Houston BBQ 101

Are Barbecue Lines a Thing Of The Past?

If you visited one of several high-profile Houston barbecue joints in late 2021, you might think your fellow Houstonians had gone crazy for barbecue. Or, at least, crazier than usual. The lines to get into places such as Truth BBQ on Washington and Brett’s BBQ Shop in Katy were 50-100 people deep and snaked out the door and through the parking lot.

The reason, of course, is that these joints were included in the recently released 50 Best BBQ Joints list from Texas Monthly. Every four years the magazine releases a list of new and returning joints anointed as the best in the state, and Texans begin the pilgrimage to these places to see what the buzz is about.

The 2008 list, which named Snow’s BBQ in Lexington as the best joint for that year, is recognized for ushering in the era of “barbecue lines.” When the increased media profile of barbecue combined with the peculiar nature of the business (open only a few hours a day; only a limited amount of meat can be cooked in one batch), long lines of guests patiently waiting for their smoked-meat fix began gaining attention on then-new social media sites like Twitter and Instagram.

Standing in line for the opportunity to eat barbecue became a rite of passage for Texans and tourists alike. Of course, some took the cynical view that it’s all just a marketing ploy: If there’s a line to get in, it must be good, right? Others took more of a collegial attitude: standing in line with other smoked meat connoisseurs allowed for swapping stories of visits to other places and expounding on the latest and greatest barbecue cooking techniques.

The era of barbecue lines peaked in 2011 with the opening of Franklin Barbecue’s brick-and-mortar restaurant in east Austin. The line there became its own organism with people camping out the night before and hawkers selling coffee and folding chairs to the barbecue faithful.

And even though barbecue lines seem longer than ever, their days may be numbered, to the relief of some and the chagrin of others.

There are two main reasons why the era of barbecue lines is on the decline. COVID-19 required many barbecue joints to implement online ordering so the food would be ready when they arrived — no need to stand in line. And many barbecue joints are implementing dinner hours so that there are longer opening times for guests to get their fix, rather than just a few hours during lunch.

At the Spring Branch location of Feges BBQ, co-owner Patrick Feges has seen an uptick in business from being on the Texas Monthly list, but lines have been manageable.

“Being open for dinner spreads it out I think,” says Feges. “They have a 10-hour window to come eat.”

But the main reason that the era of lines may be over is that longtime barbecue connoisseurs and regular customers are no longer willing to wait for an hour or more to get their fix. “Been there, done that,” is the general feeling among this group.

How the HOUBBQ Guide helps: Each barbecue joint’s profile page includes Location Details with Ordering info, including notes about line protocols and ordering procedure, as well as hours of operation (those places with dinner hours may have shorter lines). 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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