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Make No Bones

Barbecue joints in Brenham, a town famous for ice cream, are attracting crowds of their own

Leonard Botello IV always wanted to have a roadside barbecue shack. So when a hole-in-the-wall barbecue restaurant 3 miles west of downtown Brenham on U.S. 290 went up for sale, Botello bought the 1,200-square-foot red metal building.

He grew up in a family of restaurateurs in Lake Jackson and initially swore he’d never follow the same path. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a biology degree in 2013.

But after a visit to Austin’s La Barbecue, Botello was blown away by the simplicity of the barbecue. Right away he started experimenting with his uncle’s pit and later drove to Ohio to pick up his first offset smoker, a $4,000 Craigslist purchase.

“It’s like one big science project every single day because everything’s completely different,” Botello says. “Every cow is different. Every piece of wood is different. The weather is different.”

He opened Truth Barbeque in July 2015 and added a covered patio next to his roadside barbecue shack on the outskirts of Brenham.

Truth Barbeque owner Leonard Botello IV, left, is often found behind the counter cutting meat as his father works the register.

Wyatt McSpadden

The staff at LJ’s BBQ.

Wyatt McSpadden

While Brenham is best known as the home of Blue Bell Creameries, there’s more to the city’s culinary scene than ice cream. The small town, population 18,000, has a handful of barbecue restaurants that are building impressive résumés. Two of these spots—Truth Barbeque and LJ’s BBQ—are just a mile and a half apart, and both made Texas Monthly’s list of the 50 Best BBQ Joints in 2021.

At either place, the owners and pitmasters could be stationed behind the counter slicing up the Texas trinity—brisket, sausage and ribs—each cooked with their own personal style and accompanied by an array of delectable sides. Brenham’s location, halfway between Austin and Houston, makes it an easy day trip or weekend destination for barbecue. Come hungry and be prepared to loosen your belt.

Honoring Mamaw

LJ’s started in an unlikely place—the backroom of a downtown liquor store, where Matt Lowery, his cousin Leah Cook and her husband, Corey Cook, were selling lunches on a table at a side entrance in 2016. Pitmasters Lowery and Corey Cook were preparing the food at Leah’s parents’ house.

The trio moved their business to the current brick-and-mortar location, a concrete building with a red metal awning on West Main Street in 2017. Most days the parking lot is full and one of the three pitmasters—Lowery, Cook and Josh Jalomo, who joined the team in 2020—is behind the counter chopping brisket for one of their signature side dishes: brisket mac and cheese.

Matt Lowery works the pit at LJ’s.

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Preparing servings of LJ’s ketchup-based sauce, which balances sweetness with apple cider and white vinegars.

Wyatt McSpadden

“It’s just mac and cheese with chopped brisket on top,” Corey Cook says. “It’s no more simple than that. It’s one of the most popular items.”

The idea for the restaurant was hatched when Lowery began cooking barbecue and doing small catering gigs in 2014, when he was in graduate school at the University of Houston, studying hotel and restaurant management. After graduation, he was visiting the Cooks in Brenham when they began brainstorming an idea for a business. In 2015 they started doing pop-ups before moving to the backroom of the liquor store.

The trio decided to name the restaurant for their grandmother, Laura Jean, who lived in Brenham.

“One day, Leah said, ‘How about we call it LJ’s after our mamaw?’ ” Lowery says. “It just seemed like a good way to pay homage to her and had a great story.”

LJ’s main focus is locally sourced ingredients, from the post oak they burn to the collard greens they serve. “We get our collard greens from a local farmer here that’s about 5 miles away from our restaurant,” says Lowery about their twice-weekly deliveries from Whitehurst Farm. “The greens you order here at LJ’s literally are in the ground no more than 24 to 48 hours before.”

The brisket is seasoned with a salt and pepper rub. “It’s simple, but it’s done well,” Lowery says. All the meat is cooked on one of four smokers—one 1,000-gallon and three 500-gallon offsets tucked behind the restaurant. In addition to brisket, sausage and ribs, LJ’s also serves up pulled pork and turkey. All the meats pair well with their ketchup-based sauce that Cook calls the “perfect balance” of sweet mixed with apple cider and white vinegars. Peach cobbler and banana pudding are the stars of the dessert menu.

With so many options, deciding what to order can be tough. Lowery suggests starting with a three-meat plate, piled high with brisket, ribs and sausage.

“Obviously, the turkey is the hidden gem,” Cook says. “But the first thing that you want to try are those.”

Blazing post oak gets the brisket, sausage, ribs, pulled pork and turkey to the chopping block at LJ’s with just the right overtones.

Wyatt McSpadden

An eye-catching wall at LJ’s.

Wyatt McSpadden

Moment of Truth

At Truth Barbeque, Botello’s Central Texas-style preparation consists of a simple rub made in-house and post oak to smoke the meat. To expand his skills and menu, Botello also serves up a rotating menu of less conventional dishes—smoked boudin, pastrami brisket and Carolina whole hog, a popular Saturday-only menu item. The meats are accompanied by a choice of three sauces: a traditional tomato base, tangy mustard or white barbecue. The latter two are his tribute to Carolina-style barbecue. “Our sauces are a smidge more vinegary than most sauces, but it’s just to kind of complement the meat,” Botello explains.

His most popular sides are collards, corn pudding and potato tot casserole, a family recipe. But save room for the triple-layer cakes for dessert—each slice weighs a pound. Using another Botello family recipe, head baker Kiki Wilkins makes 12 rotating varieties of cake, including triple-chocolate, carrot, strawberry, tres leches and banana caramel.

Truth debuted on Texas Monthly’s list in 2017, earning the No. 10 spot. But getting there wasn’t easy.

Leonard Botello IV, owner and pitmaster at Truth, enjoys visiting with customers.

Wyatt McSpadden

A sampling from the menu at Truth Barbeque.

Wyatt McSpadden

“I remember cooking three briskets a day and then nobody showing up,” Botello says. He initially chose Brenham to avoid being drowned out in bigger markets like Austin and Houston. Truth gained traction quickly, partially thanks to its photogenic plating that made Botello’s barbecue ripe for social media. In 2019 he opened a second location, in Houston.

Success hasn’t changed how Botello does business. He’s still behind the counter cutting meat, and his dad is often at the register. “I like to be hands-on [and] talk to customers,” explains Botello, who always ensures sauce bottles are clean and facing the correct way. “I like to be approachable.”

Botello enjoys the questions and interactions. “When they ask you questions, your brain starts to work a lot harder,” he says. “And you realize how much information you have locked up here that you’re just doing [by] second nature. So it’s good for them, and it’s good for me.”

He teaches barbecue classes one Sunday a month, inspired by the openness of Wayne Mueller, a third-generation pitmaster and the owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue in nearby Taylor. One day, while Botello was eating, Mueller sat down beside him and started sharing his knowledge unprompted, including his temperature for cooking meat—often a secret in the barbecue world.

“Even though these are trade secrets, I could give them to you,” explains Botello. “But it’s like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan teaching somebody how to play a guitar. They’re never going to be able to recreate that no matter how many answers you give them.”

The interior at Truth.

Wyatt McSpadden

Slices of the triple-layer cakes at Truth—such as this banana caramel cake—weigh in at 1 pound.

Wyatt McSpadden

Slicing the brisket at Truth.

Wyatt McSpadden

Sometimes hopeful diners face a sad truth at Truth Barbeque.

Wyatt McSpadden