It’s a well-known fact that the different parts of the country are particular about their different styles of barbecue: chicken and mayo-based sauce in Alabama, pork shoulder and vinegar-based sauce in North Carolina, pork ribs and tomato-based sauce in Memphis, the list could go on and on. But in Texas, it’s beef that reigns supreme. Since the Lone Star State has been synonymous with “cowboys” since the 19th century, this should hardly be surprising. While Franklin in Austin is known for attracting obscenely long lines and selling out of brisket every day since it first opened without fail, it isn’t the only smoked meat heavyweight in the state. About an hour and a half outside of Austin is the small town of Llano, where an old-time joint called “Cooper’s” has been preserving an historic style of barbecue since first opening in 1953.
The different regions of Texas are astoundingly varied when it comes to their barbecue; in the eastern part of the state, there’s a good amount of sauce, and pork ribs are just as popular as brisket. In central Texas, the emphasis is on brisket and pork sausages (a reminder of the region’s German and Czech heritage), and using sauce is considered a major insult. Cooper’s, on the other hand, uses “cowboy-style”, which originates in west Texas, though even there it’s rare. It originated with the cowboys of yore who would let their fires burn down before hanging meat across them. While most of Texas slow-cooks their meat over indirect heat at low temperatures, cowboy-style calls for using direct heat. Since it’s such a hard method to do well, it’s also extremely rare; out of a list of the 50 best BBQ joints written by Texas Monthly, there are only three that use direct-heat pits, and Cooper’s is the only one that solely relies on that method of cooking.
Cowboy-style cooks the meat over direct heat high above the heat source in a large pit. There’s always a risk of burning the meat, but well worth the risk if it’s done well. Cooper’s burns mesquite wood until it turns into coals, then transfers them into a large metal pit before placing the meat on grates about two to three feet above the heat source, cooking it at about 300 degrees. It takes about 5-6 hours to cook, compared to the 12-18 hours it takes with indirect smoking. While it’s faster, it also means there’s a lot less room for error. Cooking brisket like this can be tricky; if it isn’t done perfectly, you’ll be left with a tough, dry piece of meat.
In addition to Llano, Cooper’s can be found in Fort Worth, New Braunfels and Austin. If you’re curious to learn more, you can click here!