How to rate Texas BBQ

CityMarketWait

Approaching the smoke room at City Market, Luling after 45 minute wait

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Austin, TX recently which means a lot of trips to Texas BBQ places. Most of it was good, some great, though I still believe nobody approaches Snow’s as the best barbecue in Texas/the world. So, rather than spend too much time on specific places, I want to talk about my personal BBQ rating system.

  1. Tenderness. “You need no teeth to eat Mr. Jim’s beef” proclaims the sign at one of my favorite old time places (in Compton, CA actually) and countless others. This is the gating factor. Good barbecue can never, ever be tough and a knife should always be optional. Importance=10.

  2. Smoke ring. The Maillard effect causes the outside of meat to caramelize as it is exposed to heat; due to the slow cooking in a smoker this will extend into approximately the outer 3/8 inch of brisket in a pink layer that gives way to a greyish brown. It’s a forensic indicator that the meat has been slowly cooked with loving care and if it’s missing it usually means shortcuts have been taken and flavor and tenderness will suffer. Importance=8.

  3. Char/crust/bark. At some point most barbecued meats are exposed to high heat, which creates a crispy layer as described above due to the Maillard effect. Sometimes (as in spare ribs) you can get the crust without the smoke ring. Sometimes very good and tender meats are missing a good char because their final cooking is with steam, like the brisket at the Taylor Café. Char isn’t essential but adds hugely to BBQ enjoyment when it is present. Importance=7.

  4. Surface prep. Some places use an elaborate rub with various complex spices. Others have no more than salt and pepper. Snow’s, as I have mentioned previously, lets the meat sit in that salt for 12-24 hours. Salt can penetrate the meat to a considerable degree, otherwise I think rubs are a relatively minor and even distracting factor. Importance=5.

  5. Sides. Man cannot eat by protein alone, otherwise you would keel over in your early days on the barbecue trail. Sides are the foundation on which a well-balanced meal is built and yet they are hit or miss at most barbecue places. Snow’s scores a home run with its barbecue beans, and better yet they’re free. City Market in Luling, one of the oldest BBQ establishments in TX, has a/great Texas potato salad, with lots of pimento and egg; b/totally mediocre pinto beans, like you or I might make it home; c/no cole slaw at any price. Each joint has that kind of balance or imbalance and it has to be factored in. Importance=7.

Those are the pantheon, but there are other factors I always consider:

  1. Sauce. Just kidding. If you want sauce on your barbecue you should move to Tennessee. Nonetheless, I’ll mention City Market has a great sauce at the bargain price of $1.50 a pint to go. Just don’t put it on their meat. Importance=1.

  2. Southern Pride smoker. With the extreme popularity of Texas BBQ places, some have resorted to this shortcut which is a rotisserie that slowly tenderizes the meat over gas heat prior to (or after) inculcating it with smoke through another method. Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ editor of Texas Monthly, considers it the equivalent of STP Oil Treatment for BBQ and brutally downgraded City Market when he found one in their backroom. I don’t think it’s a big deal. Importance=0.

  3. Crowds. Texas hipsters hunker down all week long at their keyboards, then ironically wait in line 3 hours at Franklin only to discover it’s sold out. I don’t get it. Barbecue was not designed to be a stand-in-line meal. It’s great if a place is popular and I will wait up to an hour if I get there at a bad time, but too much popularity can only compromise the populist spirit of the joint. Importance=minus 1, as in long lines are a reason NOT to go.

  4. Verisimilitude. That’s the appearance of being authentic, which is not the same as actually being authentic; a place can be both authentic and have verisimilitude but often it’s one or the other. Black’s in Lockhart, which advertises itself as the oldest place in Texas run by a single family (since the Schmidt/Lockhart dynasty split into two separate businesses) and serves pretty good barbecue, lacks verisimilitude because it looks like a million other places with plastic gingham tablecloths on picnic tables trying to look like a BBQ joint.

While Aaron Franklin, the Tony Robbins of BBQ, has verisimilitude in spades even though he’s only been open four years. And every now and then authenticity and verisimilitude meet up as in Vencil Mares, the 90 year old pit boss of Taylor Café who generously shared his smoking technique with me in great detail. Importance=4.

I’m sure there is a 10, 11, 12 and 13 but that’s enough for now. Lots more barbecue to eat and lots more places to try. Just stay clear of the very tourist-unfriendly speed trap on 183 headed down from Austin; when the toll road appears hop on to avoid an expensive encounter with a state trooper.

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2 Responses to How to rate Texas BBQ

  1. Mike says:

    Wrong on the smoke ring. KCBS competition judges are told to ignore the smoke ring as they can be artificially created and are not always indicative of slow smoking as you state.

    • Having judged a competition following KCBS rules (it and I were not certified, but the rules were observed and all the other judges had taken the KCBS training) I can finally speak to this complaint. The smoke ring is a sign of quality for the reasons stated above; if it can be faked seems to me KCBS should find a way to see through the tricky rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      In my judging I also found that per KCBS rules, an entry using red leaf lettuce as a garnish is instantly disqualified. I’d love to have some expert explanation on why that is.

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