According to Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, once upon a time, the best barbecue chain in Texas was, believe it or not, H-E-B.
Well used to be anyway. Now that arbiter of taste is having second thoughts.
Vaughn joined the Standard to talk about his sudden change of mind. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: To be honest, I was a bit surprised about four years back when you bravely proclaimed H-E-B to be the best barbecue chain in Texas. But, I don’t know, maybe what you’ve done now is even more bold. You’re taking back some of that love you once had for a certain supermarket that gets a lot of love in the Lone Star State. You’re a brave man, Daniel.
Daniel Vaughn: Yeah, well, I mean, I still think they do good barbecue. I just think that they are slipping a bit. You know, for somebody who proclaims something like “best barbecue chain in Texas,” like myself, and then sees it on the back of a t-shirt there – True Texas BBQ – I feel like I gotta call ’em to account when I see maybe just not as good a barbecue as I had a few years back.
Well, now something must have hit you the wrong way. What happened?
Well, it was really the brisket up here in North Texas. We don’t really have H-E-B here in the Dallas area until really recently. Last year, they opened up a location in Frisco and one in Plano and along with it came two new locations of True Texas BBQ. I went to visit and really thought it would be more of a puff piece, just letting people know that now they could get the best barbecue chain even closer to them if they live in Dallas. But, you know, the brisket just wasn’t up to par and it became sort of a recurring thing on each of my return visits, as well.
Well, I wonder if that was just because they’re new, right? I mean, you say that they don’t really have much of a presence yet in North Texas overall, and maybe they’re just getting the smoker warmed up.
Well, I mean, I gave them months to get that smoker warmed up and in several different visits. And really, I headed back down to the Austin area as well, where I had previously had some really great stuff and wanted to try some of the newer locations and some of those ones that have been around a little longer and see if they’re having some of the same issues. With the brisket I found that they were and I think some of that just has to do with the expansion of True Texas BBQ and just how popular it’s gotten.
Now, just to be clear, in case someone’s listening to us and thinking we’re talking about that barbecue they sell in tubs: No, we’re talking about these barbecue joints within certain of the bigger H-E-B stores. You mentioned True Texas BBQ. That’s the brand that they use, right?
Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, I wouldn’t be making any proclamations about how great barbecue out of a tub would be and I certainly wouldn’t be worried about holding a grocery store to account for their barbecue. Except the thing is True Texas BBQ really is trying to do it right. You know, they’ve got smokers and they’ve got trained staff at each location. You know, this isn’t a sort of, you know, cook it in one spot and ship it out to all the other stores. You know, they do it all in-house and they really do try to do it right. And some things they do really well with the half chicken – which sadly is, I think, off the menu for a moment – and the pork ribs as well as the sides. But I just think, you know, if you’re going to it thinking that you’re going to get some really great brisket, you know, or brisket that was as good as I had a few years back, I just don’t think you’re going to find it these days.
Well, you know, there’s a certain yikes factor here because as you alluded to, the folks at True Texas really picked up on your high praise back several years ago. I think that the folks in the stores wear these shirts that say, you know, “best barbecue chain in Texas.” They’re quoting you, right? I mean, are they going to have to break out the bleach or get some new shirts printed up or what?
Yeah, I mean, I already told them there’s no need to really change their shirts yet. I really don’t think there’s another chain out there that is really doing it any better than they are right now. It’s just I really think they were head and shoulders above and you know, maybe they’re just a rib or two above now.
Daniel, maybe you ought to cut them some slack here. I mean, isn’t there something about having a barbecue joint within a grocery store? I mean, that’s pretty unusual. Pretty uncommon. It’s got to be hard to get barbecue right in that environment.
Yeah, absolutely it is. You know, and with the change in staff and, you know, asking somebody to come and work at a grocery store and cook that overnight shift, yeah, they’re certainly asking a lot. But, you know, I think that they’re actually dedicated to making great barbecue, which is why they’ve done all that. I mean, I got a personal apology email from Charles Butt after publishing the article saying he appreciated the comments, but they were going to work hard to to make it better. So, I mean, if that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
Yeah, well, I was going to ask about reaction. There’s that. Charles Butt, I guess a part of the founding family of H-E-B. You know, I wonder, though, what about other super fans of H-E-B? And there are quite a few out there. What other reactions have you been getting to your story?
Well, I mean, we did just do a bracket of favorite Texas brands at Texas Monthly and H-E-B came out on top quite handily. So I don’t think the brand is going to be at all tarnished by having some, you know, lackluster brisket. I mean, for me, I hope the reaction is that when I head into a new True Texas BBQ – there’s going to be one opening up in McKinney here later in the summer – that they’ve got the ship righted and, you know, that we’re all eating great barbecue.