They are a disparate, motley crew with little in common aside from a deep and abiding love of debauchery and barbecue. An RV stocked with beer, booze, antacids, and fiber pills picks them up at them the airport, a large rented vacation home awaits them at day's end. Each tour has its own logo and graphics, emblazoned on t-shirts, temporary tattoos and stickers, much like a touring rock band. They call themselves The Brotherhood of Smoke.
This smoky dozen leave in their wake a trail of greasy butcher paper, empty beer cans, and tour stickers plastered on most every available surface. They barrel through the Texas countryside, pulling into pit after pit to sample the best barbecue the state has to offer, devouring whole menus, visiting as many as seven places in a day.
MEAT, Smoke, AND TIME: A TEXAS BARBECUE PRIMER
For the uninitiated, Texas style barbecue is as primal and stripped down a form as you will find. It was born largely from the German meat markets that took root in Texas in the late 19th century. The style revolves, not unexpectedly, around beef. Brisket is the most popular cut, followed closely by sausage and not so closely by beef short ribs. Pork and even lamb make appearances on menus but, quite frankly, beef is king in Texas, and brisket is king in Texas barbecue.
The meat is generally rubbed only with salt and black pepper and smoked for long hours over post oak. When finished, a dense crust forms on the outside of the cuts. Called the "bark," it is the result of the dry rub absorbing the smoke. Ideally the bark reaches the color of the darkest mahogany.
The finest slice of brisket can be effortlessly peeled from the whole with the slightest pressure from the carver's knife, leaving lithe, tender ribbons of beef. Immediately below the bark, one finds a thick pink/purple line known as the smoke ring. It is the result of gases from the smoke interacting with liquids on the meat's surface. This is one of the hallmarks of great barbecue and is an indicator that the smoke has penetrated the meat, imbuing it with its essence.
Despite the dense application of salt and pepper and the infusion of smoke, the best barbecue still tastes supremely beefy. The simplicity and primacy of the process yields a product that is more complex than the sum of its parts.
Echoing this primacy, the meat is served in a rudimentary manner: sliced by hand on battered butcher's blocks and sold by the pound. While many restaurants — like Kreuz in Lockhart and Southside in Elgin — have added sides like macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and coleslaw to the menu, the purest of form like Snow's in Lexington might only offer you some pickled jalapeño and some beans. And sauce is less de rigueur here than in any other barbecue region. It is, in fact, completely eschewed at many places in the Lone Star state, although its absence is perhaps not as rare as legend would have one believe.
Texas barbecue is most frequently served on large sheets of brown butcher paper, reiterating the origins of the form. The paper helps soak up the copious juices that stream from freshly cut brisket. Order brisket, sausage, short ribs, and some pork spares and they will be tightly bundled together in butcher paper and handed to you in a neat package. This form of packaging is ideal for the tour as the barbecue can be laid out on the large communal tables that proliferate in the spartan barbecue dining rooms. These bundles of meat are then set upon by the tour members, each of whom carries their own knife.
DAY 1: Austin's New School and Taylor's Old School
The Brotherhood's tour starts in Austin and follows a similar path each year, although the restaurants visited change over time. For the last few years, and for the conceivable future, the tour begins at Franklin Barbecue, a decidedly new school pit that has in many ways dragged barbecue into the 21st century. Parenthetically, the first tour commenced the year Franklin Barbecue opened up shop in 2010.
Owned and operated by pitmaster Aaron Franklin, the restaurant has grown to prominence on the back of truly exceptional barbecue. Last year the influential Texas Monthly named Franklin the best barbecue in the state (which to a Texan means the best in the world). This year La Barbecue was added to the schedule. Pitmaster John Lewis is an alumni of Franklin Barbecue and is giving his former boss a run for his money. He turns out some world class brisket and short ribs.
Leaving Austin, the tour generally heads to Elgin to visit Southside Market and Meyer's . Both places have storied pasts — operating for 125 and 65 years respectively — and are renowned for producing Elgin hot guts, a natural casing sausage stuffed with coarsely chopped beef. You can find sausage from both Southside and Meyer's sold in supermarkets throughout the state, but nothing beats eating them right from the smokers in Elgin. While the beef sausage is the main draw, the jalapeño cheddar sausage, which contains a pork and beef mix, is equally delicious.
From Elgin the tour rolls up to Taylor. While the Brotherhood has certainly enjoyed plenty of delicious barbecue up to this point, the environments they have done so in are decidedly modern — Franklin and La Barbecue are situated in densely populated urban areas and both Meyer's and Southside, despite being decades old, occupy relatively new buildings.
But in Taylor one finds true old-school places, steeped in nostalgia, petrified in pit smoke and, for the most part, unsullied by the glitz and gleam of the modern world. Taylor looks like a ghost town, with thrift and antique shops (mostly indistinguishable from each other) lining the main street nestled between empty store fronts, where one imagines banks and groceries must have once stood. A train track runs through town and both the places the tour visits seem to be decidedly on the wrong side of it.
First stop is Louie Mueller Barbecue, for what is the purest, most stripped-down expression of Texas barbecue. The room is stained a dark brown from decades of inadequately ventilated pit smoke circling the building. The barbecue here is consummate, with textbook brisket and ribs. It is the place that the Brotherhood has visited the most times, often as many as four visits during the tour.
Equally beloved is Taylor Cafe, where the day wraps up with beef brisket sandwiches and ice cold beers. Taylor Cafe is operated by the venerable and legendary pit master Vencil Mares, who just turned 95 and holds court at the end of the bar.
DAY 2: City Market and Lockhart's Finest
The second day of tour traditionally commences at City Market in Luling, which for many of the Brotherhood represents the quintessential Texas barbecue experience, offering an incomparable combination of food, hospitality and environment. It is hard to choose between the brisket, sausage, and pork ribs here; the mustard-laced sauce that sits in little bottles on each table is wonderful on them all.
From Luling the bus heads to Lockhart — once the undisputed epicenter of Texas barbecue — to visit some of the state's most famous establishments. Kreuz Market, Smitty's, and Black's have long histories and are mandatory destinations for anyone embarking on a serious exploration of Texas barbecue. But a stop at Chisolm Trail, the other-other-other barbecue joint in Lockhart, rarely disappoints. It is a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves locals and happens to serve more than decent barbecue, including beef back ribs, which are curiously not that common.
DAY 3: SNOW's, Zimmerhanzel's, Prause Market
Saturday mornings are principally dedicated to Snow's Barbecue in Lexington, which is another contender for best barbecue in the state and was actually deemed as such by Texas Monthly back in 2008 (Snow's remains in the top four). Snow's is only open one day a week and Tootsie Tomanetz, who runs the pits, turns out some masterful brisket, sausage, pork ribs, and pork steak.
From Snow's the tour heads south to Zimmerhanzel's in Smithville. The restaurant, with its bright orange exterior and matching Formica chairs, dates back to 1980, but seems far older. And there is a timeless quality to the barbecue as well — especially the sausage and brisket which has all the hallmarks of great barbecue.
Next up is Prause Meat Market, which serves as a butcher shop selling fresh meat as well as smoking it in the back, echoing the origins of Texas barbecue. The tour might end up at Gonzalez Meat Market for brisket and lamb ribs, or Novosad's for some delicious sausage, but this year we chose to double back to Louie Mueller.
DAY 4: Cooper's and One Last Trip to Franklin
The final day sees the Brotherhood trekking out to Cooper's in Llano and the massive pits stuffed with all manner of meats before doubling back and ending up in Austin. Most of the old-school places are not open on Sundays, but Franklin most certainly is and the last stop before heading to the airport is to pick up pre-ordered brisket.
How to Eat This Much Barbecue in Four Days
One of the keys to victory on the tour is to not overeat at any one stop, a goal that is reached to varying degrees of success. Leftovers are always taken to go and usually consumed at night for dinner, along with the fresh sausages.
One might imagine that consuming that much barbecue over the course of several days would dull the senses, reducing perception to a single smoky, salty note. But actually the opposite is the case. One becomes acutely aware of every aspect of the craft. A brisket just slightly past due or a bark that veers ever so slightly towards flaccidity will cause immediate offense, where otherwise it might go unnoticed. Over- and under-seasoning are brought into stark relief, and the vivid memory of the day's best brisket is at most hours old. In many cases there is a slab of it sitting in the RV.
While there is no formal ranking on the tour, there is robust discussion about favorites, with poor showings being suffered most un-gladly. Some places are worthy of return visits, some jettisoned from future itineraries after a single visit. But the barbecue itself is only part of the experience, the hospitality and the immersion in Texas culture — especially in the less touristy areas — is as much a part of it as the food itself.
A Road Map For a Grand Texas Barbecue Tour
The most frequently asked question about the tour is "how do I join?" to which the answer is invariably "you can't." Like the rub and smoking technique on the finest brisket, the tour is a delicately balanced beast. The members are, to a man, dysfunctional miscreants that happen to get along within the context of consuming alarming amounts of barbecue in a compressed time frame, crammed together on a bus. Really, no rational person would board the barbecue tour bus.
But that doesn't mean that you can't engage in your own tour. Year Six awaits the Brotherhood of Smoke next March, and maybe you will cross paths on the tour you should be planning right now with eleven of your best friends. Here is a map of some of the tour's favorite stops and what to order to help you along: