What: Smoked beef brisket is king among Texas barbecue, and one bite of the good stuff tells you why. What starts as the tough cut of meat from the breast or chest of a cow gets rubbed with salt and pepper, then wood-smoked (typically with oak in Central Texas) for anywhere from six to 24 hours — until the exterior "bark" is well-blackened atop a telltale pink smoke ring and the interior’s connective tissue and collagen are tenderized, resulting in marbled meat that’s magnificently toothsome, bursting with fatty, meaty flavor. It’s a simple yet seemingly mythical process that requires lots of skill on the part of the pit master — especially because in these parts, sauce is served only on the side (if at all) so as not to distract from the meat. To that end, brisket, like other BBQ here, is served plainly on butcher paper, with sides offered separately.
A note about Central Texas barbecue: This variety of ’cue is attributed to the German and Czech settlers who brought European meat-smoking traditions to the area — primarily to the towns of Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor, each within about an hour’s drive from Austin — in the mid-19th century. The holy trinity of this brand of barbecue is smoked brisket, sausage, and pork ribs; these meats (among others) will be offered everywhere. Only a local — or someone else with frequent and easy access — is likely to go from joint to joint and not giddily order all three of these meats. (Thankfully, meat is sold by the pound here, so you can ask for as much or as little as you want, making it ideal for grazing at multiple places.) Rather than lump these meats all together, we are listing them individually so that we may spread the love among multiple worthy barbecue spots.
Where: We loved a lot of things about Franklin Barbecue, but especially its perfectly smoked, moist Meyer all-natural Angus brisket, oak-smoked and seasoned simply with salt and pepper, served the traditional way: piled onto a butcher-paper-covered tray with white bread, pickles, onions, and your choice of sides. This place proves once and for all that you don’t have to leave the city of Austin to find great barbecue (though we still recommend you do, for fun).
Good to know: In a typically Austin origin story, Franklin started out as a tiny trailer just off Interstate-35. In March 2011, its incredible popularity (not to mention constant exposure to the elements) prompted the owner, Aaron Franklin, to move his excellent operation to an indoor space, which is where you’ll find it now.
When: Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. until sold out — often by 2 p.m., but sometimes earlier. Come early: People start lining up outside around 9 a.m. There’s always a line, and it moves slowly. The place is building a new brick pit so that they can handle more meat, more people, and maybe stay open through dinner.
Order: You’ll end up buying whatever you can get if things get sold out. We recommend trying multiple meats — a platter of two with bread and two sides costs $9.75 — but ideally you try the brisket (a nonnegotiable must), the pork ribs, and the sausage (but heck, even the pulled pork is delicious, and we loved the Tipsy Texan, a chopped beef sandwich with sliced sausage). The super nice staff will work with you to make you a plate you want, so just ask. Request the brisket fatty for the goods — sublime, supple, fork-tender sliced beef. And though this barbecue is always about the meat and not the sauce, be sure to try the three homemade sauces available —one is a sweet, regular barbecue sauce; one’s a vinegary Carolina-style (for the pulled pork); and the house favorite is dark, tangy, and made with espresso beans.
Alternatively: Just as notorious for its outstanding BBQ as its exclusivity — it is only open Saturday mornings — the award-winning Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, some 52 miles east of Austin, must be mentioned where brisket is concerned. At about an hour and 20 minutes’ drive, it’s the farthest BBQ-day-trip pilgrimage from the city that you’ll likely be tempted to make, but we hear it’s well worth it. (The praises of its smoky, juicy brisket, among other meats, have been sung as loudly by The New Yorker as Texas Monthly.) Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, about 38 miles northeast of Austin, also gets top marks for its brisket, as well as its jalapeño sausage, beef ribs, and turkey, of all things. But for people visiting the area for just a few days, it’s often most efficient to head down to Lockhart, a barbecue mecca 30 miles south of Austin that is home to several famous institutions easy to hop among. We enjoyed the brisket and sausage at Smitty’s Market, but you might also swing by the celebrated Kreuz Market — the parent of Smitty’s, which split off in 1999 — and/or Black’s Barbecue, the oldest barbecue restaurant in Texas continuously owned by the same family.