Sampling Hill Country barbecue.
By Mark Quasius, F333630
One of the benefits of RVing is the opportunity to sample many local cuisines as you travel. Regional food offerings vary widely from coast to coast, but perhaps the most American of all is barbecue. It is a major fascination for many “foodies” — to the point that a ton of books have been written and many TV shows and even TV series have been created with barbecue as the star. And perhaps no one takes barbecue more seriously than Texans.
Barbecue is king in the Lone Star State. To many, the Hill Country, a 25-county region in central and south Texas, is the barbecue capital of the world. Barbecue joints can be found in seemingly every little Hill Country town, so it’s easy to find a place to sit down and enjoy this mouthwatering treat. Local grocers devote huge sections of their meat departments to brisket, pork shoulder, and ribs.
Barbecue sauces vary in style from North Carolina vinegar-based sauces to Kansas City sweet sauces, but Texans swear by the dry rub technique. Actual cooking methods differ according to each person’s recipe and cooking style, and many of them have been passed down from generation to generation. Texans are passionate about their barbecue and everyone has a preference, so one way to start a heated argument is to tell them why their favorite isn’t as good as yours.
As much as I’d like to, I can’t possibly try all of the Hill Country’s barbecue eateries. Each of the three restaurants described below offers a distinct style of cooking and seems to be most popular with the locals. Naturally, I had to sample all of them firsthand to give readers the most accurate information. As they say, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
In addition to the original spot in Llano, Texas, Cooper’s restaurants are now in Austin, New Braunfels, and Fort Worth. While I’ve been to the Fort Worth Stockyards location, my main spot is still the Hill Country location in Llano.
Cooper’s motto is, “It’s all about the meat.” All of that meat is laid out on outdoor pits and slow-cooked for many hours, “cowboy style,” about two feet over mesquite coals.
When you arrive, you’ll walk past those outdoor pits and be presented with an array of mouthwatering barbecue, with a server ready to load up your tray with your choice of meats. This is the tough part, because it all looks so good that you will be tempted to select too much. I always do. Fortunately, the dining area has large rolls of foil, so you can wrap up the leftovers and take them back to your motorhome to reheat and enjoy the next day.
The pits are filled with sausage, chicken, brisket, beef ribs, baby back pork ribs, pork tenderloin, prime rib, ribeye and T-bone steaks, and the “Big Chop.” Cooper’s is known for the latter — a massively thick pork chop that is moist and tender. The beauty of this open-pit style of cooking is that the server can slice you off a bit of everything so you can sample the works.
Once you load your tray with meat, you’ll be directed inside, where other workers will slice your meat selections and, in typical Texas tradition, serve the meat on a paper mat rather than a plate. Silverware is provided, but for most of the cuts, you’ll just grab ahold and dig in.
While your meat is being sliced, you’ll pass by side dishes from which to choose, such as beans, coleslaw, corn on the cob, potato salad, and baked potatoes, as well as desserts, including apple, peach, and blackberry cobbler.
Grab a bench and sit on one of the long, family-style picnic tables. The wall in the dining area is plastered with awards, photographs, and testimonials from famous entertainment personalities as well as presidents, such as George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, LBJ once had Cooper’s cater a White House dinner for foreign dignitaries. He remarked that he could get more politicking done when they had their mouths full of good Texas barbecue than any other time.
One of the many awards Cooper’s has received is second place in Fox News’ “10 Best Ribs in America” contest. I have to agree, because Cooper’s baby back pork ribs are the best I’ve ever had. (First place went to Off The Bone, in Dallas.)
The Salt Lick
The Salt Lick has two restaurants, one in Driftwood and one in Round Rock. We went to the original Driftwood location, deep in the heart of Hill Country.
The restaurants are owned by the Roberts family, whose recipes date back to the wagon trains of the mid-1800s. While traveling by wagon to Driftwood, Bettie Howard, great-grandmother of the current owner, Scott Roberts, barbecued meat by searing it and slow-cooking it over hot coals. This same method is used by The Salt Lick today.
In 1967 Scott’s father, Thurman, started serving barbecue to the public after receiving accolades from local friends and neighbors. Each week, he began cooking the meat on Thursday night. He slept on a cot next to the barbecue pit, which was built from area limestone. He sold the meat over the weekend until it was gone, which didn’t take long once the word got out.
Today The Salt Lick feeds thousands each week. On an average Saturday alone, more than 800 people can be seated, and around 2,000 are served. The huge parking lot fills up fast on weekends and during the peak season, so entertainment is provided to help customers pass the time as they wait in line. Arriving early is recommended, because once the meat is gone, it’s gone.
The restaurant is especially known for brisket, which can be ordered moist, dry, or as burnt ends. A fire in the limestone pit is fueled by live oak wood rather than mesquite, which some say can leave a bitter taste. Once the meat is seared, it is moved away from the hottest part of the fire. Brisket is slow-cooked for 20 to 24 hours to ensure maximum flavor and tenderness.
Pork ribs, sausage, and even chicken also are barbecued on the pit. The ribs are cooked quickly, in 21/2 to 3 hours, so the thinner cuts don’t dry out. After the meat has been seared, a light sauce is brushed on four times during cooking to help retain flavor and moisture. This sauce has no tomatoes, so it can’t burn, but it does contain sugar. The high acid and sugar content allows the sauce to caramelize on the meat. As the sauce drips off, it feeds the coals, causing them to flare up, adding a distinct flavor.
At this restaurant, a waiter takes your order and brings it to you on a plate, along with your choice of side dishes. The ideal dessert is peach or blackberry cobbler topped with a scoop of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream.
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Located on a main street in Taylor, Texas, Louie Mueller Barbecue is quite different from Cooper’s and The Salt Lick with their multiple locations. Look carefully, because if you blink, you’ll pass it by.
In 1936 Louie Mueller arrived in Taylor to manage the local Safeway grocery store. He opened his own barbecue business in 1949 and moved to the current location at West Second Street in 1959. The building, an old storefront, hasn’t changed much since it was constructed in 1906. Walking through the front door is like stepping into the past.
Barbecue runs in the family veins. Louie’s son, Bobby, took over the reins in 1974. Bobby’s two sons, John and Wayne, worked with their father. John now operates his own barbecue establishment in Austin, while Wayne is the owner and third-generation pit master at Louie Mueller Barbecue.
The doors open at 11:00 a.m. We arrived at 11:15 on a slow Wednesday and were maybe the eighth party in line. By the time we reached the counter at 11:30, the queue stretched back to the door. Signs out front help direct the crowd at busy times, so you can imagine how popular this place is on weekends or evenings. It takes time to cook barbecue properly. Diners arrive early, because once it sells out, no more can be made for the day.
The brisket, super moist and flavorful, was the best we had on the entire trip. The beef ribs were another outstanding treat, sized as though they came off a brontosaurus. Baby-back pork ribs, sausage, pork tenderloin, and even turkey were also on the menu. Pinto beans, potato salad, and coleslaw side dishes were offered as well. Dessert included peach cobbler, a regular Hill Country menu item.
The meat was served on a sheet of butcher paper, as is common in the area. A trip to the backyard revealed Wayne’s wood-fired smoker, which resembled a steam locomotive that was missing its Union Pacific decals.
Louie Mueller Barbecue was featured on a 2007 episode of the Food Network TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and has received the James Beard Award as well as numerous regional honors. The quality of the barbecue speaks for itself.
When In Hill Country . . .
Texas Hill Country abounds with scenery, attractions, and entertainment, plus plenty of RV parks. When you visit, barbecue should not be missed.
Diners typically savor their barbecue with just the dry-rub seasoning, although sauces are always present for those who want to try them. I found The Salt Lick’s sauce particularly good. Sold by the bottle, it might just find its way into your motorhome.
Side dishes usually include beans, corn, coleslaw, and potatoes, but we didn’t find them to be outstanding at the barbecue eateries we tried. You might want to concentrate on the meat rather than filling up on other items.
Most barbecue restaurants sell out of meat quickly, so if you show up too late, you may wind up eating at the nearest fast-food joint. Evenings are busier than lunchtime, and weekends are busier than weekdays. Not every place takes credit cards, so you’ll want to carry some cash.
If you enjoy mouthwatering barbecue, you won’t beat what you find in the Texas Hill Country. Just be sure to bring an appetite.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
604 W. Young St.
Llano, TX 78643
The Salt Lick BBQ
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619
Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W. Second St.
Taylor, TX 76574