Before the pandemic, the arrival of Saturday mornings meant that legions of barbecue aficionados would take to the highways and byways of the Lone Star State with a full tank of gas and a destination of one of Texas’ many legendary barbecue spots in mind.
This past spring as capacity restrictions at restaurants waned and vaccines became available, there was a collective urge to get out of the house and do something after 15 months of near solitude. With longer days and warmer temperatures announcing summer’s impending arrival, it seemed like an ideal time for a road trip or six to find off-the-beaten-path barbecue spots.
The notion of hopping into the car and heading out on some Kerouac-esque adventure holds a romantic, timeless appeal. But reality quickly reins in those thoughts, so all of these road trips can easily be accomplished in a day’s time. For this series, in which there are six, 150 miles or so was the furthest destination; easily accomplished for the outbound leg without dreading the drive home to our more pedestrian responsibilities.
For a multitude of reasons, these trips ended up as solo adventures. Traveling by yourself can be an opportunity for self-reflection, rediscovering yourself away from the grind of everyday life. For some of these trips that meant blasting down a two-lane road at extra-legal speeds, the radio volume competing with the wind from the open windows, reveling in the freedom behind the wheel.
Conversely, there were days where the pressures and distractions of everyday life attempted to confine me to home. But long drives on open roads can clear the mind, so I would force myself to hit the highway. And on those trips, the windows stayed up, music at a more reasonable volume, as the solitude worked to quell the other voices in my brain.
If these types of trips teach us anything, it's to remember that barbecue is about much more than perfect bark on a slice of glorious brisket (OK, that’s still important). When it comes to Texas barbecue everyone has an opinion about what it should or shouldn’t be. Social media would have you believe we’re the most unreasonable bunch of fanatics when it comes to barbecue, with set-in-stone beliefs about the wood that fuels the fire, the type of smoker you cook with, or where barbecue sauce fits into the meal.
Our long food traditions play a major part in making us so stringent in our expectations of barbecue. But barbecue’s roots invariably lead back to people who gathered around fires as meats slowly cooked under waves of smoke and bonded with each other over the meal. Your road trips may look different these, from the destinations and experiences to the stories that you recall later. And those differences are OK.
Barbecue is more than a technique; it’s part of a social construct that has always brought people together despite their differences. Even on trips where we looked forward to being on our own, barbecue was always there, ready to welcome us back when we were ready, and hold us in its warm smoky embrace. Our road trip series may be wrapping up, but we look forward to continuing the journey, wherever the road may take us.
Slaughter's BBQ Oasis1000 Gilmer St., Sulphur Springs
Open Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-Sold Out
Behind that trailer is a small oak-fired smoker that produces succulent brisket, expertly executed ribs with a dessert-like glaze, while a peppery jalapeño sausage, pulled pork and turkey breast all hit their marks with authority.
For the full experience, try the “Little Vaughn” a tray with half a pound of all the meats, a half rack of ribs and three sides. The creamy potato salad stopped us mid-bite, fork in mouth, in awe of the delicious taste. Be sure to snag some of their jalapeño slaw, a playful mix of cool cabbage with bites of heat from the peppers and pinto beans that sparkle under a cilantro and tomato topping. And a cold can of Lone Star, of course.
Read the full story on Slaughter's BBQ Oasis here.
Helberg Barbecue8532 N. Highway 6, Woodway
11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. - 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday and 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sunday
Owners Philip and Yvette Helberg want their Central Texas spot to be an anchor for the way barbecue used to be done. Philip likes to use the word “sacred” when discussing the history of barbecue.
Helberg Barbecue certainly nails the sacred barbecue favorites. Moist slices of brisket are encased with a thick peppery bark. The pork spare ribs are imbued with a smoky flavor and the Gouda-jalapeño sausage is a creamy twist on a classic.
Side dishes are equally impressive. The corn salad is held together with spices, crema and cotija cheese. The macaroni and cheese is topped off with potato chips and French fried onions, elevating the staple side.
It’s great to see places like this keeping our state's long-storied tradition of smoked meat alive.
Read the full story Helberg here.
Mesquiteville Bar-B-Q501 S. Main St., Jacksboro
Open 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 12 p.m. - 10 p.m. Saturday, Closed Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Jack Nichols was looking for a quiet life for his family when they moved from Aledo to the tiny town of Jacksboro. What he didn’t expect to find was inspiration to open Mesquiteville Bar-B-Q.
After COVID hit, Nichols was laid off from his oil and gas job. One Sunday morning while reading the Bible he told his wife that God wanted him to open a barbecue joint. His wife, Ashley, quipped back, “Jesus wants you to get a job.”
He did both.
Mesquiteville Bar-B-Q’s home is a 1950s camper gutted of its former life — wall-to-wall green shag carpeting — and reborn as a kitchen. A small offset smoke on a trailer resides under a shed behind the camper.
Smartly executed barbecue caressed by mesquite smoke is served in true Central Texas-style here. Nichols prefers to keep it simple with flavors; he uses only salt and pepper. The noticeable but not oppressive smokiness of mesquite is what sets it apart. Slices of brisket have an impressive bark on each slice. Pulled pork and sausage were all smoked with aplomb. Pork ribs seasoned with salt and pepper mingle well with a house-made tomato and vinegar-based sauce.
A three-meat plate with two sides was just $15.99, a tribute to small-town economics, serving out of a trailer and sitting outdoors.
Read the full story on Mesquiteville Bar-B-Q here.
Smokehouse BBQ307 US Highway 82, Lindsay
10:30 a.m. - 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m. - 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Sunday
Here plates of barbecue are served to the locals the way they used to be, before words like “craft” and “elevated” were common descriptors. Slices of brisket are trimmed of all fat. The bark wasn't the crunchy salt and pepper crust typical of the Hill Country, but there was still a smokiness to the beef that we found enjoyable, and the side of barbecue sauce saved the drier bites admirably.
You’ll also find German-style sausage here, which was unlike any other sausage we sampled in our barbecue travels. Don’t skip the $3 slice of pie; that is a non-negotiable.
Judging by the steady stream of patrons, Smokehouse BBQ will be here long after places that chase the next fad have come and gone.
Read the full story on Smokehouse BBQ here.
Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler
Open 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
We gorged ourselves on fatty melt-in-your-mouth brisket that came with a generous amount of rendered fat lying just under a thick bark. The sausage casings snap perfectly with each bite and the ground meat blend is spiced with a perfect level of zing. Note: a side of Stanley’s red-skinned potato salad is damn near worth the drive on its own.
Be sure to add a taco to your order too. A generous portion of pulled pork is served on a flour tortilla topped with cheese, sliced cabbage, guacamole, pico and salsa verde.
Plan a trip for a weekend evening — Stanley’s is also a live music venue with a litany of local, regional and national musicians. Their sprawling patio has grown over the years and now includes an air-conditioned bar with plenty of seats, beers, bourbons, beers and cocktails.
Read the full story on Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q here.
Sunbird Barbecue7486 US-259, Longview
11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, Closed Sunday-Tuesday
Take our advice and arrive early — locals and visitors alike will line up at Sunbird's trailer next to a gas station, and for good reason. Both lean and fatty brisket were delicious and fall-apart tender. Sunbird also crafts a different sausage each week, and we got to try a pair of them — a textbook Central Texas-style hot link, and a boudin link stuffed with brisket burnt ends. You'll not go wrong no matter what sausage makes its way to the menu board.
Sunbird's popularity means sellouts happen quickly, and menu items will come off the board before your eyes. On our visit, that mean turkey and pulled pork both sold out before we got to the window, along with a Dr Pepper glazed pork belly burnt end we'd been eyeing. But that just means you should plan a return visit, as parts of the menu change every week.
Read the full story on Sundbird Barbecue here.