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Searching For The Best BBQ In Texas

Daniel Vaughn is author of "The Prophets of Smoked Meat."

Daniel Vaughn is author of “The Prophets of Smoked Meat.” (Courtesy Daniel Vaughn)

Ohio-born Daniel Vaughn trained as an architect in New Orleans but when he moved to Texas, he began visiting the state’s best barbecue joints.

His guide was the “bible of barbecue” — the Texas Monthly list of the 50 best BBQ joints in the world,” which comes out every five years.

He blogged about it so passionately over the past decade that in March 2013, Vaughn was named the first Barbecue Editor of the magazine.

Texas Monthly has just released its latest list of best BBQ. And Vaughn has a new book out, “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.”

“We think we’ve got the best barbecue anywhere in the country, and we think the best barbecue is in this country, so if we’ve got the best barbecue in the country then it must be the best barbecue in the world,” Vaughn told Here & Now.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Prophets of Smoked Meat’

By: Daniel Vaughn

"The Prophets of Smoked Meat" Daniel VaughnThe Making of a Prophet

I make no pretense— I am not a native Texan. I first set foot in Texas in 1998. My Oklahoma- born girlfriend and I were in Dallas for the annual football game held at the State Fair of Texas between the University of Texas and their archrival the University of Oklahoma. Her father— who would become my father- in- law six years later— had bought us both our plane tickets and game tickets, and I was giddy with excitement to take in my fi rst live big- time college football game. The Sooners were playing the Longhorns, and my girlfriend’s father was a Sooner fan, so I was obliged to wear crimson. Come halftime, the outlook for the Sooners with just three points was grim, and our group’s spirits were low. My enthusiasm dampened, I darted out to the concessions to get some food— in this case, a rib sandwich from the Smokey John’s tent. I had always loved ribs. I paid quickly and ran back to our seats with my bundle of foil- wrapped smokiness. The band was leaving the field as I hurriedly unwrapped and bit ferociously into my sandwich. “Those idiots left the bones in!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. I was just an infant when it came to Texas barbecue and didn’t realize. . . .

Three years later I returned to Dallas for good. I didn’t know it, but I was about to experience a personal awakening similar to the one I’d had five years earlier, when I arrived at Tulane University in New Orleans, just a naive kid from small- town Ohio. Everything about life in the Big Easy was radically different from the hay fields and dairy farms of my youth, and I found my place in New Orleans through food. Before my first semester was complete I was exploring new parts of the city for that perfect po’boy, navigating what seemed like a whole new language just to get the right steaming bowl of seafood, and relishing the social lubricant of a crawfish boil, where hands stained red from spice could barely grip that third bottle of Abita. Lessons in food are lessons in culture, so the more food discoveries I made, the more at home I felt. After graduation, spurred by love, I drove straight to Texas. Once I arrived, it was again food that I sought to guide me as well as ground me in this strange new place.

Daniel Vaughn holds up some barbecue. (HarperCollins)

Daniel Vaughn holds up some barbecue. (HarperCollins)

My first week in town, Jessica, a good friend and Dallas native, suggested we dine at Peggy Sue BBQ for a taste of authentic Texas barbecue. Peggy Sue BBQ is a sit- down joint with table service and a decidedly fifties’ vibe in the upscale University Park neighborhood. But all I remember about that meal was the bold smokiness of the brisket, which I doused in the house’s signature spicy sauce that comes warm in a miniature metal pitcher. In Ohio, brisket is corned and boiled and served with a side of limp cabbage. My first taste of Texas brisket was a revelation. It awakened a desire for more of it.

A few years later my smoked- meat palate would be revolutionized all over again. My good friend Sam and I took a weekend road trip to Central Texas, the promised land of Texas barbecue. We planned a pilgrimage to all the hallowed barbeque joints there. In these sacred spots, butcher paper soaked to transparency is the only thing that resembles a plate, and forks are considered superfluous— instead, you use your hands, lubricated with animal fat, to convey the meat to your eager mouth. Even hours after you leave one of these barbecue joints, the smell of your clothes gives away your journey. But before Sam and I hit Central Texas, I knew none of this. I was a sheltered Dallasite who was used to a knife and fork and plenty of sweet sauce. But after repeating the primal experience a total of sixteen times over that weekend, I was never again able to enjoy mediocre barbecue the way I once had, and my quest to taste the best of real Texas barbecue began.

It’s taken me years to understand, but Texas barbecue is defined more by what it isn’t than what it is. A basic (and correct) definition might be “simply seasoned meat cooked to tenderness over hardwood smoke,” but Texas barbeque encompasses so much more than that.

Tell someone outside of Texas that barbecue sauce is actually peripheral to smoked meat in the Lone Star State and you’ll get the same blank stare you’re sure to receive when attempting to explain to a Yankee that beans don’t belong in chili. Ask a pitmaster for his or her rub recipe and surprisingly, they’ll usually give it to you— along with a grin that lets you know the secret to the transcendent barbecue isn’t in the ingredients but in the technique, a process they’ve repeated a few thousand times. Sadly for you, that pinch of onion powder isn’t getting you on that mountaintop. Texans cherish the simplicity that the best barbecue joints in this great state deliver, and any outsiders lucky enough to get a taste of it will return home with a hole in their charred soul.

After visiting more than five hundred barbecue joints across the state, I still yearn for new horizons. In my search for great Texas barbecue I’ve sampled some of the best of what this state has to offer, but the potential rush of discovery continues to lead me down back roads and through questionable neighborhoods. There’s always so much to keep learning— and tasting. The city of Memphis alone requires two barbecue styles (wet and dry) of its own, so why shouldn’t the Lone Star State— largest in the lower forty- eight— contain more than one style? Still, my experience has taught me that many people are surprised to learn that there are four distinct styles that characterize Texas barbecue, and that we eat more than just brisket. Each individual style has a loose geographical origin, but none have strict boundaries.

Guest:

  • Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly barbecue editor and author of “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.” He tweets @BBQsnob.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Lawecon

    I love “Texas barbecue” – which is to say barbeque prepared in the style I associate with my time in Texas. However, only TEXAS Monthly would be arrogant enough to equate “the fifty best barbeque joints in the world” with “the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas.” Geesh. Get a life in the real world. 

  • Guest

    Best BBQ in Texas comes from backyards across the state.  Not some restaurant.

  • Gwenbush2

    The best barbecue in Dallas is Off the Bone on South Lamar Street just south of the main police station. It is literally ribs nearly falling of the bone. The smoked brisket is awesome.

  • Guest

    Coming from France, I’ve been always surprised by how people here deem that a good barbecue is an overcooked meat, dripping with sauce… Is there any way to find some grilled meat where the meat is just rare, and without any seasonings other than salt and pepper?  I came to thinking that BBQ lovers don’t really like the real taste of meat…

    • Dido Lumanyika

      Yeah slathering a piece of meat with sauce is sacrilege in my book. Unfortunately what you are looking for will not be found in traditional North American BBQ. But it is present in south America in countries like Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. I’m from Kenya and the Maasai also BBQ their meats with the same principles…rare to medium-rare and no seasoning apart from the wild herbs they use in the smoking process.

      • jefe68

        That’s grilling, not BBQ.

        • Dido Lumanyika

          Good point jefe68.

    • jefe68

      The meat should not be overcooked, but smoked long and slow.
      You’re talking about grilling which is a different thing altogether.
      By the way don’t you folks in France cook a little dish called daube stew and beef bourguignon and what about gigot de sept heures.

  • Tucker Lyford

    Best barbecue in Texas comes from Rudy’s. it’s a chain but I’ve never had better brisket. -Tucker, Anchorage, Alaska

  • DruNewman

    Sorry Texas, Missouri has you beat in the land of smoked meats and baked beans.

  • Dido Lumanyika

    Did Daniel Vaughn just say that Texas has the best BBQ in the country? yeah and Kansas City has the best Tex-Mex in the country. *rolls eyes*

  • Guest

    God does know what they barbeque in Mississippi and Alabama – some divine barbeque.  Daniel Vaughn should come visit some time!

  • oregon_man

    I am very surprised that Daniel Vaughn was born in Ohio yet he gave no mention of “Cottage Ham”. Cottage Ham is a specially smoked ham, I think a shoulder butt cut that can only be found in Southern Ohio, and it is very famous in Cincinnati, where thousands of German immigrants settled in the 19 & early 20th centuries. Cottage ham is unique and fabulous. I moved to Oregon 33 years ago and have never been able to get one…or smoke one like they do in Cincinnati. Mr Vaughn, check out Cincinnati “Cottage Ham”. You’ll be amazed and need an edition of your book. That’s one thing I dearly miss from Ohio.

  • Nutrientstrong

    I wonder if Texas has the most suffering, too. The hogs are not seen as beings that want to live and the people working the hog industry including the hog farmers have to separate themselves from their compassionate selves to do what they do.  Hogs care for their young and have life long relationships with their families. But if you don’t care about the animals themselves then there are others reasons to not eat BBQ.

    If you are going to report on BBQ, report on it dangers, it’s carcinogens. Lots of dangers in in eating pork. Don’t overlook as you make your food choices.

    http://nutritionfacts.org/index.php?s=pork 
     http://nutritionfacts.org/index.php?s=barbeque

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