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On the Central Coast, Santa Maria-style barbecue is king, but our local tradition is only one small part of the greater American barbecue heritage. When I got a chance to visit Texas, another region with deeply engrained barbecue history, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in the local food culture and see how Texan barbecue stacked up to my hometown favorite.

I found myself in Lubbock, a dusty town of about 250,000 people located on a high and windswept mesa. Lubbock enjoys moderate fame as the subject of many country songs, the birthplace of legendary rocker Buddy Holly and as the home of Texas Tech University. Pastimes include contemplating the endless unbroken horizon, visiting Prairie Dog Town and eating a whole lot of barbecue.

I didn’t waste any time diving mouth-first into that latter pastime with a trip to Rudy’s BBQ on my first day there.

Rudy’s is best described as a gas station meets convenience store meets barbecue joint. With about 30 locations in the South and Southwest, it might be tempting to define Rudy’s as fast food, but speedy service is about the only thing it has in common with your local McDonald’s.

From the moment I stepped out of the car, I could smell the smoky goodness of barbecue pits cooking up a feast of meat. The smell of the smoke was familiar, the unmistakable scent of burning oak. While some Texans use mesquite, everyone I spoke to said they preferred oak because it allowed for longer cooking times without infusing bitter flavors into meat.

Rudy’s employs a cafeteria-style ordering system. Customers enter through a line that snakes past deep coolers of ice-packed beer and refrigerators filled with cold sides. The line ends at a cash register where meat is ordered by the pound and hot sides are served up in big foam cups.

To get a real picture of southern barbecue, my group ordered a half-pound of almost everything on the menu; lean brisket, moist brisket, ribs, smoked turkey, chop and jalapeño sausage. The meat was served in paper baskets set inside a plastic crate lined with butcher’s paper. A half loaf of white bread was thrown in to top it all off.

Sides are almost as important to America’s distinct barbecue traditions as are cooking methods. In Santa Maria-style cooking, pinquito beans, salsa and garlic bread are the standards. In Texas the list is less defined but includes things like creamed corn, ranch beans, potato salad and peppery barbecue sauces.

We found a seat at a long wooden picnic table and got down to the messy but delicious task of devouring our feast and mopping up sauce with white bread. We managed to eat about half of what we ordered and I left Rudy’s feeling, as I would for much of the trip, completely full. When it comes to portions, the saying “Everything’s bigger in Texas,” couldn’t be truer.

Not 24 hours later, we’re at it again. This time at one of Lubbock’s many well-regarded steakhouses. The one we chose was called Cagle Steaks and sat on the outskirts of town. Cagle’s is fashioned after an old western town with a large open dining room at its center. Like Santa Maria-style cooking, the food at Cagle’s straddles the line between grilling and barbecue.

The cooks at Cagle’s still cook over oak but use a hotter fire and keep the meat on for less time. Steaks here cook in under an hour compared to pit barbecuing, wherein meat can sit above hot coals for almost a day.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the quality of the food. Cagle’s specializes in ribeye served by the inch. I opted for a ribeye three-quarters of an inch thick and cooked medium rare. Mine was so tender that it barely required a knife — or even chewing. It was well seasoned with spices familiar to those who love Santa Maria-style and came closest to the barbecue I knew from home.

The final stop on my Texas barbecue odyssey was a restaurant called Eddie’s, situated in an industrial section of town and frequented by the kind of blue-collar regulars found in little barbecue shacks all over Texas. The outside of the building is plastered with road signs. Inside the walls are covered with memorabilia and license plates. A grimacing portrait of Clint Eastwood looks over a room with Texas Tech flags hanging from the ceiling and tables made from broken doors.

The words moderation and barbecue never seem to go together, so I ordered a combo plate of moist brisket, chop and ribs followed by another half-pound of chop. With the encouragement of my brother in-law, we also asked for a Frito pie, a staple of West Texas sporting events. The “pie” comes in a foam container whose bottom is layered with Frito chips followed by layers of beans, cheese, sour cream and brisket. On its own, it’s an average heaping of junk food but with slow-cooked brisket and smoky sauce, the Frito pie is downright delicious.

It was the perfect over-the-top end to my journey into southern barbecue. It’s difficult to say if I like Texas barbecue or Santa Maria-style barbecue better. For that reason, I’m grateful I don’t have to choose, because I live in a country where the people and the food share diverse backgrounds.

There is a little bit of Texas barbecue in Santa Maria and a little bit of Santa Maria in Texas. So why choose when you can have them all?

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