I thought I'd share some highlights and rankings of the ten (count 'em 10) Central Texas BBQ places my buddy and I visited over a 3 and a half day period. (Yes, I'm on salads for a while.)
We ranked establishments on brisket, ribs and sausage, took a lot of notes and then aggregated our choices into 1 - 10 ranking. We visited the famous establishments and some lesser known ones. All of these are in or within 30 miles of Austin. There were a few surprises marked with an asterisk**.
Keep in mind, these are the best of the best of BBQ, so even the ones at the bottom of the list are pretty outstanding, and if you were to make any of this at home, you'd be the hero of the neighborhood.
#1: Louie Mueller in Taylor, TX: This is the 80+ year old family run BBQ shrine which seems to keep this tiny old town alive, and it really is as good as all the Food Network people rave about. Just awesome 'Q. Perfectly flavored, tender, juicy while still-lean brisket. A two inch smoke ring that looks painted on. Pork ribs that melt in your mouth. And the sausage! My God, the sausage! The cases of these gnarled, cordovan-colored links snap when you break them, are juicy but not fatty, smoky, perfect textured, with a bit of heat at the end. The place itself is typical of the famous old Texas BBQ joints: cavernous and barn-like, with every inch of its aged wooden interior amber with decades of pit smoke. A real piece of history.
**#2: Sam's BBQ on 12 St. just east of I-35 in Austin: This small, family run neighborhood establishment came in a close second and is one of the surprises as it's not particularly well-known. The brisket here is the star with a bark that is black, salty and crispy, giving way to buttery, beefy brisket that is perfectly seasoned and deeply smoked. The pork ribs are massive and fall apart tender and very "porky". Less impressive but still very good was the sausage. We had a true homemade "Texas style" link which is beef and coarsely textured which was good and peppery, and a kielbasa style link which was mild, smoky and refined.
**#3: Rudy's in Round Rock, TX: Another surprise perhaps because it is a small chain and you don't expect chains with corporate marketing campaigns and modern cash registers to be any good. The brisket was top notch, tender, smoky and well seasoned, the pork ribs very tender, peppery and buttery, while the sausage was a good coarse Texas beef sausage with snap and a bit of heat.
#4: Black's in Lockhart, TX: Very famous, decades-old place worth its reputation. May I give a shout out to it's cowboy beans?
#5: Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX: Another legendary, massive establishment with a famous pit master who looks like a cross between Elvis and John Belushi. He swaggers around the place with a huge fork in his hand. Top notch in all categories.
**#6: Milt's Pit in Kyle, TX, on I-35 South of Austin - Another not-well known place which knocked us out with solid food in all categories served in a permanent house-tent establishment on the side of the highway. The peach cobbler is to die for, by the way.
#7: Southside Market & BBQ, Elgin TX: Very solid food, but the sausages are the highlight here. Classic Texas style with a strong German influence (since so many Germans settled in this state).
**#8: Smitty's, Lockhart, TX: The surprise of this much adored old legend was that it was such a disappointment. The brisket was chewy-to-rubbery, the pork ribs bland and very fatty, and the coarse grind homemade sausage well seasoned but oozing grease. I should point out that my buddy would rank this around #4, and it has been famous for decades for a reason. They may have just been having an off day.
#9: Salt Lick in the Austin Airport: The famous restaurant is in Driftwood, TX, but when we saw this store in the airport on our way to fly home we had to try it. Very good, but they dumped a bunch of sweet sauce on everything to appeal to a wider sweet tooth rather than be true to genuine Texas BBQ, which serves sauce on the side, if at all. Don't get me wrong, It was very good, just felt a bit like a cheat. It is probably better at the real store.
#10: House Park BBQ, Austin, TX: Another oldy but a goody not too far from University of Texas.
208 S Commerce St, Lockhart, TX 78644
619 N Colorado St, Lockhart, TX 78644
2000 E 12th St, Austin, TX 78702
215 N Main St, Lockhart, TX 78644
Southside Market & B-B-Q
1212 Highway 290 E, Elgin, TX 78621
3600 Presidential Blvd, Austin, TX
House Park Bar-B-Q
900 W 12th St, Austin, TX 78703
Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W 2nd St, Taylor, TX 76574
Rudy's Country Store & Bar-B-Q
2400 N Interstate 35, Round Rock, TX 78681
Milt's Pit Bbq
905 N Old Highway 81, Kyle, TX 78640