Things to Do

All About BBQ in The Texas Hill Country

By  | 

 

I don’t know if it’s ever been made official by any government decree, but barbecue is the national food of Texas. And most of the best barbecue joints” in Texas are right here in the Texas Hill Country!

To be fair, I should point out that some form of barbeque/barbecue (the other accepted spelling — I’ll just say “BBQ” from now on) exists all ’round the world; the term applies to a lot of different kinds of slow-cooked meats with a lot of different rubs and sauces. In the U.S., BBQ is popular in one form or another across the Midwest and South, with Kansas City in particular as the center for one particular flavor.

BBQ in The Texas Hill Country

Photo: coopersbbq.com

But it was very enlightening to me to see that two “BBQ experts” (Ardie Davis and Paul Kirk, who put “Ph.B” after their names), both from Kansas City and trying to include all possible states, rated 15 Texas BBQ joints in their “Top 100” nationwide. To show how tolerant they were, the list includes entries from states like Washington, Minnesota, New York and even Vermont! At the end of their book, “America’s Best BBQ,” the authors each listed their top ten favorite BBQ joints; Cooper’s BBQ in Llano was rated #1 by Ardie and #4 by Paul.

Another book (“Republic of Barbecue,” by Elizabeth Engelhardt) zeroes in on BBQ joints in Central Texas. Again, to be fair I should point out that several towns east of I-35 are noted for their excellent BBQ: Lockhart, Elgin and Taylor immediately come to mind. But many of the best and most popular BBQ joints anywhere are in the Hill Country.

BBQ in The Texas Hill Country

Photo: coopersbbq.com

I should back up here and point out that cattle have always been a huge part of the Hill Country economy (much of the Hill Country’s tremendous growth in the late 1800s was fueled by the cattle drives to Kansas for shipment by railroad to the packing yards of Chicago). Early German and Czech pioneers were experts at sausage-making, and experimented with ways to prepare the tough “briskets” or heavy chest muscles, from the butchered cattle. At first, the briskets were cooked at low temperatures in dutch ovens, but eventually it was found that a long, slow cooking process in a closed “pit” with indirect heat made for tender and delicious briskets. So while there is an assortment of BBQ meats (pork being the main ingredient across most of the South), brisket rules in Central Texas.

Cooper’s in Llano is the Hill Country’s BBQ king. Nowhere else do so many people come from such great distances to eat BBQ in such a rustic setting. Among the celebrity diners are former President George W. Bush and current Governor Rick Perry, but businessmen regularly fly into Llano from Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston to enjoy some of Cooper’s BBQ. With that in mind, it may come as quite a surprise that, in a listeners’ poll done by Austin radio station KVET, the winner was not Cooper’s but a competitor just a few blocks west on Highway 29. Inman’s Kitchen (“Home of the Famous Turkey Sausage”) offers not only a full line of brisket, sausage, ham, turkey and chicken, but also homebaked bread and fresh side dishes. It also enjoys a very good reputation among BBQ enthusiasts. Notwithstanding, many locals in Llano will tell you that neither of these BBQ giants is as good as the smaller (and homier) Laird’s BBQ, on the south side of town. Llano is probably capital of the “Republic of BBQ!”

BBQ in The Texas Hill Country

Photo: coopersbbq.com

Other towns have excellent BBQ joints, as well, and some have very familiar names. Cooper’s in Junction and in Mason are two other wonderful establishments, but not connected with Cooper’s in Llano. And Inman’s in Marble Falls is another excellent BBQ place (with its own loyal following) which is not connected to Inman’s in Llano.

Another tremendously popular BBQ joint in the Hill Country is Salt Lick BBQ, founded 43 years ago in Driftwood. It now has four locations. Rudy’s Country Store got its start in Leon Springs, just north of San Antonio; it now operates about thirty locations across the southwest (Cooper’s of Llano has recently expanded, too, opening large BBQ restaurants in New Braunfels and Fort Worth). But there are connoisseurs who swear that Lum’s BBQ in Junction is the best anywhere, but it could be Mac’s or The Spread in Brady. Almost every town in the Hill Country has its own local favorite, and sometimes two or three. I have particularly enjoyed BBQ at Bertram BBQ, the Feed Store BBQ (in Burnet) Opie’s in Spicewood and age’s BBQ in San Saba. If for some reason you have to go into the city, County Line BBQ in Austin and Tom’s Ribs in San Antonio also made the “Top 100” list in “America’s Best BBQ.”