Blazing a trail through Texas BBQ country

Texas: a state so big, and so big into barbecue, that it needs its own separate BBQ trail designation. "Texas-style barbecue" is divided into four regions: Central Texas, East Texas, South Texas, and West Texas, though Central and East Texas barbecue are the most well-known. There is little love for North Texas among aficionados, but we have included it here because we can't just pretend Dallas doesn't exist, even if the rest of Texas wants to.

Barbecue by nature is a celebration of carnivorous eating, but nowhere is the meat more important than in Texas, where sauces are served as a side dip and white bread counts as a vegetable. Smoky moist brisket and spicy beef sausage are the highlights here, and sauce – if you MUST – is tomato-based laced with Worcestershire and vinegar.

Central Texas

Central Texas is the beating heart of Texas barbecue country. Which isn't to say that the other Texas barbecue regions don't matter; they just don't matter as much. In Central Texas, meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over pecan or oak wood and served "naked" – no sauce.

Franklin Barbecue, 900 E. 11th, Austin
It's hard to say which of the famous Central Texas barbecue institutions are the most famous of the famous Central Texas barbecue institutions, but Franklin Barbecue just might the most well-known, the most buzzed-about, the most coveted of all the Texas 'cue (and, by extension, of all the 'cue in the country). They are open at 11:00 a.m. for lunch every day except Monday and lines can start forming as early as 7:30 a.m. They serve food until they sell out, and they have sold out of brisket every single day of their existence.

The Salt Lick, 18300 FM 1826, Driftwood
The Roberts family, owners of the Salt Lick, have barbecue roots that date back to the wagon trains of the mid-1800s. Beef brisket, sausage, and pork ribs are what to order here, and they also have their own label of BBQ-friendly wines produced at their family-owned Salt Lick Cellars.

Kreuz Market, 619 North Colorado St., Lockhart
Kreuz Market, located in Lockhart at the center of the Texas Barbecue Belt, has been serving smoked meats since 1900. While the restaurant has made some changes over the last century of its existence, one thing remains stubbornly consistent: there is NO sauce and there are NO forks.

Black's Barbecue, 215 N. Main St., Lockhart
Black's Barbecue is a standout in Lockhart for its exceptional moist brisket, made with a complicated smoking routine developed by the family, its signature beef-pork blend sausage, and its Flinstones-sized beef ribs. Black's also serves sauce, making it the black sheep of Lockhart.

Louie Mueller Barbecue, 206 W. Second St., Taylor
This third-generation family-owned restaurant is truly a Texas institution. Open since 1949, Louie Mueller is often imitated, sometimes impeccably well, but nothing quite beats the original. Pepper-encrusted beef brisket, Brontosaurus – er, beef – ribs, and all-beef sausage are the quintessential staples of any Texas barbecue beef diet.

John Mueller Meat Co., 2500 E. 6th St., Austin
It's possible that there is no greater American culinary soap opera than that of the Texas barbecue barons, and the stars of this saga are the Mueller family. After two other hugely popular previous endeavors opened and closed/changed hands after John split from his family's restaurant Louie Mueller Barbecue, John is now back in the saddle with John Mueller Meat Co., which just opened earlier this year and is already hailed as one of the top places in town for beef brisket, beef and pork ribs, and pork shoulder. Word of warning: John isn't exactly the world's friendliest pitmaster, but you're not exactly there to exchange Christmas cards either.

Also check out: Austin's BBQ and Catering, Broken Spoke, Chisolm Trail Barbq, City Market, Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Cranky Frank's Barbeque Company, Fargo's Pit BBQ, La Barbecue, Opie's Barbecue, Smitty's Market, Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew, Taylor Café.

East Texas
East Texas barbecue is about as different in style from Central Texas as two regions butt-up next to each other in the same state can possibly be. Taking its cues more from Southern barbecue traditions, East Texas is equal parts beef and pork and loves its sweet tomato-based sauce as much as its hot sauce. Out East, brisket is chopped, not sliced, and is served in sandwiches covered in sauce.

Stanley's Famous Pit Barbecue, 525 South Beckham Ave., Tyler
Stanley's has been serving pit-smoked barbecue for over 50 years and is still family-owned. It still retains its rustic charm, but also has one of the widest variety of menu selections on offer with breakfast burritos and barbecue tacos in addition to hot links, ribs, and brisket. Listen to some live music, knock back a few beers, and enjoy a giant slice of that unique Southern specialty, Frito pie.

Pat Gee's, 17547 Jamestown Rd., Tyler
Not every single place you visit on your barbecue trail tour is going to have the "best" barbecue you've ever eaten. By very definition of "best," this is impossible. So Pat Gee's might not be the "best" barbecue, but it is by far and wide the best experience. A visit to Pat Gee's is like stepping into a moment frozen in time. The small, wood-framed house is located in what could be called a "rural" area. There are just four folding tables and a small counter inside, and decades of pit smoke have penetrated every surface. Orders automatically come slathered in homemade sauce poured from a Mason jar covered in tin foil (and don't ask to hold the sauce; you might offend them). Order the hot links, brisket sandwich, and ham.

Carter's Bar-B-Que, 519 S. Eastman Rd., Longview
Carter's is located in an old gas station that has been converted into a charming barbecue joint. Order the ribs, chicken, chopped beef brisket sandwiches, and do not miss the boudin – a Cajun pork sausage specialty that must have found its way to Carter's by jumping over the Texas border from neighboring Louisiana. Fans also swear by their sides and sweet tea. Get there early, because they tend to run out of food.

Snow's, 516 Main St., Lexington
The menu at Snow's reads like a generic grocery list: brisket, pork ribs, chicken, pork steak, regular and jalapeno sausage, potato salad, cole slaw, beans. That's all. That's it. And that's all it needs to be. Great barbecue restaurants don't need to be everything to everyone, and that's probably why Snow's rose to such immediate favor when it opened in 2003. The brisket has a different kind of spice rub than what you'll find in Central Texas, but is among the best in the state. For something different, try the sliced pork steak – it will make a Missourian weep with envy.

Gatlin's BBQ, 1221 W. 19th St., Houston
Former Rice Owls defensive back Greg Gatlin owns Gatlin's BBQ with his family, and it is one of Houston's hidden dining gems. Try the St. Louis ribs and the baby back ribs, every different kind of sausage available, and the brisket. Also save room for dessert – the homemade bread pudding with rum sauce, made by Greg's mom Mary, also deserves your attention.
Also check out: Bob's Bar-B-Que,?Brooks' Place, CorkScrew BBQ, Joseph's Riverport Barbecue, Leon's World's Finest In and Out Barbecue, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue, Virgie's Bar-B-Que.

South Texas
South Texas barbecue is heavily influenced by its proximity to Mexico. Barbacoa is the unique barbecue treat here, and can mean many different things based on what part of what country you're in. In South Texas, it means meat from a cow's head cooked in underground pits and served in tacos.

Hoegemeyer's Barbeque Barn, 711 Concrete St., Corpus Christi
The name "Hoegemeyer's" pays homage to the family's German heritage – a bit of a rare thing this close to the Mexican border. It has been open for just over a year and is already making a name for itself as a destination for barbecue in the DEEP south of Texas. Order up some brisket by the half pound, sliced or chopped, and one of their excellent homemade sides and sweet tea, and get there during the week: they're only open Monday through Friday, lunch only, but they do serve beer and wine.

Stevie Lew's BBQ Kitchen, 5340 Hwy. 35 N., Rockport
At Stevie Lew's, you get real Texas pit barbecue and a whole lot more. Brisket, pulled pork, sausage, ribs, and chicken, as well as "Texas burgoo" – a spicy stew you don't see outside of Kentucky too often. There's also chili – hey, it's Texas – Tex-Mex burgers, an ice cream and dessert bar with homemade cobblers and pies, and coffee from the Rockport Coffee Company, also owned by the same family.

Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que, 2404 Southmost Rd., Brownsville
South Texas is ostensibly known for barbacoa, but Vera's is the last true Texas barbacoa joint standing making barbacoa the traditional way – whole cattle heads cooked over mesquite in an underground pit. Health departments all over Texas have banned the practice, but Vera's has been grandfathered in, making it the last of its kind and a necessary stop on any Texas barbecue road trip. Enjoy the beef cheek meat in tacos with three different homemade salsas. They also bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "get there early" – they open at 4:30 a.m., weekends only.

Also check out: Ace's BBQ, The Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant, Cowpoke's, McMillan’s Bar-B-Q, Mr. G's BBQ, Mumphord's Place BBQ, The Original Willie's Bar-B-Q, Quick Draw BBQ, Rudy's, Silverado Smokehouse, Vernon's Kuntry Bar-B-Que.

West Texas
West Texas style barbecue is referred to as "cowboy style," referring to the predominant cooking method of grilling over direct heat. Just like the cowboys!

Eddie's Barbeque, 1324 E. 50th Street, Lubbock
You have not had Frito pie until you have had the Frito pie at Eddie's. Sausage and chopped beef held together with beans, cheese, and sauce on a bed of Frito's with sour cream on top. By all means, enjoy the brisket, pork, and ribs too, but don’t miss the Frito pie.

Smokey's West Texas BBQ, 1306 E 7th St, Odessa
Two words: brisket burrito. Three additional words: menudo on Saturdays. With breakfast burritos and chorizo burgers, Smokey's might not be the most traditional barbecue joint, but they've got all your favorite meats like brisket, ribs, sausage, turkey breast, hot links, and chicken, plus jalapeno cheddar sausage, a fan favorite.

Pody's BBQ, 1330 S. Cedar, Pecos
Brisket and spare ribs with a beautiful black crust and smoky flavor, a unique green chile-cheddar Southwest pozole, and a borderline evil habanero sauce – welcome to West Texas! If you like what you eat, and you will, don't forget to ring the bell on your way out.

Also check out: Big Boy's Bar-B-Que, Big E's BBQ, Dirty's Bar & Q, Mr. Bar BQ, Pinkie's Barbecue, The Shack BBQ, Tom & Bingo's Hickory Pit Bar-B-Que, Wiley's Bar-B-Q.

North Texas
North Texas might not have its own distinct style of barbecue, but it does have Dallas, and Dallas is a big city with a lot of restaurants, many of which smoke meat.

SMOKE, Dallas
Where there's SMOKE, there's meat. SMOKE is a full restaurant and bar serving breakfast, brunch, lunch, midday, and dinner menus – because all of those are separate and distinct meals. They've got pulled whole hog done North Carolina style; chopped coffee-cured beef brisket; pork andoullie, rabbit, and beef smoked sausages; dry rub pork spare ribs; plus a selection of charcuterie, raw oysters, game bird, and seafood, as well as one of the best brunches in town (smoked brisket cornbread hash, anyone?). It's a little bit of Southern comfort, a little bit of Tex-Mex, and a little bit of catch-all American barbecue. You'll want to order all of it.

Pecan Lodge, 2702 Main St., Dallas
Recently relocated to Deep Ellum, Pecan Lodge is easily one of the most talked-about barbecue joints in the great state of Texas, having gained a cultish following with its stand at the Dallas Farmers Market, which led to an appearance on the Food Network, which led to even more cultish fans. The consensus seems to be that pretty much everything here is exceptional right down to the sides and desserts, but the barky brisket is a thing of absolute perfection. Don't miss the Hot Mess, a sweet potato stuffed with shredded brisket and chipotle cream.

Lockhart Smokehouse,400 West Davis, Dallas
Lockhart Smokehouse might be physically located in Dallas, but its heart is in Lockhart. It is the only place in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where you can get Kreuz Market Sausage. They serve all the Central Texas favorites – brisket, ribs, sausage, etc. – cooked low and slow over oak, with daily specials that might include beef ribs, burnt ends, and prime rib. It's all served on butcher paper with bread or saltine crackers, just like in Lockhart, and while they do have forks and sauce available, they'd prefer if you didn't use them.

Also check out: Bartley's Bar-B-Q, Big Al's Smokehouse BBQ, Eddie Dean's Crossroads Smokehouse, Hashknife on the Chisholm, Hutchins BBQ, Kirby's Barbeque, Longoria's BBQ, Meshack's Bar-B-Que, Miller's Smokehouse, Riscky's Barbeque, Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse, Tyler's Barbeque.