008 top fifty list was published, they sold out as early as 10am, which continued to fuel the excitement over the recently discovered gem. Lines grew but the Bexley and Tomantenz families handled the rush without losing any of the charm and continue to this day to exemplify the personalities that make the experience there unforgettable. The first winner was unique for a number of reasons; their solitary location, only open one day a week, their lack of media advertising, and the backstories of Kerry Bexley and Tootsie Tomanetz. I’ll discuss my thoughts on why Snow’s is the last barbecue unicorn in a future article.
In 2013 the number one rated joint wasn’t as much of a surprise as 2008. Franklin Barbecue was already dealing with two hour plus lines but their ranking would cement the joint into something that even transcended barbecue. With the exposure Aaron Franklin and crew received it allowed continued growth of the barbecue business, not just across Texas or even the U.S., but across the entire world. I don’t think that joints such as The Beast in Paris could be a success without a large enough fanbase to patronize, which is partly the result of the Texas Monthly list and Franklin. Of course The Beast would not be successful without a quality product, and by all accounts I have heard it is, but owner Thomas Abramowicz does state 30% of his customers are American.
While Austin has always been well represented and great barbecue continues to grow there. It will be interesting to see the next version of the list and how the joints will be distributed. The explosion of quality barbecue joints in Austin would in theory, heavily weight the next list in that city’s favor. If one was to assume the 4.0 minimum rating would stand, then that would make more than 10 joints eligible within the Austin city limits, and even more in nearby locations such as Bee Cave, Bertram, and Spicewood.
Here are some examples within the Austin city limits
- 4.0 Stiles Switch, Brown’s, Kerlin, Terry Black’s
- 4.25 Freedmen’s, Valentina’s Tex Mex, Micklethwait, Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue
- 4.5 John Mueller, la barbecue
- 5.0 Franklin
See below for graphs and some trivia from the lists
159 unique joints have made the lists
- 118 joints have only appeared on one list
- 41 joints have appeared on at least two lists
- 3 joints have made all five lists
Cities with the most top joints:
- 15 Austin
- 12 Houston
- 11 Lockhart
City with the most joints by year:
- 1973 Austin
- 1997 Lockhart
- 2003 Houston
- 2008 Tie: Austin, Houston, Lockhart, Luling, Taylor
- 2013 Austin
Most Misspelled joints in the different articles:
- Louie Mueller Barbecue
- LOUIE MUELLER BARBEQUE
- Louie Mueller’s
- Louie Mueller’s Barbeque
- STANLEY’S FAMOUS PIT BARBECUE
- STANLEY’S FAMOUS PIT BAR-B-QUE
- Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ
Joints appearing in the most lists:
- 5 City Market
- 5 Kreuz Market *
- 5 Louie Mueller Barbecue
- 4 Austin’s BBQ and Catering
- 4 Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (Llano)
* Kreuz was located in the current Smitty’s Market location in 1973 and 1997. In 1999 the family split and Kreuz was moved to a new location, while the original location was renamed Smitty’s Market. Smitty’s made the list in 2003 and 2008 on it’s own after the split, but did not make the list in 2013
5 star ratings were easier to come by in previous years, especially in 1997 when eleven joints scored a perfect five. Since then it’s been harder, and only Franklin Barbecue was awarded the rating in 2013. No ratings were given in 1973
5 star ratings by year:
- 11 1997
- 5 2003
- 5 2008
- 1 2013
5 star ratings by joint:
- CITY MARKET (3) (Luling)
- Kreuz Market (3)
- Louie Mueller Barbecue (2)
- Smitty’s Market (2)
- Brown’s Country Store
- COOPER’S OLD TIME PIT BAR-B-QUE (Llano)
- Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q (Mason)
- FRANKLIN BARBECUE
- Haby’s Hot Pit B-B-Q
- Joe Cotten’s Barbecue
- MCBEE’S BAR-B-Q
- Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
- Sam’s Bar-B-Que
- Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
- SNOW’S BBQ
- The Shed