“I see myself as a diplomat of Texas barbecue. It’s my duty to try and tell the world about its greatness.” That’s Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn, who at the time of our phone call was driving from Dallas to San Antonio in his endless search for smoked meat.

Vaughn’s tireless chronicling is symptomatic of a much larger trend taking hold of America. As barbecue continues to root itself in non-traditional urban centers across the country—and even overseas in the U.K. and France—it is Texas-style barbecue that has emerged as the triumphant ‘cue lineage. Not only has brisket eclipsed pork to become the power-player in the circuit, but Texas has solidified its reputation as the holy pilgrimage site thanks to Aaron Franklin and Louie Mueller.

“Central Texas is probably the most stark version of barbecue here,” says Vaughn. “This is something sexy about a glossy slab of beef slapped down on a piece of butcher paper. It has to stand on its own; there’s nothing to prop it up.”

Those are good reasons why the region dominates most conversations about Texas barbecue, but it is only one part of a broader story. South Texas draws from the barbacoa tradition, while east Texas is noticeably Southern-inflected. On the micro-regional scale, you’ll find a brown gravy sauce in Red River County, or places in Dallas that always conclude a meal with soft-serve. Even regions like Hill Country warrant more attention, says Vaughn.

“It’s a very unique cooking style which is really only done with whole hog in the Carolina. But part of my job is to take generalizations and bring them to light.”

Right on cue: Here Vaughn walks us through the varying traditions that make Texas a barbecue mecca.

Region: East Texas

Target cities: Marshall-Longview area, Houston, Henderson, Livingston
Specialties: Chopped-beef sandwiches, ribs, boudin

Vaughn says: “The first style to really develop was east Texas. Due to the slave migration, many African Americans came here and brought their traditions with them, which is why this region is more akin to the rest of Southern barbecue. There are still many African-American pitmasters, and their influence resonates. You still see signs like “Need No Teeth to Eat My Beef.” Chopped-beef sandwiches and ribs are popular as opposed to sliced meats. Ribs are covered in a thin tomato-based sauce that also has some vinegar kick to it. The more recent addition you can find is smoked boudin, which is a Louisiana import as far as the tradition of making boudin. The boudin that’s made from Zummo Meat Company is spelled “boudain,” funnily enough.” (Photo: Yelp/Phil K.)

Photo: Yelp/Jeff B.

Where to go: Go to Carter’s (519 S Eastman Rd, Longview; 903-236-3271) and get the Carter Special: beans, chopped brisket, chopped boudin, cheese, onions, and barbecue sauce. Ray’s BBQ Shack (4529 Old Spanish Trail, Houston; 713-748-4227) in Houston makes their own boudin, and they have a much spicier pork and beef sausage. They also have fried catfish and seafood. Check out Triple J’s Smokehouse (6715 Homestead Rd, Houston; 713-635-6381), as well as Bob’s BBQ (1205 Pope St, Henderson; 903-657-8301) in Henderson.

Region: South Texas

Target cities: Brownsville
Specialty: Barbacoa

Vaughn says: “This region is really influenced by the Tejano (or Texan Mexican-Americans). Barbacoa was the barbecue style of Mexico before that part of country became Texas. If you look at the ancient cooking styles of barbecue, the practice called for cooking meat under the ground. There’s a barrier to entry with that style—because of the hard work involved in cooking with a pit and convincing the Health Department that it’s a safe method, it has fallen out of commercial barbecue entirely, and has remained in the domain of backyard cooking. There’s only one traditional place left that serves it to the public: Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville. It’s the only remaining legal operation that cooks whole beef heads in the ground with wood. Here they dig a pit, line it with concrete or brick, build a fire at the bottom, let that fire burn down to coals, line with agave leaves, put the beef heads down, and then cover the pit with a lid. The new-school way is to take beef head, cheek, or tongue, wrap them up and steam them in a giant bain marie or braise it in the oven, and then peel the meat off. It yields really tender meat, but there’s something different about texture of preparing it the traditional way; it tastes more juicy and less wet.

Photo: Facebook/Vera’s

South Texas is also known for its use of mesquite wood; it really defines that region. Oak and pecan are pretty mild, hickory is a bit stronger, but mesquite is really the strongest. If you look back, for a while mesquite trees were seen as a nuisance. They proliferate, and they clog up open plains. In the ’70s, Clancy’s Restaurant in NYC was cooking seafood directly over mesquite fire. Before this, it wasn’t even on the radar of Northern cooks. It sparked a true interest, and now mesquite suppliers send a whole lot of wood to NYC chefs.”

Where to eat: You order a quarter pound of barbacoa and tortillas at Vera’s (2404 Southmost Rd, Brownsville; 956-546-4159). You should ask for cachete; it’s like the pot roast of a beef head. It’s a super marbled piece of meat.

Region: Hill Country

Target cities: Llano, Mason, Medina
Specialities: Pork chops, goat, pork ribs

Vaughn says: “Here they’re burning mesquite down to coals, taking a big shovel to move the coals over to pit, and sprinkling the coals directly underneath the meat. It’s kind of like grilling, but it’s all a matter of distance. The grate is quite a bit higher above the fire than your Weber grill. This is useful for large events, but it doesn’t work so well for on-demand ordering. In a commercial setting with this set-up, you’d have to wait every other day for a batch of barbecue to be ready. So the solution is to burn down the coals in a separate fire off to the side so you can replenish the pit over and over. It really is just the same method of cooking that we would’ve done hundreds of years ago in barbecue, but raised off the ground with a feeder fire. It’s a much faster way of cooking, and one of the keys is that it’s in a low oxygen environment. The pit is in a enclosed steel box to avoid big flare ups. The smoke of the wood itself is long gone, and what you’re left with is fat dripping onto the fire and vaporizing back onto the meat.

Besides the usual cuts, goat is very popular, as are pork steaks (shoulder that is cut against the grain) and pork chops. Pork steaks are one of my favorite cuts. Another signature of this region is its use of vinegar. Because you’re cooking with direct heat, moisture loss is a problem, and to mend this, many places mop the meats with vinegar. It’s not something you’ll find in central Texas. This style of cooking really does not favor brisket. Cooking brisket in such a hot environment is less forgiving. There’s a much shorter window of perfect doneness for brisket in this style. It’s also going to dry out a lot quicker once you slice it. More than any other place, make sure you eat your brisket quickly.” (Photo: Facebook/SouthSide BBQ)

Where to eat: Try South Side BBQ (16032 TX-16, Cherokee; 325-622-4444) in Cherokee, and Smokin G’s Double Barrel BBQ in San Saba for pork steak, double-thick pork chops, and pork ribs.

4. Region: Central Texas

Photo: goodiesfirst.com

Target cities: Lockhart, Luling, Austin, Taylor
Specialty: Brisket, beef clod, smoked sausage

Vaughn says: “Central Texas-style is popular because of its popularity across the country. For people who live outside of the state, their only connection to Texas is the one style of barbecue served in their own town—and more likely than not it will be central Texas. You see it in Seattle, Phoenix, and all over. In terms of rituals, you’re going to order meat by the pound at a counter. You’re going to see the person cut it, and the meat will be served on butcher paper. Seasoning is minimal, and sauce will be on the side (a lot of people mistake that for no sauce).

Brisket is certainly one of the symbols of central Texas, along with the pork spare ribs as opposed to baby-back ribs. Smoked sausage is very important here as well. More than any other style of barbecue in the U.S., central Texas is known for its homemade links. The best are juicy, smoky, and peppery. They should have a skin that it easy to bite through, and provides what I like to call a good ‘snap.’

This barbecue style developed in the Czech and German meat markets following the Civil War. Meat markets didn’t have refrigeration back in those days. They displayed meats on shelves inside a case. After a few days the meat got ripe, so whatever meat you didn’t get rid of, you could either put it in the barbecue, or put it in a case and smoke it. That became the way to serve leftovers in meat markets.

Meat markets were grocery stores. If you wanted a side item, you went to the aisle to see what was on the shelf. That’s the reason that pickles and white bread are so prevalent, because no one is going to be giving away avocado and tomatoes. What’s the cheapest thing you can offer? Raw onion, dill pickle chips, and white bread.

Now there’s a divide between new school and old school. The new school (think Franklin Barbecue and Freedmen’s) is defined by a laser focus on beef quality. It’s really a different style of cooking. They start with a high grade of beef like prime beef, and there’s absolute consistency from day-to-day, hour-to-hour; that is of the utmost importance. You get a phenomenal slice no matter when you show up.  With an old-school place like Kreuz, it’s more of a gamble. You can have an ‘aha’ moment as well as a mediocre one. At Franklin that doesn’t happen.”

Where to eat: Kreuz (619 N Colorado St, Lockhart; 512-398-2361), Smitty’s (208 S Commerce St, Lockhart; 512-398-9344), and Prause’s (253 W Travis St
La Grange) in La Grange. Black’s (215 N Main St, Lockhart) and Louie Mueller (206 W 2nd St, Taylor; 512-352-6206) are known for their big beef short ribs. They were pioneers in popularizing them in Texas.