During a recent trip to Fredericksburg with my wife Michele, I made sure the backroads route from Dallas included driving through Llano. During the two years the Posse has been visiting and blogging about BBQ, few joints have stirred up as much debate as Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano. We’ve gotten emails proclaiming it as the best in Texas, while others labeled Cooper’s as an overrated stop for BBQ tourists.

Posse member Michael Hamtil & his wife Lara Solt did extensive comparisons between Cooper’s and Laird’s Bar-B-Q, also in Llano, for their wedding catering a couple of years ago. They were married atop the famous Enchanted Rock north of Fredericksburg and wanted to be sure the BBQ was as amazing as the view from their wedding ceremony setting. They preferred Laird’s hands down and fall in the overrated camp when it comes to Cooper’s. I wanted to check it out for myself.

Atmosphere

Laird’s resides in an old house on Hwy. 16 while Cooper’s is housed in a red steel building on the other main drag in town, Hwy. 29. Both have deer trophies on the wall, paying homage to Llano’s reputation as a deer hunter’s paradise, but otherwise they don’t have much in common. The Laird’s operate out of the kitchen on their old house. The dining room is cobbled out of the dining and living room areas and bathed in window light. We felt like we were eating at our grandmother’s house.

Cooper’s has numerous picnic tables lined end-to-end, enough to seat several hundred diners in the fluorescent lit dining room with red brick painted walls. You line up outside and choose your meats off the warming smoker, then you take the meat on a plastic tray inside where they weigh your meal before paying in another line. It’s very much like Hard Eight BBQ, where the meat is cooked in one smoker and moved to the warming smoker for display purposes.

Advantage: Laird’s

 

Cooking styles

Both Cooper’s and Laird’s cook with mesquite wood, which is plentiful in this rain-starved part of Texas. Cooper’s cooks over direct heat in numerous brick smokers, fast and hot, before moving the meats to the warming smoker, where you choose your meal. Pitmaster and owner Ken Laird, who once worked at Cooper’s, cooks on a single pit fueled by mesquite coals, which he burns down in a separate firebox. There’s a big difference in the scale of their operations, but their techniques are similar.

Advantage: Cooper’s

 

The meats

Unfortunately, my wife isn’t as big a fan of BBQ as I am, so we settled on comparing brisket and pork ribs at both places. Cooper’s famous pork chop will have to wait until our next trip, though Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper calls it “amazing.”

We ordered a two-meat platter from Laird’s, which came with two sides. We also ordered two drinks which made our lunch bill less than $11. Both the pork ribs and brisket were very good, though not what I would call amazing. I thought the ribs were the better of the two, cooked perfectly with nice rub and smoke. The brisket was cooked very well, but a little more bland than the ribs, with a thin bark.

I chatted up two diners, who as it turns out eat at Laird’s at least once a week. When I asked them which joint they preferred, they said Laird’s all the way. One added that the only time he goes to Cooper’s is when out-of-towners make him take them there. “I used to eat there all the time, but once they went all corporate they went downhill,” he said. (Cooper’s has multiple locations including Llano, New Braunfels and a new location in Ft. Worth. The original Cooper’s is west of Llano in Mason, but has different ownership than the other three locations.) Overall, I was impressed with Laird’s and we headed back up Hwy. 16 to Cooper’s.

We stepped up to the pits at Cooper’s and ordered two ribs and 1/2 pound of brisket. We we stepped up to the register, the sticker shock set in as we paid almost $30 for our meat and two drinks. This was nearly three times more than we had paid at Laird’s, though the ribs were slightly bigger. The brisket was tremendous, among the best I’ve tasted on the Texas BBQ trail. It was tender with a great bark and rub, definitely a step up from Laird’s. However, the ribs were a major disappointment. They were slightly undercooked and just looked ugly, not a lot of taste when compared to Laird’s ribs or even their own brisket. All in all, I had to give the slight edge in our unscientific Llano BBQ challenge to Laird’s, especially when you factor in the cost of our meals.

I look forward to making a full-scale assault on Llano in the future with my fellow Posse members. You can’t really judge a BBQ joint by visiting once. Most food critics allow for three visits before assigning a rating to a joint. Not to mention, I want to try that famous pork chop at Cooper’s on my next trip to the deer hunting capital of Texas.

Slight advantage: Laird’s

 

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse. On each combo, top photo is Laird’s and bottom photo is Cooper’s

Leave a comment



Anonymous

6 years ago

I have been to Llano and Mason Ft. Worth Coopers….skip Ft.Worth….i liked Mason the best of all. I think Pecan Lodge beats them all in the brisket category…Mac

Patrick

5 years ago

When doing a quick Google search for Walter Laird's phone number, I noticed the link to your blog about Cooper's vs Laird's…

I was amazed to see that the second image was a shot of me, (on the right), and a client of mine across the table.

The Internet sure makes the world smaller…

Oh, and Laird's, while lacking the Big BBQ Place trappings and selections, is for sure where the locals come for BBQ. Cooper's? Over rated and way over priced!

Patrick

Unknown

5 years ago

I go to Llano for the occasional pilgrimage, but I have been as happy with their briskets via mail order (wrap in foil and splash some of their sauce in a 250 oven for about 40 minutes), Ft Worth and New Braunfels (where you drive 3 miles past an almost vacant NB Smoke House, and sparsely visited Rudy's to get to the packed parking lot at Cooper's). Your mistake in my eyes was the pork ribs. The Dino-sized beef ribs have similar flavor and crust as the brisket and are the best thing there … next to the free beans with floater jalapenos stewing in the pot. I get brisket, BEEF ribs, and Jalapeno sausage and buy enough to take home (I live in Plano, so FW is an hour each way). The chops are terrific (bone or no), but I can get those mail order. The steaks and cabrito (Llano) are okay, but have not lived as long in the smoker to get all that flavor. Turkey is turkey. My wife likes the half chicken, but it is a bit peppery. Some people think the brisket is too fatty, but I have never found even the fat to be any less than heavenly. I avoid all the paid-sides, but my wife likes their cobbler.

Unknown

5 years ago

P.S. You mentioned Hard Eights, but did you notice Hard Eight started out about 20 miles from Cooper's and about 10 years later? Coincident? I would put my money on an ex-Cooper's employee.
🙂

Aspen Laird

4 years ago

My family owns Laird's BBQ… thoroughly enjoyed reading your article.

Anonymous

4 years ago

Laird's and Cooper's both great. Also try Saturday-only barbecue 20 miles west on the Llano River at Castel General Store.

Anonymous

3 years ago

First of all let me say that I'm not saying this to be mean at all…..just stating the facts. I've had BBQ many times in my life and from many different sources. BBQ has been a family tradition with us, including the fact that my dad chose a plot in a cemetery, before he passed away, that was across the street from a BBQ place, just in case he got hungry and so he could smell the BBQ smell! That being said, I read the reviews from the TX BBQ Posse and decided to put Laird's to the test. I've never been to Cooper's as I've heard many times that it's overpriced and a lot of talk. But, we wanted to give Laird's a try on our way to Fredericksburg. We were hungry and could hardly wait to sit down to some delicious BBQ! The place was just as described, being a house (including a bathtub in the bathroom) and the atmosphere was exactly as we expected. The picnic tables were a great place to sit down and have our chopped beef sandwiches. The people were nice, including the locals who were in for dinner. Much to our disappointment, the BBQ was the worst we've ever had! I will give them the benefit of the doubt to say it was smoked, but that's it. I'm not sure what the sauce is, but it did not taste anything like what I would call BBQ sauce. Very disappointed, we walked away only enjoying the bag of Lays Potato Chips. Sorry, Laird's…..it just wasn't for me.

Mark Jensen

3 years ago

I love Laird's and will be there on my motorcycle for lunch tomorrow on the way to Kerrville from Dallas. Ken does a great job.

LlanoW2

2 years ago

Loved your article comparing Laird's and Cooper's. We are Laird's people all the way. I tried the ribs once at Cooper's – never again. Besides being overpriced, they just weren't that good. Laird's ribs, on the other hand, are big and juicy. Love them. Also love his Steak Nights. In fact, going to enjoy that tonight. Keep up the good work, Kenneth.

Anonymous

1 year ago

Laird's wins hands down – Price, flavor, portions, price. Laird's is 300% better that Cooper's. You'll go broke eating a Cooper's and leave wonder why you went there in the first plac. I eat in Llano almost once a week, for the last 14 years. I just finished a bisket sandwich just moments ago – saw your blog while googling Laird's phone number to place a to go order. Learn what the locals already know – go to Laird's.




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