By Nathan Smith

Bluebonnets, the Alamo and barbecue. True Texans know and can appreciate all three and, as a true Texan, I consider myself a reasonably knowledgeable evaluator of the latter. I’ve consumed my fair share over the years and then some.

My experience tells me that good barbecue sauce is often not fully appreciated. It’s sometimes used as a prop to hold up the tasteless or overcooked. Granted, there are a lot of mediocre barbecue joints around the state, producing shameful excuses for Texas cuisine. Yet even with a truly remarkable piece of mesquite-grilled beef, nothing complements the flavor better than a great sauce.

Like most everything else worth eating, the best sauce comes from Texas. You will see thousands of varieties across the country, but it’s the Lone Star version that gets the job done. It’s heavily seasoned with lots of black pepper, cumin, chili peppers, chili powder, fresh onion, salt, only a touch of tomato, little or no sugar and for the brave, maybe some minced, boiled jalapeños. The sauce often contains meat drippings and smoke flavor and should infiltrate the meat easily rather than sit idly on top.

Some may say that good barbecue doesn’t need barbecue sauce. I say good barbecue sauce doesn’t need barbecue, it goes on anything. The right barbecue sauce drizzled over a plate of carefully prepared and correctly seasoned brisket is my idea of complete perfection.

You will find some Texas barbecue restaurants that take pride in their sauce-free menu… “Barbecue Sauce (nothing to hide),” a sign says at Kreuz Barbecue in Lockhart. Excellent food to be sure, but after visiting such establishments I’m always left wondering what an ancho chile sauce or a tangy chipotle blend would have done to make a great experience better.

Take Fat Boys in Amarillo. They offer a tender, flavorful brisket plate, but it’s the sauce that keeps the locals coming back for more. Their own blend of sauce sets them apart. The New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbeque Shack in Huntsville is another example of a sauce-serving Texas barbecue staple. The place isn’t much to look at, but you’ll swing 100 miles out of your way to get your fingers sticky with their sauce.

I am positive that barbecue sauce accompanying brisket, pork ribs, sausage and chicken can make or break the experience. Sure, it’s possible to have great barbecue without the sauce, just like it’s possible to enjoy the marshmallow without the s’more. But when you have the makings, why not enjoy? To sauce or not: that is the question.