Texas, Day 7: Johnson City to Georgetown via Llano

April 5, 2021 • 10:30 am

I can’t resist a challenge when it comes to good food. So when no fewer than three readers told me that I had to eat at Cooper’s BBQ in Llano because it was better than all the places I’d eaten before, well, I simply had to make the one-hour drive to Llano to test that assertion. (The town, by the way, is pronounced “Lah-no”, not the Spanish pronounciation “Yah-no”.)

It turns out that Cooper’s is a very good pit, though they smoke over mesquite charcoal rather than wood, but on my one visit there was an uneven note in the form of mediocre brisket (verified by another visitor). I can’t rank it up there with the City Market or Louie Mueller, but it’s certainly worth a visit if you avoid the brisket.

Here’s the place: pretty much of a ramshackle dive, as all good BBQ places are.

The ordering system is unique: you enter by the grill, with every smoked meat on display for your inspection, along with a price list. You simply tell them what you want (see the menu below). It’s easy to overorder this way, and of course I did it. But I did eat everything.

The menu lists sixteen items. The most famous item at Cooper’s is their giant smoked pork chop, so I had to have that. But I had to try some brisket, too—to compare with the other places I’ve eaten. And one reader said I should have the BBQ goat, and since I love goat, and have never seen it in a Texas BBQ, well, I had to have the goat as well.

The display of smoked animal flesh:

These are the per pound prices, I believe. The half chicken, which I didn’t get, is a bargain at $8.

Below: the inside, with deer heads. Llano (population about 3,500) is known as “The Deer Capital of Texas”; as Wikipedia notes:

The density of deer in the Llano Basin is the highest in the nation. Hunters from all over come to Llano for deerquaildoveferal pig, and turkey hunting, using guns as well as bow hunting.

The whole town is full of taxidermists who will dress your deer (cut it up for meat) and also stuff and mount the head, as in the restaurant below. There are also tons of gun stores, many with signs making fun of gun control and its advocates.

The dining room. It’s smoky in there as the pits are right outside.You sit on benches, which makes it easy to talk to the locals

After you order at the pit, they place your meat smack on a plastic tray, which a guy then takes inside, wraps each piece in butcher paper, weighs, and calculates the price. Then you order sides (beans are free). The assortment of cobblers for dessert—blackberry, peach, and a fabulous looking pecan cobbler—was stunning, but I abstained because I still have a mini pecan pie from the Texas Pie Company.

My plate. Pinto beans with a jalapeño pepper, then the goat at upper right., the giant pork chop below it with a side of coleslaw, one slice of brisket (I asked for “juicy”) to its left, and two pieces of white bread. I also had sweet tea (I got half and half sweet and unsweetened).

The meats. Verdict: The pork chop was fantastic: thick, smoky, juicy, and porky. It would have been a meal in itself! The goat was very good as well, though one has to carefully gnaw the meat off the jagged bone. The brisket, sadly, was dry and uninspired, even though I went at opening time (11 a.m.) and asked for a moist piece. Verdict: mixed. Go for the pork chop and maybe the ribs and sausages (I didn’t try them but see below), but I though the brisket sucked. I could, however, have had a bad piece.

I struck up a conversation at the table with a nice couple who had driven four hours down from Dallas to eat BBQ on Easter and see the wildflowers. Usually the Texas hills around Llano are bedecked with colorful flowers at this time of year, but the rains were light this spring and the flowers few. There were lots of Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets along the highway, but the couple told me that in a good season the flower displays are stunning.

We chatted and ate for an hour, and I tell you what: that couple had a LOT OF STUFF. They planned to take much of it home to freeze (I’m told BBQ freezes well except for cooked sausage). And they had a couple quarts of coleslaw and potato salad, and about five portions of cobbler. Here’s what was left over after they ate. There are pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage, and half a chicken (they weren’t keen on the brisket, either, and didn’t get any. They were regulars here).

When I left after an hour of eating, the place was full and there was a line out the door. And remember, this is on Easter, when respectable folk are eating ham at home! The take-out window was also doing a huge business.

The line at noon at Cooper’s, “Home of the Big Chop”. Indeed it is!

The smoker out back:

They use charcoal made from mesquite rather than straight wood. That is the sign of a lazy pitmaster:

Right across the street from Cooper’s was—you guessed it—a taxidermist:

Here’s the Llano County Courthouse and Jail in the center of the town square. Built of sandstone in 1893, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The stones in front remember members of the armed forces from the county who died in action during WWII.

Pink flowers along the road (botanists, please give me the species):

I had to cool my heels when I arrived at my cheap motel 1.5 hours early. But I heard a bunch of chirping nearby, which turned out to be a large number of great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) who had made their nests in the nearby trees. Each tree must have had 20-30 nests, each with two noisy superintendents. I filmed under the trees so you could hear their songs.

Listen to the videos below: I swear that one grackle is imitating a car alarm. Looking it up, I see that common grackles can imitate other birds and even “human noises”, but I found nothing on great-tailed grackles or about car alarms. You be the judge. You have to admit that the song is enchanting, though.

Another video under the Grackle Tree:

And a male showing off for a female who isn’t interested:

33 thoughts on “Texas, Day 7: Johnson City to Georgetown via Llano

    1. With all the deer surprised venison was not on the menu. It is my meat of choice… it can be a little dear! 🤭

      1. Venison, wild venison, must be inspected by the Dept of Agriculture to protect the public. It can be done but it will work only for Farm raised exotic deer species. Deer season is now 7 months away, so 10 months of the year only frozen meat would be available. The same is true for wild hogs.

  1. Oenothera speciosa?

    Wikipedia: Oenothera speciosa is a species of evening primrose known by several common names, including pinkladies, pink evening primrose, showy evening primrose, Mexican primrose, amapola, and buttercups (not to be confused with true buttercups in the genus Ranunculus).

    1. I am not a botanist or a gardener, but am a native Texan. I grew up calling them buttercups, and have fond memories of turning my nose yellow with the pollen. As an adult, I was exposed to the pink evening primrose and “Texas buttercup” monikers.

    2. Yes. It and the Indian Paintbrush and Texas Bluebells are sown along roads by the Texas Department of Glorification of Texas. Highway department, in a word. We haven’t found them far from roads.

  2. I can testify that there is about 3 weeks in the spring when it is really nice down there. After that, forget it. Usually 2 degrees hotter than hell. Since that BBQ place was not at the top of the list, it surprises me that people drive down from Dallas. They may not have the best but the entire Dallas/Ft. Worth area probably has 500 to a thousand BBQ place to try. I thought some of them were pretty good but I have not been down there for years. I also think you are correct, charcoal instead of wood is not so good. I suspect the meat, especially the quality of the brisket is 80 percent of the result you get. I would bet the places with the best brisket are tapped in to AAA prime beef and the price is going to be sky high.

  3. I’ve enjoyed the tour of Texas BBQ restaurants but I kept hoping to hear about the ribs, either pork or beef. That is why I primarily go for BBQ. The brisket, pulled pork and pulled chicken are secondary.

      1. Try the Salt Fork, on the southern edge of Austin. Our icththyologist friend Jim Thomerson swore by it. They serve very good ribs.

  4. We have another Llano out in the upper desert of Southern California. Population around 1200 according to Wikipedia. I don’t know for sure but I think locals here also pronounce its name with the hard ell rather than the Spanish ‘y’ sound. By the way, it means “flat” which is likely accurate for both CA and TX places.

  5. I am sorry the brisket was sub-par when you went. We usually go in the afternoon, so perhaps that is a factor.
    I have had no problems freezing and reheating the sausage. We cut it into portions, then vacuum seal it while it is still hot, and pile it into the freezer.
    Transporting frozen meat cross country is one of our chief activities. We get meat from the ranch each fall according to a share system my Mom set up, with each of us kids getting about 300 pounds per year. When we get to Texas, we drop off beef and elk for my in-laws, and pick up some BBQ.
    The best solution for us has been big freezers in the cargo area of the RV.
    They obviously have beef on the ranch in Texas, but it cannot compare to the cows we raise for the family in Colorado.
    The bridge in Llano was nearly washed out in 2018. As high as it is over the water, it is hard to imagine. My wife’s grandmother told a story how after a similar flood in 1935, she found a cast iron stove on the banks of the Llano river, disassembled it, and brought it home in a wagon.

    1. But this is ‘Merica so we pronounce it however we want. 😉 Where I live in CA, many people know Spanish pronunciation but Spanish street names are customarily pronounced in a manner far distant from their pronunciation in Spanish. My favorite is Junipero St. which is pronounced here Juan-a-pear-row, where “Juan” is pronounced as the Spanish first name.

    2. Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco are all Spanish names but are everywhere pronounced the English way, except in the Spanish speaking world, of course. I pronounce them in Spanish when I speak Spanish, in English in other languages.

  6. I think it is a hoot that an erudite professor from Chicago can get down and dirty with Texan BBQ, obscure holes-in-the-wall, and cowboy bootology. Some of your most enjoyable posts!

  7. Thanks for your interesting Texas stories Jerry. I am definitely going to travel to Texas and sample some real BBQ when the world opens up again.

  8. I’m very much enjoying your reports of eating most of Texas – even for a guy who isn’t a big meat eater I can appreciate a nice BBQ now and then. My main worry would be the portions – they’re so huge – what I’d eat over several days! I guess you can split a meal with a friend, or (like your friends) freeze it for later. Keep chewing for all of your hungry readers PCC (E).


  9. I read your comments to Dr. Blancke (who was born in Llano, as was her mom and grandmother), and she agreed that you came too early in the day for Cooper’s brisket.
    That should not make a difference. It is reasonable to expect consistent quality any time when such a place is open. But I suppose at the standards at which some of us judge one place or dish from another, it begins to matter.
    Dr. Blancke also wishes me to mention that a good brisket takes 10 hours or so to smoke properly. More, even. Pork chops do not benefit from such cooking.

  10. The reason that the wildflowers are late down here is that almost all of Texas had a devastation
    freeze from the polar vortex that hit around Valentines day.

  11. One of the reasons BBQ became so popular in the Southwest is that the dry, arid soil was not conducive to farming much. Maybe some tomatoes and peppers, which do well in dry soil. But cattle can eat the dry grasses, process the nutrition, and then people could in turn eat the cows and get much needed protein. There could be no such thing as veganism without modern vitamins, B-12 shots, and big agra. My mouth is watering 😀

  12. Jerry, I wish you had queried the locals about the availability of venison, smoked or otherwise. Have you eaten enough to make a culinary judgement?

  13. Deer venison is not usually sold in Texas, due to wildlife regulations. If you do find venison for sale, it is probably antelope.
    But a huge amount is hunted, and it is often traded or given away. The wife, who was a local there, is very fond of deer chili. I like the chili as well, but find the steaks a bit gamey for my taste. I prefer elk, but that might just be my upbringing.
    The other thing eaten there in vast quantities is fried catfish.

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