The Hill Country around Austin, Texas, and barbecue go together like South Philly and cheesesteaks. After many years of settling for drool-inducing online photos of smoked brisket with bright-red smoke rings, and visiting Northern imitators that oversauce and mix and match regional barbecue styles, I decided the time had come to experience the real thing. Because my wife, Maura, and I would have limited time in the Austin area - not to mention appetites with limits - this would not be a comprehensive exploration. But with research, I narrowed our choices.

The first thing I noticed was that there were now a lot of very highly regarded barbecue restaurants and trucks in Austin itself. I decided to pick two newer places in Austin and two old-time joints in smaller towns outside the capital.

We intended to order brisket at all four locations. I grew up eating braised brisket at my grandparents' house but didn't know it was central to Texas barbecue until I had a personal computer with internet access. The emphasis on beef is one of the traits that separates Texas-style barbecue from that found in places like the Carolinas and Memphis. Those other regions, along with much of the rest of the Southeast, are more pork-focused, with the meat of choice coming from whole hogs or pork shoulders. Also, though sauce is offered at most Texas barbecue joints, it comes on the side and is often ignored. Texans want the pure taste of meat and smoke.

Our first barbecue stop was the legendary Louie Mueller in Taylor, founded in the late 1940s and in its current location since 1959. If possible, it looks and feels even older. The wooden tables and mismatched chairs are laid out haphazardly, and the smell of smoke and meat is immediate to anyone upon entering. Customers appeared to be a mix of local businesspeople and retirees in for their regular barbecue fix.

As was the case at all four places, meat is ordered by the pound, cafeteria-style. It's presented on butcher paper on a tray with sides, which are limited to potato salad, coleslaw, and pinto beans, along with a cup of sauce. Dill pickle chips, raw onion slices, and white bread are also available on the side. Sweet or unsweetened iced tea and sodas are next to the food line for customers to help themselves.

Along with a half-pound of brisket ($20.99 per pound), which can be ordered moist or lean, I picked a huge beef short rib ($23.99 per pound) that came in at about a pound and a half. The moistness and softness of both types of beef was extraordinary - certainly beyond any barbecue I had previously eaten. The short rib, in fact, may have been the most succulent piece of meat I've ever had the pleasure of chewing on.

The wood of choice in Texas-style barbecue is usually oak, which has a fairly mild flavor compared to hickory or mesquite. At Louie Mueller and other old-time Hill Country barbecue joints, the flavor of the meat itself is front and center, and the bark, flavored by the dry rub and smoke, adds another wonderful level to the experience.

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew of Austin was our next destination. The pitmaster, Lance Kirkpatrick, learned the trade while working at Louie Mueller. The brisket ($9.37 per half-pound) at Stiles Switch was not as tender or moist as we'd had in Taylor the day before, but it had a nice flavor. The pork spare ribs ($8 per half-pound) I also ordered were outstanding, as was my side of corn casserole. Stiles Switch offers a slightly expanded menu of sides in comparison to Louie Mueller, with cucumber-tomato salad and green bean salad also available, along with an array of beer, its other specialty.

The final day of my barbecue exploration involved two stops, one in Austin and the other south of the city. The Austin stop was la Barbecue, a lunch truck co-owned by a member of the Mueller family. The weekday line starts forming about 10:30 a.m. for the 11 a.m. opening. I recommend getting there at least a half-hour early, as it takes some time to put each order together. Those unlucky enough to be a couple of dozen people back in line when the ordering window opens will be there a fairly long time. The crowd at la Barbecue was somewhat younger and had a more touristy feel than at the older Hill Country places.

The texture and moistness of la Barbecue's brisket ($20 per pound) rivaled that from Louie Mueller. The flavor from the combination of meat, bark, and smoke was sublime. The truck's pork spare ribs ($17.98 per pound, with four ribs equaling about a pound) were wonderfully moist and flavorful. A selection of bottled soft drinks is available to wash down your barbecue, and sides are again limited to slaw, potato salad, and pinto beans. Dining is al fresco on picnic tables.

From la Barbecue, we headed about 30 miles south of Austin to Lockhart, the town probably more identified with Texas barbecue than any other, with the possible exception of Austin itself. There are three legendary barbecue joints in Lockhart: Smitty's Market, Kreuz Market, and Black's Barbecue. If I'd had the appetite I would have loved to try all three, but life is about making difficult decisions. I figured I had better settle on one spot. I chose Smitty's, which used to be the home of Kreuz before a split in that family led to the opening of a new and more modern Kreuz location.

Smitty's is as old-school as it gets. Visitors walk directly into an old-looking and dim smoker room with an open pile of burning oak logs on the floor next to an opening in the huge brick smoker containing the day's meat.

I ordered and received my half-pound of moist brisket ($14.90 per pound) and moved into the dining room, where I think we were the only first-timers. The other patrons had the look of regulars who meet up weekly to down beef and discuss local news.

The other restaurants I'd visited provided forks, but you get only a small plastic knife to cut your meat at Smitty's. Meat is eaten the old-fashioned way: with your fingers. Again, the brisket was delicious, and it ranged on the moistness and texture scale somewhere between Louie Mueller and la Barbecue on the one hand and Stiles Switch on the other. The standard Texas sides are again available, along with cans and bottles of soda and beer.

By the time I left Smitty's, I felt satisfied knowing that my long-held expectations had been surpassed - and that I no longer had to wonder what real Texas barbecue tasted like.

Next year, Kansas City.

IF YOU GO

The author's picks:

Louie Mueller

206 W. 2 St., Taylor, Texas

512-352-6206

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew

6610 N. Lamar Blvd., Austin

512-380-9199

La Barbecue

1906 E. Cesar Chavez St., Austin

512-605-9696

Smitty's Market

208 S. Commerce St., Lockhart, Texas

512-398-9344

Other notable barbecue restaurants in and around Austin:

The Salt Lick

18300 Farm to Market Road 1826, Driftwood

512-858-4959

Franklin Barbecue

900 E. 11th St., Austin

512-653-1187

Micklethwait Craft Meats

1309 Rosewood Ave., Austin

512-791-5961

Kreuz Market

619 N. Colorado St., Lockhart, Texas

512-398-2361

Black's Barbecue

215 N. Main St., Lockhart, Texas

512-398-2712

Southside Market & Barbecue

1212 Hwy. 290 E., Elgin, Texas

512-281-4650

Luling City Market

633 E. Davis St., Luling, Texas

830-875-9019

Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que

604 W. Young St., Llano, Texas

325-247-5713