These days, it seems like everyone wants a piece of Daniel Vaughn. Up until Tuesday, the Dallas transplant was an architect by trade, but more people likely know him by his Twitter handle: @BBQsnob.
He made a name for himself in the region (then the state) through his website, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, on which he has chronicled and critiqued his trips to more than 600 barbecue joints, in search of the best of the best.
His first book is due May 14; titled The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, it's the debut title in the Anthony Bourdain Books line. In the book's press materials, Bourdain hails Daniel Vaughn as "the Yoda of Barbecue, a man of impeccable smoked meat credentials, known most notoriously as the guy upon whose tireless quest for slow-cooked meat-related wisdom mainstream media shamelessly piggybacks."
And on March 21, Texas Monthly announced that Vaughn would become the magazine's first-ever barbecue editor.
This fact even got The Grey Lady all worked up into a smoky frenzy: Vaughn was the subject of a March 23 profile in The New York Times, which noted: "On Thursday, Mr. Vaughn became a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue when Texas Monthly announced that it had hired him to be its first barbecue editor, a position that exists at no other magazine in America."
In his faded raspberry golf shirt, slightly baggy jeans, stylish specs and a receding hairline, the 35-year-old Vaughn looks the part of a barbecue-loving everyman. But how does this kid from Ohio grow up to become the Yoda of Texas barbecue?
Curiously, the first flicker of his born-again barbecue awakening would ignite in Dallas. After college at Tulane in New Orleans, he moved here in 2001, with his then-girlfriend (now wife), Jennifer. During his very first week living in Big D, a friend took him to Peggy Sue BBQ, where he got his first real taste of Texas brisket. To the guy who up until now had pretty much associated brisket with only corned beef, it was a taste revelation.
The pit fires were stoked further in 2006, during a road trip to Central Texas with a grand itinerary: In three days, he would hit 16 places on Texas Monthly's list of the 50 best barbecue spots and see what all this fuss about Central Texas barbecue was about.
"Because," he recalls thinking, "how much better can it be than the stuff in Dallas? And I returned from that trip and it was like: wow."
By 2008, Vaughn's mission was set: travel to barbecue joints all over the Metroplex and find something of similar quality. That's when he began writing his blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ -- the cheeky name is a nod to a Reverend Horton Heat album. ("It has the song Bales of Cocaine. Yeah, that's how I live my life. It's the only way I can eat this much barbecue," the wry Vaughn says, hastening to add: "I'm kidding.")
The blog eventually led to an assignment for D Magazine to find the best barbecue in Dallas-Fort Worth.
"That further fueled my mission," Vaughn said. "If I'm going to make the claim that these are the best 16, then I need to go to them all. So I went to all that I could find, and all that I knew about, and once I started racking all of those up, it started going from a hobby to a dangerous hobby to a passion, to then something where people actually started to respect my opinion about it."
And here we are.
On the day of the Texas Monthly announcement, Vaughn sat down at Angelo's, the cathedral of Fort Worth barbecue, for an eating of the minds with DFW.com's Eats Beat guru, Bud Kennedy, who has eaten his fair share of Texas barbecue, too.
They talked about the new gig, the new book, and the differences between 'cue in the Hill Country and Dallas-Fort Worth, and -- of course -- they noshed on a little brisket and ribs as they recorded an Eats Beat podcast for the ages. Here are excerpts from their chat. Listen to the entire podcast at by clicking here. Also: check out this collection of the BBQ Snob's review excerpts from some North Texas barbecue joints.
Bud Kennedy: Daniel, welcome, BBQ Snob, to the Eats Beat podcast.
Daniel Vaughn: Thanks for having me, and thanks for changing the venue to a barbecue joint. A lot better than your conference room, I'm guessing.
Absolutely. We're at Angelo's Barbecue and that's why you might hear a little bit of chewing noise. Daniel, I want to talk about the barbecue first. You've been to 600 barbecue restaurants?
Yeah, over 600. I really kept close track when I was approaching 500, but after that, they just kind of come and go.
I think a lot of the readers and listeners in North Texas don't understand that barbecue is a lot different in Central Texas. They hear a lot about it, but they don't understand what's different. How do you explain that?
Well, to me, Central Texas barbecue really comes from a meat-market tradition where the leftover cuts or maybe the cuts that weren't selling so well in the case get smoked or the offcuts would get ground into sausage, so you'd get these beef sausages, traditional beef sausages. Then, rather than having any sort of table service, flatware or plates, even, they would just serve it on the butcher paper. And rather than having traditional sides, a lot of it being served in a meat market, they would have your normal dry goods that were available, so people would eat it with things like avocados and cheese and tomatoes rather than a prepared potato salad or coleslaw.
We're at Angelo's today. Angelo's and Clark's up in Tioga are like the famous old-timey barbecue restaurants in North Texas. I know you've been to 600 places. Where does Angelo's fit into the pantheon?
I think Angelo's is one of those places that holds up. We have a few of those hallowed places in Dallas that have been around for a long, long time but rest on their laurels a little too well, and frankly serve some pretty terrible barbecue. Angelo's is one of those with a long, storied history but still is putting out some respectable product.
You already had the greatest job in the world being the BBQ Snob and the great barbecue freelancer who has gone to all these places, wrote a website that's [launched] a book. Now, you have another great new job. Do you want to talk about that?
Yeah, for the longest time, people would tell me they wanted my job and I would just tell them: "Oh, you want to be an architect, really?" Because that's my day job, at least it will be for the next four working days -- but who's counting? Yeah, I'm moving on, leaving the architecture world behind, for a little while anyway, and I'll be the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly magazine. I'll be starting there [in April].
A growing focus
Vaughn first started to work with the magazine in 2011 when it launched its TM BBQ Finder smartphone app, says editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein.
But in a time when few publications are adding critics, why create this position, and why now?
"BBQ is something we take very seriously, and I've always wanted to have a person dedicated to the subject," Silverstein said in an email interview. "I mean, how great is it to be able to say that Texas Monthly is the only magazine in the country with a barbecue editor? The moment was finally right for this. Over the past few years we've really been growing our BBQ franchise. It used to be just a round-up of the top 50 joints that we'd do every five years, but then in 2010 we started doing an annual BBQ festival (based on the top 50 list). And then the following year we launched the app and a related website (tmbbq.com).
"As it gets bigger and bigger, it needs someone to be able to focus on it. Someone who loves the subject and knows the subject. And that's Daniel. He'll be writing reviews and stories, doing interviews, keeping readers up to date on everything happening in the BBQ world, hosting BBQ events from time to time, and doing many other BBQ-related activities for us."
Vaughn won't be relocating to Austin, though; he'll stay based in Dallas, serving as the eyes, ears and taste buds of North Texas.
I first became aware of you about three years ago. You did an article for D Magazine on the best barbecue in Dallas. But not all the places were in Dallas. You picked some places in Fort Worth that I thought people didn't know about it. You picked Off the Bone in Forest Hill and a place in Azle that closed, and you sent people to a lot of obscure but really good barbecue. I thought: This guy has really been around and knows his stuff.
Well, thank you.
How did you get from just loving barbecue to blogging and writing -- what set you out on this mission to cover barbecue?
Some of it may have been just how naive I was when I got back from a giant Central Texas barbecue trip. I went down and really discovered those cathedrals of Texas barbecue -- the Louie Muellers, Kreuz and Smitty's and all these incredible places -- and then came back to Dallas and had the naive idea that nobody's just looked into this deeply enough. There's got to be barbecue of this quality somewhere in town. Little did I know there's been hundreds of people looking for that, but I still set out on a mission to try and eat at every place in Dallas and Fort Worth and find any hidden gems if they still existed. So in my search, I did find a few great places, like Meshack's in Garland. That one didn't have anything written about it up until I tried it. It's discoveries like that that keep me going.
When did you start loving barbecue? Did you just grow up in Ohio loving barbecue?
It depends on your definition of barbecue. Because, in Ohio, that definition of barbecue is quite a bit different. [Laughs] I did a mean baked rib that was finished on the grill with barbecue sauce. I now know the error of my ways. It wasn't really until I moved here and, of all places, Peggy Sue BBQ [in Dallas], and a friend of mine who took me there the first week that I lived here, and it was this revelation. I got this sliced brisket, and it was like: "Oh, wow, what is this stuff? It's not corned beef, but it's brisket." And that really started the love for Texas barbecue. I continued eating around Dallas, trying as many barbecue places in the immediate area as I could. Of course, going to Sonny Bryan's and the original Dickey's [Barbecue Pit].
A lot of people write about how much they love or hate a barbecue place, but you really analyze it. Tell me what goes into analyzing the type of pit, the sauce -- how do you scientifically analyze a barbecue place?
First and foremost, I really just try and write about the meat, the quality of the meat. There are many different ways you can arrive at barbecue, many different methods, and some of them are preferable to many people, a wood-fired pit rather than a gas pit. To me, if the barbecue is good, it's good. Certainly, by and large, a gas-fired pit isn't going to produce great barbecue. From eating at this many places and knowing how many of them use gas to cook most of the time, it's just not going to happen. But there are some that do great work with a gas-fired pit and there are some people who make awful barbecue with a wood-fired pit.
Which wood should they use?
The Central Texas style uses oak, post oak specifically. Around here, I find a lot more hickory than anything else. In traveling all over the state for the book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, we actually did a tally and kept track of every place we visited, what kind of wood they used. Now, we missed a few and there were a few pit masters who didn't want to be so forthcoming, but we got most of them and when you tally it up statewide, mesquite is the winner.
Mesquite. And then sauce, no sauce? You're a no-sauce guy?
I love barbecue sauce. It's great to dip fries into. It's great on a piece of bread. But if the barbecue is good, then there's really no need for it. And if I'm judging barbecue, I certainly don't want to cover up the taste of the meat with sauce.
And knife and fork or no need for utensils?
There's really no need. I was born with two hands, so I've really got all I need.
Standards and practice
Later that afternoon, we ask Vaughn if he makes his own barbecue, or if he's strictly a consumer/connoisseur. It's no surprise that he has a smoker in his back yard.
"I can cook a brisket," he says. "Can I cook a brisket as well as the best barbecue I've eaten? No. But I would feel a lot less legitimate in my criticism if I didn't know the effort that goes into actually making something decent."
And on his rating system of one to six stars (fives and sixes being nearly unattainable), how would he rate his own product?
"If it were Vaughn's BBQ Joint, I'd probably give it four stars. But I also have the unfair advantage of eating it fresh. It's not just how it's cooked, but how it's held. Generally you're not eating it right off the smoker."
In a cruel twist of fate, his wife, Jennifer, probably wouldn't be spending much time at Vaughn's BBQ Joint. Though "wonderfully supportive and understanding," he says, "she despises barbecue." As for their two children, James, nearly 2, and Madeline, almost 4: "The indoctrination has already started so that they understand the importance of being native Texans, which neither my wife or I are," Vaughn says. "They've both been known to eat a rib."
When it comes to critiquing the work of others, Vaughn doesn't take his job lightly.
"I always made a point to talk about the meat, and never try to make cheap jokes or be overly disparaging," Vaughn says. "People put a lot of money and a lot of effort into these businesses, and sometimes that's their only income. So if I don't personally like it, there's no need for me to really trash it. Unless it's just obvious they've completely given up."
Sometimes you eat at five or six barbecue places a day. You ever get your fill? Ever get sick?
Uh, never been sick from it. I have had what you could call a meat hangover. When I was researching for the book and out on the road, I learned pretty quickly that if you're going to eat at eight barbecue places in a day, make the next day be about three or four, not eight again, because it's just painful.
Are you judging brisket and ribs and sausage and chicken?
I always get brisket and ribs. Most every place serves both brisket and ribs. A couple of places don't, but brisket is the king of Texas barbecue. If the brisket is great, that says a lot for your place. Now, I love a great rib, too. And then if there's anything that they do special with their sausage, like make it themselves or have it made for them with some sort of special recipe, then I certainly want to try it. If they're just buying somebody else's commercial sausage, I don't really need to know how well you smoke a Hillshire Farm link. And then I look for any other specialty cut. Here at Angelo's, they do a pork loin, and it's not all that common to see a pork loin -- pork chops, pulled pork, things that usually if I see them on the menu, I'll order them just to see how they're doing pork in Texas.
Why don't you try a bit of the brisket and tell us how it is.
Usually when I sit down, the first thing I do is eat the brisket. This is a little unfair to him because it's been sitting here for a little while. The thing about brisket is you've got to keep it intact, you've got to keep that brisket intact and slice it to order. There are a few places on the highway -- Woody's [Smokehouse], I remember, between here and Houston, they had a drawer full of pre-sliced brisket. When you ordered it, they opened the drawer and grabbed a couple of slices out. Once you slice it, it starts losing its moisture, and just starts to dry out, but this is holding up pretty well.
Fort Worth chef Tim Love would say that as soon as you use the knife, you're punishing the meat, and the meat doesn't like to be punished. You need to eat it right away when you slice it because it will just get mad after that if it just sits there.
Yeah, that was a good bite of brisket. I got a bite right with the crust so it had some good smoke to it.
On the road
Vaughn brings his discerning palate as well as a good deal of science to his forthcoming book. And for someone who has quit his day job as a Dallas architect and taken a pay cut and a leap of faith, his expectations for the book are modestly in check with reality.
"I'm not expecting any additional income from the book than what I've already gotten," he said. "That would be a little more silly and nerve-wracking than it already is. This job at Texas Monthly does give me the freedom to explore another book, and be out there doing the research for what could become another book. This gives me the opportunity to dive a lot deeper into those subjects than I already have."
Let's talk a little bit about the book, because it's not just reviews.
Right, it's really a love story to Texas. I took eight different road trips around the state, eating barbecue all along the way. These were road trips set up just for barbecue from beginning to end. The book itself is really a narrative of each of those trips. It's not a collection of reviews; it's not a collection of just best-of lists. To me it's just as important people know where the mediocre barbecue is, and even the bad barbecue. To me, if more people would talk about where the bad barbecue is, I could help shave a few places off my itinerary and it would be quite helpful.
And in there I also wanted to sprinkle in enough, I guess, barbecue-nerd knowledge to keep the barbecue aficionados happy as well. So I really go into the science of meat, the science of cooking, the science of seasoning, a very aggressive defense of brisket fat and why you should love it. And then are also pitmaster profiles.
What will we learn about DFW barbecue in the book? We know that in Fort Worth, we're not far from the Stockyards. The Stockyards had the Swift and Armour meatpacking plants. In the 1890s, that was the first, we would call it now, corporate relocation to Texas when Swift and Armour brought their packing houses from Chicago. Rather than drive the cattle up the Chisholm Trail, they brought their packing plants to Fort Worth and this is where they started packing and shipping meat, and that brought this whole meat culture to Fort Worth -- butchers and meat-market workers.... And it brought everybody from the Riscky's barbecue family to Joe T. Garcia, who came from Mexico to work in the packing plant and opened a barbecue place on the north side before his wife took over and started serving Mexican food. Meat culture started here in Fort Worth, in Texas, in the packing plants.
And then, of course, what made barbecue popular in New York was when Walter Jetton from Fort Worth went and dug a pit in the White House lawn and smoked a whole side of beef for the White House press corps. After that, they served barbecue at the Waldorf and it became a celebrity event in New York during the LBJ administration. But tell us something else about DFW.
One of the things I realized when I was finished with the book is I don't spend enough time on Dallas and Fort Worth barbecue. It being my home and this being a road-trip book, it was usually just where I left from. And I finished up with a chapter on the Texas Triangle, connecting Dallas and Austin and San Antonio and Houston with the ring of interstates we've got, and spent time talking about some of the places in Dallas and Fort Worth.
But I had to save something for the next book -- that we could do together, Bud, because I know you're the man who knows all the history of all these places in Fort Worth. As the Texas Monthly barbecue editor, that's the kind of stuff I want to get into more as well. Delving into our barbecue history, like Walter Jetton. I know someone who has a copy and I got to borrow his cookbook from the '60s and it was great to go back and look through what was considered barbecue back then. You would get arguments from people today: "Well, that's not barbecue because it's not indirect heat, it's not indirect smoking." But, yeah, I think Walter Jetton would have maybe slapped you upside the head if you told him it wasn't barbecue.
Related story: The Faces of BBQ in North Texas: we take you behind the scenes at Pecan Lodge, Uncle Willie's, Mama E's, Hickory Stick and more.
Of course, his tradition is carried on by Cooper's today.
That is the Hill Country style. You cook the meat directly over the coals. That certainly provides a unique flavor.
I think a reporter asked me once if barbecue is a noun or a verb. I told him barbecue is a lifestyle.
Right. It's just not grilling. That's what it's not.
Bud Kennedy, Heather Svokos, Robert Philpot and Cary Darling contributed to this story.