I just returned from a solo trip to Austin, Texas. There’s something I love about the area, despite Texas being the home of people like Ted Cruz. One of the things I dig about Austin and its environs is that it’s an unlikely film mecca, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to Richard Linklater’s filmography to Office Space to Robert Rodriguez’s homegrown studios to the shooting of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple and True Grit. These are some of my favorite films, and their locations have always spoken to me somehow. (I try to capture some of it in my next crime novel, Tessa Goes Down, coming soon!) The dusty, wide-open spaces … the surprisingly liberal weirdness … the sense of loose-limbed freedom. So a big part of my trip was to scout some of those locations, but interspersed with my travels were visits to some of the greatest barbecue joints in the world.

I’ve been a barbecue aficionado for decades, and the Central Texas variety has always been my favorite—oak-smoked meats (emphasis on beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage), seasoned simply with coarse salt and pepper. It’s the kind of barbecue that eschews sticky sauces or blended seasonings or other accoutrements. Just basic, down-home goodness.

With that in mind, in the weeks preceding my trip, I researched a bunch of joints in Austin and surrounding areas that are considered must-stops in any visit to the area. During a previous visit to the city, I’d missed out on the legendary Franklin Barbecue because of long lines, so for this trip I made it a priority to get there early on one of my first days. Mission accomplished! But after finally sampling Franklin, I wanted to use the experience as a baseline for several other classic Central Texas barbecue venues—namely, the ever-popular Salt Lick, the up-and-coming InterStellar BBQ, Elgin’s Southside Market & Barbecue, Austin’s La Barbecue, and Lockhart’s holy trinity of Kreuz Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Smitty’s Market. (Lockhart is considered the barbecue capital of Texas, after all.) Now, I know I missed some local favorites, but I only had five days, and a man can only consume so much meat. My plan was to get small samplers from each joint, in essence creating my own barbecue festival, and even with those modest ambitions, I definitely had my fill of smoked protein!

So here are my personal rankings of the places I sampled. Keep in mind, of course, that not only are these simply one 50s-ish man’s subjective opinions, but that barbecue itself varies from plate to plate. One slice of brisket can be nirvana, and the next one—perhaps sliced slightly wrong or from a different segment of the cut or from a differently marbled muscle—might be tough or chewy. Beef brisket especially is a notoriously fickle slab of cow, as anyone who’s tried to prepare one properly knows!

These rankings represent my personal experiences on the given days and ephemeral moments I was able to sample these great restaurants.

1. Franklin Barbecue (downtown Austin)

Fully living up to the hype, Franklin Barbecue is a study in purity. I arrived early on my first full day, around 8 am, to find the front of the joint empty, and a sign still in the window from the previous day: “Sorry y’all, we’re sold out!” But I knew meat was smokin’, because there was a clatter coming from the back, lots of activity. I returned in an hour to find a few people starting to line up, so I fell in place. There was some amiable chatter going on, but after a few niceties, I sat down on the cold concrete and began to read the book I’d brought. But after a short while, a friendly employee came out to announce that the doors were open to those who wanted to peruse the merchandise, buy drinks, or use the restroom. She even brought collapsible chairs out to the first dozen or so people in line. I spent my two hours sipping coffee from up the street, soaking in the moment with my fellow barbecue lovers, and buying the requisite tee-shirt. I’d say by the time the joint opened at 11, there were approximately 80 people in line—and this was a cool Thursday morning.

Applause broke out when the doors swung wide. We marched in and took our place at the serving counter. Those initial orders in front of me were big, pounds and pounds of meat, but when it was my turn, my haul was modest—and indicative of the type of meals I’d be going for throughout my trip: a few slices of fatty brisket (from the point rather than the flat), two burnt ends, and a couple of pork ribs. I’m not big on sides in general, and in fact Franklin’s isn’t known for its sides, anyway. I did grab a bourbon banana tart, though, created at a local bakery. (I’m a sucker for banana desserts.) I also got a big ol’ bottle of Coke.

The expert meat cutter sliced and diced my selection, having taken slabs of beef and pork from a large metal storage warmer behind her, unwrapping the meat from butcher paper or foil. The brisket jiggled like crusty Jell-O, and the ribs had a satisfying, rubbery spring. Although I didn’t order turkey, I noticed that it came out in a half-gallon pool of butter. As per typical central Texas etiquette, the meats were weighed precisely, wrapped sloppily with butcher paper, and presented to me on a tray. I proceeded to a table and began to savor.

The star of the show was the brisket—perhaps obviously. The salt-and-pepper crust was a perfectly textured ridge of smoky goodness, and the tender innards splayed themselves open to me, glistening, steaming. The aroma was there, man, and the first bite only confirmed it: moist, supple, mouth-watering. I took my time with it, you can be sure, adding in morsels of delectable burnt end now and then. The gastronomical effect of the smoky rendered fat and the melted muscle was revelatory against the taste buds. I sat there supremely satisfied as I chewed, watching the line slowly progress, envious that these people still had this ahead of them. The pork ribs were very fine, as well, just the right firmness without being tough. The flavor, again, was simple and yet elemental. I sat there for forty-five minutes, basking in the experience, and at a certain point Aaron Franklin himself appeared at the counter to talk to his team, flashing a brief smile from behind his mask, and then disappearing again into the back, where the magic was already beginning for the next day in the seasoned smokers.

This is the place where I would most want to return. It’s the best brisket I had during my trip—but, surprisingly, at least two other joints came very close.

2. Black’s Barbecue (Lockhart)

It’s for good reason that the town of Lockhart—located about forty minutes south of Austin—is considered the barbecue capital of Texas: It’s got at least three classic meat joints that you have to try at some point in your life. My overall favorite of the three, at least on the particular day I visited the place, was Black’s Barbecue. Aside from the promise of smoked meats, I was also drawn to Lockhart for its frequent use as a movie location. Primary among the films shot here is Waiting for Guffman, the hilarious 1996 Christopher Guest mockumentary. Between small meals, I toured the city to visit all kinds of Guffman spots, as well as locations for Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, and season 2 of Tom Perrotta’s HBO series The Leftovers.

Black’s Barbecue is just adjacent to downtown, and it has a different aura than the other two Lockhart staples that I tried. Of the three, it feels most like a traditional restaurant, at least after you snake through the narrow ordering line. That being said, it also offers the best brisket of the three. (The other two have their unique strengths.) This brisket apparently is prepared with a unique routine that involves wood rotisserie, long-term cooler storage, and then four finishing hours in old brick pits. The result is a truly delectable crust and well-rendered fat underneath (although not quite the level of perfection as Franklin’s). The level of oak smokiness is almost profound. As for the pork ribs, I have to say that only one of these barbecue joints was even remotely off with its rib (see InterStellar later). In this case, Black’s pork rib was outstanding, just short of fall-off-the-bone tenderness, with an inherent salt-and-pepper flavor that boggled the buds. No sauce required, of course.

I topped off my sampler with a banana pudding, and although it hit the spot, it struck me as rather generic. It was better than the bourbon banana tart at Franklin’s, but not nearly as mouth-walloping as a pudding I’d stumble upon later. (Again, InterStellar.)

3. Southside Market & Barbecue (Elgin)

Elgin is a small town about thirty minutes east of Austin, just beyond the tiny rural town of Manor, where the bulk of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was filmed. That’s right, the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, John C. Reilly, and Juliette Lewis walked these streets. And who knows? Maybe they got their greasy hands on some Southside barbecue. If so, they were damn lucky, because this was one of the big surprises of the trip. Feeling more “corporate” than most of the other joints, Southside nevertheless boasts a long, storied history as America’s oldest barbecue restaurant (opened in 1886!). It began as a small shack in Elgin proper, but today Southside is an upscale place on the edge of town next to the busy highway.

After ordering my meal from the very friendly counter staff, I sat down in the middle of the large seating area and tucked in. Off all the places I visited, Southside boasted the most consistently great variety of meats. Every morsel was terrific, although other places might have shined in more specific areas. I tried the sausage first, and it was mind-blowing—coarsely ground, curvy “hot gut” links (apparently the specialty) that are incredibly plump and juicy, with that perfect snap. Then came the brisket, which was just the right level of tender, accented by occasional nibbles of the two burnt ends at the edge of my butcher-paper tray. The pork rib, as with nearly every other place I tried in Texas, was out of this world.

All of this to say: If you want the best all-around experience, be sure to give Southside a try! It’s certainly worth the drive. And it’s also halfway to Granger, due north, which is where the Coen Brothers filmed the Fort Smith, Arkansas, scenes of True Grit. A fun afternoon stop where you can mosey around and digest all that meat.

4. Kreuz Market (Lockhart)

Second on my list of Lockhart barbecue places, Kreuz Market is a cavernous barn on the outskirts of town that houses a huge smoke arena, a sprawling dining area, and a giant company store, which is also where you order your sides and drinks. The actual meat staging area is a focused, serious matter. It’s an experience. Walking in, it feels like a wood palace of smoky protein. You’re corralled toward the open counters, where you can see the big pits, the stacked wood, the years of smoke on the walls. Your selections are sliced and weighed, and you’re on your way to the adjacent dining room. This is a place that has brought the spirit of “Texas” to the size and feel of its space. I have to say that I enjoyed the atmosphere of Kreuz Market more than just about any other stop on my trip. (In that department, it’s a close second to the Salt Lick, below.)

Sitting down to my small feast, I tackled the brisket first—and my first impression wasn’t the greatest. It has a surprisingly thick, chewy crust, and the smoky flavor is muted, at least compared to my top picks above. Sampling it a bit more, however, I found some nice moist portions, smoke-ringed and marbled. Still, a bit of a letdown. It was when I sampled the pork rib that Kreuz redeemed itself. It was another outstanding rib, potently textured and flavored, one of those rare meat experiences where all you can do is close your eyes and masticate slowly. The rib was the Kreuz highlight for me. Once I tried the sausage, unfortunately, I knew I’d be having better at a later time, so I only finished half of it. It was dense and unsatisfying.

5. The Salt Lick (Driftwood)

A Food Network staple, the Salt Lick has been somewhat controversial, lauded more for its atmosphere than the actual quality of its meats. There’s no doubt that this place provides the greatest atmosphere of any restaurant on this list—from its sprawling ranch-like acreage, to its outdoor picnic spots shadowed by majestic oak trees, to its fabled indoor smoke pit filled with beef and pork. A little rooting around on the Internet will tell you that no actual smoking or cooking occurs on that smoke pit; rather, it’s merely a photogenic place for the meat to keep warm. Regardless, it makes quite an impression.

Truth is, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Salt Lick, even though realistically it falls at the halfway point on this list. It’s the place, years ago, that introduced me to Texas barbecue, and at the time it was the best brisket I’d ever tasted. That, combined with the experience of the place (even the drive down to Driftwood, a half hour southwest of Austin along rolling hills), made it quite memorable in my life. This trip, the brisket was fairly unremarkable, even a bit chewy. The pork ribs fared better, offering uncommon juiciness and snap.

Honestly, the true standouts at the Salt Lick are the vinegar-based sauce, which seems to work with everything, and—OMG—the cobbler. You can choose from peach, blackberry, or a combination of both. Go for the combo, a la mode. Jesus H. Christ. An orgasmic topper to any Salt Lick meal, that cobbler is something to savor.

6. Smitty’s Market (Lockhart)

We’re back in Lockhart! Downtown Lockhart, to be exact. Smitty’s is right in the heart of it, a tiny joint at the southeast corner of the square, all old-school and unadorned. It’s as unassuming a place as they come, down-home and friendly, with a barebones open pit in a smoke-blackened back room, fronted by a greasy cutting block and scales. The place has a definite charm that any lover of barbecue will embrace. Just standing in line is an experience. After ordering from the smoke-curled menu affixed to age-browned bricks, I made my way into the adjacent dining room, which was positively ascetic in its old-school thrift-store charm.

Smitty’s also boasted, by far, the greatest sausage of my trip—just unbelievably juicy, with the ideal skin pop. As my teeth sank in, the flavored fat provided a burst of ecstasy atop the peppery goodness of the coarsely ground beef itself. I honestly believe I’ve never had a more satisfying piece of sausage. But great highs inevitably lead to dispiriting lows, as I’m sorry to report that Smitty’s offered the least effective brisket of my trip. Although it avoided the sin of toughness, it had a distinct lack of flavor, coming across as boiled rather than smoked. Bringing up the rear of my sampler, the pork rib was yet another kickass specimen of hogmeat, sliding off the bone in slippery tender morsels of nirvana.

7. InterStellar BBQ (northwest Austin)

On the final day of my trip, I decided to visit InterStellar BBQ, which is about thirty minutes northwest of downtown Austin—quite a commitment given that my flight was a few hours away. I’d decided that I had to give one more critically acclaimed joint a try, and I’m glad I did … if only for the banana pudding!

InterStellar is positioned inside a strip mall in suburban Austin, and its smokers are situated outside among the parking spaces. When I got in the line of about twenty people, a half hour before the place opened, there was a sense of anticipation in the air, buoyed by the huge tin tub filled with free beer cans. (I nabbed a couple of ’em to accompany my meal.) At the counter, I ordered only two of the holy trinity: moist brisket and pork ribs. With true transparency, I’ll say I wasn’t blown away by either, but by global barbecue standards, they were still fantastic. It’s just that other joints during my trip overshadowed them. The brisket, while flavorful, wasn’t quite as tear-apart delectable as a couple others I’d sampled, and the pork ribs were large and a bit too rigid to measure up to my faves.

It’s the sides where InterStellar really shined for me. The smoked scalloped potatoes rocked my world, and the free pork-infused beans were similarly excellent. For my money, it’s the banana pudding that utterly stands out here: Served in a plastic cup, it’s hearty and creamy and sweet in perfect messy combinations of wafer texture and thick pudding and ripe banana slices, drizzled with some kind of caramel sauce that smacks this dessert outta the park. This fabulous creation was the ideal note to end my trip on.

8. La Barbecue (downtown Austin)

It took me a while to find this place because it had recently moved from its original location on East Cesar Chavez Street to a new block a half mile east. Once located, it beckoned me inside, where—unfortunately—they’d run out of both sliced brisket and ribs. I did manage to snag some chopped brisket, turkey, and pulled pork, and among those I did discover some standout meats. It’s kind of a drag that the atmosphere has all the charm of a Chipotle.

The brisket didn’t wow me, but admittedly that’s because I chose the chopped variety. It came across as tough and uninviting. To give La Barbecue a truly fair shot, I’ll go back and try the sliced brisket and ribs at a later date. The turkey breast, however, was excellent, slathered in butter in the typical Texas style and quite moist, but what really wowed me was the pulled pork—in all honesty the greatest, most savory pulled pork I’ve ever had. It was almost mind-boggling. I would go back for that alone.

Butcher-Paper Wrapup!

That’s a wrap! There are plenty of mouth-watering joints to sample in the Austin area, and over the course of five days I’m happy to say I fit in some of the best and most legendary. Each had its high points and very few low points. It was a marvelous custom festival of smoked meats, something I’ll now have to work off for a while. But what a ride!