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.
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.
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.
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