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The Definitive Texas Barbecue Style Guide

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Don’t expect Texas to have a single style of barbecue. That would be like French winemakers hawking a single grape varietal. Central Texas brisket might be our Champagne, but we’ve got plenty more to offer.

Barbecue changes pretty significantly across the state. It is 857 miles from Orange to El Paso, after all. There are, however, some common threads. You’re much more likely to find the larger, meatier pork spare ribs instead of dainty baby backs. Beef ribs can be found throughout the state, but the giant beef short ribs are somewhat of a new phenomenon. Texas has one of the few American barbecue styles where sausage-making is an integral part of the tradition. Whether it’s the hot guts of Central Texas, the grease balls of Beaumont/Port Arthur, or the East Texas links from Pittsburg, meat in casings is as revered as anything else on the menu.

We're technically the South, but here, white bread trumps cornbread. The pickles are dill, the onions are raw, and sauce comes on the side. Don't expect your beans to be sweet... but the potato salad might be, and it’ll probably have some mustard in it. Add some slaw, and you have the traditional trio of Texas-style barbecue sides. For your Lone Star barbecue tour, bring along cash, just in case. There are still plenty of rural joints that don’t take kindly to plastic, and only a Yankee would pull out a credit card for a $2.50 sausage wrap, anyway. It’s still best to call ahead if you‘re coming in on Sunday. That's still a day of rest for many Texas barbecue joints, but Mondays are creeping in as the most popular day to take off. Plan accordingly.

Back in the 19th century, all American barbecue was essentially the same. From South Carolina to Texas, whole animals were cooked directly over a trench filled with hot coals. The only things that varied were the type of wood and the selection of animals that were immediately available for cooking. There were no identifiable styles until a decade or so after the Civil War, when barbecue was first made available for sale. Up until then, barbecue was an event where large groups of people ate for free. Once it became restaurant food, it started to take on a style all its own, depending on the region.

Hill Country BBQ
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Hill Country

The area west of Austin is known for its direct-heat cooking. While the joints here don’t have a history that goes as far back as their Central or East Texas brethren, their cooking style is closest to the old way of cooking over a trench in the ground. Rather than smoking meat, the barbecue here is cooked directly over hot coals. Wood, usually mesquite, is burned down into coals in a feeder fire, and those coals are shoveled into large, metal boxes, sometimes called Dutch pits or German pits.

Robb Walsh is a Texas barbecue authority who authored Legends of Texas Barbecue, an explanation of Texas’ various barbecue styles. He recognizes that this style, which he refers to as Cowboy Style, “harkens back to the Southern roots” of barbecue. This style also has the most unique flavor. Instead of getting the flavor of the wood smoke, the meat captures the smoke from the fat as it hits the fire below. Because of the fast cooking times, thinner meats like ribs, chops, sausage, and half-chickens are more successful with this method, but brisket is still always on the menu. Just don’t expect it to be as juicy as other styles. This isn’t low-and-slow cooking.

Unfortunately, the number of restaurants where you can get this kind of barbecue is dwindling. The requirement of having a large pit for the feeder fire, and another for the meat -- not to mention all that wood -- make it costly. Having to keep track of two fires also makes it more difficult. Thankfully, you can still see this type of cooking done at community barbecues all over Texas, where they favor direct-heat fires instead of an offset smoker.

Walsh acknowledges these community barbecues in the revised version of the book which is about to be released. “I had to revisit the categories that I’d created,” he says. “I’ve sort of lumped community barbecues and Cowboy barbecue together.” This style also has less in common with other versions of Texas barbecue, and more with Southern barbecue from other states, like the whole-hog barbecue in North Carolina, which is cooked the same way.

barbacoa tacos
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South Texas

If the Hill Country style of barbecue is endangered, South Texas barbacoa is nearly extinct. There’s only one place left in the state -- and probably the country -- where you can get it, or at least the authentic version of it. Mando Vera at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, TX still cooks whole cow heads in the ground with mesquite coals. He offers it up Saturday and Sunday mornings only, which is when you’ll usually find barbacoa for sale.

Barbacoa cooked in this manner can be made with pretty much any meat, but in South Texas, it’s all about the cow heads. They remain one of the cheapest cuts of meat on the market, yet after spending about 12 hours in a warm, earthen pit, they’re transformed into the best taco stuffing you can ask for. It’s still pretty good out of the oven or the steamer, which is usually how it’s made these days.

You can find meat cooked this way in plenty of Texas backyards. A pit is dug and lined with stones, bricks, or even a section of concrete pipe, and a large mesquite fire is started in the bottom. Once the wood burns down to a thick bed of coals, agave leaves are placed on top of the coals to form a protective layer. The meat and/or heads are laid on top of that, the leaves are folded over, then the lid goes over the pit. Dirt usually covers the lid of the pit for insulation purposes. When the lid is taken off the next morning, the meat is so tender that it falls off the skull. Cheek meat, or cachete, is the most popular portion of the head. Everything is used, including the tongue and the eyes. The shredded meat is generally served up by the pound along with salsas, cilantro, onions, and tortillas. Be sure to salt the meat in the tacos, because it was probably cooked without seasoning.

Here are a few key terms to remember about barbacoa:

barbacoa de cabeza: barbacoa made with whole beef heads instead of just cheek and tongue

cabezita: the head of a goat cooked as barbacoa

descarnando: the act of removing meat from a carcass or skull for barbacoa

tatema: an Aztec word used specifically to describe barbacoa cooked in the ground with wood coals. You won’t find the word used often these days, but it signifies that your barbacoa isn’t steamed.

South Texas barbecue has traditionally been known for barbacoa, but let’s not leave out the cabrito. Whole, young goats are cooked over coals, or roasted on a spit over charcoal. It will come with tortillas, beans, and various garnishes. It is usually ordered from a particular portion of the cabrito. I like the shoulder.

Central Texas BBQ
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Central Texas

If you’ve heard about the German and Czech butchers who started Texas barbecue, that’s the story of Central Texas barbecue. Meat markets in towns like Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Elgin, and Bastrop sold meat from whole beef carcasses. In the days before refrigeration, they needed something to do with the meat that didn’t sell. They could either smoke the whole muscles to prolong their sellable life, or they could grind the meat and stuff it into casings for smoked sausage. The heavy seasonings in the sausages helped with any off flavors.

In the mid-'60s, brisket became the popular cut of beef to smoke, and eventually began to dominate all discussions about Texas barbecue. Some folks outside the state think it’s the only thing we cook, but Central Texas barbecue joints don’t stop there. Other meats from the forequarter are also popular, like the shoulder clod, and chuck short ribs, larger short ribs from the beef plate that have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the last decade.

These days, the meat market operations have mostly changed over completely into barbecue joints. The barbecue is still carved in front of the customer, sold by the pound, and served on butcher paper. All these modern joints using butcher paper to line their plastic trays are really giving homage to the old meat markets.

The new restaurants in big cities across Texas, and throughout the country, have latched on mainly to the Central Texas style of cooking meat, causing some to worry that other distinct styles are losing ground. “There’s a homogenization of Texas barbecue that’s coalescing around Central Texas style,” says J. C. Reid, barbecue columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He thinks pitmasters could do more to advance more distinct regional styles rather than adhere so much to the meat-on-butcher-paper aesthetic.

Barbecue here is done in offset smokers fueled with oak, usually post oak. It’s a wood prevalent in the region. Meat seasoned simply with salt, black pepper, and sometimes other spices is laid within a smoker chamber, and the fire is built in a firebox to the side. An exhaust on the opposite end pulls the heat and smoke from the fire across the surface of the meat, cooking it, and adding the great smoke flavor.

Sides and desserts are an afterthought in this style of barbecue. Some joints offer up whole avocados, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and hunks of cheese to take the place of prepared sides. You might have heard that they don’t serve barbecue sauce around these parts, but only Kreuz Market in Lockhart forbids it. Most others serve it on the side, or offer it on the table.

East Texas

East Texas was populated heavily by slaveholders leading up to the Civil War. They bought and sold slaves from points East, and the slaves brought their barbecue traditions with them. That includes a greater acceptance of pork, and more emphasis on barbecue sauce.

You also won’t find folks worshipping sliced brisket here like they do in Central Texas. The beef here is more tender, so it can be chopped for sandwiches. As Bob Allen of Bob’s Bar-B-Que in the East Texas town of Henderson puts it, “We don’t do the butcher paper thing here.” What they do is serve tender pork ribs, and even boudin. The pork-and-rice sausage has crept in from across the Louisiana border, and has been broadly accepted in East Texas. Smoked boudin (sometimes spelled "boudain" in Texas) might be popular, but only in the past decade, showing that even the oldest barbecue style in Texas can evolve.

With a border running from Texarkana and its sweet ribs, all the way down to the garlicky beef links of Beaumont/Port Arthur, it’s harder to peg a consistent theme in East Texas. But Bob Allen thinks it has to do with having a positive attitude. “People like friendly people,” he says. “You like for people to be nice to you,” and you’ll find plenty of good hospitality in the barbecue joints of East Texas.

You’ll also find a better variety of sides that goes beyond slaw, beans, and potato salad. Fried okra, greens, and mac & cheese are likely to be found, and always keep an eye out for banana pudding. Robb Walsh has noticed the same at many of the big city barbecue joints in Texas. “I think you could argue that at Killen’s, Corkscrew, and even Pecan Lodge, Southern and East Texas barbecue [are] influencing the sides.”

Barbecue's future

That brings us to the new barbecue movement within Texas. It’s centered in cities like Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and largely reflects outside barbecue influences around the state. The meats are prepared as they are in Central Texas, using all wood, while the sides hail from the East, and I’ve even seen beef cheek tacos on a menu in Austin. Time will tell if the big cities begin to shift toward a more localized barbecue identity, but that’s my hope. Maybe in a decade we’ll be able to better define what Houston- or Dallas-style barbecue really is. For now, it’s all part of a great patchwork we call Texas barbecue.

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Daniel Vaughn is the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat. He has eaten at over 1,200 barbecue joints in the country, most of them in Texas.