Everything is Bigger in Texas.
You’ll find big hair, boots, wide open spaces and most importantly: barbecue.
Austin is home to some of the best barbecue in the country. From internationally renowned joints like Franklin barbecue to local barbecue trailers and eateries, the selection is vast.
When we learned TravelCon, a travel media conference was in Austin, we were sold. This was our opportunity to delve into the local barbecue scene. We made it a point to extend our stay beyond the conference and found a one month house sit on the north side of town.
Our goal at Authentic Food Quest, is to explore and showcase the local flavors of a destination. While preparing for our month stay, we asked a number of Austinites to share their secrets and tell us their favorite barbecue joints.
With their recommendations in hand, we set out on a quest to discover the best barbecue in Austin.
What Makes Texas Barbecue in Austin so Special?
When getting ready for our quest for the best Texas barbecue in Austin, we learned about the barbecue style. The Central Texas barbecue style.
Not only it is the most popular way of making barbecue in Texas but its popularity has also spread around the world.
With the Central Texas barbecue style, the emphasis on the meat, the key ingredient. The meat is prepared in a simple fashion with salt and pepper and then smoked for hours in a pit.
The sauce is secondary. This is exactly how we like our food – simply prepared with a focus on the raw ingredients!
Simple doesn’t mean easy.
Making the best Central Texas Barbecue is an art. From cutting the meat to the delicate preparation to smoking the meat to perfection and finally serving it.
Each and every step takes patience and long hours of cooking and testing.
Where Does Central Texas Barbecue Tradition Come From?
Back in the 19th century, German and Czech settlers brought the European meat-smoking tradition to Texas. At first, unsold meat was smoked by butchers to preserve it.
Shortly after, the leftover smoked meats became so popular that eventually, the butchers turned their focus to becoming restaurants and barbecue joints.
Butcher’s paper, used originally to wrap raw meat, doubled as wrapping for the cooked pieces. Today, barbecue, usually purchased by the pound, is served on trays lined with butcher paper as a symbol for “authentic barbecue”.
Texas barbecue restaurants are thriving, with many places competing for the best traditional smoked meat in town.
Franklin Barbecue – #1 Barbecue Spot in Texas (or the World)
Franklin Barbecue in Austin was among the first on our list to check out on our quest for the best barbecue in Texas.
Named the #1 barbecue restaurant in the world, it was no wonder the name came up consistently whenever we asked locals.
With its popularity, tasting Franklin barbecue can be quite challenging. People queue for hours, up to 6 hours, to taste Franklin’s famous brisket, ribs, and sausages.
Waiting in line for hours, however, wasn’t what we envisioned for this quest.
Though, we could not miss tasting the best barbecue in Austin that had seduced Anthony Bourdain and President Obama.
Armed with a helpful hint from a local to cut the line by going for a late lunch between 1:00 pm- 2:00 pm, we decided to go to Franklin’s barbecue the day after Labor Day. Our reasoning was that people would have had their fill of barbecue over the long Labor Day weekend.
That tactic paid off. Even though there was a line when we went to Franklin’s Barbecue, we only waited for 40 minutes. Though, there was a trade-off. A late lunch means you’re at risk of the place selling out of some items.
On that Tuesday, they sold out of the ribs even before we got to the door. However, there was plenty of brisket and sausages waiting for us. Enough to satisfy our quest for the best barbecue in Austin.
Does Franklin Barbecue Live Up to Its Reputation?
To accompany the half-pound of brisket and sausage link, we chose a serving of coleslaw, pinto beans, and potato salad. These are typical Texas sides that go with the meats.
Was it because of the time we spent waiting and salivating or simply because of the positive reviews? In the end, we thought Franklin’s Barbecue lived up to its reputation.
The brisket perfectly seasoned melts in the mouth. The sausage was juicy, slightly crackling, and with a nice balance of fat and meat.
When we originally ordered, we asked for the lean brisket. The server, knowing what was best, had us taste both the lean and fatty versions. Our preference actually went to the fatty brisket. The fat added moisture and tenderness, making the meat even more desirable.
Local Austin draft beer completed the experience.
Barbecue aficionados will enjoy Aaron Franklin’s book, “Franklin Barbecue: a meat-smoking manifesto.” He shares the nitty-gritty of his own barbecue process and how he become the most celebrated pit master.
La Barbecue – Badass Barbecue Sandwiches
It was an adventure getting to la Barbecue. When we set out for the day, our original plan was to check out Franklin’s barbecue, with Micklethwait Barbecue as a backup plan. It was about 2:40 pm when we drove by and it was clear by the “sold out sign”, it was too late.
Micklethwait Barbecue, in the same area that Claire nicknamed “the barbecue row”, was a short drive from Franklin. While the hours indicate a 6:00 pm closing, the “sold out” sign told another story.
That’s when we decided to take our chance at la Barbecue. We pulled up into the empty parking lot, as smoke billowing out of the pit welcomed us.
With a bright and sleek decor, la Barbecue stands apart from other barbecue places. Adjoining the modern counter where you order your food and drinks is a gourmet deli store.
We learned that la Barbecue is owned by LeAnn Mueller, daughter of Bobby Mueller from the legendary Mueller Barbecue. Mueller Barbecue has been named the “Best BBQ in Texas” and Bobby was a James Beard Award Recipient.
LeAnn continues the German tradition of handcrafted meat with a modern twist.
We love LeAnn and her partner’s commitment to offering the highest quality local meats, free of hormones and sweet stuff. Amen!
Tasting la Barbecue Meats and Sides
Not yet accustomed to ordering “meat by the pound”, our attention was captivated by the appetizing and significant sandwich menu.
El Sancho Loco sandwiches sounded like the best option to taste beef, pork, and sausage all at once. Topped with pickled red onions and served in a Martin’s Potato Bun, this sandwich was to die for.
Our favorite meat was the chopped beef, which was tender and savory. The pulled pork was delicate and moist while the sausage was a tad too greasy.
For sides, we went for the chipotle slaw and pinto beans. The sugar-free, perfectly spiced slaw was the best coleslaw we’ve had in years. These gals know how to make the real thing.
Micklethwait Craft Meats – The Best Food Truck Barbecue
On our second attempt at Micklethwait Craft Meats, we didn’t leave it to chance. We got there by 12:30 pm to wait in line.
Fortunately, our friend Taiss and new Austinite showed up 15 minutes earlier, waiting patiently for us.
Standing by the huge pit, we waited to order at the trailer window, where a short menu with fine products hangs. Brisket, pork ribs and sausages, we had enough stomach to share all the meats available.
Tom Micklethwait, the owner, started the barbecue trailer in 2012 after a career in bakery. The brioche-like light and slightly puffed bread tasted like it had been kneaded tenderly by a baker’s experienced hands.
Making everything from scratch including the bread, Tom mastered the art of Texas barbecue in a few short years.
Since 2017, Micklethwait Craft Meats has been on every Texas awarded list for the best barbecue plate in Austin. The meat here can be ordered by the plate as well as by the pound.
Tasting Micklethwait Craft Meats and Sides
Claire and I shared a three-meat plate with brisket, pork ribs, and a Tex-Czech sausage. To go along with the meats, we chose the coleslaw and beans.
We found the brisket a bit fatty for our tastes and while the pork ribs were tasty, we relished the sausages. The Tex-Czech sausages were the best we had on our quest. The meat and fat were perfectly balanced, the filling moist and the skin crisp.
The lemon poppy-seed slaw was a nice surprise. The refreshing lemony flavor slaw and poppy seeds added crunch to the texture.
From the modest trailer, Micklethwait Craft Meats offers an outstanding alternative to the long lines at Franklin’s barbecue.
The outdoor seating area is filled with Texas flowers and shrubs. It’s a relaxing place to savor the flavors under the canopy.
Mum Foods – The Best Pastrami in Texas
Visiting local farmers markets is one of the best ways to learn about the local food culture. Whether we are in Bangkok, Santiago, Chile or Los Angeles, local markets always yield surprising discoveries.
One Sunday, while exploring the Texas Farmers Market at Mueller, we unexpectedly discovered what became our favorite Austin barbecue.
The Mueller Market, as it’s commonly known, is a local favorite. Surrounded by plenty of green space, including a lake park, you’ll find a number of vendors and food stalls.
From fresh vegetables, Texas honey and bread, farm-raised beef, pork, and eggs, there is plenty to choose from. Local artisans making kombucha, artisanal olive oil, honey wine, and other organic craft products are all around.
As we made our way to the far end of the market, we noticed this one stall with a consistent queue. Taking our line in place under the simple Mum Foods sign, we waited patiently to sample their meats.
Tasting Mum Foods Pastrami and Wagyu Brisket
Truth be told, we went to Mum Foods twice. Our first visit was at the end of our first week in Austin. We ordered their smoked wagyu brisket, which we immediately fell in love with. Falling apart in our hands, the meat can eaten without a fork and knife.
We loved Mum Foods so much that we went back at the end of our quest to try it again and confirm if it was still our best barbecue in Austin. This time, in addition to the smoked wagyu brisket, we had their award-winning pastrami and co-owner, Geoffrey generously threw in some ribs.
The barbecue sells out at the market and for good reason. The brisket had just the right amount of fat and was dripping in its juices. The pastrami, with the perfect amount of seasoning, every bite is a trip to barbecue heaven. The beef brisket ribs were tender and simply, perfect.
Everything we had was consistently good.
Where to Eat the Best Pastrami in Austin
Mum Foods at Texas Farmers Market at Mueller
Address: 4209 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX
Hours: Sunday 10:00 am – 2:00 pm at Mueller Market
You’ll also find Mum Foods at the Barton Creek and Lakeline Farmers Markets, on Saturdays from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ – The Best Tex-Mex Barbecue
Valentina’s is in Austin, though we visited it on our way to Lockhart. On the quest for the best barbecue in Austin, we could not miss this local gem renowned for its Tex-Mex Barbecue.
Tex-Mex is a fusion of Mexican and American cuisine that can be found across the U.S. but primarily in Texas.
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ trailer is about 15 miles south of downtown Austin. A family business, they have been opened since 2013. Every year brings more praise and recognition for their Tex-Mex barbecue flavors.
Tasting Valentina’s Tacos, Meats and Sides
With a menu that offers part Texas barbecue and part tacos, we chose to taste both. We ordered a plate with pork ribs and jalapeno cheddar sausage served with rice and beans. An order of smoked brisket and smoked carnitas tacos completed our order.
Although we joyfully dove into the ribs, our favorites were the tacos and especially the brisket taco. The brisket was incredibly tasty and well seasoned. Served with homemade salsa, guacamole, and flour tortillas, we had our mouths full.
The jalapeno cheddar sausage just wasn’t for us. We felt the addition of cheddar cheese to the sausage took away from the experience. Nevertheless, the tacos stuffed with barbecue smoked meats more than made up for the experience.
The Quest for TX BBQ in Lockhart & Driftwood
Having eaten our way through some of the local barbecue spots in Austin, we decided to explore even further, and go to Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of Texas.
The trip to Lockhart, about 35 miles, southeast of Austin, was an all day affair, filled with adventure and barbecue.
Black’s BBQ – The Oldest Family Owned BBQ in Texas
After a first stop at Valentina’s Tex-Mex barbecue, we went to Black’s Barbecue, the oldest family-owned barbecue restaurants in the state of Texas, since 1932.
We got there right after the peak lunch period and there was no wait. The larger than life sign by the entrance with the words “Giant Beef Ribs” greets you as you walk in.
Right at the entrance is a cafeteria style counter where you order your sides and desserts first. You then make your way to the butcher block where you can choose brisket, beef ribs and sausages.
Knowing we had to pace ourselves for a full day of barbecue eating, we decided to share one Black’s giant beef rib, one sausage ring and split the beans and coleslaw sides.
The gigantic beef ribs at Black’s can range from under one pound to nearly two pounds. Our rib was a little over one pound and was just enough.
The restaurant is steeped in tradition with an old-time decor. Picture wood paneled walls, horns of various sizes adorning the walls, signs for high school sports teams, and plastic red & white checked tablecloths. A nostalgic atmosphere.
Tasting Black’s Barbecue and Giant Beef Ribs
The Black’s beef rib is a carnivore’s dream. A generous slab of pink meat, with blackened edges hugs a nine-inch rib bone. We enjoyed the tender meat, but would have welcomed a little more flavor to the crusted edges.
Black’s sausage links had a nice bite to them with a peppery finish. The filling was tasty with the right amount of fat though they could have been a bit more meaty.
The sides, beans and coleslaw, were prepared in a traditional manner. None was exceptional in any way. Not our favorite, they were fitting of this legendary Texas barbecue restaurant.
A trip to Black’s in Lockhart TX, is an experience. An irrefutable rite of passage for barbecue lovers.
Smitty’s Market BBQ – Steeped in History and Tradition
Smitty’s Market, another Lockhart barbecue heavyweight can be found on Commerce street in the walkable downtown Lockhart area.
Too stuffed and with no plans of eating at Smitty’s, we took a quick tour of the place to see this slice of history.
The entrance, a long hallway with darkened walls, leads to a pit with light from a menacing open fire. The smell of wood burning accompanies you until you get to the butcher block were you order your meats.
The location opened around 1900 as Kreuz Market, a German butcher shop that sold fresh meat during the week and smoked the leftovers on the weekends.
In 1999, a feud between a sister and her brothers, caused the brothers to move Kreuz Market to a new building on the northern outskirts of town. Fortunately, the sister, Nina Schmidt Sells and her son, John Fullilove re-opened the space, under the Smitty name in honor of her father, Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt.
The Menu at Smitty’s Market BBQ
The menu consists of brisket, pork ribs and chops, shoulder clod, prime rib and pit-cooked sausages. You pretty much line, up, place your order by the pound and pay by cash or check (no debit or credit). Everything is served to you on butcher paper; there are no plates, no forks, you eat with your hands.
While we didn’t eat here, we would definitely not miss it the next time we are in Lockhart. If you’re travels take you to the area don’t hesitate to stop by this classic spot filled with character and tradition.
Salt Lick BBQ – The Most Beautiful BBQ Setting in Driftwood, TX
For the last stop of the day, we took the 45 minute drive from Lockhart to Driftwood to go the acclaimed Salt Lick BBQ. We deliberately made this our last stop so that we could enjoy the beautiful setting of the Texas Hill Country. Knowing that Salt Lick BBQ is BYOB, we stopped along the way to pick up beer.
The place is sprawling with even a winery on site. Upon entering The Salt Lick, you can’t resist the “Texas-sized grill” piled high with all kinds of meats and sausages. Not only are your eyes captivated, your nose is enraptured in delicious barbecue smells.
After getting seated, ordering was hard. We were all pretty stuffed, yet we wanted to savor the Salt Lick barbecue flavors. Founded in 1967, Salt Lick grew from just a pit by the road into a massive operation with multiple locations.
After discussing, the menu, we went for the “Thurman’s Choice” combo, which came with brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Along with that, we ordered a serving of pulled pork.
To complete the meat dishes, two sides came highly recommended. The vinegar slaw sprinkled with black sesame seeds and the mayo-free potato salad with celery seed. We also ordered desserts.
Tasting Salt Lick Barbecue and Desserts
In general, the meats were solid, juicy and with just the right amount of smoke. While the meats were flavorful, the sides and desserts were excellent. Just the right amount of sesame and celery seeds elevated the sides from just average to delightful.
The homemade pecan pie and the half & half blackberry and peach cobbler pie were favorites at the table. Claire, in particular, devoured the pecan pie, while the rest of us enjoyed the tasty and not so sweet cobbler combo.
Visiting Salt Lick is an experience to have while in Austin. The scenic drive, BYOB policy, and gorgeous setting makes it worth the trek.
For recipes and more about the family tradition at Salt Lick, pick up the book, The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family, and Love.
This quest for the best barbecue in Austin gave us a unique insight to the local barbecue scene. The subtleties in taste and the craft needed to achieve perfection for the brisket, sausage or ribs was an eye-opener.
We found that many of the places had approached perfection on one item and not necessary on all three – brisket, ribs and sausage or “barbecue trifecta.”
We learned to trust our own tastes and not be swayed by the “best of” or “top barbecue in Austin” type lists. While we enjoyed the meats at most of the barbecue spots we visited, our favorite barbecue in Austin was from Mum Foods, a place we rarely saw on the popular top lists.
Most importantly, we came away with a new appreciation for Texas barbecue. The transformation that occurs when meat is cooked with simple ingredients and long hours at the pit.
In a land where everything is bigger, so are the portions. Take a hearty appetite on as you seek out your best barbecue in Austin. And be prepared, as we found in our case, to loosen a notch or two on your belts.
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Rosemary is a writer and culinary explorer. Together with her partner, Claire, they created Authentic Food Quest to inspire people to travel deeper through authentic food. Through food, they believe, people can have more meaningful connections on their travels. Prior to creating Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary worked as a director of strategy in advertising for over 15 years. Take the quiz and find out your Food Traveler Profile.