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.
Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que, Brownsville
A legendary takeout joint in far South Texas, where the state dips her toes into Mexico, Vera's sticks to the old border traditions for a truly one-of-kind barbacoa. While the definition of barbacoa tends to shift depending on where you stand, in Texas it generally means cow's head slow-cooked over coals in the ground – or, these days, steamed or roasted in an oven. As Vaughn tells it: "When I say this is the only commercially available barbacoa in Texas that's still cooked in the ground, I mean it literally – it's the only one." Pitmaster Mando Vera cooks whole cow heads over mesquite coals overnight in a brick-lined subterranean pit, yielding meat that's juicy without being wet, unlike the steamed variety. Vaughn is direct about the best way to enjoy this endangered species: "Throw some on a fresh tortilla with a dash of house-made hot sauce."
Credit: Nicholas McWhirter