Top 5 Texas Hill Country Barbecue Joints
My father attended grad school at the University of Texas in the late ‘60s, long before urban sprawl began encroaching on the surrounding Hill Country. Amazingly, many of the same restaurants that were available to him 40 years ago are still going strong, and I’ve eaten at almost all of them. This is my round-up of the best Hill Country barbecue spots, based on six trips to Austin.
The Salt Lick BBQ – Driftwood, TX
The Salt Lick BBQ is a legendary barbecue restaurant that has reduced two of my family members to tears. Over the years, the Lick has become a Hill Country tourist attraction, but it’s still hard to beat their family-style dinner ($18.95 per person) – all you can eat platters of bronzed pork ribs, luscious brisket and taut pork sausage. Be sure to request refills of burnt ends, the prized outside pieces of brisket that are caramelized and chewy from smoke-buffeted sauce applications. Dinner comes with helpings of German potato salad (with mustard and onions), cole slaw (with celery seed), pinto beans and white bread. Slather on The Salt Lick’s classic vinegar and mustard-based barbecue sauce, or a habanero version that’s a lighter shade of orange, with more kick.
City Market – Luling, TX
Up the road in Lockhart, you’ll find mammoth barbecue barns selling many more meats and sides, but none can match the simple perfection of City Market. The menu couldn’t be simpler: beef brisket, pork ribs, and hot sausage links. The pit man lifts the lid to reveal a smoker full of perfect house-made sausage links. Experts carve ribs and brisket on the wood block. It would be a mistake not to order pork ribs, brisket and sausage links, the holy trinity of central Texas barbecue. Ribs and links get no better, and the brisket, with its nice outer char, certainly holds its own. The ribs have an unbeatable caramelized crust, which lock in the essential juices of the pork. The link features a coarse texture and an unrivaled peppery kick. An old hot sauce bottle housed a sensational burnt-orange barbecue sauce that nearly matched the zing of its previous tenant.
Louie Mueller Barbecue – Taylor, TX
American Airlines Flight 1182 from LAX to Austin might as well be called the Brisket Express. Every spring, my father, brother and I meet at the Bergstrom baggage claim and quickly turn to the most important matter in any trip with a barbecue bent: where to eat first. In 2007, we already planned to end our weekend planned to end our weekend at The Salt Lick, so we needed an equally formidable launching pad. Louie Mueller Barbecue has been “a Texas tradition since 1949” and ensconced in its current location since 1959. Louie passed away in 1992, but son Bobby has done wonders to further his father’s legacy. He revealed the meats are smoked for 6-8 hours using oak, depending on the cut of meat. Brisket is nice and juicy, with at least a quarter-inch smoke ring and a caramelized exterior. Pork ribs are bronzed and peppery, with an addictive chew. Course sausage links have a nice kick and are pleasantly greasy, with taut skins.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que – Llano, TX
Each massive mesquite smoker holds trays of spice rubbed pork tenderloin, lamb ribs, brisket, pork chops, sausage, chicken and ribs. The pitman will ask if you want “sauce.” You do, so he’ll spear your desired chunks of meat and dip them in a bucket of sauce before tossing them on a plastic tray. Take the heavy tray inside for weighing and carving. Walls hold the requisite amount of deer heads, plus a lynx poised to pounce on diners. Each slice of brisket features a nice smoke ring, not too much fat and plenty of smoky flavor. The chicken was tremendous, lacquered and luscious. If the bird had crisper skin, it may have achieved poultry perfection. The “big chop” was similarly outstanding, peppery and moist. Sausage links feature nice snap and finely chopped cole slaw is crisp, without too much corrupting mayo.
Black’s Barbecue – Lockhart, TX
The oldest barbecue house in Texas that’s been continually operated by the same family dates to 1932. As in most central Texas barbecue establishments, smokers are accessed using a weighted pully system. Here, the black smokers are housed in red brick. A pit man wields a cleaver and a knife. On our visit, we scored a sausage link, brisket, pork ribs and pork loin, along with a dish of the house barbecue sauce. The sausage was coarse and peppery and the brisket was slightly fatty, but that translated into unbelievable flavor and fork tenderness. The pork ribs had a nice chew to them, and the pork loin, available only on weekends, had a gamy tenderness.
Crosstown BBQ would have made my list, but the “downtown” Elgin restaurant was a recent barbecue casualty since our last Hill Country visit.
Of course people will complain that any Texas Hill Country list should include Snow’s BBQ, the “best BBQ in Texas.” Sadly, the closest I’ve come to Lexington is getting Snow’s over-nighted for my family’s most recent New Year’s Eve celebration. Clearly, there’s still eating to do, but at this stage, there aren’t many gaps left in my Hill Country education.