We are upon the eve of Texas Monthly releasing their latest Top 50 best barbecue list. While there are many barbecue rankings, the Texas Monthly list is the premier source for barbecue and being listed can be have a major impact on a business. The first time Texas Monthly awarded a #1 ranking occurred in 2008, to a lesser known restaurant in a sleepy small town. Snow’s Barbecue was and still is open only on Saturday but 9 years later fans flock there from all over the world and line up at 8am to get a bite of what is still some of the best barbecue anywhere before it sells out early in the afternoon. The gang at Snow’s still does things the way they always have, and that is great. Any given Saturday is a great day to make that road trip out to Lexington Texas and experience the unique environment that can only be Snow’s.
In 2013 Daniel Vaughn was enlisted as a full time barbecue editor and the newest top 50 list blew apart the barbecue world. Folks had been lining up for a little trailer in Austin since their commercial launch in 2009, but the magazine’s exposure help crest an immense wave of Texas barbecue fandom that would expand to all corners of the U.S. and across the world. Yes barbecue and Central Texas style barbecue existed well prior to that 2013 top 50 list but in addition to TV and video coverage, social media and YouTube helped expand the visibility of the #1 winner. Aaron Franklin and team deserved every bit of the ranking based on their incessant demand for quality and consistency and with their quality, demand, and the resulting media coverage they have helped open the door for countless entrepreneurs in the barbecue world.
Franklin perfected what I call “meat market” style barbecue. Fashioned after Lockhart and Taylor style barbecue the culinary focus is on the meat. The consistency is strong and the customer service is great, combining for an experience that is indeed worth the 4+ hour wait, at least a few times in your life. In the old school meat markets the meat was sold from the smokehouse itself, and the general store provided any sides or condiments. Originally these were shared as individuals would buy a loaf of bread, hot sauce, or jar of pickles when one was depleted, and this tradition is where the plain white bread and simple condiments and sides come from. Franklin’s meats are insanely good, but the sides hold true to the tradition I am sure he wanted to honor. I don’t find it odd at all that a slice or two of regular “grocery store” white bread sits on my tray of barbecue as an edible napkin of sorts. I also see no issue actually seeing the plastic wrapped loaves of bread within site of the cash register. I did however find it strange that an out of state visitor questioned why such a pedestrian item was even an option. That’s just how it’s always been here in Texas, and it’s been good.
However as barbecue evolved over the last four years we have seen a change. First, the quality of meats at the top tier barbecue joints has improved significantly. Franklin pioneered the use of high quality meat sourcing and natural beef. Franklin also created videos, a TV series, authored a book on barbecue, and spoke in many interviews detailing his methods. And similar to his meat sources while he was not the first to wrap brisket in butcher paper, the Oren “pink” butcher paper he uses has become so synonymous with quality brisket that he recently began selling a Franklin branded variety, I am sure because they received many requests for it by visitors. As more pit masters reviewed his methods we have seen a step level increase at many barbecue restaurants, both new and existing. Yes there are still some who use table salt, who don’t wrap their briskets, or who don’t use the offset style pits the Franklin team uses for their brisket but the landscape has proliferated with businesses that tried their best to copy Franklin’s methods.
In these last four years there are more and more “places who serve great brisket, ribs, and sausage.” Enough so that to differentiate we have entered the arena of “hipster barbecue”. I’m not sure where it started, but Micklethwait is one of the ones I remember the most. Specialty meats, artisan sausage, house made pickled vegetables, quality sides, tasty desserts, and yes, hand crafted bread have snuck onto the menus of many restaurants across Texas.
What is ironic is the 2013 TMBBQ Top 50 article references the changes that were incubating at the time. References to tweeting pictures of meals and foodies who “stock their fridges with artisanal pickles” were a hint that we are in the midst of both a renaissance and a re-invention of classic Texas Barbecue.
In previous TMBBQ top 50 lists the meat was, and I’m sure still is, the star. Quality sides won’t leapfrog simply better-than-average meats. In 2013 the gap in meat quality between the top four and the remaining 46 joints in the TMBBQ list (who were not ranked but rather listed alphabetically by city) was enough that there was such a delimiter.
But for this year’s list I feel like the gap between a number of the elite establishments has narrowed. If Franklin retains number one, is it still 2+ hours better than the next few places that have shorter, but still long lines? Is a trailer that has no air conditioned dining area and only porta potties for convenience worthy of surpassing a similar quality business with ample seating and modern conveniences? Does the proximity to a large city hamper or help a joint in the ratings? Will quality sides and hand crafted condiments move one business over another who uses store-bought ones? I cannot say for sure what or how the scores are derived, but from an experience quotient I feel personally that all of those help add up to a total score.
I do believe that due to the increase in quality barbecue that there will be many joints awarded Top 50 status that were not in existence in 2013. Also somewhat sadly, some long established joints will fall off the vaunted list. As I pondered this year’s list, I felt like as many as 75 joints could probably be acceptably listed. I don’t quite think the quality is there for 100. When the list remains at 50, it will mean there are some really good barbecue joints that will be left off. I believe the biggest impact will be small town barbecue. In past lists it seemed that some extra credit was given for small cities and remote outposts. If that was to hold true for 2017 it would mean higher quality joints in big cities would be left off in favor of those little small town favorites. I think for 2017 there will be a fairly good balance. Houston area will have the largest representation, followed by the Austin area. In this comparison Austin does not include Lockhart, San Marcos, Spicewood, or even Taylor. Houston does include Pearland and Spring. This may not be all that fair, so once the list comes out I will need to look at what is considered suburbs versus what would not be. In Houston many consider Spring as a suburb, it’s not even as far as The Woodlands, but Pearland is a toss-up. I grew up in Austin, and we didn’t consider any of the previously mentioned cities as suburbs, but Austin has continued to grow in the many years since I left so possibly my thoughts need a revisit. Dallas/Ft Worth should have 4+ solid picks in the list, and San Antonio could have as many as 4 as well.
Andrew Martinez and I did our own Top 50 and argued ad nausea about the attributes that should or should not contribute to a ranking. There are a few neither of us have visited but we glossed over internet photos, online reviews, and tried to read between the lines in Daniel Vaughn’s tweets for any clue of quality.
In 2017 there simply cannot be only 4 barbecue establishments who have set themselves apart from the rest. I predict 8-10 will be awarded the esteemed honor of being the absolute peak of Texas barbecue. Consistency is one of the factors that separates top tier from the others, and this is where it can get a little crazy. If there was a single less than stellar visit during the Top 50 research, then a joint that produces great barbecue virtually every day could drop lower than they “should.” I put that word in quotes because I don’t completely agree; if consistency is key then indeed every visit should be equal. However where I think there is a weakness is that not every visit is at the exact same time for every business, it just isn’t possible. While I am sure every business gets at least one reasonable and just visit during their lunch rush, should one expect the same quality at 1:30 pm as another business visited at 4:30 pm? Colleague Andrew Martinez sums this up well, saying “if they are open in the middle of the day serving barbecue, then it should be the same quality.” However, how do you compare a location that only opens long enough to sell out, to another serving smoked meats into the evening? Honestly, I don’t know. To try and have some ultimate fairness scale I think it would be overly complicated and costly to execute. I can say that between Vaughn and his team who researched across Texas, there were many visits by many very knowledgeable individuals. While I don’t know the entire staff, Jimmy Ho and Chris Reid have plenty of experience in both good and bad barbecue to provide quality reporting back to TMBBQ headquarters. Pat Sharp and others who have been involved in prior lists know this isn’t their first rodeo. Based on twitter posts seen the last few months, Daniel Vaughn himself also sought out re-visits to places that were in someone’s research territory.
Arguing about who has the best barbecue in Texas is as old as barbecue itself, and is a natural right of anyone living in Texas. I am sure there will be grumblings that “Big Bob’s Brisket Bazaar” didn’t make the list or that some legendary establishment deserved to make it but was “cheated”. That’s just the way it goes. It will provide for not days or weeks, but months of chatter in this intimately connected and networked world. Regardless, here we are just hours away from the official public presentation of the list and so many await. I’ve spoken with pit masters and the tension is high. Being listed in the top 50 can significantly improve traffic and visibility. Being listed in the top tier can double business overnight. Being listed #1 is a literal life changer. Did they expand enough recently, did they over-expand, or should they stock up on supplies? If Franklin is superseded then the business that receives #1 will be literally flooded with barbecue lovers descending upon them like a band of gypsys in the weeks and months after the list goes public. Selling out faster than usual can ignite a backlash that could result in negative reviews and a short lived black eye. Just go read negative reviews for Franklin Barbecue from supposed visitors where it was obvious in the review they didn’t want to wait in the line, who felt it is overrated without even eating there, or who were ill informed and arrived after the designated Last Man Standing.
One final point before I start throwing out some names, many establishments who have dropped off previous lists and some that will fall off this year’s list didn’t get any worse. There are several popular and famous joints that I still enjoy visiting when I can who won’t be on the 2017 list. They still provided the same quality and experience on my last visit as they did prior. So why do they never make the list or might fall off? It’s because the tide has risen for what many barbecue hounds consider to be top tier. I am not using the word blogger because that’s not who I’m singling out. Twenty years ago it was more common than not for brisket service in Texas to have the fat cap removed when slicing. The point ends were often sacrificed for chopped beef. Seasonings included table salt and small amounts of finely ground pepper, and sometimes included no seasoning at all. Pits that burned only wood were not commonly employed. Today there are restaurants still doing this, and doing it successfully and there is nothing wrong with that, but a growing number of people now favor the koshe salt and cracked pepper rubbed brisket that was slathered with mustard and pickle juice, smoked with all wood, wrapped with butcher paper, and sliced with the fat cap intact that while existing pre-Franklin, he helped to cement as the standard for brisket quality everywhere.
Alright fine, so let’s do this
First, I believe Franklin may not retain #1. They’ll still be #2, or possibly #3 but I think there will be a new number one. Look, Texas Monthly is in business to sell magazines. Franklin retaining the coveted spot just won’t generate the publicity that a new number one would cause. I don’t believe for a moment that anyone would intentionally move Franklin lower than where they should be, but everyone loves a good story. A story of either the underdog or the long time perfectionists who claw their way to the top. While personally I feel that a full menu of quality items trumps a few great meats, I am not sure how the numbers will fall in-line for the 2017 list. I don’t think anyone can beat Franklin’s brisket and ribs – although I do think there are more than one place that can match them attribute by attribute. Franklin recently launched an in-house sausage. The previous sausage was still very good, but with others producing some excellent house made sausages, I do think it gave a slight edge to others.
The sides, condiments and bread at Franklin are not bad by any standards, but this is where the biggest changes have occurred in the Texas barbecue scene. Again, Franklin’s homage to the meat market style fits within that genre precisely but I’ve begun favoring businesses that have explored the further reaches of complimenting flavors and tastes. A few years ago some of my favorite places to visit might have a couple of great sides or a side and dessert that stood above the rest. When Ronnie Killen re-entered the barbecue world he set his sights on Franklin and beyond with a theme of “The best barbecue, period” he brought his culinary skills and knowledge to the entire menu. Many sides and desserts at Killen’s are some of the best in the business.
Beyond sides Killen also upgraded to prime brisket of the same vendor as Franklin while Franklin continued with what got them to number one, an upper choice. This trend of prime brisket continued to grow throughout the industry and you can even find Wagyu on the menu occasionally at multiple restaurants. Is it even fair to compare a high cost rare menu item to an everyday option? Technically one would think a rating is based on the day-to-day options provided, but I can tell you that those elite bites are unforgettable.
What about those serving the less common cuts of meat? “bacon burnt ends” and “pork belly burnt ends” are on multiple menus now. Beef rib burnt ends are also, as well as beef cheeks, beef belly, and other meats verging on the delicacy category. Smoked pastrami is a weekly special and available in multiple cities across Texas. It is impossible to compare side by side when two businesses don’t serve identical options, but I do believe those items should help add to an overall score. Pulled pork is on many menus in Texas now, partly because of a low source cost, but also because it can be a great option on sandwiches and when done up right.
My prediction is that there will be a new number one.
Truth Barbecue: It’s no secret that Truth Barbecue is my current favorite. It’s also no secret to others, as their fan base continues to grow faster than the little building in Brenham can contain. The entire menu here is great. The sides are great. The condiments are house made, and the bread is imported from a craft bakery in Houston. Seriously, everything here is great. All of the meats, all of the sides, and even the condiments. You must try the corn pudding and collard greens even if you are not a “sides person”. There are no corners cut and it is quality over cost for the Botello family. I think they are a strong contender for number one.
Killen’s Barbecue: Already mentioned previously, Killen’s benefited from an experienced chef who had a vision of destination barbecue. Killen has been relentless trying to perfect his barbecue. Recently there has also been a significant expansion in the restaurant business. In addition to the original steakhouse which moved locations and launching Killen’s Barbecue, Killen opened a burger joint and Killen’s STQ. There was still more, with locations opening in NRG stadium. Most recently Killen voiced his intentions to open in the Austin area. TMBBQ number one is all about consistency, could these additional interests have taken focus away from the barbecue business? Killen’s Barbecue has a great staff, but it is possible Killen’s doesn’t place number one, but I believe they are still a potent option. In addition to the standard meats here, the bone-in pork belly is excessively rich but tasty, and you can’t leave without getting their creamed corn, mac and cheese, and bread pudding to round out a meal. All of the desserts here are high end but I am in love with the bread pudding.
Corkscrew Barbecue: The Buckman’s have a fanatic obsession with quality and experience. From ensuring the food is plated appropriately to maintaining one of the fastest serving lines in the business, Corkscrew is a great visit all around. Only recently were the prices raised to be more in line with top tier ranked barbecue, when brisket was at $18 a pound and entire beef ribs were sold whole rather than by the pound, Corkscrew was easily the best value around. To not overlook Killen’s, there was a time where the brisket pricing was reduced to $16 a pound, but it has also moved back to more common pricing. The brisket at Corkscrew doesn’t have the thick coat of pepper that is seen at most of what will make the top tier – but that is perfectly fine with me. They produce a product that stands on its own. Get the brisket and ribs for sure, and pile them high with enough to bring home for later otherwise you will daydream of them later. The cobbler is very solid and one of my often ordered options. Consistency here since the move to their new location has been absolutely spot on. I’ve even came later in the day just to see, and it was just as good as prime time. Every visit here has been impeccable.
Louie Mueller: (Top Tier 2013) Wayne Mueller, Jason Tedford, and the staff at Louie Mueller maintain the traditions at the iconical location in Taylor, Texas. They moved to prime brisket not all that long ago and a visit should be on every barbecue lover’s bucket list. Beef ribs, brisket, and multiple varieties of sausage are the standouts but don’t skip over the ice cream topped cobbler to finish off your meal. A side benefit is that you can stop by after visiting Snow’s as the drive is less than 20 minutes, just make sure you save room!
Snow’s Barbecue: (#1 2008, top tier 2013) Still the darling of the barbecue world, the Bexley family along with Tootsie Tomanetz and Clay Cowgill make Saturday mornings in Lexington mothing short of a magical experience. Brisket, Ribs, Chicken, and Pork Steak are my go-to options but I also pick up some sausage when I stop in. You won’t see any hipster trends here and there never should be. Like Lockhart, Taylor, and Elgin barbecue joints, Snow’s is an establishment that stands the test of time. While the business isn’t generations old, Tootsie got her start in the barbecue business in 1966 and there is a magic touch that the entire crew put on the meal. Could Snow’s reclaim their number one status from 2008? I don’t think the odds are high but I wouldn’t write them off.
la Barbecue – Every visit I have had has been solid, which is honestly a bit surprising to me on how they’ve been so consistent. I’ll steal a line from a friend; they replace pit masters as often as Spinal Tap replaces drummers. Those cooks don’t explode literally though, but they do explode on the barbecue scene. Some of the more memorable ones: John Lewis (Lewis Barbecue in South Carolina), Esaul Ramos (2M Smokehouse San Antonio), Chris McGee (Freedmen’s, Stiles Switch Austin), and Dylan Taylor (currently assisting at Truth Barbecue Brenham). While the name of the business was different, John Mueller was cooking at what would become la Barbecue’s original location before John Lewis moved over from Franklin. Current pit master Brendan Lamb was slated to open their Los Angeles outlet but that hasn’t materialized yet. They’ve also moved several times, but each time the line finds them and every visit I’ve been so far has been top tier. Is their secret in the pit, the process, or the training, or a combination of all of it? Regardless, don’t count them out as a potential number one. Brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, and sausage have been phenomenal. I can’t even recall if I’ve had the sides here, and it is a trailer based business so be prepared if you visit in the Texas heat
Evie Mae’s – Located way out in Lubbock not many have sampled it, but Daniel Vaughn and Jimmy Ho among others have and the feedback was great. They are also a participant at the upcoming Houston Meat Up which occurs after the list is posted. It’s not a lock but I believe they will make the top tier. I haven’t eaten there so I can’t say where they might place. Looks like I will need to make a drive to Lubbock soon.
CattleAck – While located in the Dallas area rather than in a remote city their operating days are few; Thursdays and Fridays plus the first Saturday of the month. Another unfortunate miss by me as I have yet to visit, Vaughn, Ho, and others have sung high praise. Their photos look great, and specialty meats abound, from whole hog to pastrami ribs. I would look for them in the top tier but not quite number one.
Tejas Chocolate Craftory – Yes they serve barbecue at this converted house in Tomball, Texas. Yes it is really good. They happen to serve my favorite sandwich in barbecue, the Brisket and Blues in which a toasted bun hosts brisket, onion, cherry tomatoes, and blue cheese join in to dance on your taste buds. I ran into Chronicle food critic Alison Cook on her first visit and she wouldn’t set the sandwich down, saying it eloquently that with every bit she is a little sad because it’s one less bite she can enjoy. But they will make you another one if they haven’t sold out for the day. Must haves are the sandwich, brisket, burnt ends, carrot soufflé, and chocolate panna cotta. Don’t forget to pick up some made from scratch chocolate as well. I’ve heard great things on the turkey sandwich and the turkey itself may have made another leap after a new pit was recently added. Scott Sandlin said it well when he stated this could be the dark horse of the top tier.
Mickelthwait Craft Meats – One of the early folks doing craft barbecue, Tom Mickelthwait and crew made it onto the Travel Channel’s BBQ Paradise series with yours truly getting a few moments on the screen. That “magic tingle” or “shockwave of flavor” can be had here with regularity and lines are currently short. Innovative sausages add to variety. Beef ribs sell out quick and for good reason. Pick up one if you can along with brisket and sausage. Jalapeno grits are a standout and you simply must grab a house made moon pie.