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Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt
From its beginning in the early 1900s until the early 2000s, Central Texas barbecue was a rural tradition. On Saturday, small towns like Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor were the places to go for smoked beef brisket, sausage, and ribs. Then around 2005-2010, some good, young pitmasters started opening places in and around Austin, Houston, and Dallas. Not only were the old-time barbecue lovers raving, cheeky foodies, obsessed with all things locally sourced, were waiting, eating, and blogging their brains out. And the Golden Age of Texas-style barbecue had arrived.
In Texas, they argue about the important stuff, it’s not who has the best sauce or the best rub, it’s about the meat—high-quality, heavily marbled brisket with a thick peppery crust, smoked over oak or mesquite—and the skill of the pitmaster. Kansas City barbecue, by Texas standards, requires plenty of sweet sauce because “the meat is inferior and it’s sliced puny.” As for the Carolinas, they may have invented barbecue, but Texas perfected it.
When Northwesterners barbecue, we cook directly over heat on a gas or charcoal, backyard grill—in Texas that is blasphemy. Any self-respecting Central Texas barbecue joint has stacks of oak or mesquite logs piled up near the smoker, behind the restaurant. As Griffin Smith of the Texas Monthly wrote, “Slow heat, not flame or coals, yields the tenderest, juiciest meat. The typical commercial barbecue pit in Texas is a low, brick structure ten to twenty feet long, covered with a sheet metal lid suspended on pulleys for ease of lifting. Roasts and other large chucks of meat are placed on a grill at one end, and a wood fire is tended at the other. Convection currents aided by a fan (or prevailing winds) draw the heat and smoke across the meat. Cooking time can be as long as 24 hours, depending on the size of the fire, and seldom is less than eight hours. This technique is ideal for a cut of meat like brisket, which has enough fat to stay moist as it slowly gets tender, and it cannot be hurried.”
Consumption of barbecue in Texas is also something that cannot be hurried. “You walk in the door at your favorite barbecue joint and whether it has recognition or not, you’re going to be standing in line,” said Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly. “It’s not something that people even notice—it’s just how you eat barbecue in Texas.” Rain or shine, six days a week, hundreds of men, women and children bring along a chair and wait in line three to five hours, passing the time visiting, playing card games or throwing a frisbee, to eat at Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin—no exceptions given for the famous, infirm, or local. I read about an enterprising high school student who would, for a small fee, wait in line for you. But Franklin banned professional line-sitters—Mr. Jacob, the general manager, said they were ruining the communal atmosphere. Franklin’s hours are 11 a.m. until sold out and their product reflects the soul of Texas barbecue: a style more dry than wet, more fat than lean, and more beef than pork—a style that requires a hands-on, no-plate approach. Those with their pinkies lifted need not apply.
Down the block from our hotel in Houston, there are four Goode family restaurants: Goode Company Texas Seafood, the Armadillo Palace, Goode’s Taqueria, and the Goode Company Texas Barbecue, where I began my personal quest for the Best Brisket.
Not many Houston-based joints show up on The Best Barbecue lists. One that does is Gatlin’s‘, and although I am not much of a chair-toting, card-playing line sitter, when in Texas…
Gatlin’s is located in an outlying, northwestern Houston neighborhood of little intrigue with dusty, wide streets, only a few two-story buildings, and an abundance of pickups with NRA stickers. Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner and found myself in a long line of cars waiting to enter the driveway of the 24,000 square foot Iskcon Hari Krishna Temple, another example of Houston’s remarkable diversity.
If you want to invest hours standing in front of a smoker, try this recipe for Central Texas-style barbecue beef brisket. It would probably be quicker and cheaper to buy a plane ticket, rent a car, and line up first thing in the morning at Franklins’s in Austin, Texas. Don’t forget your lawn chair and a deck of cards.