A Texas native, Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan told me that Llano is the home of real 'cue. As the backseat navigator on our road trip, I admittedly pointed us down a roundabout path instead of the more direct I-10W highway, to conveniently wind up in Llano at lunchtime.
Cooper's Old-Time Pit Bar-B-Que is the town's landmark barbecue joint where an outdoor oak grill—the length of an SUV—slow-cooks pork chops, sausage, whole chickens, beef ribs, whole chicken, and of course, brisket. The closest thing I'd ever seen to a cowboy was in front of me in line, pointing to a rack of ribs, which a Cooper's grillmaster then sawed up and plopped onto a red plastic cafeteria-like tray. That's the Cooper's style: no real plates; just meat on tray, then a butcher paper-wrapping job inside once you're ready to pay.
Long wooden tables with benches (family-style sitting here) are stocked with paper towel rolls for greasy fingers, butter spray for corn on the cob and loaves of white bread (basically just Wonder caliber, but somehow more magical here) for sandwich-making. Near the fountain drinks, two bucket-sized pots simmer, one with beans and the other, Cooper's house 'cue sauce, both with ladles ready.
Yonan was right—this felt like real 'cue. I didn't know what that meant before Cooper's, but now I know: it's the taxidermy on the walls, the focused, essentially talk-free eating styles around the room, the communal sharing of sides (but not of meats), the scent of smoked meats lingering on your hair the next morning.