Texas Monthly barbecue editor chews the fat on top trends and Austin’s hottest spots
If there were such a thing as a walking encyclopedia of smoked Texas meat, it would be Daniel Vaughn.
Through his travels across the state and beyond, the author has seen (and tasted) it all. Not only has he written two books on the subject, he was also named the state’s first and only Texas Monthlybarbecue editor back in 2013 — a gig that’s ushered him to more than 1,800 barbecue joints throughout his career, most of them in Texas.
Now, as eager ’cue aficionados emerge from their quarantine cocoons ready to enjoy the best barbecue Austin has to offer, Vaughn is sharing some insight into how to eat like, well, an official barbecue editor.
“I think barbecue has been really strong throughout the past year. Even in the face of all the struggles, the craft as a whole has remained really resilient,” offers Vaughn, noting that at the outset of summer 2021, barbecue is experiencing enough new trends, new operations, and new menu items to make even the most avid ’cue connoisseur’s head spin.
Among these, Vaughn says the hottest, meatiest new trends in Austin can be categorized into a group he calls the Killer B’s, an unofficial list of menu crazes and fads inexplicably starting with the letter B. Believe it or not, that list doesn’t include brisket.
Daniel Vaughn’s Barbecue Killer B’s
- Birria. It’s the dippable, red taco sensation that’s taken over Austin’s foodie social media. Originally conceived in the outdoor markets of Tijuana, these savory, cheesy, stewed-beef tacos — which are meant to be dipped in an accompanying cup of consommé a la French dip sandwiches — is dazzling Texans, and the state’s barbecue scene isn’t about to be left out. For good birria in Austin, Vaughn recommends Rollin Smoke BBQ on E. Sixth Street.
- Burgers. Granted, locals might not immediately picture this meaty, all-American fast-food staple when they think true Texas barbecue, but Vaughn says pitmasters have taken a shine to the ground-beef sandwich, usually adding their own Tejas-influenced spin on the dish, like using brisket for the patty’s base. In Austin, Vaughn recommends burgers peddled by such joints as LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ.
- Breakfast. Vaughn says there’s been a rise in barbecue spots offering expanded breakfast options. It makes sense. After all, is there anything better than a barbecue breakfast taco?
- Beer. Also trending: Local barbecue joints collaborating with area breweries on their own beers, as East Austin favorite La Barbecue did when the operation collaborated with Zilker Brewing Co. to create an easy-going American lager perfect for pairing with ’cue.
- Boudin Sausage. Vaughn notes some enterprising barbecue spots are even making their own boudin sausage.
What’s noticeably missing from Vaughn’s Killer B’s: brisket, which is synonymous with Texas barbecue. But brisket, says Vaughn — for how great it may be — shouldn’t necessarily be considered the be-all, end-all of Texas barbecue meat.
“If you go back and look at the history of Texas barbecue, it wasn’t until recently that we narrowed our tastes [down to the brisket],” he says, explaining that a variety of diverse beef cuts were common in the “olden days of the community-style, public barbecue joint.”
For this reason, Vaughn and the elite team of tasters behind Texas Monthly’s annual Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas list have recently refocused their judging criteria.
“We wanted to judge [eateries] not just on what we think of as a standard barbecue menu, but also include what they consider their specialty,” he says. “What is the reason people go to these particular barbecue joints?”
Accordingly, some of the editor’s top recommendations for Austin barbecue don’t even serve brisket — at least not every day.
Daniel Vaughn’s top Austin barbecue spots to check out this summer
- LeRoy and Lewis, which Vaughn singles out for its use of whole pigs to create a variety of pork hash, Citra hops sausage, and cracklin’ dishes alongside such novel offerings as cauliflower burnt ends. LeRoy and Lewis “is a place I love going back to for its inventiveness, and that they’re not so beholden to the brisket,” Vaughn says. “It’s a nice change of pace.”
- Distant Relatives, a relatively new East Austin food truck that pays tribute to the traditions and cultures of the past. Serving modern African American barbecue, pitmaster Damien Brockway has built his operation around a less-often-seen cut of beef: whole chuck, which Vaughn says offers a depth of flavor that’s wholly unique. “Distant Relatives bring this new twist on Texas barbecue,” he says. “[Brockway’s] pork ribs and pulled pork are also just phenomenal, plus the smoked chicken.” And Vaughn recommends not skipping the papaya slaw, as it’s the perfect sandwich topping.
- CM Smokehouse, the new trailer from Guess Family Barbecue protege Cade Mercer and home of soul-satisfying fried buffalo-turkey sandwiches, brisket Philly cheesesteaks, and the incredibly popular off-menu option, the brisket crunch wrap. “It’s this off-menu item that still manages to be the most popular thing on the menu,” says Vaughn. “[Mercer] approaches barbecue with a ‘I want to have fun with it’ mindset, like Brockway: ‘Why does Austin need just another platter of barbecue?’”
- Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, the Texas/Japanese smokehouse from Austin’s kings of Japanese-influenced cuisine, the Tatsu-Ya group. This izakaya-style roadhouse’s menu of Japanese bites (like jellyfish salad and tuna poke), cocktails, and brisket is indeed a novel mashup, one Vaughn says strikes a pleasant balance. “It’s nice to go somewhere where you’re not just filling up on brisket,” he says. “The pickled sides provide a little bit of relief along the way, so you’re not just sitting down eating a [ton] of smoked brisket.”
- Moreno Barbecue, the South Austin trailer where owner Bo Moreno’s brisket is, in a word, “phenomenal.” Vaughn also recommends Moreno’s cookies, which have a sweet-n-savory bark around the treat, similar to perfectly smoked brisket slices. “It’s only going to get better now because [Moreno] is moving into a brick-and-mortar location soon,” Vaughn says. “I’m excited about what they do with that new freedom.”
- Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, the South Austin favorite. Considering he says founder and pitmaster Miguel Vidal serves “some of the best brisket in town,” it follows that Vaughn says the trailer’s recently announced move 20-ish miles south to a Buda brick-and-mortar space is “some of the saddest Austin barbecue news in a long while,” adding, “You don’t take the crown from Valentina’s. There were lots of pitmasters putting brisket inside a tortilla before them, but [Vidal] turned it into an art form.”
If ever a food genre could persevere a hardship — say, a year that turned the state’s hospitality industry on its head — it’s Texas barbecue.
“Barbecue as a whole has shown some real resilience,” Vaughn says. “It lends itself to good pandemic food. Picking up a to-go plate at a barbecue joint is nothing out of the ordinary for a Texan.”
Indeed, the fact that Vaughn has kept so busy this year cataloguing barbecue’s latest updates is a solid indication that Austin ’cue is in a great position going into the summer of 2021, even as operations are still adjusting to life on the other side of a lockdown.
It’s hard to see Texans turning away from their favorite food anytime soon. Whether you’ve got the hankering for a simple brisket platter or a deep-fried buffalo-turkey sandwich, there’s guaranteed to be something smokin’ in Austin to scratch your itch. And you can take Vaughn’s word for it. It’s only his job.