Life is hard. Which is why God gave us Texas barbecue. Its charred exterior and deep smoky goodness are the stuff of dreams for any good carnivore. Sauce is nice, but not required. Just bring on the meats, please.
Looking forward to eating at your favorite barbecue joint is the prize that can get you through a real bummer of a workday. And yet, until recent years, it was not so easy to lay your hands on the good stuff.
Barbecue is a serious business. It takes a lot of love and know-how to bring all the elements together that will produce tender, flavorful meat—ribs with perfectly rendered fat, briskets with a beautiful crusty bark—each and every day. There are places that try hard for a while and then just fade away. To butcher an old saying: The road to barbecue anonymity is paved with good intentions.
The best Texas barbecue used to be a pilgrimage to get to. The places of lore were found in the small towns of Central Texas. “I used to stop all the time at City Market in Luling,” says Scott Moore, Jr., pitmaster and co-owner, along with his wife Michelle Holland and brother Greg, of the highly acclaimed Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue in Tomball. “Wait in line, go into the smoke room, pick your meat, go back out and pay.” These joints were an outgrowth of the 19th-century butcher shops started by German and Czech immigrants in the region, says Scott. You ate your barbecue without utensils, off of butcher paper, used your pocketknife to cut the meat and maybe put it on a slice of bread. The original clientele would have been farmhands and laborers coming in for lunch, he says.
In the early days of Texas barbecue, smoking the meats was more of a preservation technique, says Will Buckman, pitmaster and co-owner, along with wife Nichole, of CorkScrew Barbecue in Old Town Spring, a joint that has received innumerable accolades and, along with Tejas, is a repeat Texas Monthly top-lister. These days, pitmasters have the technology and high-quality meats to take things to the next level, says Will.
That elevation started in the early 2000s, as hungry bbq nerds (like me) were growing in number. The wonders of Texas brisket and other smoked meats were revealed to the rest of the world outside of Texas through Calvin Trillin’s famous “By Meat Alone” essay for the New Yorker magazine, as well as through the online posts of popular Texas barbecue blogs with zingy names like the “Texas Barbecue Posse” and “Full Custom Gospel Barbecue,” the latter written by Daniel Vaughn, then an architect by day, who in his free time made the rounds, visiting all the beloved Texas joints, displaying an amazing appreciation for and understanding of Texas barbecue culture, according to Eater.com. Those pithy blog posts led to his current, longtime gig as the first-ever, full-time “Barbecue Editor” for Texas Monthly magazine (a job title that we don’t even bat an eye about now, but that at the time seemed pretty audacious). Every four years, Vaughn and his team put out their prestigious “Top 50” list of the best barbecue joints across the state, a list that is highly anticipated throughout the barbecue-loving world.
CorkScrew was already receiving praise from the Houston Chronicle when they made the Texas Monthly list for the first time back in 2013. “It solidified that the hard work and dedication had paid off. The feeling has never left. It’s incredible,” says Will.
Scott Moore recalls that in late 2016, Tejas had been open for about a year in its Old Town Tomball location and was gaining a steady following. (“That’s where social media is wonderful,” says Scott. “The meatheads got wind of us pretty quick.”) One day, a group of Texas Monthly “secret shoppers” showed up, doing early stage vetting for the upcoming list. “They were asking questions about pits and smokers,” he says. The group didn’t announce who they were, and when Scott came by to check on their table, they put away notes they were scribbling. A few weeks later, Daniel Vaughn walked in late on a Thursday. “We do a big, beautiful pastrami beef rib on Thursdays. He got that, amongst other things. As he was leaving, he gave us some praise. We felt pretty good, and then a photographer visited. Never said anything, we never asked. When the list came out, we were number six!”
Over the years, both joints have maintained spots on the list and are widely acknowledged as top Texas barbecue destinations, receiving additional attention on foodie-centric websites like Eater and Thrillist, as well as on cable television's Food Network.
“The world has a fascination with all things Texas,“ says Scott. But more than that, he says, the attention reveals an appreciation for the craftsmanship: creating a “barbecue essence” that works to reveal flavors, not cover them up. At Tejas, that means using prime-grade meats and a blend of salt and pepper, along with the “third ingredient” of post oak smoke, says Scott.
Will Buckman agrees that it’s the meat that should take center stage in barbecue. He considers the CorkScrew style to be a hybrid, based on his own palate and those of his family and friends, developed over many years of smoking meats in his own backyard. “We had small children at home, had a small barbecue pit. It was something we did on the weekends.” Turn on the country music radio station, start a fire in the smoker, and cook whatever was on sale at the grocery store. “We enjoyed our kids and the evening, and it just took off on us,” he recalls.
At CorkScrew, Will uses red oak, which he says is the wood of choice for East Texas barbecue and imparts a more subtle flavor. His seasoning rubs are more complex than those used in the Central Texas style, which prefers little or no seasoning.
At the end of the day, the final crucial ingredient at any great Texas barbecue joint is the commitment to maintaining consistency, keeping the brisket and the ribs and the sausage flowing, meeting expectations every day you’re open.
“Today for instance. It’s Friday. At 1 p.m., I put on all the briskets for Saturday. I have someone who watches things overnight, and I’ll be back at 5 in the morning,” says Will. The briskets get pulled around 6 or 7 in the morning. For a Saturday, we do anywhere from 40 to 60 briskets.” More, if it’s a “bbq holiday” like July 4th or Memorial Day, he says.
We’re living in the Golden Age of Texas barbecue, and some of the best places in the state, the entire U.S. for that matter, are mere minutes from home. Along with Tejas and CorkScrew to enjoy, we now have a Killen’s Barbecue (also vaunted on the Texas Monthly list), opened in The Woodlands on Six Pines Drive by James Beard semifinalist Ronnie Killen last year. Also well-praised has been Reveille Barbecue, just down the road in Pinehurst. And more local places are on the rise, all putting in the hours, pushing the envelope, looking for new ways to satisfy the meatheads out there and make the honest flavors of Texas-style barbecued meats available right here in our own backyard.
No pilgrimage required.
NOTE TO EDITORIAL:
In the article: Page 4 pullout headline and information:
Tejas Chocolate & Barbecue
Started as an artisanal chocolate craftory, barbecue was added to the menu when Tejas moved to its current location in Old Town Tomball back in 2015. “The meatheads got wind of us pretty quick,” says Scott Moore.
In the article: Page 6 pullout headline and info:
Will and Nichole Buckman started out serving barbecue from a trailer in a shopping center parking lot on Sawdust Road. “We’re fortunate to live in this period. It’s become completely different,” Will says of the runaway popularity of Texas barbecue.