Saturday, March 25, 2017

Good Eats: Cooper's BBQ, Christoval, Texas

I'll say up front that I love BBQ. It is absolutely one of my favorite foods. But I'm not a BBQ snob. In the ongoing debate about which is the best BBQ, I'm neutral. I say eat whatever you like, and whatever you like is the best BBQ for you. If you prefer Carolina BBQ, then enjoy. If your taste runs to Memphis BBQ, I'm happy for you. A lot of folks love Kansas City BBQ. Personally, I prefer the style of BBQ you find in the old Central Texas meat markets. I like a good smoky taste on my meat, and I also like a good smoke ring. I prefer something a bit crusty on the outside but juicy on the inside. I prefer no sauce. But that is me. "To each his own" is my motto.

But I've been disappointed in my BBQ outings recently. A few weeks ago, I mentioned my frustration at Smitty's in Lockhart (see "Short Trip to New Braunfels"). I get really hungry for BBQ, and I find West Texas to be something of a wasteland when it comes to good BBQ. I've never found a place in San Angelo whose BBQ I crave. So when planning our recent backroads trip (see "Backroads Tour"), I saw a Cooper's BBQ on the map in Christoval and decided to give it a try.

Now, before venturing further, I need to set the record straight. There are actually 2 chains or groupins of Cooper's BBQ. Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que originated in Llano, Texas. It is operated by the Wootan family, as I understand. According to their website, this chain operates 4 locations: Llano, Ft. Worth, New Braunfels, and Austin. I've only eaten at the Llano location, but I've eaten there several times over the last 20 years. I've always enjoyed it. The website clearly states,  "There have been some recent news reports and social media posts linking other Cooper's locations to us but they are erroneous and inaccurate."

I assume that the "other Cooper's locations" mentioned above is to several BBQ establishments operated by a family named Cooper. Among these is the location in Christoval, where we recently ate. A recent item on the Concho Valley Homepage indicated that this Cooper's BBQ is operated by Mark Cooper, who spent the past 17 years at the Cooper's in nearby Junction. The "About" on their Facebook page states, "The one & only original family-owned and operated Cooper's Bar-B-Q...and you STILL can't beat our meat!" There is another Cooper's in nearby Mason, but we've never eaten there, though it is on our radar. We have eaten twice at the Junction Cooper's, and did not like our experience either time. We were hoping the Christoval location would be better.

This is a nice little eatery. Wood was piled up around the back, and that is often a good sign of authenticity. The place has that old time feel that I like. And the people were welcoming and friendly. This is the way a BBQ place is supposed to be. But the real test of a BBQ place is the meat.

Warmer at counter
You order at the counter immediately as you enter. There is a warmer where meat is stored for convenience (see picture above). As we normally do, Donna and I ordered only meat. We purchased ½ pound brisket, 2 jalapeno cheese sausage rings, and some pork ribs. The employee then proceeded to cut our meat and then dip it into a very vinegary sauce. For me, that is a big no-no. I always like to try my meat without sauce, whether it be BBQ, steak, or whatever. For me, the sign of properly cooked meat is to be able to eat it without any sauce. When I cook a steak at home, I give it a dry rub and eat it without any sauce, for example. If any sauce is to be added, I want to be the one to add it.

But the damage had already been done.

I sampled the ribs first. The meat pulled nicely from the bone, but it lacked any real smoky BBQ taste. In fact, it had an overly strong pork taste. Next, I sampled the sausage, and I actually liked it. The casing was a bit tough, but the inside was juicy and tasty. Finally, I sampled the brisket. Again, it lacked that strong smoky taste I crave, and there was no smoke ring at all. All in all, the meat was fine, but nothing for me to get excited about. Many people would probably really like the meat here, though. I could see myself stopping in again for the sausage and even a sliced beef sandwich if I was passing through, but I would not make the 60 mile round-trip down there. There are a couple of places in Angelo that serves BBQ on a par with this.

Entrance and ordering counter. Tables in main room are family style, while attached room has individual booths and tables.
Interior of Cooper's. It looks like a BBQ joint, doesn't it. 
One of the things I liked was the condiments counter. You can help yourself to bread, onions, pickles, and jalapeno peppers at no extra charge. This is the way every BBQ place in Texas should be. Any place that charges for these items lacks a bit of authenticity in my humble opinion.

Self-serve condiment counter
This is very decent BBQ. I can't say we were disappointed, but it just wasn't what we were looking for. In fact, with the recent disappointments we've had at BBQ restaurants, Donna and I have begun to doubt that we even know what we are looking for. Perhaps we are looking for something from our past that just doesn't exist anymore.

But you can bet we'll keep on looking.

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