Real Texas Barbecue festival

by david on November 14, 2011

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Texas Monthly’s barbecue festival

What do you get when you gather up 24 or so of the state’s best barbecue cooks and a whole bunch of hungry barbecue lovers?  You get an annual event called the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival.  We traveled to Austin October 30th to attend the 2nd annual Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival.  I came away from that event with some impressions I’ll be happy to share with Real Texas Blog readers.

I had a few pre-conceived ideas about the Texas Monthly Barbecue festival.  Most of my experience is from the ‘good old boy’ circuit where we gather at a ranch, in a pasture, at a location (as in oilfield location for you non oilfield folks) or at a barbecue cook-off, or perhaps a community event somewhere.  The pits on the ‘good old boy’ circuit are home or shop built to the owner’s specifications.  I have to say, I have seen some really spectacular pits that turn out some of the state’s best briskets, ribs, and sausages without being in some fancy festival in Austin.

Since I only had a slight bias against attending a barbecue festival conjured up by a pack of city folks who run a slick paged magazine, my expectations were not high.  After all, could the pit-masters competing at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin possibly stack up against any of the good old boys at the Miles Cotton Festival or the annual St. Lawrence Community fair where the German and Czech boys make sausage and their big ole’ wives keep their beer pitchers full?  Or can they cook like the oilfield hands anywhere out on a location in the Sprayberry Trend area where there is a certifiable oil boom going on?  I thought surely not.

And, where would these so-called barbecue experts get a steady supply of mesquite wood, the preferred creator of the perfect smoke ring in Real Texas brisket?

As a lifelong resident of Real Texas, I had what I considered legitimate concerns.

Yes, my concerns would occasionally raise my eyebrows as I set off on my investigation of this so called Festival of Barbecue in the den of iniquity in our Capitol city otherwise known as Austin, Texas.

Here is a sneak peek at a montage of what we experienced at the Barbecue Festival…The song is Necisito Nada Mas written and performed by T. Gozney Thornton.  T. Gozney has Austin connections dating back to the early 70’s and he recorded at Willie’s studios at some time back then.

I saw Texas Monthly’s Senior Executive Editor Paul Burka.  He was visiting with someone close to me and I did not get a chance to say hello. The last time I saw him I was visiting with Tom Craddick in the hall of the Texas Capitol and he walked by.  I asked Craddick who he was because he looked familiar.  At first Craddick seemed to not know him, but when I repeated my question, Tom did fess up that it was Burka and his small entourage, and quickly changed the subject.  I comment occasionally on Burka’s  ‘Burkablog’ under the name Real Texas.  Look in the comments section.  I mainly get whipped up on for my comments there.

I did visit briefly with Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein.  I always read Silverstein’s editorials.  Both he and Burka are talented and the magazine is first class. Jake has some Real Texas connections as he was on the staff at The Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa for a while. His having worked in Marfa made me feel a lot better about him personally and about Texas Monthly.  And the fact that he didn’t know me at all and was still very gracious and friendly while extremely busy made me a Jake Silverstein fan.  His column this month was appropriate….it was about change.  He talked about the cataclysmic change of the end of the UT-A&M rivalry to the changing demographics of the Great State.  And yes, things are changing in Texas and there is quite a divide between what I call Real Texas and urban Texas.  Since Jake has experienced both sides of that issue having worked in Marfa and Austin, his column hit the mark.  They do need a columnist on occasion to explain these Real Texas issues and concerns.  The closest they come to having Real Texas representation is the Texanist column, but it is more about Texas etiquette than Real Texas.  I have someone in mind  for the occasional article explaining Real Texas to the world outside of Austin/Houston/Dallas.

But we are here to talk of barbecue festivals are we not?

There were VIP passes which allowed those with more money than common sense to enter the area of barbecue tasting earlier than us commoners.  Most of them wore sandals-with socks.  Is that the ‘in’ yuppie footwear these days, or am I twenty or more years out of date?  They had their sandals and bad plaid Bermuda shorts with their shirt tails hanging out.  Some of them also wore the cleanest gimmeee  hats I ever saw.  That is a sign of some kind for sure.  Their dress and hats and shorts and shirts and choice of shoes is directly opposed to Real Texas footwear and pants and where most men sport an admirable amount of their body hanging over their belt buckles.   And I’m guessing most of the VIP bunch had never been in a Real Texas barbecue joint with pea gravel floors, warped wooden tables with a screened-in porch, warm beer by the bottle and an outdoor pisser.  I have a story about that too, for another day.

The VIP passes were a good idea of some marketing person at Texas Monthly.  Charge those folks a premium and let’em in an Long Center for the Performing Arts  Austin, Texashour earlier.  The remainder of us waited after having plunked down our $58 each to enter the Long Performance Center which in an earlier life, I knew as the Palmer Auditorium.  I saw Willie at a performance at Palmer and he signed a boot and a bottle for me.  If I had possessed any other contraband, he would have signed that also.  He only had half-as-long a ponytail back then.  I later learned that Palmer was still in that same area. It is now the Palmer Event Center and is ‘out back’.

A friendly wave from RamonaSo, I was familiar with the area where the festival was held and found my way there and parked with no problems.  I reminded Ramona that I DO have a 4 wheel drive pickup and can park in places she never imagined.  She and son Joe David are often embarrassed and/or terrified by my city driving and my bad habit of driving into the exit lanes in parking areas.

She reminded me that Austin had city raised policemen who probably would not understand me driving over a significant amount of grass to get to my primo parking spot….the answer is yes, I have been known to do that.  I do try to be ecologically sensitive when that happens and not dig ruts into the grassy areas.

We waited in line watching the VIP’s enter early,  and since I am easily entertained, the time passed quickly.  I walked around a bit and did some people watching , pit watching, and took in the sights of an area I had not been in for quite some time.  Several pitmasters were on the circle drive in front of the Long Center, and smoke was pouring from the pits.  The smoke had an aroma that was different, but not objectionable, meaning it was not mesquite smoke.

The doors finally opened and being at the front of a long line, we trooped inside, and were officially in attendance.  I  had Ramona take my picture, tourista style, under the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival sign.  I glanced over at that sign later, and there was a long line of people waiting to have their photos taken there the same as me.  It was a good photo opportunity.

Of course, Ramona’s eyes were bigger than her stomach and she wanted to sample all 24 or so food vendors represented.    We went straight to the booth on the right and began.  Booth #1 was City Meat Market from Giddings.  At the far end was booth #24.  It was the BBQ Festival Sweet Stop.  In between those two booths was some of the best tasting barbecue, ribs, and sausage I have ever had the pleasure of consuming while sober.   City Meat Market had amazing sausage and good brisket.  Really good.  I’ll get to my opinions on the other offerings later on, but here is a complete listing of the vendors there so you can get an idea of what the competition was.  Your favorite may be listed somewhere here and you can visit each if you are in the area and if your stomach can handle a lot of good barbecue.  I have to say there was NO bad barbecue in this list.  It just went from better to best depending on whether you like a fatty cut like Ramona or a leaner cut like me.  And I’m also a connoisseur of sauces.  And cream corn.  And jalapenos.  Well, heck, I’m a connoisseur of the whole Real Texas experience….just like a lot of you folks.

Here’s the list –

  • City Meat Market – Giddings
  • Opie’s BBQ – Spicewood
  • Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q – Tyler
  • Baker’s Ribs – Dallas
  • The Salt Lick – Driftwood
  • Country Tavern – Kilgore
  • Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q – Kerrville
  • Louie Mueller Barbecue – Taylor
  • TC’s Ponderosa – Dickens
  • Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue – Austin
  • Taylor Cafe – Taylor
  • Coleman’s BBQ – Fort Worth
  • Big Daddy’s Roadhouse BBQ – Lavon
  • Snow’s BBQ – Lexington
  • Casstevens Cash & Carry – Lillian
  • Wild Blue BBQ – Los Fresnos
  • Vincek’s Smokehouse – East Bernard
  • Smitty’s Market – Lockhart
  • Bertram Bar B Que – Bertram
  • Hard Eight BBQ – Stephenville
  • Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish – Palestine
  • Franklin BBQ – Austin

And I also have a special mention of the BBQ Festival Sweet Stop for their rendition of fried pies.  We tasted the apricot fried pies and cherry friend pies.  Both were good and brought back some good home cooking memories.  They were done to perfection and I have convinced Ramona to include a section on fried pies in her Real Texas Recipes Cookbook –  Coming soon!

Also represented at the festival was Sweet Leaf  Tea, Shiner Beers, Tide and their stain removing pens for people like me,  and the Tide People’s Choice Voting Booth, and Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Science.  The Aggies were there in their capacity as barbecue experts.  Go visit their website here for a little more information.  THAT is a class some of us would have excelled at.

And there was the Texas Monthly BBQ General Store, and the Louisiana Office of Tourism.  The Louisiana folks were very nice and seemed really out of place at the BBQ Festival.  We did visit with them and yes, we love Cajun foods.

Louisiana?  It’s over in East Texas somewhere.

I said Shiner beers, plural, because they had four or five different Shiner favorites.  Ramona drank the Blond and I had regular Shiner Bock.  I also had a Shiner Wheat beer that Ramona bought me.  I don’t have to taste any more of those.

Opie’s was barbecue stand #2 in our tasting challenge.  I have always liked Opie’s which is located outside of Austin near Spicewood.  We have stopped there in the past, most recently when we went to look at some mini-donkeys.

Side story here:  The mini donkeys were the Country Music Mini-Donkey herd raised by Jim and Rhetta McAlister at their Spicewood ranch.  I visited some with Jim and Rhetta as they saddled their horses.  They were going for a ride and a nice young lady ranch manager showed us around.  Mrs. McAlister had some pictures on the wall of her when she was on the rodeo team at UT.  She told me her father was an attorney and she had inherited the place at Spicewood.  Very nice lady.  It wasn’t until later looking at the pictures hanging on her office wall that I realized she was Rhetta MOODY McAlister whose family owned half of Texas at one time.  I have laughed about that story several times.  But, even though I didn’t put the very obvious two-and -two together at first, It did dawn on me later she was an offspring of the famous Moody family of Texas.  She’s a very nice lady and she and her husband Jim knew some of my friends in the cutting horse business.

Never-the-less, we enjoyed a Dr. Pepper and enjoyed looking at her magnificent Mini-Donkeys including the prolific herd sire and multiple award winning George Jones.

But I digress as I sometimes have a short attention span.  The fact is, Opie’s in one of our favorites.  They also make a fantastic cream corn.  I have stopped at Opie’s several times when passing through Spicewood, both before they built their new place and after they moved on up to a new building.  And if you are in the market for the very best in Mini-Donkey’s, I highly recommend Country Music Mini-Donks.

Stop #3 on our barbecue tour was Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue located in Tyler.  They took honors again this year for their pork ribs and they were very good.  Nick of Stanley’s BBQ pictured in the middle,  is a personable guy and he was on the barbecue discussion panel where cooks were supposed to share their secrets with Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein.  Jake wasn’t able to pull any great secrets out of them, but the panel was entertaining and I learned that…gasp….not every good barbecue joint uses mesquite wood.  Some use oak, hickory, and pecan.  One of the cooks revealed that he obtained some of his wood from Oklahomo.   He was adequately, but good naturedly booed, and seemed sufficiently chastised for the revelation.

They all stressed the importance of taking your time and slow and delicious is always better than fast and burnt.  Some of the briskets take as long as 20 hours to properly cook.

Ramona loved Baker’s Ribs out of Dallas which was booth #4.  I had some of the offerings from The Salt Lick from Driftwood at booth #5.  It is ok, but I always think places like The Salt Lick charge way too much for their brisket.  I can get the same plate they charge an arm and a leg for at The Salt Lick  over at Packsaddle Barbecue in San Angelo for $6.95 and it’s better.  But hey, it’s Austin and people will shell out the money like it’s a barbecue stimulus package or something.

We kept on going and by the time we had visited booth #6 which was the Country Tavern, we were actually getting our fill of barbecue.  I had some misgivings about going to the event to start with having a sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t really get to taste my fill of the good stuff.  That sneaking suspicion was completely unfounded.  I bet every single person who wanted a good taste or sample of barbecue got what they wanted and more.  There was plenty.  More than plenty.  Kudos to whomever was in charge of that aspect of the event.

We made it all the way to booth #15 before stopping to sit down at a table.  That included stops at Buzzie’s from Kerrville, Louie Mueller from Taylor, TC’s Ponderosa from Dickens, and Snow’s BBQ from Lexington, last year’s big winner.  After finding a magnificent front row seat to enjoy the entertainment, Ramona brought me more barbecue, beer, and fried pies.  I did get to taste Franklin BBQ from Austin which is fast becoming famous, and one of my old favorites, Hard Eight BBQ out of Brady and Stephenville.  We stop at the Brady location on occasion and have also been in the Stephenville place.  And of course, I have also been in Smitty’s several times as well as Black’s in Lockhart.  Black’s was not in the competition this year.

About the seating arrangements…I must have had my Astral stars in alignment just right as we walked to an area directly in front of the stage area and sat down in two front row seats.  It was there we enjoyed Jimmy Vaughan and the Tilt-A-Whirl Band starting at about 1:30 or so and later Ray Benson & Friends performed.  Ramona felt so moved by Benson’s performance that she bought a bottle of Asleep-At-The-Wheel barbecue sauce.  Ray was nice enough to autograph it for her.  He looks to be about 9 feet taller than her.  Ray used to play golf with my buddy T. Gozney Thornton who sings the song in the video montage above.

At 2:30, there was a panel discussion hosted by Texas Monthly Editor Jake Silverstein and he had on stage with him Stanley of Stanley’s Famous Barbecue, Tad of Buzzie’s BBQ of Kerrville, Tootsie Snow of Snow’s BBQ out of Lexington, and then the poor fellow who admitted some of his wood was imported from Oklahoma.  I have to really hand it to Jake as he tried to keep everyone on topic.  Stanley went off on his topics, Tad sounded like he had too much barbecue already and rambled a bit, and 80 year old Tootsie related she had learned her secrets from the masters of barbecue and opened her own place.  Snow’s is only open for a few hours each weekend day until sold out.  And you had better get there early.  That is a similar story told to me by a friend I met in line about Franklin’s BBQ in Austin, the new ‘in’ place as far as barbecue goes.

If I took away anything from the panel discussion it was that you should keep an even temperature and do not rush the cooking process.  They all said cooking the barbecue took quite a while and it just-can’t-be rushed.  And, I have to admit, it was a revelation to me to learn that good barbecue can be had by cooking it with oak, pecan, or hickory.

It was at the discussion I learned that not every great barbecue cook uses mesquite.  I assumed they would have had mesquite wood flown in from that place in Egypt had it been necessary, but it must be acceptable to use pecan, oak, and hickory in the process.  That is a very good thing because I have an abundance of mesquite, pecan, and live oak in my immediate vicinity.  I wouldn’t know a hickory tree if it grew up through my beer box.

As I recall, Opie’s was one of the only vendors who also supplied a side dish with their barbecue.  That was a plus in my book.  Yes, it was a little extra trouble and expense, but it was worth it.  I do enjoy some beans, cole slaw, and cream corn on occasion and even a little cobbler if it looks good.  So, way to go Opie’s.  Sides are important in a barbecue joint.  They are not extremely necessary, but if the place has sides, I hope they are good just like Opie’s.

Snow’s was right up there again this year for me.  Really good barbecue.  Also, I have to put Franklin’s in there on the top tier.  However, as I stated, there was NO BAD BARBECUE on this day.  It was all good and tasty.

Here is a panel discussion of BBQ tips with Jake Silverstein as panel moderator. It lasts about 14 minutes so watch it when you have time…..

Top awards this year (2011) were won  by Franklin Barbecue of Austin (best brisket), Louie Mueller Barbecue of Taylor (best beef ribs and best sausage), and Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q of Tyler (best pork ribs). Last  year’s best brisket winner was Snow’s BBQ of Lexington.  There were over 3000 barbecue lovers who attended this year’s event and voting was done on a special form with perforated tear away ballots like Ramona is holding here.  We dropped off our ballots at the Tide booth and the winners were named later.

Will I go back for the 3rd annual event?  Heck yes.  Hats off to Jake Silverstein and Texas Monthly for coordinating a first class event that is pure Texas.   The vendors had plenty of good barbecue for everyone.

My misgivings and pre-conceived ideas were unfounded.  The folks at Texas Monthly under the leadership of Jake Silverstein really do have a genuine interest in something as important and  ‘Texan’ as good barbecue in addition to the lesser issues like politics, education, water shortages, endless drought, and pollution facing the Great State.

Go over the list of barbecue places and find one of the competitors in your neck of the woods and see what you think.

I’m a believer.  Now if I can just get Burka to come around to my Real Texas way of thinking more……








{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MarkyNo Gravatar November 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Love the smell of BBQ. One of the most-enjoyed foods here in Cebu City. One time the people here made a kilometer-long barbecue grill by the side of the road. I think it was during the third week of January each year where the famous Cebu fiesta of Sinulog is held. This was several years ago and I only remember it now that mentioned barbecue festival. =D


Don in WacoNo Gravatar November 18, 2011 at 5:02 pm

You’re in luck! Pecan IS a hickory. I’m partial to mesquite, too, but mesquite can sure mess up a good piece of ‘que if it hasn’t had the hydrocarbons burnt out of it. I wanted to attend the TM event but had a job transfer and move to deal with. I miss the great ‘que around Austin and nothing in Waco seems to be much better than Rudy’s, which beats nothing. I heard the lines for Franklin’s were way long. I’d like to try it but I’m not much for waiting in line.

Burka’s okay but too conservative for my tastes, lol. If the conservatives think he’s liberal and the liberals think he’s conservative, then he might just be doing his job as a journalist.

Happy cooking, with whatever wood smokes your brisket, this holiday season.


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