Tuesday, September 16, 2014


... at the Texas Monthly Barbeque Festival. And there is TONS of it. If you missed it this year, you really screwed yourself. This was the best yet. I never realized I could take eating so seriously until I saw these two pictures of myself from yesterday: 

I should be embarrassed by this one, but the only regret I have is that I wasted my time trying to use a napkin to keep my hands clean... oh and the Killen guy laughed at me the whole time. And gave me a round of applause when I went in for my second beef rib. 

What is the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest? Each year, Texas Monthly Magazine invites restaurants in their Top 50 BBQ Joints list to a round up of the best barbeque sampling event in Texas. Held on the lawn of the Long Center in Austin, the event allows BBQ lovers to sample the showcased offerings of Texas' best. The event features live music, games, excellent sponsorship and cold drinks. Keep reading for my rankings of the best of the fest and my expert strategy for approaching this wonderfully protein-packed Sunday Funday. 
The Long Center lawn smells like heaven on TMBBQ fest day.
I destroyed more barbecue than should be legal to eat in one day.

Oh that beef rib. 
That said, before I fall into my meat coma and these Crown Royal cocktails really catch up with me, I'll highlight what I can, after the whirlwind of meatopia I just experienced at the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival.

First of all, this year was the best yet. I was thoroughly satisfied and impressed at the meaty showings at this annual gathering. There were quite a few new contenders, familiar names that have returned, and tried-and-true favorites that took on a seasonal approach and became even better than in years past.

5% minimum spandex required. 

My rankings for the Best of the 
Texas Monthly Barbeque Festival 2014 are: 

Best overall: Killen's BBQ. The most generous offerings included a beautiful bounty of brisket, sausage and beef ribs. Their coffee sauce was exquisite.
Best Sausage: Miller's -- Soft texture jalapeño cheese sausage literally melts in your mouth. Also worth mentioning is their dry rub on the ribs. I am a crust-lover, and Miller's is doing it right!
Best Seasonal: Original Black's BBQ hatch chile sausage. They had great brisket and a fabulous attitude as well. 
Best Ribs: Stanley's. Thick, fall off the bone, tender ribs. Not overly smoked or crusted, their ribs are "world famous" for a reason. 
Best Smoke Ring: Snow's BBQ from Lexington, Texas. The visible smoke ring (photo below) was on each piece of perfectly cooked meat: the rib, brisket and sausage sported the best in show. 
Best Brisket: Pecan Lodge from Dallas. For the third year in a row, I give the highest award to Pecan Lodge. The flavor is all in the juice of this perfectly textured meat. It has a good amount of smoke, but not too much to dry out the juicy brisket. 
Most unique: Lamb Chops from Louis Mueller. It was served with a really spicy jalapeño chutney and deliciously balanced, slightly sweet barbecue sauce.

Sauces, etc:
Most Unique and delicious: Coffee Sauce from Killen's. Coffee-based barbeque sauce is a hard novelty to make, but Killen's nailed it. 
Best Spicy Sauce: Tyler's barbecue features decent, slightly dry brisket, but their sauce does its job of masking any unpleasantries with the meat. I absolutely loved their spicy pepper sauce. The viscosity landed somewhere between thick and thin, just right for sticking to ribs. It had a great amount of pepper and a hint of sweet to balance it all out.
Best Sweet Sauce: Hatfield's. They replied with a sly smile when I asked them if their sauce was made with maple syrup. Whatever the secret is, they are doing it right. The subtle smokey maple flavor adds something extra special to the sauce. It is not overly ketchuped, either. It is thin enough to comply with Texas-style standards. It was wonderful.
Best Coleslaw: Opie's. With sweet dried cranberries, crunchy almond slivers and creamy mayo, this claw is a perfect accompaniment to the smokey, fatty, meaty fare of the event.

Look at the smoke ring on the Snow's offerings! It was perfect on every piece of meat. 

Killen's of Pearland lived up to the hype and then some. They killed it this year.
Honorable Mentions
Hutchin's BBQ: Salty, fall off the bone ribs. Very "snappy" sausage. Definitely worth revisiting on a road trip out to McKinney.
Lockhart Smokehouse: I thought their brisket had the best texture. Sometimes moist cuts can be too fatty on one side, but the marbling on both the lean and moist cuts at Lockhart are well distributed.  Their thin, crispy crust crunches in your mouth like the burnt skin of a marshmallow. I loved it.
Lambert's: You have to love their "outside of the box" approach to barbeque. It's not traditional BBQ, but it's always delicious. I think its gourmet-cowboy cooking. 

Hey Barrett Black. I'll take the fatty brisket, thank you very much. 
The Granary's Pork Belly. It was way too fatty and not at all tender. The sauce would have done a good job masking this sadly smoked pork but it was spicy beyond tolerance. With a reputation of culinary diversity and BBQ expertise, I was looking forward to and expected a variety of samplings from the Granary. Maybe they'll bring more next year!
Hay's County BBQ was sadly dry. Tyler's brisket was dry as well, but I forgave them for having such a delightful peppery sauce.
City Meat Market: It wasn't surprising that their brisket was characteristically dry, but their ribs were leathery and unpleasant as well. If you like a course grind on your sausage, you would probably enjoy their signature links with their thick, snappy casings.

The sad pork belly-- I need to get to the bottom of this. I had heard wonderful reviews of The Granary. 
What is your BBQ fest strategy? 

Just so you know, judging at a barbeque festival of this magnitude is incredibly difficult. With 25 participating restaurants, there are a lot of factors to consider. Not only that, but it doesn't take long for the meat coma to kick in and your ability to actually discern taste becomes cloudy. Fortunately, I learned this over the last three years of attending this festival, and I came armed and ready to taste with expertise and palate clarity. This is my strategy: 

1. Wear something you don't mind staining, throwing away or expecting to ever smell like anything other than fat and smoke ever again. This outfit should contain at least 5% spandex as well. 

2. Pre-game with one beer or bloody mary made with Canandian Whiskey while you wait in line. Trust me. The trashier the drink, the better. You are warming up into BBQ Bubba Mode. This shit is about to get highly stressful, so loosen up a bit. 

3. What to bring: 30 sandwich baggies, 2 permanent markers, 2 large durable grocery bags (the paper ones provided won't cut it), 3-4 mini tupperware containers for sauce. 

4. Plan of attack: You are going to split this experience in half. 10-12 BBQ joints at a time. Pick the first 12 and you and your partner split them. Leave your kid at a picnic table or agree to meet at a "home base." Each of you gathers 6 sampling trays from different joints and returns to the home base table. DON'T forget the restaurant's card in your tray so that you are able to identify them while you are eating. Spread out all the labeled trays and take small bites of everything. Each of you works on your own score card. Do not eat too much. Seriously. Be careful. Pack up leftovers like the picture below, making sure everything is labeled. You will revisit this later on. Step 2. Get another drink. Step 3. Repeat with the remaining 10-12 BBQ joints. 

We won a cooler in a heated Crown Royal-sponsored game of corn hole. How perfect was that for our bounty of BBQ?

This is what it looks like when it gets home. After you take a nap and chill out for a little while, revisit the meat. You'll need your own second opinions. Your tastes and overall BBQ expertise has changed in the last few hours. 

There is more fun to be had besides eating meat. Dale Watson played, there were games and drinks and photo booths, too. It was a lot of fun. And this happened when I wasn't looking: 

Song of the Day: Wildest Moments Jessie Ware

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