European meat-smoking traditions were brought by German and Czech settlers in Central Texas during the mid-19th century. The original tradition was that butchers would smoke leftover meat that had not been sold so that it could be stored and saved. As these smoked leftovers became popular among the migrants in the area, many of these former meat markets evolved to specialize in smoked meats. Many butcher shops also evolved into well-known barbecue establishments.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson hosted a state dinner featuring barbecue for the Mexican president-elect in Johnson City, Texas. It is generally considered the first barbecue state dinner in the history of the United States.
Central Texas pit-style barbecue was established in the 19th century along the Chisholm Trail in the towns of Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor. The German and other European immigrants owned meat packing plants opened retail meat markets serving cooked meats wrapped in red butcher’s paper– this tradition continues to this day in many central Texas towns. Also, this barbecue style’s popularity has spread considerably around the world, especially to Southern California, New York City, and in Britain and Australia.
Today, many barbecue restaurants open around 11:00am and serve until “they are out of meat”, most barbecue establishments are closed on Sundays.
At a typical Central Texas pit barbecue restaurant, the customer takes a tray cafeteria style and is served by a butcher who carves the meat by weight, side dishes and desserts are then picked up along the line with sliced white bread, pickles, sliced onion, and jalapeno. Barbecue meats are commonly sold by the pound. The emphasis of Central Texas pit barbecue is on the meat, if sauce is available, it is usually considered a side dip for wetting purposes. Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, said that discussions of Central Texas pit barbecue do not concern the piquancy of the sauces, or on the common side dishes and desserts– main consideration is of the quality of the cooking of the meats.
Smith posits this theory on why sauces are not a focus of Central Texas pit style: in the early days, the noon meat markets were dominated by the upper class purchasers, who could choose among the highest-quality cuts of meat with little interest in sauces. Smith describes many sauces in Central Texas pit barbecue as intentionally made “bland”, as compared to the flavor of the meats themselves. The sauce is typically thinner and unsweetened, different than the Kansas City and Memphis styles (which rely heavily on molasses, sugar, and corn syrup to provide thickness and sweetness).
Jayne Clark of the USA Today said in 2010 that the “Texas Barbecue Trail” is an east of Austin “semi-loop” including Elgin, Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor. Barbecue eateries in this semi-loop, like Louie Mueller Barbecue, are within one hour’s drive from Austin, in a direction of northeast to the southeast.
East Texas barbecue is usually chopped and not sliced. It may be made of either beef or pork, and it is usually served on a bun. Griffin Smith, Jr. of Texas Monthly described East Texas barbecue as an “extension” of barbecue served in the Southern United States and said that beef and pork appear equally in the cuisine. Unlike other versions of Southern barbecue, Texas barbecue does not include cole slaw.
Smith further described East Texas barbecue as “still basically a sandwich product heavy on hot sauce.”
West Texas barbecue, sometimes also called “cowboy style,” traditionally used a more direct heat method than other styles. It is generally cooked over mesquite, with goat and mutton in addition to beef.
Barbecue in the border area between the South Texas Plains and Northern Mexico is mostly influenced by Mexican cuisine. Historically, this area was the birthplace of the Texas ranching tradition. Often, Mexican farmhands were partially paid for their work in less desirable cuts of meat, such as the diaphragm, from which fajitas are made, and the cow’s head. It is the cow’s head which defines South Texas barbecue (called barbacoa). The head would be wrapped in wet maguey leaves and buried in a pit with hot coals for several hours, after which the meat would be pulled off for barbacoa tacos. The tongue would also be used to make lengua tacos. Today, barbacoa is mostly cooked in an oven in a bain-marie.