That’s about how many restaurants, joints, food trucks, portable smokers, and holes-in-the wall were required to do this list justice.
I might not eat barbecue again until May. Okay, maybe March.
Actually, the only person I know who eats more barbecue than I do is probably the great Daniel Vaughn – barbecue editor extraordinaire for Texas Monthly magazine. That man travels all over Texas and the world to do his job, which quite possibly is the best job in the world. Me? I’m a lot less adventurous. I stick to familiar territory.
Which is my lifelong home, Dallas-Fort Worth.
As a result of being around DFW for so darn long, people who listened to me on the radio would routinely ask me for recommendations regarding where to eat, to take visitors, and for new places to try. That’s how doing this list got started. Inevitably it would be one of the most popular things on the station’s website. And, now that I’m working (mostly) for myself – no, I am NOT retired – it seemed like a good thing to keep doing on my own website. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and share the dickens out of it.
Now, some basics as we get going:
1. I don’t include chains. For starters, any time a restaurant expands consistency becomes an issue. Some do a good job, but most don’t. If you’re new to Texas and think that chain you tried represents “real” Texas barbecue, chances are you need to get out more. It’s original location might be passable, or even good – but quantity doesn’t equal quality. Once a brand gets up to about four or five locations, I might not recommend it – because I simply can’t be sure what you’ll get at the three or four I didn’t get to.
2. Bigger isn’t always better. There are some really famous places across the area where you can get good meals, but many of them are selling size more than excellence. Nothing wrong with a grand setting, because we Texans do love scale – but just because an establishment has a giant pot full of help-yourself beans doesn’t make it world-class, any more than would a free yellow plastic cup to take home your iced tea. It might be a great place to take the church group or cater your office party, but I lean strongly toward the lone operator out there before sunrise poking fire.
3. In spite of “ranking” my choices, this isn’t a competition. The difference in what the joint I put at #5 does and what you’ll find at #15 is so infinitesimal as to almost be silly. I also don’t believe in “critique” – which too many use these days as an opportunity for pettiness and snark. I will speak no ill of barbecue. No one does everything perfectly. The ribs might be awesome while the slaw might be okay. What I will do is find the best things to praise and praise those. The more praiseworthy a place is, the more it gets. And before anyone says, “Well, you need to try…”, believe me: I probably already have.
4. Yes, atmosphere and the experience play a role. Although the quality of the food is always Numero Uno, I deeply value the whole show. Ever been in a restaurant that just plays the wrong music for what they’re trying to do, or plays it so loudly that you can’t hear your server? A place where someone thinks sawdust on the floor makes it authentic? Servers who act like they’re doing you a favor? With me, that costs points. One restaurant on a previous list wasn’t even considered for this year’s precisely because of the latter. But a place where the people are overjoyed to serve you great food, and make sure every detail of your visit shows off the total package? Putting that kind of thought into it makes me a fan.
5. Lastly, I get the fascination with sauce. Plenty of barbecue sauces out there are flat awesome, and for some people the sauce is the very first thing they notice about any barbecue joint. It’s often mentioned prominently in reviews or comments. In some barbecue traditions, the sauce isn’t just part of the story – it IS the story. Who among us hasn’t felt ourselves enthralled by the mysterious multiple squirt bottles in the middle of a table – each promising sensations ranging from blissful satisfaction to partial incapacitation? Here’s where I come down: if you have to drown something in sauce or gravy, it ain’t no good to begin with – no matter what you slather on. I test barbecue “dry”. If it’s delicious without anything on it, chances are what a joint made to put on it got just as much love.
Oh, and the reason this list is for 2019? Simple. I have no idea where I’ll be eating in 2020. I can only tell you where I’ve already been.
So, with all that in mind and without further ado, away we go.