On the Hunt For the Best BBQ in Austin and Everything You Should Know About it

Deciding where to go to find the best BBQ in Austin shouldn’t be reduced to only adding a few places to a list. But why is actual Texan BBQ so special? What should you consider when tasting this smoky deliciousness and how do you know when you are tasting the holy grail of brisket or smoked ribs? These are questions we want to answer before giving you a comprehensive list of places where you can go to indulge like a true connoisseur the real masterpieces of the southern cuisine.

 

Mike at Franklin

As we usually do, we contacted a local. Someone that lives in Austin and not only knows about the best places, but also has an extensive knowledge about the barbecue world. He is Mike Gagne, originally from North Carolina but has been in Austin for 15 years. He’s a member of the recognized Texas BBQ Posse, a group dedicated to the pursuit of great BBQ in the state of Texas. As a day job, Mike works for Facebook and runs a team on the operations side, but barbecue is one of his true passions. His father-in-law is one of the founders of TBBQP and he was first introduced to this world back in 2009 when Franklin was just opening the trailer. “I went there during the first two weeks that it opened and it totally changed my life. A BBQ renaissance in Texas had just started,” he remembers.

 

Barbecue is about the history of the State. BBQ meats were typically a poor man’s food. 200 years ago the Indians would take this meat and smoke it as a method of preservation, so over the years most of these places became known because they had mastered this preservation technique that delivered a whole lot of flavor.

 

So what do you look for when you’re trying a new place?

It’s an interesting debate and internal dialog withing the TBBQP itself: are you only looking at the food itself or are you also looking at the ambiance? When I’m at a new place, of course, I’m interested in the meat, but I’m also looking at the ambiance, the history and story it can offer. When we talk about the meat we look for two main things: wood smoked and low-and-slow cooking. The primary ingredients for a Texan BBQ are wood smoke at about 200-250 degrees and salt and pepper.

 

That sounds pretty straightforward, what’s the trick then?

It is, but what makes it complicated is, for example, brisket is really where Texas BBQ is at and it is very difficult and finicky to do. Every variable that gets injected into the process can very much change the complexity of a brisket. The really great BBQ Masters have developed processes to create a consistency. They know how to adjust based on different variables, including weather conditions. They understand all these variables and how they alter the cooking process so they can get the brisket just right. It could take anywhere from 12 to 18 hours to cook it, it requires a lot of dedication, focus, and patience. Ingredients are simple, but the process is a different story.

 

Wow, that’s intense.

Yeah, people don’t often realize that preparing this meat is intense. When they go to a place, it’s part of the lure of the ambience that it feels laid back, it’s smoky, filthy, people are drinking beers, talking within a pretty relaxed atmosphere, but the reality is that it takes a lot of work to put this stuff together and maintain a consistency. These guys put the meat on at around 10 or 11pm, set the alarm and wake up at 3-4am to keep preparing, and then manage the meat until they sell out, usually at around 2pm. Then they catch a few hours of sleep before they get back to it.

 

franklin brisket
That’s a lot of dedication! So what do you think Texas BBQ is known for?

The focus is on beef, which makes sense. Texas’ biggest commodities are oil and cows, so if you’re going to smoke meat this is one of the best places to do it. The beef brisket, the beef rib, and the sausages are the three highlights of Texan BBQ. The technique for preparing the meat is what makes it so unique. When we talk about brisket we consider moisture and tenderness, the smoke rim – that pink rim around it -, and the crust, the black part outside that should taste sweet and not smoky. Finding the balance of the smoke so it doesn’t overpower the flavor of the meat, that’s what you’re looking for. The preparation and the consistency are some of the most distinguished qualities of Texas barbecue.

 

What should a ‘newb’ understand when tasting Texan BBQ for the first time?

Starting with the brisket, there are two sides: there’s lean and the moist. I recommend trying both, but the moist is the one that will show you what the BBQ is all about. It should be very tender, you should be able to pick it up and it would hold together a little bit before it starts to break apart. When you chew it, it should be full of flavor and moisten your mouth, not dry it. The bark should be sweet (the black crust outside), not burnt or overly smoky and it should have a ring. Those are the hallmarks for a good brisket.

 

Excellent, now that we know what to look for, let’s get into where to eat the best BBQ in Austin.

I’m going to break the places down in three: The Holy Trinity, The Places Outside of Austin and The Best of the Rest. Note: all links and directions are included in the map below.

 

The Holy Trinity

These places have an ambiance that kind of recalls the poor man’s nature of the barbecue. I call it the Holy Trinity because these places have shown an excellent consistency throughout the years. They are listed in order, not only of importance, but also in order of the longest lines.

la barbecue

  • Franklin, the holy grail of Texan BBQ. Their beef brisket is absolutely outstanding and probably one of the best things you will taste in your life. They started the whole BBQ renaissance back in 2009 when they first opened the trailer and since then there’s not one day that they don’t have a long line.

Pro tip: You have to get in line at about 8 or 9 am. You typically wait in line for 3 or 4 hours; locals, visitors, families, everyone is making the line. Go early, bring coffee, folding chairs, fully charged phone, a cooler, whatever you need, but come prepared and talk to the people around you. It’s worth it and if you’re going to wait 4 hours, you should order food to take with you. I highly recommend ordering a pound of thinly sliced smoked turkey breast, they have mastered it. They don’t do a lot of them, so they are usually for the early birds.

  • La Barbecue Cuisine Texicana, owned by Lea Anne Mueller, one of the siblings of the Mueller family, which are basically BBQ royalty. She opened this place originally with her brother John Mueller, but they split and she brought in John Lewis, who came from Franklin BBQ. The beef ribs, pulled pork, pork ribs, almost everything, top to bottom, is really good and they have some of the best side dishes around and a great ambiance. The lines will be anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. (Photo above)
  • Micklethwait. It kind of came out of nowhere and it does incredible work. Two things that distinguish them are: 1. everything they offer, they make it in-house. All homemade from scratch, from the pie to the pickles, and it’s amazing. The brisket tends to be on the fatty side, he typically doesn’t cut the fat off, which a lot of the other BBQ Masters do, and this can turn people off, but it’s actually very tasty. And 2, what makes them more interesting are the sausages. The owner is a firm believer that Texas BBQ masters can explore their creativity with sausages and he experiments with all kinds of flavors, combinations, ingredients that tend to be really awesome.

 

The Places Outside of Austin

These places offer a level of ambiance and history that you’re not going to get in the Holy Trinity. When you go, you’ll be sitting in a place where they have cooked these meats day in and day out for at least 50 years. For people who want to get out of the city, these places are just an easy drive away and offer an experience that you won’t find in the city, even if the flavor of the meat is not the same.

 

tootsie_pit

  • Lockhart, a town that gave birth to Texas Barbecue as we know it. I would recommend people to go, it’s just a 45 minute drive from Austin, but the old school buildings can offer that atmosphere of history. There’s around 100 years of history in Lockharts and it’s been a central place for barbecue for many years. Three places to try:
    • Kreuz
    • Smitty’s
    • Blacks
  • The second spot is in Taylor, Texas: Louie Mueller Barbecue, they put BBQ on the map along with the Lockhart places and it has earned a massive reputation among the barbecue fans. They won the James Beard Foundation award as “America’s Classic” and in 2008 when Bobby Mueller died, his son Wayne took over the place. Wayne, LeAnne and John Mueller each have their own barbecue joints.
  • In the small town of Driftwood is Salt Lick, opened over 40 years ago. What makes this place so unique is that they are in the middle of a vineyard and they have partnered with them to produce their own wine, which has turned out very good. You go here not only to try the meat – which is consistently a pretty good 8 out of 10 -, or the wine, you go for the ambiance. They have the pit right in the middle of the restaurant and all the meat is smoked there, which makes it a pretty amazing experience.
  • In Lexington, Texas, Snow’s BBQ is a must-try. They have been around for over 10 years, but in the past years they have been considered by the most important BBQ people as the best BBQ in the state, and they continued to be number one until Aaron Franklin dusted them in the latest edition of the Texas Monthly 50 Best BBQ Joints list. The Pitmaster is a woman, Tootsie Tomanetz, which is pretty unique, and she has that grill down hacked, she knows exactly what she’s doing. Snow’s is the landmark of Texas BBQ, and they only open on Saturday mornings. You want to be there early because if you’re late, you might not find everything on the menu available. (Photo above).

 

The Best of The Rest

These places are worth checking out if you want to have the experience of the Texas barbecue, but don’t want to go through all the processes and wait times that the other places require.

 

jmribs-layer 1

  • John Mueller Meat Co. John Mueller, also called the Dark Prince of Texas barbecue, might be upset for not being part of the holy trinity, but he is really good. His specialty is the Beef Rib, he makes it like no other. As mentioned before, Louie Mueller is where beef rib was made famous and the Mueller family has perfected it. He tends to be a little less consistent in the other things, but definitely check it out. (Photo above).
  • Stiles Switch BBQ. The head chef is Lance Kirkpatrick. He used to be the pitmaster at Louie Mueller before Bobby Mueller died. Kirkpatrick moved to fine-dining for a while after he left Louie Mueller, but he was pulled back to Austin to take over this restaurant. The ambiance isn’t quite there yet, but the brisket and beef ribs are phenomenal.
  • Freedmen’s. The barbecue is good, I don’t think it compares to the Trinity or John Mueller’s, but what makes this place unique is that they are open for dinner, which is unusual, and it’s located in a historic building owned by a former slave. It has a really nice ambiance considering that it’s in the middle of a campus and has an outstanding bourbon selection and excellent bar. They also smoke everything: you can have smoked banana pudding for dessert, for example. I recommend this places to out of town friends that want to eat a good barbecue but also want to have a whole dining experience.
  • Blue Ox. It opened a few months ago at the riverside and pork is what they do really well. And I am a sucker for pork, so…
  • Rudy’s BBQ. It’s a barbecue chain and it’s the lowest on the totem pole compared to all the other places I’ve mentioned. They don’t meet the Texas BBQ Posse standards because they use electric smokers rather than wood fire, but they are also commercial and they turn out more barbecues than, I think, any of these other places. In terms of commercial barbecue, it’s pretty good. If you’re looking for a fast, quick and dirty Texas barbecue experience, Rudy’s is not a bad option. Even this is better than Iron Works.

 

Also, I wanted to share two places to avoid:

  • Iron Works: right in the middle of where SXSW happens so people get sucked in, but I would never recommend going to this place. It has never produced high-level quality and there are so many other better options. It’s just not good. There are many more options around like there’s a place called Valentina’s, a trailer in the back of a bar that no one knows about, still around SXSW and it has better barbecue options.
  • Lamberts: people refer to it as high-end barbecue, but they use electric smokers and the price is usually unnecessarily higher than other places. I don’t think the barbecue meat is good, but I would recommend everything else on the menu. It’s actually a really good restaurant, but just don’t go for the barbecue.

 

As a summary, here’s a list of the places mentioned above. You can also save this list by clicking on the SAVE icon right beside the heart. All links are included in this map. 

 

Best BBQ in Austin and Surrounding Areas

By Hayo Magazine

An interview to BBQ expert Mike Gagne, member of the Texas BBQ Posse.

  • Holy Trinity: Franklin's Barbecue

    By Hayo Magazine

    #1 Barbecue joint in the state. Part of The Holy Trinity and the best brisket you will ever have. Lines are around 3 hours, be prepared.

  • Holy Trinity: La Barbecue

    By Hayo Magazine

    The beef ribs, pulled pork, pork ribs, almost everything, top to bottom, is really good and they have some of the best side dishes around and a great ambiance. Lines around 45 minutes to 2 hrs.

  • Holy Trinity: Micklethwait

    By Hayo Magazine

    What makes them more interesting are the sausages. He experiments with all kinds of flavors, combinations, ingredients that tend to be really awesome.

  • The Best: John Mueller Meat Co.

    By Hayo Magazine

    His specialty is the Beef Rib, he makes it like no other. John Mueller is considered the Dark Prince of Texas BBQ.

  • The Best: Stiles Switch BBQ

    By Hayo Magazine

    The head chef is Lance Kirkpatrick. He used to be the pitmaster at Louie Mueller before Bobby Mueller died. The ambiance isn't quite there yet, but the brisket and beef ribs are phenomenal.

  • The Best: Freedmen's

    By Hayo Magazine

    Open for dinner. Great bar and bourbon selection. I recommend this places to out of town friends that want to eat a good barbecue but also want to have a whole dining experience.

  • The Best: Blue Ox BBQ

    By Hayo Magazine

     It opened a few months ago at the riverside and pork is what they do really well. 

  • The Best: Rudy's BBQ

    By Hayo Magazine

     If you're looking for a fast, quick and dirty Texas barbecue experience, Rudy's is not a bad option.

  • The Best: Valentina's

    By Hayo Magazine

    A trailer in the back of a bar that no one knows about, still around SXSW and it has better barbecue options.

  • Outside of Austin: Smitty's

    By Hayo Magazine

    45 minute drive from Austin, but the old school buildings can offer that atmosphere of history.

  • Outside of Austin: Black's

    By Hayo Magazine

    45 minute drive, but the old school buildings can offer that atmosphere of history.

  • Outside of Austin: Kreuz Market

    By Hayo Magazine

    45 minute drive, but the old school buildings can offer that atmosphere of history.

  • Outside of Austin: Louie Mueller Barbecue

    By Hayo Magazine

    They put BBQ on the map along with the Lockhart places and it has earned a massive reputation among the barbecue fans. They won the James Beard Foundation award as "America's Classic"

  • Outside of Austin: Salt Lick

    By Hayo Magazine

    They have the pit right in the middle of the restaurant and all the meat is smoked there, which makes it a pretty amazing experience.

  • Outside of Austin: Snow's BBQ

    By Hayo Magazine

    The Pitmaster is a woman, Tootsie Tomanetz, and she has that grill down hacked, she knows exactly what she's doing. Snow's is the landmark of Texas BBQ, and they only open on Saturday mornings.

 

Photos: Jim Storer, Wally Gobetz.

 

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Joanna Riquett
Joanna Riquett

Joanna is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Hayo Magazine. Her areas of expertise include content strategy, travel writing, community building, and creative explorations around publishing and media.

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