9 Iconic Barbecue Joints You Must Visit on a Trip to Texas
Institutions, enduring classics, and trailblazers, oh my!
Texas barbecue is as rich in history as it is in flavor, with local pitmasters constantly raising the bar, so it goes without saying that a trip to Texas has to include getting the meat sweats at least a few times. But, where to start? To truly get the Texas barbecue experience, we think it’s best to start with the fundamentals — the places that were first, the ones that have endured over time, and the ones that need no introduction. From an 89-year-old great-grandmother/pitmaster, to a restaurant empire run by a fine-dining chef, to Austin’s very own wunderkind, these are the most iconic, bucket list-worthy names in the world of Texas barbecue. And, while this list is by no means exhaustive, we think this is a pretty freaking delicious place to start.
Just because you can’t make an afternoon of it doesn’t mean you need to abandon your quest for killer Texas ’cue. Killen’s Barbecue — from Ronnie Killen, a classically-trained chef, pitmaster, and restaurant empire kingpin — is open six days a week and (gasp!) accepts reservations. You can’t go wrong with anything here; the combination of perfect seasoning with a masterful smoke makes everything on the menu a winner, with brisket, beef ribs, and pulled pork serving as standouts. Don’t let the convenience or cleanliness throw you off, Killen’s small menu of traditional Texas-style smoked meat and sides sells out daily.
Every Saturday, in the wee morning hours just 50 miles east of Austin, a queue that rivals that of Franklin Barbecue’s forms in the gravel lot outside of Snow’s BBQ. The early birds, equipped with lawn chairs and blankets, begin to flock as early as 4 am, their tenacity surpassed only by a handful of hardcore devotees who have been camped out since the night before. While everyone is here to experience what’s been called the best barbecue in Texas, they’ve really come to see Tootsie Tomanetz, Snow’s legendary pitmaster, doing what she does best. With over 50 years of experience working at a pit, the tough-as-nails 89-year-old great-grandmother has earned countless accolades including an induction into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Make the trek to Lexington for Snow’s smoked pork steak — thick, tender slices with a salty caramelized crust — and smoked chicken that’s (literally) mopped with Tootsie’s onion-y, vinegar-y, mustard-y sauce.
Owner/pitmaster Armando “Mando” Vera recently added brisket to his menu to appeal to the new wave of customers his modest operation has recently attracted following some serious accolades, including a James Beard Award. However, since opening in 1955, the star of the show at Vera’s has always been barbacoa de cabeza (barbecued cow’s head), slow-cooked in an underground pit. Sadly, the South Texas culinary tradition is fading as Vera’s Backyard is the only remaining restaurant in Texas with a permit to cook meat in an earthen pit. After 12 hours of smoking over mesquite coals, the meat (usually cheek, face, tongue, or a mix) is fall-off-the-bone tender. The barbacoa is heavenly tucked inside warm handmade flour tortillas and topped with cilantro, onions, and fresh salsa.
For the quintessential Texas barbecue experience — complete with a wall of ancient, yellowed business cards — look no further than Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Louie Mueller founded the “Cathedral of Smoke” in 1949, running it for 30 years before handing the reins to his son Bobby in 1974. Wayne Mueller, Bobby’s son, took over as owner/pitmaster in 2007, the same year Louie Mueller Barbecue became the first barbecue joint to be honored with a James Beard Award. Thick-sliced, black-barked brisket and colossal beef ribs with rendered fat that melts in your mouth are practically requisites, but don’t miss the perfectly “snappy” housemade sausage.
Founded in 1900 in what’s considered the “cradle of Texas barbecue”, Lockhart’s Kreuz Market is the second-oldest barbecue joint in Texas, surpassed only by Elgin’s Southside Market & Barbecue. The atmosphere inside the hulking orange structure is endearingly stuck-in-time despite the fact that it’s only been at this location since 1999 (which is a whole other story involving Smitty’s Market and a family spat). While brisket is often the darling of Texas barbecue, Kreuz Market’s simultaneously crisp-yet-juicy housemade sausage and moist smoked turkey is where this barbecue institution shines most brightly.
Since 1962, Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano has forgone Central Texas-style barbecue (indirect heat, typically over oak) for an approach more typical of West Texas or Hill Country barbecue. That method of cooking meat directly over hot mesquite coals, known as “Cowboy Style,” causes fat to drip onto hot coals, creating a smoky, distinctly delicious flavor that embeds itself into every bite. Try Cooper’s juicy double-thick pork chops, enormous beef ribs, and ribeye, which is only available on Saturday after 5 pm.
Smokey Joe’s BBQ in South Dallas — not to be confused with Smokey John’s, Smokey Mo’s, or Pok-e-Jo's — was founded in 1985 by Kenneth Manning and Joe Melton and later purchased in 2013 by Kenneth’s (then 23-year-old) son, Kris Manning. Since Kris has been at the helm, he’s managed to successfully strike a balance between innovation while staying true to the community and longtime patrons, earning much-deserved praise in the process. Everything at Smokey Joe’s is ridiculously good, but if we had to choose we’d start with moist brisket, pork ribs, jalapeño cheddar sausage, and “The Maxi”— sliced brisket, smoked sausage, and housemade sweet and spicy pickles on a brioche bun.
What can be said about Franklin Barbecue that hasn’t already been said? Yes, it’s the best brisket on the planet. Yes, it’s worth the wait. And, yes the meteoric rise of the East Austin meat mecca is one for the books. Aaron Franklin opened Franklin Barbecue in 2009, serving brisket, ribs, sausage, and pulled pork out of a retro aqua and white trailer. He’d first caught the barbecue bug as a kid helping his parents run their short-lived ’cue joint, but his fire was reignited after a stint at John Mueller BBQ, where he sampled the legendary pitmaster’s phenomenal brisket. Franklin threw himself into his craft, honing his skill until he felt he’d confidently cracked the code. Within a year and half of opening, word had spread about Franklin Barbecue’s unbelievable brisket and the lines got longer and longer — and the rest is history. Order the melt-in-your-mouth tender brisket (Creekstone Prime beef dry-rubbed with a salt and pepper blend and smoked for 18 hours over post oak) but believe it when we say that the rest of the offerings are just as masterfully executed.
Opened in 1958, Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ is the oldest-operating mom-and-pop barbecue spot in Tyler. Founded by JD Stanley, the classic barbecue joint was taken over by Nick and Jen Pencis in 2003, and the couple has successfully elevated the Stanley’s experience while maintaining the warm, homey vibe. With its live music line-up and a dizzying selection of whiskies and Texas craft beers, Stanley’s could easily be mistaken for a honky-tonk if not for the smoky aroma that permeates the building. Get meat by the pound or go for one of Stanley’s famously delicious sandwiches like the Brother-In-Law (grilled hot link, cheese, chopped brisket) or the whopping Mother Clucker (smoked chicken thigh, spicy barbecue mayo, cheddar, and fried egg on toasted jalapeno cheese sourdough).