barbeque-flame

Tony Berotte’s Guide to Waco’s Best Barbeque

“If you’re feelin’ puny,
And you don’t know what to do,
Treat yourself to some meat,
Eat some barbecue.”

—Robert Earl Keen

Take it from legendary Texan Robert Earl Keen, barbeque is guaranteed to soothe the troubled soul, and Texas has some of the best barbeque in the country. It’s also a lot more varied than you might think. You’ll find pulled pork in the piney woods of East Texas and smoked chicken, creole spices, and sides of shrimp-laden gumbo in the coastal cooking near Galveston. Closer to the Mexican border in cities like San Antonio, you’ll see barbacoa and sides of smokey borracho beans alongside brisket, ribs, and fresh handmade tortillas. 

Thanks to the meteoric rise of places like Franklin Barbeque in Austin, Central Texas barbeque is more popular than ever, and even within Central Texas, you’ll find regional variations. In Waco, brisket is king, smoked bologna graces the menu of multiple establishments, salt and pepper are often the only seasonings you’ll find on your bark (the crusty-smoked outer edges of brisket and ribs), and a side of “gravy” is actually a cup of birria-esque broth and drippings.

But while watching High on the Hog and renewing your Texas Monthly subscription may prime you for a barbeque tasting, it won’t make you an expert. What do you do when even a quick search of Waco barbeque joints yields over 21 establishments? How on earth do you find that classic Cen-Tex barbeque lunch spot? 

You ask barbeque expert, pitmaster, and well-traveled Texan Tony Berotte for his guide to Waco’s best barbeque.

tony-berotte-barbeque-guide

Waco pitmaster Tony Berotte

Berotte has been smoking meat since his childhood in Galveston and now runs 310’s Kitchen, an outdoor bistro on historic Elm Street serving barbeque with creole twists and coastal dishes like crab cakes and gumbo. As luck would have it, he’s also a good friend of mine, and he generously joined me on an epic two-day barbeque crawl to help you find the very best barbeque Waco has to offer. 

The Guidelines

Berotte and I dined at as many Waco barbeque joints as my shoestring budget allowed, which means we didn’t come close to trying everyone’s barbeque in town. (Maybe next year!)

We also quickly realized that we weren’t going to be ranking these spots so much as highlighting each restaurant’s strengths. We have no desire to be barbeque gatekeepers, and we want to uplift Waco’s barbeque joints, not pit them against each other. So, if we liked something we ate, you’ll find it on this list.

To ensure a level playing field, we sampled the same core dishes at every establishment: pork ribs (beef ribs are rare on menus around here), brisket, sausage, and at least one side. That means we left it up to you to check out the many special dishes on menus all over town, from smash burgers to smoked cauliflower steaks to pigs’ feet.

Finally, we split our findings into two main categories: Old Waco Classics and New Waco Gems. Why? Because some places are such venerable local institutions that they deserve a category of their own, while other places are deviating from old-school Waco barbeque traditions in delicious ways.

As for prices, the dollar signs represent cost based on a three-course dinner and a 15% tip (but not drinks):

$ = $25 and under
$$ = $25–$40
$$$ = $40–$50
$$$$ = $50+

Old Waco Classics

Tony DeMaria’s Barbeque

Tony DeMaria’s has been serving up old-school barbeque in East Waco since the ’50s, and the DeMaria family has ties to the community dating back to the turn of the century. Berotte called this place a working man’s barbeque joint—friendly, no-frills, and hearty.

Tony_deMarias_broth_gravy-barbeque-guide

Tony DeMaria’s ribs and broth gravy

A lunch crowd of loyal locals files into the homey, picnic-tabled dining room daily to eat generous helpings of lightly smoked, barely seasoned brisket, sausage, and ribs served on large sheets of absorbent paper. The brisket here is boiled first in beef broth, then lightly smoked, resulting in a glossy, tender meat reminiscent of pot roast, that’s best eaten right away with a side of the gravy—in this case a cup of broth and fat from the brisket boil (think pot roast liquor or unseasoned birria broth). Small round slices of smoked bologna served in their bright red casing are on the menu here, an unusual menu item Berotte attributes to white barbequing traditions and which might also have its roots in the DeMaria family’s Italian heritage. 

Insider tip: We liked the sausage best—good, peppery, possibly processed with cornmeal or breadcrumbs to create a cohesive, pleasant, not-too-emulsified texture.

Pricing: $

Jasper’s

Also in East Waco, Jasper’s has close ties to Tony DeMaria’s and is, by all accounts, the oldest operating barbeque joint in town, serving a loyal cadre of Wacoans and travelers with “a kind word and lots of napkins.”

Jaspers_with_bologna_and_broth_gravy-barbeque-guide

Jasper’s bologna and broth gravy

Like Tony DeMaria’s, Jasper’s is a Waco favorite with a big draw that fills up the humble dining room during the lunchtime rush. The very peppery sausage, moist, flavorful brisket cut surprisingly along the grain, and a smoked bologna similar to Tony DeMaria’s are popular menu items. Meats are served on large sheets of butcher paper, and a young man with a cart will swing by your table offering pickles, sliced white onions, sauce, and more of that brothy gravy.

On your way out, you’ll see a large bell and a sign next to it that reads: “If all was well, ring the bell. Then tell your friends where you’ve been. Thanks and y’all come back again.” Berotte rang the bell when we left—now it’s your turn.

Insider tip: We liked the smoky-sweet ribs best, which Berotte deemed “tender but not worn out” and which we picked clean without any sauce at all.

Pricing: $

New Waco Gems

Helberg Barbecue

Helberg Barbecue is a relative newcomer to the Waco barbeque scene but is already making its mark on Highway 6 toward Valley Mills with excellent barbeque and the motto “Salt, Pepper, and a Whole Lot of Prayer.”

helberg-barbecue-Peppery_ribs-2-barbeque-guide

Helberg peppery barbeque ribs

Helberg made Texas Monthly’s top 25 new barbeque joints in 2019. You’ll find a great deal of that pepper on the stellar ribs and brisket here, along with good house-made sausage dotted with mustard seeds. A lot of creativity is on the menu in the form of sauces (Lone Star mustard barbeque sauce) and wonderful sides like cilantro and cotija-laden street corn, cauliflower steaks, and legitimately mustardy and blessedly unsweet potato salad. (I know some folks like their tater salad sweet, but I favor it savory.)

Insider tip: We loved the pesto turkey—a juicy turkey breast rolled around bright pesto and smoked—but we also thought Helberg might have some of the best ribs (and according to Berotte, definitely the best-textured ribs) around: medium-smoked, pink, crazy juicy, toothsome, and easy to devour. I am also partial to the thick, crisp, vinegary house-made pickles, although Berotte preferred the milder, paper-thin pickles at Guess Family Barbecue. (Learn more about Helberg and its menu by reading my full article).

Pricing: $$

Papa Jack’s BBQ

Blink and you might miss Papa Jack’s BBQ on a quiet stretch of Waco Drive in Bellmead, but keep your eyes peeled for that turnoff because it cooks up some of the best barbeque in town, served by the friendliest people you’ll have the good fortune to meet (and the dining room is cute and homey too).

Papa_Jacks_mac_n_cheese

Papa Jack’s mac & cheese

Miss Kim, her husband Gerald, and their two smokers, Bill and Bertha, make our favorite brisket in town, and Miss Kim told us that every dish on the menu is made in-house and contains six ingredients or less. Helpings are large (Miss Kim also promised us that no one leaves hungry), the ribs and sausage are tasty, and the barbeque sauce was the best we tasted, not to mention the mac and cheese, which was hands down the best we’ve had (parsley, breadcrumbs, and a balanced but luxurious and flavorful sauce). Bottom line: This place is excellent and incredibly hospitable, and I will be back to write an article about Papa Jack’s soon.

Insider tip: Order the excellent brisket and ribs, the superb mac and cheese, and try the other myriad delicious sides like spoonable smoked cabbage (not Berotte’s favorite, but I loved it), holiday-spiced sweet potato casserole with a crunchy pecan and cornflake topping, peach cobbler, and buttermilk pie to name just a few.

Pricing: $

R&S Barbeque

R&S Barbeque may be located in a nondescript strip mall off North Valley Mills Drive, but several items on the menu make it well worth the detour.

R&S_rib_plate

R&S rib plate

The sweet, cozy dining room probably seats about 20, but you shouldn’t have trouble snagging a seat for lunch or grabbing takeout. Plates are heaped high with very smoky meats including large, fall-apart ribs, lean brisket, tasty sausage, and a house-made, vinegar-spiced hot sauce that we preferred over the barbeque sauce.

Insider tip: We really liked the ribs, but the surprising standouts were the baked goods such as the excellent cornbread muffin and the killer Kentucky butter cake (think pound cake but with a gooey pecan-sugar-crumb topping). We also heard through the grapevine that the brisket tacos are stellar, so you can bet we’ll be back soon to try them.

Pricing: $

Guess Family Barbecue

Guess Family Barbecue has been a culinary darling in Waco ever since, like Helberg, it was named one of Texas Monthly’s top 25 new barbeque joints in 2019.

Guess_brisket_melt

Guess brisket melt

Now ensconced on Franklin Avenue, the menu features classic barbeque alongside less traditional fare like the brisket melt (caramelized onions, cheddar, house aioli, Texas toast) and deviled eggs with brisket jam, although we preferred the classic brisket and sausage. Berotte thought the execution was excellent—meat not too smokey, brisket plenty moist but not too fatty, and mac and cheese that definitely had cheese in it. (We avoided macs that were heavily bland and goopy at other establishments because neither of us loves that style of mac—but some do.) 

Insider tip: We liked the brisket, the mac and cheese, and Berotte loved the paper-thin, barely pickled cucumbers.

Pricing: $$-$$$

310’s Kitchen

Berotte didn’t rate his own 310’s Kitchen on Elm Street, but I am a huge fan of his cooking and wouldn’t dream of leaving his establishment off a list of Waco’s top barbeque spots.

310_gumbo

Berotte’s signature gumbo

Berotte uses only the best prime meats, and on no account should you miss his frankly to-die-for ribs judiciously spiced with his signature creole seasoning, delicately smoked to perfection, and positively swimming in juice. The sausage, brisket, and impossibly moist chicken are equally excellent, but save room for the mac and cheese. (Berotte and I debated whether he or Papa Jack’s had the best mac and cheese which, if you know Berotte, is a big deal and says a lot about the excellence of Papa Jack’s mac).

Like a true son of the Gulf Coast, Berotte favors seafood on his menu, and dishes such as seafood gumbo and the sweetest, crabbiest crab cakes you ever did eat (all crab, no filler, very subtle spicing) are exemplary. Occasionally, often by special order, Berotte smokes beef tenderloin steaks that are, without question, the butteriest, most luxurious steaks my family and I have ever eaten. (Read my full article about 310’s Kitchen.)

Insider tip: All the meats are excellent, but the ribs are an absolute symphony, and if you get a chance to try a smoked tenderloin steak, do so without hesitation. And don’t skimp on the mac and cheese, crab cakes, and gumbo when they’re available. I’ve heard tell that Berotte’s chocolate chip cookie is the best in town, but as he only uses fresh pecans, I’ll have to wait for pecan season to find out.

Pricing: $$–$$$


brisket-barbeque-guide

Brisket… mmm good!

Berotte and I were surprised and delighted at the sheer variety of dishes and techniques offered up by Waco’s barbeque establishments, each pitmaster and chef highlighting a different culinary style. But aside from smokey meats and sides both traditional and experimental, the main thing all these barbeque joints share is a real commitment to hospitality that borders on familial affection.

“Waco barbeque is friendly,” said Berotte at the end of our epic two-day crawl, and he’s right.

You may arrive a stranger, but you’ll leave with a few extra aunties, uncles, and cousins, not to mention a belly full of some of the best barbeque in Texas.

Hear more from Tony Berotte on this episode of the Eat, Drink, Repeat podcast on Spotify.

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Angelica Mazé is a Waco transplant by way of San Francisco, New York, and Saudi Arabia. A former chocolatière and production manager, she is now a writer and freelance marketing consultant with a focus on food and cooking.

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