Eating barbecue in Texas with Daniel Vaughn is like going for a stroll with the quarterback of the Cowboys. "Hey, Mr. Vaughn!" "Afternoon, Mr. Vaughn!" "Mr. Vaughn, how you doing?" At the Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas, even the janitor knows his name, and when Vaughn orders a heaping mound of brisket and smoked sausage, they throw in some top-secret burned ends, just for him. "So yeah," Vaughn says, smiling sheepishly. "They kind of know me here."
Vaughn is the self-proclaimed 'BBQ Snob,' the reigning expert of all things barbecue. For the past five years, he's kept a food-review blog called Full Custom Gospel BBQ, a bible for Texas carnivores. Now, he'll bolster that rep with his first book, 'The Prophets of Smoked Meat,' a restaurant guide and travelogue for which he logged more than 10,000 miles, road-tripping across the Lone Star State in an exhaustive search for its best 'cue. (Check out Vaughn's top 10 Texas BBQ list here.)
In some ways, Vaughn is an unlikely barbecue guru. Until his recent decision to write full-time, he worked a day job as a commercial architect, designing high-rises. He's bald, wears professor glasses, and drives an Audi. And he grew up in Ohio, moving to Dallas only in 2001. For most of his life, Vaughn didn't even like barbecue, preferring Applebee's riblets, which in Texas are almost fighting words.
But all that changed in 2006 when he and a buddy made a pilgrimage to Central Texas, the meat lover's mecca. "We sat down at [famed barbecue joint] Louie Mueller, took a bite, and just looked at each other, like, 'Okay. This is what everybody's been talking about.' "
When Vaughn started his blog two years later, it was mostly a way to keep track of all the places he'd eaten. But soon he found himself wielding great power, as hungry-to-please pitmasters begged for a good review and asked for advice. As for the grumbling that he's a Yankee carpetbagger: Vaughn thinks being an outsider is actually a plus. "I think there's an advantage to not having any biases," he says. "Just eat the meat, and if the meat's good, then the meat's good."
Speaking of which: Vaughn spears a hunk of brisket and points to the thick streak of fat. "One thing about brisket," he says. "If the fat's good, then the meat's probably gonna be good." He's a zealot when it comes to fat, pointing out that, scientifically, it's a vehicle for flavor. "It's almost a personal affront to me when I see somebody pull out a fresh brisket and slide off that top layer of fat and throw it away." He recommends adding brown sugar to a pork rub for a touch of caramelized sweetness in the bark (the technical name for the black, crispy crust) and slow-smoking your meat over post oak or pecan, which is how they do it at his favorite spots, the Czech- and German-derived meat markets of Central Texas.
Vaughn estimates he eats barbecue four or five times a week. Researching the book, he visited 186 restaurants – and racked up an even higher cholesterol. ("I should watch it better," he admits.) He's taught his four-year-old daughter to love smoked meat, but his wife has been a tougher sell. Once, she declared a barbecue moratorium for a whole month. So Vaughn switched to cured meats. "I was bringing home salami, charcuterie, pastrami," he says, laughing. "Finally she was like, 'Enough. Just go eat some damn barbecue.' "