Meet the Women at the Forefront of Texas Barbecue

Over the decades, women have been the quiet force behind some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star state.

Jess Pryles
Photo: Madeline Kate Photography

Women across the country have been taking barbecue to new heights for decades. Look no further than the Lone Star State for an incredible group of women leading the barbecue scene. Even more impressive is how many of these star pit masters have multiple jobs — from photographer to custodian, they’re not just helming the smokers, they’re doing it all.

01 of 06

Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, TX

Tootsie Tomanetz
Veronica Meewes

At 4:00 a.m., the stretch of road between Austin and Lexington is a solemn one, shared only with the vast horizon, an occasional 18-wheeler and travelers on a very specific mission: to taste the barbecue at Snow's BBQ, said to be some of the best in the state, and to meet the woman behind the smoker. That’s 83-year-old Norma Frances Tomanetz, known to locals, colleagues and fans as Ms. Tootsie.

By 5:00 a.m., a line has already started to form outside the brick red bungalow that is Snow’s—smoked meat enthusiasts having journeyed far and wide to show up well before sunrise, often bringing chairs, card tables and games of washers and cornhole to pass the time. In 2008, when Texas Monthly first named Snow’s the number one barbecue joint in Texas, owner Kerry Bexley said he quadrupled production over the course of a few weeks. And the accolades haven't stopped.

In 2018, Tootsie was nominated as a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest and was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. You wouldn’t know it from talking to her, though. “I keep myself low profile, very humble. I’m just a country girl,” she says.

“Never in my life did I think anything like this would happen,” Tootsie says. “And neither did the gentleman who hired me back in 1966. No way did we realize that barbecue would become such a high priority. Back then, it was just a staple food.”

Tootsie was initiated into the world of barbecue by pure happenstance. Her husband, White Tomanetz, was working as a butcher at City Meat Market in Giddings when Tootsie agreed to fill in one fateful, short-staffed day. She ended up working there for a decade, learning how to cook meat in a brick smoker alongside pit master Orange Holloway, before she and White went on to run the City Meat Market in Lexington for 20 more years.

After her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996, they decided to shut down the market. Tootsie had continued to cook for the new owners when Bexley, a local who had grown up visiting her at the meat market with his family, began approaching her to come work at the barbecue joint he wanted to open. It took several years of convincing, but she eventually agreed to cook alongside him at Snow’s if he could weld up a few direct-heat pits identical to the ones she’d mastered over the years.

“None of them can pack the load she packs," says Bexley. “I wouldn’t have opened it if she wouldn’t have agreed to the do the work.”

Tootsie, who grew up cutting wheat and threshing peanuts on her family's farm, is no stranger to physical labor — though she admits barbecue, a year-round operation out in the elements, is harder than farm life. That doesn't stop her, however, from working five days a week for the school district’s maintenance department, then rising at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday to shovel smoldering coals into the box pits, haul stacks of live oak wood and swing open the pits’ steel lids to lift massive racks of sausage links.

As of 2018, Tootsie had only missed two Saturdays working the pits at Snow’s, and it was only because she was recovering from a complete knee replacement. She attributes both her success and longevity to her staunch work ethic.

And for Tootsie, who wore blue jeans and rode her horse to the school bus stop when all the other girls donned dresses, gender has never been a barrier to the work that brings her such satisfaction.

“If you’re not happy in the smoke and the sweat and the meat and so forth, you’re not cooking barbecue; you’re not a pit master,” says 5’3” grandmother of six and great-grandmother of 10 matter-of-factly, reaching to stir a paddle through a pot of beans the size of her torso. “But I enjoy the work involved. And I do not feel like an 83-year-old person. I do not consider myself that age.”

02 of 06

Pat Mares of Ruby’s BBQ in Austin

Pat Mares
Courtesy of Pat Mares

Growing up on a working farm prepared Pat Mares for a life in barbecue — though she didn’t know it at the time.

"By the time I was three, I was feeding chickens and picking eggs, milking cows when I was six and driving the tractor when I was 11 or 12,” says Mares. “So I always grew up around all that. We had cows, pigs, ducks, cooked all our own meats. There was a big German and Czech community, so you could definitely get some smoked meats, but that I didn't have much experience with it until I moved to Texas."

In 1979, Mares moved from Lincoln, Nebraska to Austin for grad school at the University of Texas Latin American Studies department. She met her future husband, Luke Zimmerman, through a mutual singer-songwriter friend, and the two fell deep into the local blues scene, where barbecue was becoming increasingly popular.

Together, they decided to open a barbecue spot right next door to Antone’s, Austin’s iconic blues venue, and they named it Ruby’s BBQ after a juke joint that appeared in the Marlon Brando movie The Fugitive Kind. Ruby’s quickly became a pillar of the community and a popular stop for both local and visiting musicians, from Townes Van Zandt to Buena Vista Social Club to Spoon.

"There were some places in Austin but back then, if you really wanted barbecue, you went to Taylor or Lockhart,” says Mares. “So we made a lot of trips to Lockhart, where they almost all have brick pits, which you could say inspired us."

Mares sourced all-natural, steroid-free beef through a neighboring co-op grocery store long before that became a thing, and hired a local mason to build a customized brick pit for cooking over indirect heat. They developed a unique method of slow smoking the brisket overnight and created all the recipes for sides together, enlisting the taste-testing help of the barbacks at Antone’s, which shared an alley with Ruby’s.

"All of us had an idea of when something was done or how it should taste," Mares remembers, smiling behind her signature cat-eye glasses. In those early days, Zimmerman mainly worked daytimes and Mares picked up mostly night shifts, which meant she was doing a lot of grill work, plus setting the overnight pit fires.

"I’m a pretty strong person," says Mares. "I was always a real tomboy, around my cousins and a bunch of guys ... and I don’t know if they gravitated to Ruby’s because it was me hiring or not, but we’ve always had some really strong women shift managers and pit masters here."

Mares recalls shifts where her entire staff was female — certainly unheard of in the barbecue world.

"People would comment, 'Oh wow — it’s an all women crew today!’" remembers Mares.

When Zimmerman was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2007, he left the restaurant to revisit his love of art, filling his home studio with mixed media paintings, until he passed away three years later. Mares ran Ruby’s singlehandedly for 11 years, training countless employees and often putting in over 60 hours a week herself. In 2018, she decided to retire at 67 and shutter the 30-year-old institution. But the mark Mares left on Austin’s barbecue community is indelible.

03 of 06

Kim Dunn of Pit Stop Bar-B-Q in Temple, TX

Kim Dunn
Veronica Meewes

"I came to the country [in 1975] and I couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t read or write — none of that! So I had to learn everything!" That’s Kim Dunn of Pit Stop Bar-B-Q in Temple, Texas.

In March 2017, less than a year after retiring from her 26 year career working for the government, she opened her own barbecue joint.

"In those four or five months I already got all my stuff done at the house and then I got bored," she says with a smile. "I’m 62, but I run like I’m 17!"

That is no understatement, considering Dunn is both the owner and sole employee of Pit Stop Bar-B-Q, where she can usually be found Wednesday through Saturday. Sundays are reserved for lawn care, and she switches off between shopping for ingredients on both Mondays and Tuesdays.

"I tell my customers to call before they come because sometimes I play hooky — I need that hooky!" she says with a laugh. "I tell them If I’m not here, don’t waste the gas."

Dunn’s menu consists of Texas barbecue staples (like brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, and coleslaw), Korean items (like bulgogi, kalbi, kimchi and cucumber salad) and her Cajun influenced best-selling chicken jambalaya and red beans with rice.

"I’m a country girl from South Korea," says Dunn. "One side is the ocean and the other side is nothing but the rice paddy. But bulgogi is one of the things I learned once I was in the States because we were so poor we didn’t even see cows."

Dunn met her first husband in Korea, while he was in the Air Force. Her first job on the military base was in airline catering, but she went on to become a food manager and then an owner-operator of fast-casual operations like Burger King, Popeye’s Chicken and Baskin Robbins. Each corporation would train her for 6-12 weeks before she opened locations on military bases across the globe. Colter’s BBQ was the last company she trained with before opening a location at Fort Hood.

"I chose career versus marriage," says Dunn. "Many women are happy when the man makes $140,000, but I wanted to try and see if I could do this by myself, without my husband’s help."

Dunn’s business started as a simple snack counter inside a gas station in Belton, serving tacos, then burgers and Korean items before expanding into barbecue. She immediately gained regulars, but faced her share of skeptics as well.

"People would come peek in the little window and then they would leave," she says. "They were probably thinking, 'This Asian woman knows how to barbecue?’ And sometimes some of them would just ask me how I know."

After working in that location from 6:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. six days a week, Dunn had gained enough following and revenue to seek out a bigger space. She moved to a couple different locations before finding the little bungalow in Temple, which has now housed Pit Stop for the past eight years. Not only has she paid off her mortgage on the property, but she has also put both her sons through college. She says this is why she’s so generous with her portions and even refuses to weigh her meat (an unorthodox practice in the Texas barbecue world).

"It’s more of a family thing, even though they are customers," she says. "I sure didn’t go into barbecue to become a millionaire! But I enjoy it and I’ve reached most of my goals."

Dunn knows just about every person who walks through her front door by face and name. And if she doesn’t, she welcomes them in for the first time with a sample of every protein.

"Sometimes I'm pushy I guess, but I want people to try everything," she says with a smile. "And then nobody asks how I know how to barbecue. 'She can barbecue better than me’ — that’s what they say now!"

04 of 06

LeAnn Mueller and Ali Clem of Austin's la Barbecue

LeAnn Mueller and Alison Clem
Henry Philips

While many pit masters choose barbecue, LeAnn Mueller would say barbecue chose her. Her family’s barbecue legacy started in 1949, when her grandfather opened Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX, becoming one of the first restaurants to serve — and massively popularize — Texas barbecue. The restaurant was often referred to as the "cathedral of smoke" and the Mueller family is known as "barbecue royalty" in the state.

LeAnn's father, Bobbie, took over the pits in 1974 and LeAnn started helping out cleaning tables and washing dishes on the weekends during high school.

"I never wanted to do barbecue," she says. "That was not my goal at all. It’s just something that I know. I’d go to a college, wouldn’t like it, I’d come back and my dad would hire me. That kept happening, so he started having me make the sides, and then I was in charge of the chicken, which moved into me making sausage and seasoning and brisket and ribs."

Bobbie wanted LeAnn to take over the barbecue business from him one day, but LeAnn had her sights set on becoming a photographer. She sold everything she owned and saved up enough money to put herself through school at Brooks Institute of Photography in California.

"I needed to prove I was something else besides barbecue," she says.

After graduating, she moved to New York with the goal of securing representation. She’d only been there for two months in 2006 when her dad called and said he was coming up — to accept the first James Beard Award ever given to a barbecue restaurant (which he accepted with a simple, humble "Thank you very much").

Two years later, Bobbie passed away suddenly at the age of 69 and LeAnn found herself living back in Texas. Her brother Wayne had taken over the pits at Louie Mueller and her other brother John wanted to open a barbecue trailer in Austin.

"He owed a lot of people a lot of money, so he begged me to put everything in my name," says LeAnn, who agreed against her better judgment. "A year into that, the books weren’t being taken care of — nothing was being taken care of. So I had to let him go and we had three days to turn J Mueller BBQ into la Barbecue."

LeAnn decided to name the trailer la Barbecue with a lower case "l" — both to represent the grammatical feminine signifier and to play on the thought that anyone can create barbecue.

"I refused to put my family’s name in the title of the restaurant," she says. "I wanted to show my brothers I can do this and I don’t need to put Mueller in the name."

"It was wild," says Ali Clem, LeAnn’s wife and partner in la Barbecue. "We came up with all new recipes, all new cooking processes and a whole new concept in three days."

Suddenly, LeAnn found herself with a debt to pay off — and a barbecue business she swore she’d never have. She and Clem also faced some harassment at the hands of John’s regulars, who were mad he was fired.

"We had people coming in there, his customers, being extremely rude to us, calling us names, making fun of our sexuality," recalls LeAnn. "It was really hard."

"I think in the beginning there was no respect from barbecue people," says Clem. "Like we didn’t know what we were doing."

But one year later, all the bills were paid, the lines were longer than ever and la Barbecue was receiving rave reviews and landing at the top of every Texas barbecue list.

"We had families that were working for us," says Clem. "People were depending on us. We had regular customers who loved us. And we were having fun."

Throughout all of this, LeAnn was still juggling a photography career, which had her flying around the country to shoot photos for magazines like Texas Monthly, Rolling Stone and Vibe. She's photographed the likes of Willie Nelson and Jay-Z.

"The only reason la Barbecue survived was because of my photography career," says LeAnn. "And I’m still doing photography to make sure everyone’s salaries are on point. I don’t have savings, but I make sure everyone who works for me gets paid very well."

La Barbecue grew from one pit to two, then expanded to a larger trailer and continues to grow. Just last year, they went brick and mortar by taking over the kitchen of Quickie Pickie, an East Austin convenience store where guests can pair their brisket with French Gamay or local IPA. LeAnn only sources all natural, organic prime beef and they prefer potato bread to the slices of white bread usually found at Texas barbecue joints. However, the meat is served just like it would be in Taylor: on a tray lined with butcher paper and sides of pickles and onions.

LeAnn’s team is also bigger than ever, which is necessary to serve the ‘cue fanatics who line up daily — many of whom are still surprised to learn that la Barbecue is not owned by one woman but two.

"My favorite is when people come in asking for 'Allee, the guy who works here’ and I’m like ‘Ali? Yeah, that’s me,’" says Clem with a laugh.

Building a solid team has also allowed LeAnn to start taking la Barbecue on the road. She partnered with the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas for a pop-up as well as more events both around the state and out of the country. But ask her who holds the role as la Barbecue’s pit master and she'll tell you there isn’t one.

"A pit master, to me, is how I saw my dad," she said. "My dad did everything. If anybody called in sick, he was the only person running the show … I mean, the dude did everything. But barbecue today is definitely a team effort if you want to do it well and consistently. I think that is the key to longevity."

The team effort, however, doesn’t mean the ladies of la Barbecue hustle any less these days.

"The thing that’s interesting about barbecue — at least our style of barbecue — is that you’re really working in the elements," says Clem. "And it’s not easy! But our guys know that, if I’m lifting something, not to be like ‘Hey, let me get that for you!’ Dude, I can lift a 100-pound box of brisket, it’s fine."

05 of 06

Laura Loomis of San Antonio’s Two Bros BBQ

Laura Loomis

Laura Loomis admits she didn’t even know what a brisket looked like when she started working at Two Bros BBQ Market, a part of the restaurant empire chef Jason Dady has built in San Antonio.

"But just because you know nothing doesn’t mean you can’t learn," declares Loomis. "I’m proof of that!"

Loomis started waiting tables when she was 18, and was 25 when she began working for Dady at Tre Trattoria, his popular Tuscan-inspired concept. When she heard he was in need of a cashier at Two Bros, his barbecue restaurant, she started picking up some part-time shifts there.

"I fell in love with the place — with the food, the guests, the employees I worked with," she remembers. "I loved everyone and I loved everything about it, so then I started full-time as a cashier."

After about eight months, she decided she wanted to learn more about the smoking process so she could help the pit crew as needed.

"I started coming in on my days off and I would shadow," she says. "Actually, my first day they made me clean the pit room and I did it with a smile on my face. It took me six hours that first time, going over everything with a toothbrush, but now I can do it in 45 minutes!"

After several months, a pit hand position opened up and Loomis moved into it.

"I didn’t know what I was doing at first — I had no clue," says Loomis. "But as I kept at it, I got more curious and wanted to know why things worked the way they did. So I started reading about it and watching videos online. I have a very obsessive personality, so when I get into something, I get really into it."

Loomis worked as a pit hand for a year and a half when the pit master position opened up and Dady invited her to take over. At 28, she became the youngest pit master in Texas.

"Honestly, I just saw something in her and felt I needed to push her to do it," says Dady. "Something told me she was the one. She is a barbecue savant. It’s a god given talent, but what really sets her apart is her relentless work ethic to get it right every single time."

Loomis, who'd never planned on becoming a pit hand — let alone the pit master — took the reins and began building the kind of team she’d always envisioned for Two Bros. She developed a system of resting the meat by incorporating Yeti coolers into the daily routine, a process which took about a year to perfect. She also organized a list of the less desirable barbecue tasks (like cleaning the grates and dumping the grease traps) to make sure the entire team — herself included — shares these responsibilities. (Inspired by It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, she calls this list Charlie Work.)

"When I was a pit hand, everyone did things their own way and the pit master didn’t care," says Loomis. "That always bothered me. We do everything different now — but we all do it the same way, so that’s the important part."

Her rise to leadership meant she was now supervising those who’d previously been her equal, and Loomis says a couple of her male teammates quit because they didn’t like her telling them what to do. But Loomis hired and trained replacements, and one of the pit hands who originally trained her even came back to work at Two Bros. when he heard she was now in charge.

"Chef Jason (Dady) always had my back," says Loomis. "He pretty much let me do whatever I wanted back here, giving me suggestions and letting me figure out the rest. He’s been a great mentor."

Loomis is petite, yet doesn’t flinch as she hauls open one of brick pits in the smokehouse, flipping briskets as they start to sweat, then opening each barrel smoker to spray water on the fan-favorite cherry glazed baby back ribs.

"He told me in the beginning that barbecue is the easy part and the difference between a good pit master and a great pit master is all the behind-the-scenes bullshit that you don’t see," she says. "I remember at the time, as I was sweating my ass off in the pit room, saying, ‘What do you mean the barbecue’s the easy part?’ And sure enough, the barbecue is the easy part."

In addition to supervising a team of pit hands to turn out consistently perfect meat every day, Loomis deals with inventory, invoices and ordering, plus supervises a team of front-of-house staff led by her GM Tori.

"Two little blonde chicks running Two Bros," Loomis says with a laugh. "We’re the two sisters."

But if it were up to her, she’d stay outside cooking in the pits all day, even in the triple-digit heat served each summer in Texas. This passion for the craft is what’s earned her accolades like the 2017 Eater Young Guns Award.

"I love barbecue because it’s primitive," says Loomis. "I like that it’s just smoke and fire. We don’t have a timer or a switch to set it and forget it. It’s all up to you to control the heat and the smoke. And to me, that’s unlike any other cooking with ovens and gauges. It’s not easy by any means but, once you figure it out, it’s very rewarding."

06 of 06

Jess Pryles, the Hardcore Carnivore

Jess Pryles
Madeline Kate Photography

Jess Pryles, the Australian-born author of the cookbook Hardcore Carnivore, was running a social media consulting business when she bit into her first smoked beef rib during a visit to Austin.

"To have a bite of the smoky, barky, rendered fat nubbins on the end of the beef rib was like, 'Holy moly, this is good!'" remembers Pryles. "Red meat is my favorite, so I don't think it's an accident that Texas barbecue is my favorite too."

She already had a blog called Bloody Mary, which chronicled her search for the world's best burgers and Bloody Marys, but she decided to evolve it into a website focused on her own recipes instead.

"Then I wanted to put my money where my mouth was even more, so I started pushing myself to learn the hardest methods," says Pryles. "Straight into a charcoal barbecue, foregoing gas. Straight into an offset pit, which is the hardest one to run — but you learn more that way."

As Pryles began translating Texas barbecue for an Australian audience, she found herself delving further into the world of meat out of both curiosity and necessity.

"How could I advise people in Australia on what brisket should be if I don't understand it?" she says. "How is the butchering different and what is that cut and what do you mean there's different muscles, different breeds, different sizes, different feed? So I fell down this rabbit hole, exploring meat in general."

Pryles began touring processing plants and visiting butchers and ranchers in both Australia and Texas, taking notes and asking questions from the point of view of an average consumer. She went on to co-found the Australasian Barbecue Alliance, a resource for American-style barbecue in Australia, and began speaking at events like Camp Brisket, South by Southwest and the American Meat Science Association and North American Meat Industry conferences.

"At the industry stuff, I speak about how to connect to the public," says Pryles. "And at the public stuff, I teach them what I've learned from the industry, like beef grading and dispelling myths and helping people understand basic meat selection in addition to cookery."

Before moving to Texas in 2015, Pryles returned for multiple visits, learning how to hunt and process whitetail deer, hog and turkey with Marvin Bendele, the director of Foodways Texas, and enrolling in classes to study with meat scientists at Texas A&M University.

"I've never referred to myself as a pit master because I think you need to have the intense schedule (at a barbecue restaurant) to use that terminology," says Pryles. "And I never claim to have done meat science because that's a university degree people study their ass off to do. But have I spent the better part of the last five years intensively learning about all aspects of the meat world? F--k yeah, I have!"

When she's not speaking or teaching on the subject of meat, Pryles can be found emceeing events, judging barbecue competitions, acting as a brand ambassador for companies like Gerber Knives and promoting her cookbook and a line of Hardcore Carnivore meat rubs. She also regularly posts articles, recipes and photos to her website, which continues to be a trusted resource for all things carnivorous, from hunting to butchering to aging to smoking.

"I love the challenge of being able to succeed and, most importantly, earn respect — and have people say 'You should try her recipe' or 'You need to follow her because she knows what she's talking about' — in a world that's usually male dominated," says Pryles. "Know your shit, be good at what you do, and it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman."

This story was originally published in 2018.

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