Texas Monthly BBQ Festival

© Charlie Llewellin

Texas Monthly BBQ FestivalIn Texas, quality barbecue is practically its own religion, somewhere between high school football and actual religion. At the annual Texas Monthly BBQ Festival in Austin last month, a veritable pantheon of pit masters—22 in all—gathered to feed meat to more than 3,000 enthusiasts. Thanks to careful pacing and a strict limit on potato salad, we managed to try most of the offerings. Here, we present a guide to five of the state's best 'cue artists.

The Salt Lick, Driftwood, TX

This famous Hill Country spot still cooks meat over a pit, instead of in an industrial smoker. Salt Lick also sears brisket on an open flame before it's smoked. "I don't know of anybody else who does it," says owner Scott Roberts. "Searing caramelizes the flavor, adheres the dry rub better, and holds in more moisture." As for the signature tangy sauce, Roberts says a legend that the secret flavor was influenced by his mother's Japanese heritage is "a myth." "Our sauce came from South Carolina on the wagon train," he adds. "The only thing that's happened over time is it's been Texified."

Louie Mueller, Taylor, TX

This venerable institution, founded in 1949, took home two awards at the festival—one for beef ribs and one for sausage—but the sausage is the show-stealer: a juicy, jalapeño-infused recipe devised by late BBQ legend Bobby Mueller, whose sonWayne is the current pit master. "It's a strict ratio of what we call bull meat"—the tough, lean pieces near the shoulder—"and beef tallow," Wayne says. As for the spices? Nice try. "We're pretty guarded about that," Wayne says with a smile.

Stanley's Famous Pit BBQ, Tyler, TX

In beef-mad Texas, barbecued pork is about as sought after a commodity as secondhand snowshoes. (Governor Rick Perry got into trouble in North Carolina recently when he unfavorably compared pulled pork to roadkill.) But the award-winning pork ribs from Stanley's BBQ in Tyler—a town in East Texas that's closer to Memphis than to Midland—makes a case for switching sides. Smoked over pecan wood instead of the more traditional post oak, the ribs get coated in an 11-spice rub that balances Tex-Mex-ish spices like paprika and chili powder with the sweetness of a Deep South blend. It's a combination that, as owner Nick Pencis puts it, "comes right up and punches you in the face."

Franklin BBQ, Austin, TX

If it's true, as purists hold, that you can judge a pit master by his brisket, 33-year-old Aaron Franklin deserves his reputation as the best new barbecue whiz in town. Franklin smokes antibiotic- and hormone-free Meyer Ranch beef for up to 18 hours, resulting in a rich, buttery flavor that draws fans who line up for hours outside the restaurant. "We just cook it as long as it needs to be cooked. It's done when it's done," reasons Aaron's wife and co-owner Stacy Franklin, in the Zen language common to many great barbecuers.

Snow's BBQ, Lexington, TX

At the opposite end of the big Tex experience is tiny Snow's, whose pit master, Miss Tootsie Tomanetz, is a septuagenarian middle-school custodian who's been smoking meat for more than 45 years. According to partner Kerry Bexley, there's no great secret to Tootsie's impossibly tender brisket: "All you need is a good cut of meat—we get ours from Sam Kane in Corpus Christi—and a little bit of salt and pepper. The real key to great barbecuing is attention and tenderness. If you mess it up, more than likely it's human error."