The Smoked Texas Barbecue Burger Is a Thing of Glory
Pitmasters across the state are experimenting with smoked brisket patties, and we've eaten a lot of them.
For decades, tradition has ruled Texas barbecue, but a recent boom of rule-breaking operations has shifted menus away from just the Texas Trinity of brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. From Austin to the Rio Grande Valley, the trend towards barbecue experimentation has folded back onto one of America's most treasured dishes: the cheeseburger.
Granted, cooks have been spreading barbecue sauce on burgers since the beginning of … barbecue sauce, but slow-smoking the meat itself is a relatively new trend. Valentina’s in Austin began their burger specials in 2014 and claims to be an innovator.
“The original idea started off as the Mexi-burger; it was stuffed with cheddar and serranos, and topped with roasted poblanos, onions, avocado, and then it had queso drizzled on top,” says pitmaster Miguel Vidal. They cook 80 to 100 burgers on Thursdays only, smoked over mesquite then finished on a flat top. Every week is a sell out.
Vidal jokes that he’s being copied, but regardless of the trend’s origins, it’s spreading. Just eight miles north of Valentina’s you’ll find another Austin institution flipping patties, LeRoy and Lewis. Best known for incorporating ingredients like kimchi and using alternative cuts like beef cheek, the restaurant's biggest draw after 5 p.m. is the burger. After the burgers are smoked to temp, they’re seared in a cast iron plancha over coals for a minute on each side while chopped onions sizzle in the beef fat. Then they're placed on a Martin’s potato roll (also used by Valentina’s) and topped with American cheese.
Like many of the best barbecue joints, they don’t skimp on meat quality. Their Texas-raised Japanese akaushi brisket comes from Beeman Ranch, an hour south of Austin. With such expensive ingredients, minimizing waste is crucial, a philosophy that they’ve also implemented by offering a 25% mushroom patty (a national initiative spearheaded by the James Beard Foundation).
Like LeRoy and Lewis, nearly every restaurant interviewed cited minimizing ingredient waste as a primary inspiration for expanding to smoked burgers. Brisket prices, from akaushi to choice, are rising dramatically (11% in the past year, according to the USDA). Bloomberg dug into the phenomenon and cited factors like fast-food trends (White Castle’s brisket slider) and the effectiveness of pellet grills for the backyard pitmaster.
“From the barbecue industry perspective, smoking brisket burgers is a reactive movement instead of a proactive one,” says Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX. Even a bastion of tradition like Louie Mueller has embraced the idea; they’ll soon offer burgers at their forthcoming back patio bar.
Like Valentina’s, Killen’s BBQ in Houston began experimenting with burgers in 2014. “We have been making these off and on for the last five years, but in my opinion just recently mastered with the addition of an immersion circulator,” says pitmaster Ronnie Killen. The immersion circulator holds the slow-smoked patties, a blend of brisket and plate short rib, in beef stock and rendered fat. The technique helps retain moisture, which he cites as the biggest challenge to making an excellent smoked burger.
Killen’s burgers became so popular that he opened a dedicated burger restaurant in 2016. He credits a large part of their popularity to the fact that Texas barbecue is such a momentous meal, it’s hard to eat it regularly. Of course every burger should feel like a special occasion, but it’s a meal you can enjoy and still feel comfortable going back to work. “I believe it’s just catching on because people can’t eat barbecue every day and if you give guests more options you can capture them more than once a week,” says Killen.
Another reason for the smoked burger boom is that the combination of beef and bun are a blank canvas. Joseph Salinas of Smokin’ Moon BBQ & Beer Garden in Pharr, TX thinks it’s easy to incorporate into almost any context. “Here in the Rio Grande Valley [we] almost always think of a barbecue burger on an open flame over charcoal, but the burger is just so versatile,” says Salinas. At Smokin’ Moon, they keep things relatively simple by mimicking the flavor profile of their sliced prime brisket by using the same spice rub (salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and a few secrets). They believe the post-oak flavor speaks for itself.
Smokin’ Moon doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but others like Heim Barbecue in Fort Worth take the concept further, allowing for some experimentation without dipping into the same fusion territory as Valentina’s or LeRoy and Lewis. Unlike the other pitmasters we spoke with, Travis Heim builds his patties from ground beef and adds brisket that’s already been smoked for 16 hours in order to create a crunchy bark. The bar menu at his River location has six burger choices, five of which feature their bacon burnt ends jam, which Texas Monthly declared the most glorious burger condiment ever concocted. Yet another bonus, ordering at the bar at Heim lets you dodge everyone’s least favorite Texas barbecue tradition: the notoriously long lines.