As someone who has visited about 600 barbecue joints -- 500 in Texas alone -- Daniel Vaughn considers the majority of barbecue offered these days to be bad.
“Once you’ve reached the mountaintop, once you’ve eaten the best stuff, you’re ruined really,” Vaughn said. “It’s hard to go back to the mediocre stuff. And most of it is mediocre.”
Spoken like a true snob. That’s not only his Twitter handle (@BBQsnob) but also the self-chosen moniker for a man who has lived and breathed barbecue and “been an incredible glutton” over the last several years. It started with a dedicated blog, “Full Custom Gospel BBQ,” written in his spare time. And his passion for barbecue led Texas Monthly to appoint Vaughn -- a trained architect -- as its first full-time Barbecue Editor, a position that many call a “dream job.”
Vaughn’s standards for what makes good Texas barbecue are high and exact:
“For Texas barbecue, it’s all about the great brisket, and there are five elements to great brisket,” he said. “You have to have the right amount of moisture, the right tenderness, the right smoke in it and the right seasoning. But you can’t have that smoke just completely overpower the beefiness. You still have to get that beefy flavor in there. When all those come together, it’s a beautiful thing, but so many things can go wrong to keep one of those things from happening.”
And preaching the virtues of fat doesn't exactly make Vaughn the model of healthy eating.
“If the fat’s good, you know the meat’s going to be good,” he said. “Fat should be translucent, nice and tender.”
Though he said he keeps the cholesterol score down by “eating a salad now and again,” Vaughn made no attempt on health claims.
“I’m eating ridiculous amounts of beef and sausage and ribs,” he said. “I’m not going to fool anybody and try to make the case that it’s a healthy diet. But I’m out there eating good bbq and also eating bad bbq so you don’t have to.”
Vaughn's just-published book, “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue,” is a roadmap of his meals across the Lone Star State. Just as barbecue varies across the United States, Texas itself has four main styles.
Here’s Vaughn’s breakdown:
East Texas: saucy ribs, chopped beef, stuff that’s very tender, falling off the bone, covered in a sweet sauce.
Central Texas: salt-and-pepper-rubbed meats, ordered straight from the chopping block. Cooks for 14-16 hours. They get slapped on a piece of butcher paper and that’s how you eat them, with your hands. No forks, sometimes no sauce. Sides are just kind of unnecessary
South Texas: Taking a whole beef head, putting it underground and cooking it with wood.
Hill Country/West Texas/Cowboy style: A separate firebox holds the wood, which is cooked down into coals. Coals are then transferred to a pit and the meat is cooked directly over them. Cooks a little faster and has a different flavor because of the coals rather than indirect smoke.
The Central Texas style is Vaughn’s favorite: “Getting brisket that is just buttery tender, having a quarter-inch line of fat on there that you wouldn’t dream of throwing away because it’s so good, that’s something special. The simple seasonings of salt and pepper and smoke. There’s nothing to cover it all up. When it comes out on that piece of butcher paper, just a piece of meat sitting in front of you, unadorned, the meat’s got to hold up on its own. There’s no sauce to help it out.”
Whether the barbecue is good, bad or mediocre, Vaughn said, the cooking methods have changed little over the years. And despite a wife who won’t touch the stuff and a job that has him eating “4 or 5 lunches a day,” he said that for him, barbecue will never get old.
“I never get sick of good barbecue,” he said. “I never get sick of trying to explore, trying to find good barbecue. Just the drive to find that next new place, the next discovery, keeps me going.”