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One man’s guide to hidden Texas road trip barbecue gems

American-Statesman online content producer Joe Harrington is a man who knows a thing or two about Texas road trips. Here are some of his favorite barbecue joints off the beaten path. Make sure to check out Statesman dining critic Matthew Odam’s own expansive tour of Texas barbecue, as well as his list of the best barbecue in Austin.

Two of the best things about the state of Texas are the delicious barbecue restaurants and the fact you don’t have to leave the state to go on vacation. 

If you’re leaving from Austin, the mountains of Big Bend are eight hours away. The beaches (depending which one you’re going to) are even closer. In between are hundreds of barbecue restaurants using mesquite, post oak and other types of wood to produce some of the best food you’ll ever have in your life. 

But which ones are really worth a stop? Lucky for you, over the past few years I’ve traveled to some of the state’s most popular and remote trip destinations, and I can lend you a hand. 

Headed to Big Bend?

For me, the most beautiful spot in the Lone Star State, and actually one of the most affordable trips you can take, is Big Bend National Park. The park is one of the most remote national parks -- as it's hundreds of miles from a major city -- and the least-visited national park in the contiguous U.S., according to the National Park Service. It’s probably best to hit this spot in the winter or spring. 

If you’re heading to Big Bend, there’s a barbecue joint called DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ that I stopped at last year. It’s a trailer on the side of the road that Don Baucham opened in 2009 after moving in from Midland. While you can find barbecue that’s better elsewhere in the state, DB’s is a legit stop and the only place to stop for barbecue in Terlingua. Try the sausage and the brisket, and look for the whole chicken special they serve. 

Pro tip: You’re in Terlingua, so also head to the Chili Pepper Cafe for a bowl of chunky beef chili. 

But if you want the best barbecue near Big Bend, you need to travel to Pecos about an hour away and go to Pody’s BBQ. A West Texas oil field worker’s dinner hot spot, Pody’s has lunch and dinner service. We arrived a few minutes before the meat ran out on a Wednesday night. 

Pody's BBQ in Pecos offers a multiple meat plate option. These two plates featured generous helpings of briskets and spareribs featuring the restaurant's signature side, the green-chili hominy and green beans. (Joe Harrington/ American-Statesman)

Smoked with pecan and mesquite wood, the brisket is tender and the spare ribs hold their own against others in the state. But, and some barbecue snobs might not like this, the side dishes make the trip worthwhile. The green chili hominy is a top-five side in the state, in my opinion. Make sure you ring the bell when you leave, because chances are you’re going to enjoy everything about the experience. 

If you’re leaving from Austin to Big Bend and taking U.S. 290 to Kerrville to get to Interstate 10, Ronnie’s BBQ in Johnson Cityas featured in Statesman food critic Matthew Odam’s barbecue trip in 2016, is a must-stop if you’re a fan of smoked chicken. 

Pro tip: Speaking of that route, if you’re heading to Enchanted Rock and going through Fredericksburg and enjoy beer, German food and craft chocolates, spend some time on Fredericksburg’s main drag. Eat at any of the German restaurants, but don’t skip out on Chocolat, a shop that specializes in liquid-filled chocolates.  

Heading to the border?

What’s summer in Texas without going to South Padre Island? It’s also probably the king of spring break in Texas, so chances are you’ll find yourself on its beaches at some point.

A serving of mesquite-smoked brisket, pulled pork with homemade pickles and tortillas at Rio Grande Grill BBQ & Tex Mex in Harliingen. (Joe Harrington/ American-Statesman)

There’s actually a good amount of barbecue spots down in the valley. Starting in Mathis, there’s Smolik’s Smokehouse (a sausage enthusiast’s must-stop), and you can’t find better barbacoa in the world than in Brownsville at Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que. Vera’s method of smoking the cow’s head is illegal in most parts of the United States, but they’ve been around so long, the restaurant gets a grandfathered pass. 

There’s even the post oak smoke-using The Smoking Oak in Mercedes. Most valley smokehouses use mesquite. Try the brisket, and you’ll feel like you just stood in line at Franklin Barbecue for three hours. OK, it’s not as good as Franklin, but you get the jist. 

But the place that is a must stop if you’re heading to South Padre is in Harlingen: Rio Grande Grill BBQ & Tex Mex and its heavy, mesquite-smoked brisket. Unlike the other joints in this guide, there’s an enchilada option for the brisket. Lucky for me, I traveled to this downtown Harlingen building with a camper that had a fridge. We ordered the smoked brisket enchiladas and took ’em to the beach to eat for dinner, but for lunch, we had pulled pork, a slice of brisket and smoked chicken tortilla soup. Basically, our day was made. The enchiladas came in both regular and green chili varieties. We tried them both, and you can’t go wrong. 

Heading to Rockport?

Pro tip: You can eat decent barbecue in Aransas County, or you can just get your fair share of barbecue on the trip down and eat oysters at Oysterfest in Fulton on the first weekend of March. Pro tip 2: There is a food vendor that sets up every year that serves some of the best egg rolls you'll ever have. (Joe Harrington/ American-Statesman)

Rockport holds a special place in my heart, as it’s the place I was raised and spent many a summer hanging out in the Ski Basin, buying bait at the harbor and boiling crabs. 

Chances are if you’re heading to Rockport, you’re going there to eat the seafood. But there are smoke stops to note. The way I take to Rockport is through the heart of Central Texas barbecue: Austin to Lockhart to Luling. You can stop at any of those places along U.S. 183 and hit the jackpot. 

Leaving early? Go to City Market in Luling, which opens at 7 a.m. (bring cash). However, best not to take your family there expecting breakfast food ... like I did. 

If you need to stop though on the way to Rockport and want to cross over the U.S.183/Interstate 10 Buc-ee’s line, just head to Gonzales a few miles away for Baker Boys BBQ

What’s great about this place is that while beef is great and the life blood of my diet, Baker Boys is an amazing alternative. They do one thing other places do wrong: white meat. From their pork loin to their peppery turkey, Baker Boys nails it. But if you want one thing you can’t get anywhere else in the state, try the stuffed chicken leg. It’s de-boned leg filled with a jalapeno and onions. 

Once in Rockport, you really should try some of the local seafood joints. The Boiling Pot has been around for decades, and Captain Benny’s is another choice. Both are technically in Fulton. Honestly, the best way to eat in Rockport is to do it yourself, buying your own locally-sourced food (or catching it) from the many, many bait stands that sell table shrimp and fresh blue crab. 

But back to barbecue. 

A few years ago, Rockport was home to a well-regarded spot called Hatfield’s BBQ that Matthew Odam visited in 2016, but that place is no more. Restaurants in Rockport often have a short shelf-life, so that’s not surprising. But the one barbecue spot that has stood the test of time and has been around as long as I could ride a bike to the old comic book store was Mac’s Pit Barbecue & Catering on East Main Street. 

So Mac’s was always the special, go-to barbecue spot growing up and probably the reason why my dad spent hours trying to learn to smoke brisket. If you’ve had Rudy’s (or for the Williamson County folk, Smokey Mo’s BBQ), then Mac’s will seem familiar. It’s good, but not camp-out-overnight-or-wait-longer-than-30-minutes good. The macaroni and cheese is the go-to side for me, and the ribs are the top meat. And yes. There is a drive-thru at Mac’s. 

Pro tip: If you want a detour from Rockport and are heading south anyway, stop in Goliad on Friday night or Saturday afternoon and go to the Goliad Brewing Company. Try any of their beer selections you can’t get in Austin. 

Blue Moon BBQ father-son pit-masters Matt and Rick Moon stop for a quick selfie on my visit to try their juicy pork ribs in 2017. (Joe Harrington/ American-Statesman)

Heading to see the world champion Houston Astros or going to Galveston?

There are a million terrific barbecue stops in Houston, so I’ll focus my thoughts on the stretch between Austin and Houston. You could be hankering to see the baseball champs play or heading to the beach in Galveston. News flash: You can do both!

Obviously, if you’re a hardcore barbecue nut and heading east on a Saturday, Snow’s BBQ in Lexington is where you go. That’s the No. 1 spot on Texas Monthly’s list, and while I thought it wasn’t as good as La Barbecue, Franklin Barbecue or Micklewait Craft Meats -- oh no, am I being an Austin barbecue snob? -- its brisket is some of the best in the world. I got there at 4 a.m. (it opens at 8 a.m.) and was the second person in line. It was actually kind of cool, because I spoke with the masterminds working the pits and got free coffee. It’s only open on Saturdays, so plan accordingly.

However, one of my favorite hidden gems you’ll come across on a Texas barbecue journey is Blue Moon BBQ. The address says Hearne, but it’s nowhere near Hearne. 

Pay attention to the baby back ribs. Most places will stay true to spare ribs, and some think it’s sacrilege to serve baby backs in Texas, but pitmaster Rick Moon, along with co-pitmaster and son Matt, has mastered them. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t go on Thursday for smoked prime rib night, but I still had a good meal and a good conversation with the Moons. The cool thing about a barbecue joint being a small shack in the middle of nowhere is that the pitmasters are readily available to come chat with you. 

In fact, on my visit I didn’t even order the ribs, sticking with brisket and sausage. But Rick was so excited we made the trip (and had just come from Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor) that he rushed in the back where the smokers are and brought us some ribs and moist brisket. 

Heading on a Texas vacation this summer? Check out our travel section on Austin360

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