In Texas, barbecue isn't merely a savory cooking style but a matter of religious import. To know it requires education, discipline, a missionary sense of adventure . . . and likely a belt-hole puncher. Dedicated meat eater Daniel Vaughn, of the blog Full Custom Gospel BBQ, has made Texas's grand tradition his specialty and was a featured speaker at the recent 2013 Foodways Texas Symposium (this year's genius theme: Our Barbecue, Ourselves).
While researching his new book, 'The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue,' Vaughn crisscrossed more than 10,000 miles of Lone Star State highway and returned with culinary discoveries, arcana, and recipes from the state's distinct and storied barbecue regions and pitmasters. The book is an ode to what's been described as the country's only true vernacular food – one that changes with the lay of the land. Vaughn offers up Texas barbecue's basic premise as: "Simply seasoned meat cooked to tenderness over hardwood smoke." Yet in a state larger than France, such generalizations don't do justice to the bounty and incredible variations: Pork and sauce make appearances in the land of beef, and the tortilla joins white bread as the quintessential barbecue napkin. Still, despite the variety and volume of contenders, Vaughn says there are plenty of standouts and so gave us his top 10 picks that any visitor to Texas ought to experience.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, Llano
As Vaughn writes in his book, Cooper's is distinguished by the Hill Country style, also known as West Texas or "cowboy" style, in which meat is cooked over direct heat instead of the "low and slow" Central Texas method. This isn't "smoked meat" proper, but a parallel state treasure. "The big chop is my pick," says Vaughn. "It's a two-inch-thick pork chop grilled directly over mesquite coals: Juicy and tender and perfect." That said, one of the downsides to direct-heat cooking is its fragility: Get there early or discover that many of the menu items are too dried out by mid-afternoon.
Credit: Nicholas McWhirter