On Sunday afternoon, there were two huge lines at Texas Monthly's 2014 TMBBQ Festival. The first was a queue of fans lined up for the festival's general admission entry, while the other held a throng of VIP ticket holders who had already filled up the Franklin Barbecue line. Yes, even fancy curated festivals have a Franklin line.
The beauty of the event was the fact that Franklin was in the company of so many great pitmasters that guests could pass him up and not feel cheated. (Not many did, though.) As Dale Watson played a lively set on the lawn, 'cue enthusiasts consulted their maps and made haste for the magazine's top tier of barbecue: Pecan Lodge, Louie Mueller, Franklin and Snow's were all in attendance.
The spirit of friendly rivalry showed strongly in the food; there were very few off bites and most of the dishes deserved significant praise. Here are our picks for best bites at the 2014 festival:
Pecan Lodge (Dallas)
Sometimes the simple plates are the best ones. Pecan Lodge has done off-menu specials in prior years, but dialed in on brisket (both fatty and lean) for the 2014 festival. The results were phenomenal: Our cut had perfect fat, great moistness, and while it teetered just on the edge of the done side, it was an undisputed work of greatness. The first family of Dallas barbecue showed that the hype is still well deserved.
La Barbecue (Austin)
Perhaps it was the home-field advantage, but La Barbecue's trifecta of lean brisket, fatty brisket and pulled pork showed how good the joint has become. All three meats were superb. The brisket had a beautifully rendered fat and was simply flawless — even the lean piece was packed with flavor and was worth using coveted stomach space to finish. The pulled pork was moist and had both a great vinegar tang and some bits of delicious fat in the mix. It's no wonder that the legend (and line) continues to grow as John Lewis, Ali Clem and their team keep producing otherworldly meats.
Miller's Smokehouse (Belton)
Miller's brisket had the best crust of any brisket we tried on Sunday. When we asked how they did it, co-owner Dusty Miller produced a jar of dry rub composed of salt, paprika, sugar, garlic, onion, celery and turmeric. He also said the smokehouse prefers the Central Texas German style of 'cue, and the craft was evident. The entire plate had a great depth of flavor: The sausage had snap, the brisket was cooked perfectly and the convivial spirit from the booth was evident.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (Austin)
Lambert's did an excellent traditional three-meat plate at the festival. We particularly enjoyed the vinegar-heavy pulled pork, which (along with La Barbecue) was the best version we ate at the event. The star of the table, though, Chef de Cuisine Reid Guess' Whole Black Angus Short Rib with a cilantro and scallion slaw topped with Red Boat fish sauce. The dish was the biggest surprise of the festival, and both the sauce and the slaw highlighted the meat. The crunch of the slaw helped reset one's palate for the dish, which was no easy feat at this meaty event. Guess said he brought the dish because it was a crowd favorite from the current Lambert's menu. "Whenever we sell the first one of the night, we almost immediately get 10 more orders — people see the dish and the color and texture and then every table orders one."
Hutchins BBQ (McKinney)
When we complimented Tim Hutchins on the restaurant's jalapeno sausage, he said the secrets were simple. "We use 60 percent beef, which we get from our trimmings, and 40 percent pork butts. Then we throw in fresh jalapeno. The only trick is doing it fresh daily instead of in bigger batches." The resulting sausage somehow balanced spice, smokiness and cheese with great snap and a distinct point of view. Hutchins also served a sweet treatment on the St. Louis rib that was an excellent version of that style.
Lockhart Smokehouse (Dallas)
Lockhart Smokehouse scored high for creativity in presentation. Rather than doing a standard plate, the restaurant doled out boats of various single and double meat combos and let diners pick what they wished to sample. The variety of products on offer was great (there was smoked pig's head) and everything we sampled was first-rate.
In a field full of talented newcomers, Buzzie's brought out the best all-around "old school" barbecue plate. Nothing was showy, but everything was flavorful, moist and done with care. It was impressive enough on the whole to make a day trip to Kerrville advisable.
It's worth noting that these were our favorites, but opinions varied. With so much to eat and limited stomach space, each guest invariably sampled a different selection of dishes. While we sampled roughly half of the offerings, there was simply no way to get through it all. As such, we missed Franklin (due to the line), Stiles Switch, Opie's, Black's and some other great 'cue because we'd reached our limit. There's always next year.