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A Declaration of Barbecue War

by Texas Monthly Staff · May 22, 2013
american_bbq_map

LAST WEEK WE RELEASED our quinquennial list of the state’s top fifty joints. Today the full story is online and on newsstands everywhere. It’s packed with reviews explaining why we liked our top joints and how we picked the best (and incredible photography by Wyatt McSpadden). This year, however, we also had another object: not just to name the best barbecue joints in Texas, but to place them in a world barbecue context. Texas joints have gotten so good, that we figured it was time, once and for all, to settle the long-running quarrel over which region of the country is home to the best barbecue. So we decided to start a war. A friendly war, but a war no less.

Texas barbecue has no peer on earth. If you happen to be reading this in Texas, you may wonder why we need to state the obvious, but there are people who contend otherwise. In Kansas City they tout paltry slices of gray beef covered in sweet ketchup; the whole thing resembles cold cuts more than barbecue, which is why their arguments generally center on sauce rather than meat. In Memphis they grill ribs over charcoal and fret about whether to hide the product under a pool of sugary sauce or cover it with flavored dust. In the Carolinas they lift their noses and say through pursed, vinegary lips that they invented barbecue. They may have a claim there, but luckily we Texans came along to perfect it.

Let’s back up. The American barbecue tradition is rooted in numerous ancient practices. Caddo Indians had a method for smoking venison, and in the West Indies, natives grilled meats on a frame of green sticks. When European colonists arrived in the New World, no doubt tired of all the salt cod from the long Atlantic passage, they found a local populace given to roasting all manner of game — iguanas, fish, birds, corn, pretty much anything at hand. The Europeans’ contribution to this scenario was to introduce a tasty new animal: the hog. Not only was this beast a marked improvement over the previous fare, but its own gastronomic habits proved well suited to the slop-filled environs of the burgeoning Eastern seaboard. In rural areas and colonial burgs, pigs would roam freely, indiscriminately eating trash until someone decided to roast them, which was done in the local manner — a hole in the ground, a fire, and a split hog laid directly above it on a wood frame.

Barbecue might never have advanced beyond this crude stage but for the fact that another type of animal had come to these shores at the same time as the pig: the cow. Eventually, bovines made their way up through Mexico to the vast grazing lands of Texas, and it didn’t take long for Texans to figure out what to do with them. We started out by placing the beef directly over the flames but eventually adopted a more elegant approach by which the meat was smoked to tenderness in a chamber with a fire pit at one end and a chimney at the other. Over time, barbecue proliferated throughout the state, eventually leading to the opening of commercial establishments like Elgin’s Southside Market, in 1886, and Lockhart’s Kreuz Market, in 1900. We’ve been arguing about barbecue joints ever since.

Unlike our friends in the South, however, our arguments involve only the important stuff — not who has the better sauce or rub but who has the best meat. And in Texas, this means beef. Sure, we smoke hogs, in the form of spareribs, pork chops, or even (gasp) pulled pork, but we specialize in the Mount Everest of barbecue: brisket. In all of barbecuedom, there is no greater challenge and no greater reward.

This year marks the fifth time that Texas Monthly has sought to identify the state’s finest purveyors of smoked meat. In 1973 — our first year of publication — we selected the top 20 joints in the state, singling out Kreuz Market and Taylor’s Louie Mueller Barbecue as the best of the best. In 1997 we expanded our list to include the 50 best joints, with Kreuz and Louie Mueller still at the top. Both were — and remain — exemplars of the German meat-market style, which has always been, in our opinion, the primary form of Texas barbecue. It’s true that Texas can boast tremendous diversity of methods — from the glazed ribs of East Texas to the cowboy style found farther west — but the Central Texas holy trinity of brisket, sausage and ribs (beef and pork), smoked for many hours in an indirect-heat pit and served on butcher paper, remains the state’s finest contribution to the genre. Until recently, that kind of meal was an indisputably rural phenomenon. Sure, there were a few iconic places in urban areas — Angelo’s in Fort Worth, Otto’s in Houston, Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas — but they were hardly citified. Texas Monthly‘s first 50-best lists of the new century, compiled in 2003 and 2008, showed little change in that regard.

Then something happened. A tectonic shift occurred. Over a few short years, beginning around 2009, an unprecedented number of brand-new, very good joints opened up. (Sixteen of this year’s top 50 — including two of the top four — were not even in existence five years ago.) Even more unusual, most were in cities, operated by fanatical young pitmasters like Houston’s Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ, Dallas’s Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge, San Antonio’s Tim Rattray of the Granary, and the biggest sensation of them all, Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, in Austin. They were traditionalists, students of the canonical joints, disciples who would bring the old ways into a new age and a new place. And they found an enthusiastic reception among not just longtime barbecue hounds but also the growing ranks of the food-obsessed, the type of people who shop at farmers’ markets, stock their fridges with artisanal pickles, and tweet pictures of their meals. Suddenly, that most traditional of foods –pit-smoked meat — was reaching a much wider audience.

We are now in the golden age of Texas barbecue. A new generation has arisen to take its place beside the stalwarts, and together they are producing more truly exceptional brisket, ribs, sausage, pork loin, pork chops, pork butt, hot guts, prime rib, chopped beef, and chicken than ever before. The pitmasters on our 2013 list offer the closing argument in the long-standing case of Texas barbecue versus the world. That case may now be considered closed. These are not just the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas, they’re the fifty best barbecue joints in the world.

A great cri de coeur is rising up already from our friends in Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina, and other barbecue centers around the country. To them we say, in the immortal (though unfortunate) words of our own George W. Bush, bring ‘em on! We welcome your retaliation.

(This declaration was written by Patricia Sharpe, Jake Silversteinand Daniel Vaughn. A version of it originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Texas Monthly.)

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=742004355 facebook-742004355

    Love that map! As a long exiled/expat native Texan who now lives in Virginia, I will say that I have had mighty fine BBQ in all of the other great regions (NC, Mmephis, KC, and others). I do have a special place in my heart for Texas, of course.

    • aggietx2

      That other stuff may be good food, but it isn’t BBQ.

  • JSalinas73

    BBQ wars can only mean awesome cook offs and competitions for bragging rights. Any higher res versions of that map?

    • Meathead

      I want that map too!

    • Hoon Park

      Please, let us buy a print of that map

  • Patrick Elifritz

    I think you ought to put that map on a t-shirt. I disagree with the findings but still think it’s a hoot! I’ll take mine in a 2x because I’ve loved and sampled cue for a loooong time!

  • Larry

    I’ve sampled good to great bbq in every battleground state and I understand the war. But to slight boudin?…shame on ya. There’s plenty of food out west to make fun of. Can’t we all just get along over here? ;-)

  • Kevin

    Native South Texan, lived in Georgia, Tenn, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and now I live in South Carolina. I eat BBQ every chance I get and in all those states, NOTHING can compare to Texas. The stuff they serve here in SC is not fit for human consumption. Cold pork on boiled rice and barely cooked chicken with ketchup on it.

  • Todd

    Texas should change its state motto to “Delusions of Grandeur.” http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/Eat/archives/2013/05/22/barbecue-nonsense-texas-style

  • samfrepal

    Bad BBQ is like bad sex. You know the moment you take that first “bite.”

    I’ve
    had marginal BBQ in Asheville NC. Went to a place with a line around
    the block. The sauce, I’ll admit, was superb. But heaven forbid….it
    ain’t going on the meat.

    That said, I’ve had bad sex….I mean
    BBQ….in Texas too. Making good BBQ, day in and day out….that is
    quite a challenge. I tip my hat to the masters in Texas. Keep it
    going. Oh….I’m from California btw. I’d gladly trade my arteries for
    a job in Daniel Vaughn’s BBQ tasting squad!!!

  • M. B. Crain

    As a native of the TRUE South and now a resident of Texas, the belief that Texas has the best barbecue in the world is laughable. Simply because brisket is difficult to cook doesn’t make it better. If someone smoked tree bark and made it palatable, based on your logic, that person would be the greatest pitmaster who ever lived. It’s stupid.

    Next, anyone, ANYONE, who barbecues meat using mesquite should be shot on sight. It cooks too hot and the taste it leaves is better suited to shoe leather. Acidic and awful. The only proper woods are hickory, oak, and pecan. End of debate.

    Sausage is not barbecue. If a barbecue joint claims “great sausage” as a reason to visit, they are disqualified from consideration. Same as a great fish restaurant claiming “great soup”. Who cares?

    Finally, brisket. Garbage meat. There is a reason that people never cooked it unless they had to. It sucks. Even when it is “good” it sucks. It makes as much sense to build barbecue culture around pig snouts or turkey combs as it does brisket.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Don’t forget about us out in California. I know a lot of people don’t think we are doing it right and they would be dead wrong. Love the website.

  • Angelo Gonzalez

    I need that map. now.

  • Texas Pride

    I’m with Patrick, I want that on a t-shirt! Where do I place my order? Seriously!! Heck, I’m even up for putt’n that on a hat.

  • Mike Parks

    If it weren’t for Tennessee there wouldn’t be a state called Texas…..It would be Mexico. From BBQTN so the origin of true BBQ is Tennessee.

  • Mike Parks

    I do like this map.

  • Mike Parks

    This is about the ununited states will split if a war breaks out and the South will have all the BBQ.

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