If there’s one food that is positively synonymous with Texas, it’s Texas barbecue. Or BBQ. Or barbeque.
However you choose to spell it, the near-religious devotion that Texans have to their smoked meats cannot be overstated.
This guide to Texas barbecue is set up mostly for newcomers: we’ll break down what to order, what to expect when wandering into a pit bbq joint, and a bit about the history of this most sacred Texas tradition.
If you’re local, though, you may still find a new fact or two in here, or just enjoy the reminder that it’s time for another barbecue day trip (and yes, for non-Texans, certain barbecue joints are definitely worthy of driving an hour or two on the weekend for).
Here’s everything you need to know about enjoying barbecue in Texas!
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A (Very) Brief History of Texas Barbecue
Texas barbecue as we know it today was brought to the Lone Star State by German and Czech immigrants, who crossed the Atlantic with an already-established tradition of smoking meats and enjoying sausage.
Add in a harsh frontier that called for preserving meat and an eventually thriving cattle trade, and Texas BBQ (specifically, Central Texas BBQ) as we know it was born.
Texas BBQ Traditions By Region
The most iconic of Texas BBQ styles, Central Texas barbecue is smoked, low and slow, and seasoning is taken care of by a dry rub of spices–often just salt and pepper.
The sauce is an accompaniment served on the side, not an essential (more on that below).
If you’re new to Texas, Central Texas barbecue is probably what you most associate with the state, and it is the style that this Texas barbeque guide focuses on the most.
Much different than the dry rubs of Central Texas, East Texas barbecue has an enormous focus on the sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce that the meat is marinated in.
Chopped barbecue sandwiches are the norm, and unlike in most of Texas where beef is the most common meat, pork and beef share center stage in East TX BBQ.
Also known as barbacoa, this version of barbecue includes marinating the meat in a sweet, molasses-type sauce (as opposed to the tomato-based sauce of East Texas), which is used to keep the meat moist after cooking.
Barbacoa is known for “exotic” meats like cow’s head and tongue, but these days, you can easily find more common cuts of meat as well.
Unlike the rest of these Texas BBQ styles, West Texas barbecue is cooked over an open flame–in other words, it’s more closely associated with grilling than smoking.
What to Expect When Ordering Barbeque in Texas
This guide is catered toward classic Texas-style barbecue joints, which are extremely casual, homey environments!
Line up to order at the counter.
Generally, as soon as you walk into a barbecue restaurant in Texas, you’ll get in line–which is good, because you’ll need time to think over your order.
Plan to eat family-style.
The ordering and serving style of Texas barbecue is a great opportunity to eat family style–don’t feel like you need to order a completely separate meal for each person (in fact, that’s a good way to over-order).
You’ll order meat by the pound.
Meat is sold by the pound, by which I mean, that’s how prices are listed on the menu.
You can order by the slice instead (or by the rib, as the case may be), but that will make it harder to mentally tabulate your bill before checking out unless you’re very well-practiced at ordering barbecue in Texas.
Depending on your appetite, somewhere around 1/3 to 1/2 of a pound of meat per person is a good rule of thumb, but it varies wildly (honestly, we almost always order more than that).
… and sides by the cup or pint.
Generally, for two people, we’ll order one cup of two different sides and share them.
Texas BBQ is typically served on butcher paper.
No plates, and generally no metal utensils, will be in sight.
Grab plenty of napkins.
Eating barbecue is a messy experience!
Picnic tables are common.
If you’re not eating Texas barbecue at a picnic table under a live oak tree, are you even eating it?
In all seriousness, though, plastic tables inside and picnic tables outside is a very common setup at pit barbecue restaurants. These are extremely casual environments!
The sauce is very important (to some).
Most joints will make their own, but in Central Texas, it’s considered an unnecessary addition or dipping sauce, as opposed to an essential part of the dish like in East or West Texas.
Basically, barbecue sauce in Texas is mildly controversial but mostly delicious.
The meat does sell out.
This is most commonly seen at iconic places like Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, where people routinely line up in the early morning and the brisket typically sells out by 11:00 AM–but no matter where you go, a pit barbecue joint in Texas typically makes a set amount of food for one day, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
If a barbecue joint is open for breakfast, you should go.
Ever tried a brisket breakfast taco? If not, you should.
Barbecue and TexMex aren’t the same cuisine, but you’ll find plenty of overlap between them in the Lone Star State!
TX barbeque doesn’t come cheap.
For a standard barbecue meal for two, including a few different types of meat, a couple of sides, and a dessert to share, we typically spend $50+.
You absolutely can order less, especially if you have a small appetite, but if you want to try a little bit of everything, be prepared for the bill to add up!
Texas BBQ Dishes: What to Order
Finally, the best part of this Texas barbecue guide: what to order!
Brisket is the most beloved of all meats in the Central Texas barbecue tradition.
Texas Smoked Brisket is made from beef, and when it is pulled off the smoker, it will be entirely enveloped in an almost-burned-looking exterior–but it’s not burned.
Slice it open, and an incredibly tender, juicy, flavorful meat will be revealed.
Pork spare ribs are another essential component of Texas barbecue.
In addition to pork spare ribs, some restaurants also serve beef ribs.
Generally, you’ll see at least two kinds of sausage on the menu–regular and either a jalapeno or a jalapeno and cheese sausage are most common.
Brisket, ribs, and sausage make up the most essential components of Central Texas barbecue, but they’re far from the only meats on the menu!
Other options you might see include chicken (sold by the half, quarter, or whole), turkey, chopped brisket (as opposed to sliced), and pork loin.
These are separate from sides. You don’t need to order fixings–you’ll just grab them from a buffet-like setup as you sit down (in 2020/2021 times, pre-portioned options have generally replaced family-style setups, at least for the time being).
This spread typically includes white bread, onions, pickles, and Texas barbecue sauce.
Sandwiches & Wraps
Barbecue sandwiches served on a toasted bun are frequently offered–this can be a simple one-meat affair (ie, a turkey sandwich) or a more involved endeavor with multiple meats piled on (for example, sausage, brisket, and turkey wedged together in one sandwich–that’s an example of an actual meal I’ve had).
Either way, expect meat, bread, and nothing else.
Sausage wraps are also common and make a great lunch.
You’ll generally find anywhere from 5 to 10 sides available at most Texas style BBQ joints, and while sides vary a bit from place to place, there’s a similar selection you can expect to find everywhere.
Potato salad, mac n’ cheese, fried okra, creamed corn, baked or pinto beans, cornbread, coleslaw, green beans, and cheese grits are all common.
“How can you possibly save room for dessert with all this food?” is a reasonable question to ask when staring down at an enormous slab of Texas bbq, but trust me, it’s worth saving room for.
Banana cream pudding and cobbler (there are typically at least two kinds to choose from, often peach, pecan, and/or some kind of berry) are practically ubiquitous and almost always worth ordering.
Other options can vary–Truth Barbecue in Brenham is known for their chocolate cake, for example, and fruit pies are common.
No matter what dessert you order, you’ll almost always have the option of adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top!