BEYOND BRISKET

Texas Monthly barbecue editor chews the fat on top trends and San Antonio’s hottest spots

Texas Monthly barbecue editor chews the fat on the hottest local spots

Bandit BBQ
Bandit BBQ is one of Vaughn's San Antonio faves. Who could resist jalapeño bacon mac and cheese sausage? Bandit BBQ/Facebook

If there were such a thing as a walking encyclopedia of smoked Texas meat, it would be Daniel Vaughn.

Through his travels across the state and beyond, the author has seen (and tasted) it all. Not only has he written two books on the subject, he was also named the state’s first and only Texas Monthly barbecue editor back in 2013 — a gig that’s ushered him to more than 1,800 barbecue joints throughout his career, most of them in Texas.

Now, as eager ’cue aficionados emerge from their quarantine cocoons ready to enjoy what smoky spoils the Alamo City has to offer, Vaughn is sharing some insight into how to eat like, well, an official barbecue editor.

“I think barbecue has been really strong throughout the past year. Even in the face of all the struggles, the craft as a whole has remained really resilient,” offers Vaughn, noting that at the outset of summer 2021, barbecue is experiencing enough new trends, new operations, and new menu items to make even the most avid ’cue connoisseur’s head spin.

Among these, Vaughn says the hottest, meatiest new trends in San Antonio (and indeed, the state) can be categorized into a group he calls the Killer B’s, an unofficial list of menu crazes and fads inexplicably starting with the letter B.

Daniel Vaughn’s Barbecue Killer B’s

  • Burgers. Granted, locals might not immediately picture this meaty, all-American fast-food staple when they think true Texas barbecue, but Vaughn says pitmasters have taken a shine to the ground-beef sandwich, usually adding their own Tejas-influenced spin on the dish, like using brisket for the patty’s base. In San Antonio, Vaughn recommends the cheesy ambrosia that is the smokeless brisket smash burger peddled by longtime favorite South BBQ, located, appropriately, due south of downtown.
  • Breakfast. Vaughn says there’s been a rise in barbecue spots offering expanded breakfast options, and he’s not just talking about the iconic brisket breakfast taco. The editor recommends a Sunday drive to nearby Seguin for a real Tex-Mex barbecue treat, courtesy of decorated pitmasters Ernest Servantes and David Kirkland’s new operation, Burnt Bean Co. “I mean, amazing huevos rancheros on top of a slab of brisket?” Vaughn says. “What more could you want?”
  • Beer. Texan barbecue joints teaming up with area breweries — be it for collaboration ales or one-time pop up events — is nothing new. In San Antonio, however, Vaughn singles out Bandit BBQ, which flips the script by putting beer in their barbecue. Vaughn recommends the spot’s unbelievably flavorful brisket sausages, which are made with a hearty glug of Bandit’s neighbor Kunstler Brewing’s clove-forward Cashmere Hefeweizen ale and come topped with queso, bacon, and green onions. And, oh yeah, don’t forget the barbecue mustard sauce.
  • Boudin Sausage. Vaughn notes some enterprising barbecue spots are even making their own boudin sausage, and for that, maybe a spontaneous summer trip to the Louisiana/Texas border is in order. Smoked crawfish sausage from Hallsville’s Bodacious Bar-B-Q, anyone?

While San Antonio’s local ’cue slingers are hip to the latest genre trends, the editor says when compared with other nationally recognized barbecue centers in Texas (Austin, Fort Worth, Houston), “San Antonio barbecue ... is trying to catch up, just as far as the number of really high-quality places they’ve got within the city.”

Now, before this frank assessment sparks another intercity food war a la the breakfast taco wars of 2016, Vaughn also says the Alamo City is in a favorable position and that summer 2021 may be the moment its barbecue rises to the occasion.

“San Antonio as a city is about to creep up on people,” Vaughn says, citing the area’s many new yet unproven barbecue joints and pop-ups, which he says will finally have the chance to find their footing after a year of pandemic-related setbacks.

He also singles out the city’s many outstanding Tex-Mex barbecue offerings — an increasingly popular style of Lone Star State barbecue that borrows from Mexican and Tejano culture via spicy salsas, homemade tortillas, and countless plates of beans and rice — as “not so much a trend” in the Alamo City, but an integral part of its barbecue DNA. What’s more, he says Tex-Mex tradition “has a deeper history in San Antonio” than it does in cities like Austin.

Daniel Vaughn’s top San Antonio barbecue spots to check out this summer

  • Bandit BBQ might’ve initially missed out on its chance to gain a barbecue identity “or, you know, cook on a consistent basis,” says Vaughn, given that it opened just ahead of the 2020 lockdown last spring. But the editor sees a lot of promise in this scrappy operation’s barbecue. After all, if the brisket “Bandit dog” sausage and outstanding brisket double burger are any indication of this up-and-coming spot’s potential, the sky truly is the limit for pitmaster Brandon Peterson.
  • Curry Boys BBQ is a collaboration between Andrew Samia of South BBQ and Sean Wen and Andrew Ho of Southeast Asia-inspired Pinch Boil House. This bright pastel-pink takeaway shack, located just north of downtown, sweats the small stuff when preparing its curry and rice bowls, which are served with an array of smoked meats and even vegetarian options. “Let’s face it, if you make good curry, the barbecue that goes into it doesn’t have to be fantastic,” Vaughn says. “You can hide a lot in that curry, but Curry Boys decided not to. They wanted to get some legit barbecue brisket, smoked chicken, and sausage. Those mushrooms are fantastic, too.”
  • Weathered Souls Brewing Co. is known primarily as one of the most outstanding brewing and taproom operations in the city. Accordingly, it may seem like cheating to add it to this list, especially since the revamped kitchen (taken over by South BBQ at the beginning of 2020) is currently just one of the many places locals can enjoy pitmaster Andrew Samia’s meats (there’s also Curry Boys and South BBQ’s flagship brick-and-mortar spot at 2011 Mission Rd.). Nevertheless, Vaughn says, “Doubling up on some great beer and great barbecue” is always a good choice. At Weathered Souls, homemade tortillas pair well with familiar yet exciting offerings like a half avocado loaded with chopped brisket, a Weathered Souls menu exclusive.
  • 2M Smokehouse needs no introduction, but that doesn’t stop Vaughn from singling out the incredible pickled peppers and nopales as must-try offerings on pitmaster Esaul Ramos’ iconic Tex-Mex barbecue menu. According to the editor, Oaxaca queso, plus serrano-filled sausage, and chicharron mac and cheese (plus some damn fine brisket) have made this barbecue joint stand out as one of the city’s best for years now.
  • Burnt Bean Co. Vaughn says San Antonians shouldn’t think twice about driving up to this six-month-old brick-and-mortar setup, where literally every item is a winner, from the juicy brisket to an outstanding pork rib, which Vaughn calls out for the fantastic sweet glaze that’s squeezed over the top of it. “I’ve never seen a barbecue joint this new do everything so well,” he says. “Usually, there’s just obvious hiccups for a new barbecue joint trying to get their footing. Not here.”
  • Davila’s BBQ’s mesquite-smoked brisket, fried catfish, and one heck of a craveable Frito Pie make a powerful case for why San Antonio’s sister city of Seguin should officially fall under the Alamo City’s barbecue umbrella. “If Seguin were as close to the city center of, say, Austin or Houston as it is to San Antonio, then those cities would certainly claim places like Burnt Bean Co. or Davila’s as their own,” Vaughn says. “So San Antonio should certainly do the same.”
  • Reese Bros Barbecue is a must-try mobile barbecue operation run by two founding brothers. Eagle-eyed barbecue fans might recognize Elliott and Nick Reese from their previous gig running the ’cue setup at Brick Vault Brewing and Barbecue out in Marathon (which made it onto Vaughn’s 2019 Top 25 New Barbecue Joints in Texas list). Now, San Antonians can enjoy such masterful creations as the brothers’ queso flameado sausage (made with chorizo, serrano, and Oaxaca cheese) at pop-ups throughout the city, and — hopefully soon, says Vaughn — a proper brick-and-mortar spot to house their iconic double-smoker setup.

If ever a food genre could persevere a hardship — say, a year that turned the state’s hospitality industry on its head — it’s Texas barbecue.

“Barbecue as a whole has shown some real resilience,” Vaughn says. “It lends itself to good pandemic food. Picking up a to-go plate at a barbecue joint is nothing out of the ordinary for a Texan.”

Indeed, the fact that Vaughn has kept so busy this year cataloguing barbecue’s latest updates is a solid indication that San Antonio’s ’cue is in a great position going into the summer of 2021, even as operations are still adjusting to life on the other side of a lockdown.

It’s hard to see Texans turning away from their favorite food anytime soon. Whether you’ve got the hankering for a simple brisket platter or a bowl of smoked sausage curry, there’s guaranteed to be something smokin’ in San Antonio to scratch your itch. And you can take Vaughn’s word for it. It’s only his job.