After nine years of growth and refinement, the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest is perhaps the best public-facing barbecue event in the country. The festival returns to the familiar confines of The Long Center’s South Austin outdoor patio on Sunday, November 3, continuing the robust barbecue offerings of previous years, and highlighting 29 different restaurants from the state. Options include eight of barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn’s most recent top ten picks and over half of his top 50 from the list, which published in 2017. The event also features newcomer Quy Hoang of Houston barbecue joint Blood Bros. BBQ, making it a true one-off opportunity to overindulge in the very best smoked meat in the state (or country, per most Texans).
To help make the most of the barbecue-filled festival, here are Eater’s tips.
Choosing Your Ticket
It is worth noting that the the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest ticketing has two distinct tiers: the regular $80 pass allows three hours of access to unlimited samples and the live music lineup, while the spendy $165 ticket permits four hours of festing (including the coveted early entry), along with two drink tickets and a subscription to the print magazine. If guests have toddlers in tow, a ticket for younger children is available for $10 for general admission passes and $30 for VIP each. The true decision criteria for purchasers: what is an hour without lines worth to you? Because there will be lines.
What To Bring
As with other Austin festivals, arriving with essential items is wise. The Long Center’s patio can be bright, so bring a hat or cap and some sunglasses, and with Austin’s odd fall weather this year, it is best to be prepared with rain gear. Advance application of sunscreen is smart, and taking a Zantac/Pepcid-style acid reducer before leaving home is for the best. (Bring Tums for later too.) Other possible items for your bag: stain stick for clothes and wet wipes for your hands.
One last item has proven to be both humorous and controversial: some attendees smuggle in Ziploc-type doggie bags to carry home leftovers. While loading up on extra meat would be in poor taste, if you are the type inclined to throw your uneaten portions of brisket and sausage into a stew, it may merit consideration. Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, for his part, says: “That doesn’t sound like anything I’d care to eat, personally.” (Coolers aren’t allowed at the festival either.)
Managing Your Time
The toughest part about the event is that a festival focused on such heavy foods means attendees can only accomplish so much before running out of room. Some advance reconnaissance can be helpful when prioritizing preferred barbecue lines: the list of vendors is up on the ticketing site (also available below), and there are festival maps available too. Options certainly differ, but here are some tips and strategies for managing your time, with help from Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn and food editor Pat Sharpe:
- Make a personal top five list in advance. “You’ll wait in line one way or another,” said Sharpe. “Get there early, decide on your personal top five, and run — do not walk — to your first place. From there, hit the shorter lines.”
- Sharing is caring with less food waste. If in a group, share plates with your friends if you want to hit most of the booths, or resign yourself to the fact that the portions are so large that getting to half of the participants is a challenge.
- Skip side items. There will be time for those on another day. This is a meat festival.
- Always try the newcomer. Vaughn highly recommended Blood Brothers: “because they’re not a barbecue restaurant doing a festival — they’re award-winning festival cooks that started a restaurant. They have festival cooking firepower.”
- Vaughn also suggested Guess Family Barbecue. “We put them in Aaron Franklin’s former spot last year, and they not only survived, they did so well we put them right back there.”
- Think about proximity, or the lack thereof. It might be better to prioritize barbecue establishments that aren’t in Austin, like Tyler’s Barbeque from Amarillo and Evie Mae’s from Wolfforth. “How often are you going to get to those restaurants if you live in Austin?” asked Vaughn. At the festival, “you can try them here in minutes, not hours.”
- There’s no need to cherry pick: “It’s curated and cultivated. They’re all good. There’s no need to wait in the longest line — whatever it turns out to be,” explained Vaughn.
- Get some barbecue education. Visit with the professors from Texas A&M’s Meat Science booth to learn more about the university’s work. “They’ll answer all your brisket cooking and marinade tips,” said Sharpe.
- Go exploring. If you’re visiting from out of town, try a couple of Austin or Central Texas spots in person the days before the festival. “That’s two fewer lines to stand in,” said Vaughn. For those who arrive in Austin early, drive to Snow’s BBQ out in Lexington on Saturday, suggested Vaughn. It’s iconic, and well worth the effort. (It’s the number one barbecue joint of the state.)
- Also remember. Sunday is the first day of daylight savings, which means everything falls back an hour.
Where To Eat
As for picking the “best” barbecue at the festival, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element at play. Some favorite strategies include:
- The Top Ten (wait times: longer): Everyone does this. They read the list too. Expect fantastic food, but big crowds.
- The Farthest Afield (wait times: shorter): Have you made it to Tyler’s in Amarillo, Smolik’s in Mathis, or Pody’s in Pecos? Save the ten-plus hours of driving and prioritize these and other “far from home” spots.
- The Ones You’ve Missed (wait times: moderate): Yes, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ is amazing. But why not enjoy the work of all the places you’ve meant to go but haven’t? Spots like 2M, Hays County, Hutchins, and newcomer to the list Blood Bros. will all be memorable, yet easier to access than the Top Ten.
Don’t Miss The Extras
While the intense barbecue hustle is the whole point of the festival, it is worth taking time to people-watch and explore the grounds. In past years, it has been easy to spot Texan celebrities from Robert Earl Keen to Ray Benson wandering the festival.
One final point: don’t sleep on the music. The festival hosts top-flight music on the sprawling Long Center lawn. This year’s lineup includes Al Dressen’s BBQ Playboys (a western swing outfit gigging since 1982) and Houston wunderkind soul band The Suffers.
What about Franklin Barbecue?
Notable, Franklin Barbecue isn’t participating in the general barbecue festival. Rather, pitmaster Aaron Franklin is hosting a separate Texas Monthly barbecue event the day before at his East 11th Street restaurant. He’ll cook with four of the magazine’s 25 best newcomers in Texas, including Austin-area spots LeRoy & Lewis and Brotherton’s Black Iron BBQ, as well as Convenience West from Marfa. Tickets have already sold out. Sorry.
The Full Texas Monthly BBQ Fest Lineup
- 2M Smokehouse - San Antonio
- Baker Boys BBQ - Gonzales
- BBQ on the Brazos - Fort Worth
- Bodacious Bar-B-Q Mobberly - Longview
- Blood Bros. BBQ - Houston
- Cattleack Barbeque - Dallas
- Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que - Llano
- Evie Mae’s Pit Barbecue - Wolfforth
- The Granary ’Cue & Brew - San Antonio
- Guess Family Barbecue - Waco
- Hays Co. Bar-B-Que - San Marcos
- Heim Barbecue - Fort Worth
- Hutchins BBQ - McKinney
- Killen’s Barbecue - Pearland
- La Barbecue - Austin
- Lockhart Smokehouse - Dallas
- Louie Mueller Barbecue - Taylor
- Micklethwait Craft Meats - Austin
- Miller’s Smokehouse - Belton
- Pinkerton’s Barbecue - Houston
- Pody’s BBQ - Pecos
- Roegels Barbecue Co. - Houston
- Smolik’s Smokehouse - Mathis
- Snow’s BBQ - Lexington
- Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew - Austin
- Tejas Chocolate Craftory - Tomball
- Terry Black’s Barbecue - Austin
- Truth BBQ - Brenham
- Tyler’s Barbeque - Amarillo
- Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ - Austin