Texas has always been known for its barbecue, but each year more and more foodies head south for vacations designed around eating the best smoked meat the state has to offer. And there’s no better time than now to plan the ultimate barbecue tour — before summer’s heat is really on.
Getting to one of Houston’s two airports is a cinch from just about any city, so the Lone Star hub makes for a great starting point for a state-wide tour.
Where to stay
You’ll want to rent a car for this adventure because — word to the wise — much of the state’s best barbecue is located between major cities. Downtown H-Town is a straight shot from the airport, and Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Four Seasons Hotel Houston or Hotel Icon, set in a historic Art Nouveau-era bank building, is the ideal place to begin the journey.
With regards to the former, a combination of location, lavish design elements and a lovely restaurant (Four-Star Quattro) make it a smart option. The hotel’s Houston Weekend Getaway promotion (early check-in, daily breakfast, complimentary bikes, gratis house car) essentially seals the deal for anyone longing to sample the city before tasting its barbecue.
Should you saddle up at Hotel Icon, you’ll spot cowhide bar stools at Line & Lariat, where whiskey cocktails and Texas-sized bar snacks await. After trying a few things, check into your suite and relax with a soak in an antique clawfoot tub. For true decadence, book the Penthouse Suite, which comes with three levels for relaxing and entertaining, including a private rooftop terrace looking out over downtown.
What to eat
But don’t stay up too late partying because it cannot be stressed enough that the early bird gets the worm when it comes to Texas barbecue. Folks start lining up for the best ’cue — yes, even those small-town spots — early in the morning, and many places are known to sell out by lunchtime.
Checking social media (or calling ahead) will be your best indication of a recommended arrival time. Regardless, you’ll be eating a lot of morning meat on this trip (and likely taking plenty of afternoon siestas).
Begin your Houston day at Roegels Barbecue Co. with some of the finest brisket the city has to offer, plus unbeatable daily specials like tender pastrami on Thursdays and mammoth beef ribs on Fridays and Saturdays. And while poultry often gets overlooked in the world of Texas barbecue, the flavorful oak- and pecan-smoked turkey is not to be missed, either.
Though meat master Ronnie Killen’s acclaimed Killen’s BBQ (as well as his steakhouse Killen’s Steakhouse) is south of city limits in Pearland, his newest restaurant, Killen’s STQ, is positioned just west of downtown Houston. It combines both concepts into an upscale — though rustic — steakhouse with barbecue. That means all of the classic wood and smoke meets white tablecloths and good service to bring you creations like short rib tamales, chicken fried ribeye and pecan-smoked pork belly burnt ends.
After a downtown bar crawl featuring some of Houston’s finest watering holes (like The Pastry War, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Moving Sidewalk), tuck into your plush bed in preparation for an early wake-up call — how else do you expect to barbecue-hop your way to Austin?
ON THE ROAD
Drive an hour north to Corkscrew BBQ in Spring, Texas, where locals line up five days a week for fall-apart brisket, Duroc pulled pork, exceptional sausage and standout sides like cabbage and spinach coleslaw, ultra-creamy mac and cheese and pit-smoked barbecue beans.
While you digest, drive an hour west along the barbecue belt to Truth BBQ in Brenham (which is only open Thursday through Sunday). In addition to heaping three-meat trays and protein-packed sides (think bacon-crowned macaroni and cheese or sausage-studded greens), the spot also offers baked potatoes bursting with chopped brisket, shredded cheddar, sour cream and green onions.
Where to stay
There’s no better place to fend off the meat sweats than the Four-Star Inn at Dos Brisas, located just 20 minutes from Brenham. The nine-room luxury resort features a shimmering infinity pool, trail riding, fly fishing, clay target shooting, organic gardening lessons and more. In fact, before continuing on your meat quest, you should probably spend at least two nights at Dos Brisas for some proper rest, relaxation and veggie-centric dining at the inn’s Five-Star restaurant.
What to eat
Above all, be sure to time your trip so you are heading to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington on a Saturday because that’s the only day the world-famous barbecue joint is open (from 8 a.m. until sold out). Pay a visit to 81-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz, who arrives at 2 a.m. to stoke the six pits smoking melt-in-your-mouth brisket, peppery pork shoulder, caramelized spare ribs, moist chicken, turkey and two kinds of housemade sausages.
Leaving room for more might seem impossible, but that’s why it’s best that you take this epic quest with several meat-loving companions. Louie Mueller Barbecue, located 30 minutes northwest of Snow’s in Taylor, is another essential stop. Mueller is the godfather of Texas barbecue, and taught brisket 101 to some of today’s pivotal pitmasters (like Aaron Franklin, John Mueller and John Lewis, who now smokes in South Carolina).
From there, head about 40 miles southwest to Austin to make more carnivorous dreams come true, especially if you plan to arrive by May 18, when the inaugural Hot Luck Festival kicks off. The food and music extravaganza was founded by the aforementioned Aaron Franklin (of Franklin Barbecue notoriety), Feast Portland co-founder Mike Thelin and Guerilla Suit principal and entertainment guru James Moody.
The ultimate Whole Enchilada package includes tickets to the kickoff party hosted by Franklin, Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ, Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen and Sara Kramer of Kismet plus a Texas-themed tiki party with a Salt & Time pig roast and cocktails by Weather Up. What makes this festival unique is its Austin-appropriate live music component, with appearances from The Black Lips, The Thurston Moore Group and Japanese punk bank Shonen Knife, who will play while hot young chef Yoshi Otai feeds guests.
Where to stay
While in town, try the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt, located just off lively Rainey Street, home to Texas craft beer mecca Craft Pride and cocktail haunt Half Step. The Townes Van Zandt-inspired Kimpton property is filled with visual celebrations of Austin’s live music scene, from photos and portraits of musicians to sculptures made from instruments to in-suite record players and musical instruments for you to use.
What to eat
Hot Luck features much more than just barbecue, so be sure to get your fill of smoked meats by visiting some of the capital city’s notorious barbecue trailers. La Barbecue’s brisket is arguably on par with Franklin’s while Micklethwait Craft Meats features unusual treats like brisket Frito pie, pulled goat and craft sausages in flavors like pork belly andouille and garden sage kielbasa.
The newly opened LeRoy and Lewis offers a menu that changes daily, with recent offerings like duck leg confit, porchetta and a beef cheek sandwich.
On the way out of Austin, a stop at the world-famous Salt Lick BBQ is essential. The spacious Driftwood property, which celebrates 50 years of smoked excellence, features Instagram-worthy pits, sprawling live oak trees and a just-opened wine bar pouring its own label and other Texas-grown wines.
Just 40 minutes south of Austin is Lockhart, known as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Before heading to the quaint courthouse-facing square, prepare your gut to experience a triumvirate of smoked meats at Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Black’s Barbecue. Each of the historic, family-run joints is just as famous as the next and requires your (now expert) skills to compare and contrast.
The very last stop on this meaty mission is San Antonio. Located just an hour southwest of Lockhart, the Alamo city has historically been more well known for its Tex-Mex fare, but its barbecue scene has taken off in recent years.
Arrive early and plan on waiting for 2M Smokehouse, where Esaul Ramos (formerly of La Barbecue) slings succulent meats and chicharron-topped mac and cheese. Then relish in the massive chopped beef sandwiches, brimming with zesty slaw and pickles, at Jason Dady’s Two Bros BBQ Market.
Where to stay
Settle in at the extraordinary Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Hotel Emma, a riverfront property housed in what was once a 19th-century brewhouse. Each stay begins with a welcome margarita bar setup while lavish suites offer private dining areas, vaulted ceilings, two-story terraces, original stonework and Spanish tile.
The hotel and its many dining and drinking concepts such as Supper and Larder beckon exploration with inspired interior designs featuring antique furniture and repurposed fermentation tanks, pipes and other brewery mechanisms.
What to eat
Just a stone’s throw from Emma is The Granary ‘Cue & Brew, a restaurant and microbrewery also in the Pearl Brewery. Lunch is made up of two or three meat boards, well-made sides and daily specials like pastrami ribs. The dinner menu reimagines barbecue with dishes like brisket ramen and goat rib chops with farro verde, chile broth and wax beans.