Central Texas is generally considered as the state’s barbecue capital, and therefore (in the eyes of Texans) the barbecue headquarters of the world. There’s some truly tasty stuff around here, and the smorgasbord of top-notch restaurants to choose from can be mind-boggling.
Fortunately, you can’t go wrong at most locally owned family-run places, especially if you see the stacks of hardwood logs out back and smell the hearty smoke burning. The good news is, most small towns in Texas are brimming with restaurants like this. Just look for the long lines forming out the door at lunchtime.
Barbecue purists will typically mention three must-taste towns on the barbecue trail — all accessible from I-35. Taylor, just north of Austin , is best known as the home of Louie Mueller’s Barbecue (206 W. Second St., 512/352-6206, www.louiemuellerbarbeque.com , 10 a.m.–6p.m. Mon.–Sat., $10–15). Open since the late 1940s, Louie Mueller’s has been featured on food programs across the globe and is famous for its succulent smoked brisket. The place oozes weathered, smoke-drenched, rustic charm and serves up tender beef with a slightly peppery sauce and accompanying sweet sides (potato salad, cole slaw).
Just down the road is the town of Elgin, known for its delicious “hot guts” (a.k.a. sausage). One of the city stalwarts is Southside Market & Bar-B-Q Inc. (1212 Hwy. 290 East, 512/281-4650, www.southsidemarket.com , 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Sun., $9–14). Sausage is the main event here, and it’s still made with fresh meats in the German tradition and served on butcher paper.
Long considered the holy grail of the barbecue trail is the community of Lockhart . This small town is big on legendary barbecue establishments, each offering a distinctive approach to preparing the meat.
Purists swear by Kreuz Market , which doesn’t provide sauce because it would compromise the savory, smoky taste, but others remain loyal to Black’s  or Smitty’s  because the sauce and sides provide the perfect complementary flavor. People are usually willing to do the extensive research involved to find out what combination of smoke and meat results in the ultimate Texas barbecue experience.
So, how did Central Texas become such a meat mecca? Food historians believe southern African-American cooking customs and German meat markets primarily influenced the style of barbecue in this area. The concept of barbecued meats on a lunch plate likely came about when African-American and Mexican-American cotton pickers, familiar with their own traditional pit-style meat cooking, ordered sausage and ribs from the German butcher shops in small Central Texas towns.
The workers weren’t allowed in restaurants at that time (early 1900s), so after they got paid, they’d walk over to the market, order fresh smoked meat on butcher paper and eat it on site. Before long, picnic tables and side items of vegetables (traditional German fare like potato salad and cole slaw) emerged, giving way to the restaurants that dot the landscape today.