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January 2nd, 2013
Barbecue lovers know where the beef is

The beginnings of a brisket sandwich on whole wheat bread at Sam’s BBQ on E. 12th Street in Austin. Next come the onions, pickles and homemade ‘cue sauce. PHOTO by BETH CORTEZ-NEAVEL

For Reporting Texas

People line up for three hours to pay $16 a pound for brisket at Franklin Barbecue in East Austin. The place is famous, having been featured by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on national television. Fawning reviews by newspapers and Texas Monthly haven’t hurt.

One street over, at Sam’s BBQ on 12th Street, there’s rarely a line. The brisket is $10.25 a pound. Sam’s isn’t famous, though it often features in the “best of” awards in the local alternative newspaper. Locals say the brisket is as good as Franklin’s, but at Sam’s the mutton is the thing.

Barbecue critics can argue for hours over which cut of meat is best where, but they seem to agree that there are two kinds of barbecue consumers: the media-driven crowd and those who make their own way without regard to what Bourdain says. In Central Texas, the media buzz has centered on places like Franklin, the Salt Lick in Driftwood and Kreuz Market in Lockhart.

“Barbecue issues sell magazines. They sell newspapers. They drive viewers to blogs,” says Elizabeth Engelhardt, editor of the book “The Republic of Barbecue,” and professor of American studies and women and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “People can’t quite resist ranking and devoting an issue to what Texas loves best.”

That rugged little joint off the two-lane might smoke the best brisket anywhere, but the critics can’t be everywhere. Places like that appeal to Marvin Bendele, executive director of Foodways Texas, an Austin-based group that promotes Texas foods.

“I don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” Bendele says of barbecue rankings. “My philosophy on barbecue is, you just got to know when to go, at what time, and it’s probably going to be a good meal.”

Probably, but not necessarily. Mike Sutter, a food journalist for restaurant review site Fed Man Walking, says published reviews do create a barbecue hierarchy, but “our presence raises the level of accountability restaurants have for their food and service, and that can only make things better for the consumer.”

Sutter says critics help the public spend its money well among the restaurants that are reviewed. He’s less confident about the value of online reviews written by just anyone.

“Yelp, Chowhound and other citizen criticism sites have opened the doors for anybody to register an opinion. But their anonymity leaves their integrity an open question,” he says. “On the other hand, a bylined reviewer who doesn’t accept free food and writes about restaurants in a trained, reliable voice is as indispensable as a friend whose opinions you trust.”

Brian Mays, the pit master at Sam’s, regards such considerations as noise. The only thing that matters, he says, is how you cook the meat. Mays, who’s worked at Sam’s since he and his late father opened shop 36 years ago, has never advertised his mutton or anything else, and doesn’t have an online presence. The mutton speaks for itself, he says.

“As long as you’re cooking with love, you’re all right,” he says.

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew in North Austin opened this year and is slowly garnering a loyal crowd. The beef ribs and chocolate banana pudding are among the most ordered items. Owner Shane Stiles says restaurant owners have a love-hate relationship with the media.

“Everyone says, ‘I’m a barbecue connoisseur,’” he says, but the real expert is the customer that comes in twice a week to order a favorite cut of meat. “He might go home and get back on his tractor. He might go back and start fixing a motor. But the last thing he’s ever gonna do is go get on the Internet and write an article about it.”

Critics and celebrity aside, Franklin general manager Ben Jacob sounds like the other pit masters when he talks about how people should approach barbecue.

“That’s your own flavor, your own palate. You have to make that decision on your own,” he says. “You should go try them all and make your own decision. It’s a good excuse to go eat a lot of meat.”

Still want to see what the critics think? Scrumptious Chef’s site has a barbecue section. Fed Man Walking lists its top 10 Austin barbecue joints. Full Gospel BBQ rates barbecue all over Texas. And Texas Monthly has a barbecue page on its website.

BETH CORTEZ-NEAVEL writes for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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10 thoughts on “Barbecue lovers know where the beef is

  1. Luling, City Market
    Marble Falls, Petee Mosquite
    Sequin, Davilas
    when I am in their neighborhood.

    But, for over five decades I have enjoyed Fuschaks (and its precursors) the most and most consistently.

    Bill Haney

  2. Louie Mueller in Taylor is the most over-rated bbq in TX. Cooper’s in New Braunfels or Llano is very good.

  3. The Shed, Wingate, best brisket I’ve ever had. Plastic fork tender. No sauce, of course. Cooper’s, Sam’s and City Market, all very good.

    Overrated: Salt Lick, great destination, so so bbq. Franklin’s, all hype driven, no reason to wait in line that long for bbq that may or may not be available & pricey.

    Rule of thumb, if they advertise their sauce, pass on it. Bbq is meat and smoke. Personally I prefer pecan, then mesquite, then oak.

  4. Milt’s in Kyle > Railroad.

    +1 for Cooper’s.

    Smitty’s/Kreuz, obviously.

    I miss Southwest Market, and Bubba’s trailer. Haven’t tried Hays County yet. Not sure if it is Woody’s renamed.

  5. Can’t beat Smitty’s in Lockhart for atmosphere, Black’s for sausage. Hard to beat Luling City Market for ribs.

    Been meaning to try Hays County.

  6. I’ve tried pretty much all of them. Luling City Market will always be my favorite, but others are good as well.

    -Salt Lick has good ribs, and I like their sauce….but their brisket and sausage are subpar.
    -I have never understood the attraction to Kreutz. Everything they do someone else does better.
    -Chisholm Trail in Lockhart has the best side dishes.
    -Coopers brisket is pretty good, but way too expensive. And their sauce is bitter.
    -Fuschaks and Granzins may as well be Bill Miller. Yuck.
    -The best ribs come from County Line (up north).
    -Had BBQ in Kansas City a couple years ago. Hated it.
    -The best sausage may be at Luling BBQ. It gets overlooked because it is right next to City Market but its good.
    -By far, the best in San Marcos is Hays County.

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