If you love meat, hit these 10 Texas barbecue joints for a bucket-list-worthy road trip.

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AUSTIN, Texas — No offense to chili, but barbecue is the unofficial state food of Texas. It inspires devotion and sparks fevered debate that reaches from small-town diners to the cacophonous echo chambers of social media.

Just as Austin has seen an explosion in the popularity of smoked meats, the rest of Texas has embraced and stoked the state’s barbecue renaissance. The craft — part science, part art — was even recognized by the James Beard Foundation, which last year named Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue the Best Chef in the Southwest. It marked the first time a pitmaster had earned the best chef nod from the national organization.

Variations in technique, wood, rubs and sauces contribute to the creation of myriad versions of smoked meat, but much of what makes barbecue so great is the people behind it. I hit the road and traveled a good portion of the state to sample some of the best Texas has to offer and talk to the people responsible.

I didn’t hit the most famous, or any of my (previous) favorite, places, and I don’t put this list up as being a definitive Best Of. I just wanted to give folks a sense of the diversity and excellence in other parts of the state.

I started at the coast and worked my way up through Houston and Dallas and back down through Central Texas and out into the Hill Country. I traversed more than 1,200 miles in less than a week, hitting about 20 barbecue joints in 13 cities.

I discovered that so often the barbecue business is a family business. I met people happy to talk and found that behind most great barbecue lies an equally great story and sometimes no small about of drama. The people I met were passionate but never pretentious.

What follows are some of the best meals and most interesting folks I met along the way.

HATFIELD’S BBQ, ROCKPORT

Smoke rises from Old Faithful on a Sunday evening. Hatfield’s BBQ is open. Kenny Hatfield no longer cooks on the small pit he first fired up 32 years ago, but he still uses it as a smoke-spewing lighthouse for passersby searching for a barbecue fix.

The cooking these days takes place on the Big Nasty, an oak and cured mesquite-fueled monster housed outside of the restaurant.

“It’s a redneck pit,” Hatfield says, showing off the fiery beast.

Hatfield opened this location in 2013. His employee, Kiwee Hartigan pulls a massive beef rib from the Big Nasty.

The caramelization from the meeting of heat, fat and Hatfield’s rub has created a dark sugar cookie on the exterior of the flossy meat. Among the ingredients: Italian dressing, yogurt and maple syrup

“It’s a sugary rub,” Hatfield says.

Hatfield explains his secret Brisket Mist: a spray bottle of brisket grease that works as fire multiplier and a last-second cologne option.

QUALITY PACKERS SMOKEHOUSEVICTORIA

Victoria is home to the Limon family and its Quality Packers Smokehouse.

Brother and sister Victoria and Lupe Limon’s great-grandfather bought one of the original Oyler barbecue pits for their grandfather. That pit was passed down to their father, who started a catering business to supplement his Quality Packers meat packing and wholesale operation.

After the catering business waned, Lupe Limon left his job in 2014 and started selling cold summer sausage and chopped brisket from a trailer in front of an abandoned gas station. The popularity of the trailer led the Limon siblings to open Quality Packers Smokehouse in the old gas station.

The short and thick baby back ribs popped with sweetness, and slow rendering led to a satisfying pull. Some people scoff at chicken, but I’m down for anything good, especially in the middle of a week of meaty indulgence. A bronzed and peppered layer of crackling skin covered moist chicken that was not surpassed on this trip, Limon’s blend of post oak, live oak and pecan giving the bird a unique fragrance. And dueling potatoes, a mustardy salad and a buttery scalloped smash, made for great side-dish bookends.

Ray Busch (left) and his stepson Herb Taylor have formed a winning barbecue team at Ray’s BBQ Shack in Houston.
Ray Busch (left) and his stepson Herb Taylor have formed a winning barbecue team at Ray’s BBQ Shack in Houston.

RAY’S BAR-B-Q SHACK, HOUSTON

The crowds have formed early at Ray’s Bar-B-Q Shack, a converted barbecue restaurant built out of a converted gas station just south of Brays Bayou. Some of the ladies tease and cajole the tall muscular gentleman behind the counter who takes it like a good sport. Maybe that’s because he’s former Texas Christian University star offensive lineman and National Football League journeyman Herb Taylor. Several jerseys hanging on the walls document his career.

Taylor returned home after his football career to help his mother, Maxine Davis, and stepfather and longtime Harris County sheriff’s deputy Ray Busch operate the restaurant that describes what some would call Southeast Texas barbecue.

The large menu includes fragrant beef and pork sausage wrapped in a crisp, snap casing and brisket with a soft caramelized edge. The catfish and boudin are unique and excellent standouts. The cornmeal breading made for a light salt-and-pepper crackle on the juicy catfish and a heaping portion of rice filled the robust and fluffy boudin link.

Ray’s Bar-B-Q Shack will open a location at the George Bush International Airport in Houston later this month.

Brisket has a black, caramelized edge and the pork ribs a sweet, peppery finish at Pappa Charlies Barbeque in Houston.

PAPPA CHARLIES BARBEQUE, HOUSTON

If you check out the weekend menu that includes masala-spiced lamb ribs and an afternoon lunch special of red-pepper-piqued smoked meatloaf lacquered with a glazed cap of bacon, you might think the man in charge of Pappa Charlies Barbeque is a culinary school graduate with a barbecue obsession.

The brisket has a black, caramelized edge and the pork ribs a sweet, peppery finish at Pappa Charlies Barbeque in Houston.
The brisket has a black, caramelized edge and the pork ribs a sweet, peppery finish at Pappa Charlies Barbeque in Houston.

But owner Wesley Jurena is actually a former competition barbecue cook who, following decades in the Army, corporate America and government contract work, decided he would show folks that competition cooks can hold their own in the restaurant world.

He started Pappa Charlies in 2014 as a trailer and opened his restaurant in the shadow of the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park last fall. The crowds were quick to follow.

They come for the peppery brisket, the gentle sweetness of pork ribs (skip the sauce), the vinegar-and-iron brace of collard greens, a nice selection of local beers and creamy macaroni and cheese. And, of course, sports on the big screen.

CORKSCREW BARBECUE, SPRING

Will Buckman, who owns Corkscrew Barbecue with his wife, Nichole, freely admits that, while they make their own barbecue sauce, “it’s pretty much an afterthought.”

You don’t need to worry about sauce when you have barbecue this good. Buckman bought a pit at a sporting goods store about a decade ago and taught himself how to cook. He’s a heck of a teacher and a student. His red oak gives a mild but deep smoke flavor to lush brisket rendered beautifully. The crimson-rimmed meat unpacks itself like a loose accordion.

While the stellar brisket, smoked for at least 12 hours, needs no accompaniment, the Buckmans trick it out on a few sandwiches, like the Bobert, which comes slathered with housemade green chili ranch dressing and studded with pico de gallo. I arrived well after the lunch rush but was still met by perfect brisket and moist, supple turkey.

The Buckmans started their business in a trailer but moved in October to a railside restaurant in Old Town Spring that looks like a train depot. Will Buckman grew up eating at the space that was once Hyde’s Cafe, and he’s now turned it into one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in the Greater Houston area.

18TH & VINE, DALLAS

Matt Dallman missed the sounds and flavors of home, so he brought a little of Kansas City to Dallas. With its cloth napkins, table service and thoughtful design, the beautifully appointed 18th & Vine defies most people’s expectations of what a barbecue joint should be.

But don’t be fooled by the sophistication, this restaurant, named for K.C.’s historic jazz district, has plenty of soul. Dallman opened the restaurant last year after several years of competition cooking and catering.

Kansas City’s gastronomic gift to the world is the burnt ends, and 18th & Vine does its birthplace proud with their version. Caramelized cubes of fatty brisket smoked over oak and hickory are tossed in sauce and finished with more smoke for crunchy and melty pieces of meat full of smoky flavor and sweet sting.

I stopped in for lunch, which features a roster of sandwiches named in honor of jazz greats. The namesake sandwich of former Kansas City resident Lester Young is a gooey, meaty, rich brisket grilled cheese on sturdy toast served with a side of pickled onions and the vegetal twang of collard greens. We started that lunch with a whipped smoked salmon spread — because how often are you going to get a barbecue restaurant smoking fish for you?

If you go in the evenings, make sure to head upstairs to the Roost, the restaurant’s jazz-loving music venue lined with black-and-white portraits of legends like Charlie Parker.

JACK PERKINS’ SLOW BONE, DALLAS

Jack Perkins’ Slow Bone is a solid example that you don’t have to stick with the classics in order to enjoy yourself at a barbecue restaurant. I’d definitely order a pork rib with some nice wobble and crackle again, and the brisket was fine. But what I’ll remember about this restaurant that opened in 2013 are the things you don’t often find other places.

Country folks may scoff at cilantro taking a seat at a barbecue table, but it put a floral glow into juicy pork sausage. I haven’t seen fried chicken at a barbecue restaurant before, but it doesn’t get much better than the golden knobby versions here.

And while some places put a sweet or spicy spin on traditional side dishes, Slow Bone rewrites the book. Caramelized Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are bound by cheese and a sweet potato casserole gives a creamy holiday tinge to lunch served on cafeteria trays.

HWY 29 BBQ, BERTRAM

Demographics, traffic flow, real estate prices … Hwy 29 BBQ co-owner Morgan Scott took a fairly business-minded approach in choosing the location for his barbecue restaurant about 45 minutes from Austin. But, he’s as much a barbecue man as a businessman, as proven by his small but excellent menu of smoked meats.

Hwy 29 has as much rustic charm as any barbecue spot I visited on my trip. The 133-year-old stone building that sits near the only stoplight in town weathered countless iterations before Austin native Scott and partner Corey Thibodeaux opened the restaurant in August 2013.

Though he has some dedicated customers who only come for the chicken, the self-taught Scott says the brisket sells out first. For good reason. Despite its dry appearance, the beef had a pliability and tenderness coaxed from the slow rendering of fat. Scott has shipped briskets as far as Alaska.

The meal was outstanding, from the pepper-speckled beef-and-pork sausage with its fine but juicy grind to the surprise of the day, a supple and velvety pork loin with well-seasoned and seared crust.

I’d never been through Bertram, much less heard of it, before this trip. But I will return. And I’ll get the creamy banana pudding topped with vanilla wafers and dusted with cinnamon when I do.

PAYNE’S BAR-B-Q SHAK, BURNET

“You’re driving me crazy,” Penny Payne told her husband Robert two weeks after he’d retired in 2011.

So, Robert put an end to his retirement and opened Payne’s Bar-B-Q Shak in Burnet.

Sometimes the people running barbecue restaurants are so colorful and entertaining that they elevate the quality of the food just by force of their own charisma. Robert Payne is the jolly sort who can answer a fragmented question with a few paragraphs.

He smoked a sweet pork loin over oak, leaving just enough fat to keep the stubborn meat manageable, and puts a subtle kick of spice in his pork sausage. His son-in-law, daughter and granddaughters all help out around the little restaurant that serves food from what looks like the kitchen of an old house. Even Penny helps out, making the side dishes. I guess he wasn’t driving her that crazy.

Ronnie Weiershausen has been serving barbecue from his converted convenience store in Johnson City for more than 30 years.
Ronnie Weiershausen has been serving barbecue from his converted convenience store in Johnson City for more than 30 years.

RONNIE’S BBQ, JOHNSON CITY

Johnson City has always just been another place to pass through without stopping on the way to somewhere else for me. Not anymore.

Ronnie’s BBQ doesn’t have much aesthetic appeal from the outside. It looks like a converted convenience store just struggling to hang on.

Half of that is true. Ronnie Weiershausen converted his convenience store to a restaurant about three decades ago. But he’s hanging on just fine.

He had started selling smoked meat to supplement his business. Turns out the barbecue was a hit, so he had to clear the decks and focus on what people want.

I won’t even bother getting into the ribs and brisket because that’s how good the chicken and turkey were. The chicken stayed moist beneath its gold and blackened ripples of skin and the smoke of oak coals had deeply penetrated impossibly tender turkey. It was the best I’d ever had. Makes sense that a man seemingly as modest as the soft-spoken but proud Weiershausen could work magic with such a humble bird.