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BBQ: It’s a Family Affair

Texas and barbecue go hand-in-hand, kinda like chips and queso or beer and Mexican food or, my personal favorite, vanilla and Dr Pepper.

When Texas Monthly came out with its top 50 BBQ joints in the state, our family was all in. Every four years, the BBQ editor (yes, that’s a real thing) Daniel Vaughn and his staff scour the state for the best in ‘cue. But, this go around, they upped the ante by partnering with YETI to provide incentive prizes for various challenges.

Honestly, it started out as a top 10 brisket challenge for us (the prize was one of these), as well as hitting a few Austin joints. Several of the places on the list were already family favorites and we’d visited them on a number of occasions. We thought we had tasted it all. And seriously, who’s crazy enough to load up their six kids in a Honda minivan with 200,000+ miles on her already and add another 2,000 carousing around the state?

Um, yeah. I’ll get back to that.

Our first barbecue joint was Valentina’s in south Austin. Our oldest had just turned 16 and he and his buddies were hankering for some good food. Teenagers. We almost went broke, but we rented a van and shuttled them around Austin, stopping at several food trucks. I wish I would’ve thought to take photos of Scott and I pulling up to the food truck, in a massive van, with seven teenage boys, all 6-foot and change. We acquired the first sticker, clinked Big Red bottles, cleaned our plates and loosened our pants.

Then, we went on a “little” family road trip to west, south and central Texas for our summer vacation. Three places were closed, one in west Texas and the others in south Texas. We shrugged our shoulders and dove into Rio Grande Grill’s smoked chicken tortilla soup. And that, my friends, sealed the deal. I looked at Scott and said, “Whatever it takes to hit all 50, I’m in.”

Scott beamed. Mission accomplished.

I’m still convinced this was his original plan: butter me up with good barbecue so I would endure hours and hours in the minivan with six kids all in the name of good food. There are worse plans, right?

Over the course of the next eight months, we found ourselves hopping from every corner of the state relishing in the pure delight of amazing food. Yes, the barbecue (and the sides and sweet tea – the Granary’s was my favorite) were equally amazing. What we didn’t expect, though, was just how many kind pitmasters and fellow BBQ fanatics we’d meet, how much free beer we’d consume and how many tiny towns we’d fall head over heels in love. And, some of our very best memories as a family of eight happened on the barbecue trail. YETI was just the (chilled) icing on the cake.

There was the trip to East Texas to pick up the kids from camp that included {ahem} four stops in one afternoon. We literally rolled into bed. Twelve hours later, we had more barbecue for lunch.

The day the 14-year-old celebrated his birthday, he only had one request: barbecue from *the* Franklin’s. Four hours of standing in line later, he got his wish.

We made a weekend 10-hour round trip jaunt to south Texas to catch the two joints we missed.

We then turned around and headed north to Fort Worth to catch three more. Because we’re crazy like that.

My dad and I drove an insane 14 hours in one day, leaving at 5am, to be the first one’s in line at our final BBQ place of the challenge in my dad’s hometown of Pecos. Oh, and the boys got up one morning at 5am to be the first one’s in line at this place. #worthit

We met countless friends and family members for lunch or dinner, stuffed our faces with amazing food and hugged the necks of awesome people. What a beautiful way to reconnect.

But, I think the real kicker was when Scott and I realized, after a trip to redeem some stickers for other BBQ prize challenges, that YETI was down to just six tubs. Six. What did we do? We realized this was a code red situation. A few days later, we got up at the crack of dawn with our youngest, left the others in the care of our oldest and made a mad dash to Houston to knock out three barbecue places. On a Friday during Lent. We’re Catholic, by the way. We didn’t eat a lick of meat that day, instead, we stored it one of our trusted YETI coolers. We ate every side and drank all the sweet tea and Dr Pepper, though. It wasn’t until the next day when we devoured it all in one sitting. I’m pretty sure our cause for canonization just got fast-tracked.

Enough yapping. Y’all came here for us to dish on our favorites. May I share this disclaimer? It’s not possible for Scott and I to rank the 50 BEST barbecue joints because I have never tasted so much amazing barbecue in my life. And that’s saying something if you’re a sixth-generation Texan. If you know us in real life, you’ll know that when we start talking about our ten-month quest to eat all the brisket that we will jabber for hours. The experience was just so rich and full of great memories. In fact, I think it’s a year we’ll never forget. It started out with us in search of great barbecue and ended with a family full of gratitude for one another. To Texas Monthly and YETI? Thanks for making it such a soul-filling, memory-making year for Team Whitaker.

You done good.

As a sidenote that’s really a big note: Scott and I are both small-town kids. I grew up an hour north of Amarillo in Dumas and he hails from Bowie, south of Wichita Falls. Even though we’re all big city with our Austin address now, the small town never left us. There’s a real soft spot in our hearts for the places you have to drive to get to, and I’m not talking about sitting on I-35 in rush hour traffic. The gems were usually in the middle of nowhere. Aren’t they always? Scott will also tell you I’ve never met a stranger. Just ask the pitmasters at Smolik’s or Tejas!

To every BBQ joint on the list, to every pitmaster and to Daniel and his staff: thank you.Thank you for reminding folks that eating is always about the experience, the connection. It’s never about how fancy the place is or how creative the menu looks. Call up your friends, gather your family and pile your plate high with the good stuff. It’s worth every bite, y’all.

Now, we dish.

The Team Whitaker top twelve-ish (sorry, we just couldn’t cut anybody from the list) is in no way a slight to the other 35+ on the list (plus the other 10 they just named!). I have no idea how the BBQ snob and his crew ranked these places. We are now BBQ snobs and find ourselves in a real quandary when someone asks us to go eat barbecue with them. If their answer doesn’t include a real stunner, we give our final answer some pause. Because no barbecue is definitely a better route than bad barbecue. Words to live by.

  1. Franklin’s // Austin
  2. Truth // Brenham
  3. Snow’s // Lexington
  4. 2M // San Antonio
  5. Tejas Chocolate+Barbecue // Spring
  6. Valentina’s // Austin
  7. Flores // Whitney
  8. Bodacious // Longview
  9. Killen’s // Pearland
  10. LaBarbecue // Austin
  11. Heim // Fort Worth
  12. Smoking Oak // Mercedes
  13. Pecan Lodge // Dallas* (I just couldn’t leave it off.)

And, as an added bonus, we’ve given you some “bests of the best” in a lot of other categories because it was just so damn hard to choose. If I’m being 100% honest, there are only two places we won’t visit again. The rest were just pure gold. Basically, just about every joint on the top 50 + the new 10 Daniel and his staff just named, are worth it.

Brisket: Franklin’s (Austin) and La Barbecue (Austin)
I’ve never had brisket taste like this. We didn’t even know it was possible. Now, we can never go back to anything less than these!

Ribs: Stanley’s (Tyler) and Stiles Switch (Austin)
Personally, I’m not a rib girl. Stanley’s converted me. And, Stiles Switch is off the hook. Owned by an Aggie, too! Plus, if you’re a fan of the Barbecue Wife, she’s married to one of the pitmasters and her drink mixes are two thumbs up.

Chicken: Snow’s (Lexington), Coopers (Llano) and Rio Grande Grill (Harlingen)
Rio Grande’s tortilla soup and chicken enchiladas had just the right amount of BBQ + Tex-Mex. Snow’s and Coopers just know how to smoke it. Wow.

Beans: Cooper’s (Llano) and 4T’s (Forney)
Coopers beans are free (woot) and have always been my favorite, but 4T’s sure gave them a run for their money.

Dessert: Tejas (Spring), Truth (Brenham), Cooper’s (Llano)
You’ll find a lot of moms/wives of pitmasters baking dessert (Smoking Oak, Truth and 4Ts) and all of these were melt in your mouth perfection. I’m a personal fan of Cooper’s blackberry cobbler and how can one turn down chocolate truffles at Tejas?!

Sausage: Bodacious (Longview) and Smolik’s (Mathis)
We’re pretty picky about sausage around here. Bodacious was the first one that ever had me begging for seconds. Smolik’s was a pretty close second. Ha!

Sides: Roegel’s (Houston), Tejas (Spring), Tyler’s (Amarillo), Miller’s (Belton), Valentina’s (Austin) and Pody’s (Pecos)
Everything about Roegel’s sides were great. Tejas has a carrot souffle that will slay you. Tyler’s and Miller’s mac & cheese were my personal favorites. The smoked corn at Valentina’s is unreal, as is the hominy at Pody’s (and I don’t even like hominy!) and a pretty strong honorable mention are the jalapeno cheese grits at Mickelthwaite.

Worth the drive: Smoking Oak (Mercedes), Vera’s (Brownsville), Harris (Waxahachie) and Tyler’s (Amarillo)
It’s not good barbecue unless you gotta hunt for it, says the small town girl in me. Smoking Oak in south Texas had the nicest staff with some pretty spectacular ‘cue. It was like eating at home. Vera’s barbacoa tacos will convert you on the spot (they cook them old style, in the ground) and Harris has *the* best brisket sandwich served up on toasted Texas toast. Yes, please.

Best Hospitality: Hutchins (McKinney), Smolik’s (Mathis), Baker Boys (Gonzales), BBQ on the Brazos (Cresson) and 4T’s (Forney)
You’ll notice these are all small towns. I’m not saying the big boys aren’t kind and gracious, but when you stop in these joints, the folks know you aren’t just passing through – their joint *is* the destination.

Newbies to the list (of the new top ten that were added, we’ve eaten at two and they were fantastic): Brotherton’s (Pflugerville) and Leroy & Lewis (Austin)

Best Logo: Franklin’s (Austin) and Flores (Whitney)
I know this has absolutely nothing to do with the taste of BBQ, but as a graphic designer, I had to share which ones I loved. Franklin’s has such a cool retro vibe. Flores just screams heart of Texas with that yellow rose. When they told us they were searching for a new logo, I might’ve gone ALL CAPS on them and begged them to keep it the same. #occupationalhazard

Oh, and did I mention we volunteer at the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest every November in Austin? We’re serious, y’all.

At this point, I have to stop. Because I could write a thousand posts about all the good food we ate. How do food critics do it?! Next time you’re rolling along, don’t be afraid to go on your own quest for great barbecue. It’s worth every mile.

Just ask my kids.

Need more juicy bits about barbecue in the Lone Star state? Here ya go.

3 Comments

  1. Lizett on July 19, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    My oldest is head to The Pines soon so we are planning on staying in Tyler a night and checking out Stanley’s BBQ. Ribs right?! 🙂

    • Kathryn on July 20, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Yes ma’am! And if you order the chopped brisket sandwich ask for it to be hand chopped.

  2. 2018 Gift Guide - Team Whitaker on November 24, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    […] Did somebody say BBQ? Obviously, we are BIG fans here at Casa Whitaker. Scott’s friend, Daniel (also the BBQ Editor for Texas Monthly magazine), wrote a fantastic book on the evolution of BBQ, full of his observations and mouth watering photos. You’ll want to hit the BBQ trail posthaste after you read Prophets of Smoked Meat. Go ahead and grab your YETI Colster (I won’t tell anyone if it’s a Dr Pepper or a can of Shiner in there). The wife of one of the pitmasters at Stiles Switch here in Austin came up with her own Barbecue Wife bloody mary mix (she has a margarita mix, too) and it is off-the-hook amazing. Don’t blame me when you smell like good barbecue! You can also read about our crazy trek around the state to taste it all here. […]

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