A hunter in full regalia waits by the pit to select his ‘cue at Cooper’s.
Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q in Llano, Texas is quite different than the famous barbecues located east of Austin in black-dirt farming country. For one thing, it’s west of Austin in the fabled Hill Country, a land of almost-mountains and rolling hills dotted with mesquite and scrub oak, ranching country rather than farming country.
A boisterous line of hunters, townies, University of Texas students, and barbecue tourists forms outside.
Founded in 1855 on the Llano River, the town of Llano was prey to Indian raids in the early years. The Indians apparently rode into town and stole everyone’s clothes. “Llano” means “plains” in Spanish, even though the terrain surrounding the town is extremely rugged. Llano underwent a boom time around 1886, when the Wakefield Iron and Coal Company, a Minneapolis concern, busted into town after magnetic iron ore was found in the vicinity, and a fledgling iron industry was developed. (It went bust when no coal was found in the vicinity to feed the smelters.) Soon thereafter, a granite boom developed.
Cooper’s is George W. Bush’s favorite barbecue, but don’t let that deter you from enjoying their brisket or pork chops, done over a pile of mesquite coals in a series of open pits outside the restaurant. This technique is sometimes known as “cowboy barbecue.”
The holding pit outside Cooper’s–from which you select your meat–offers a broader selection than most Texas barbecues.
When Cooper’s was founded by Tommy Cooper in 1964, it was the newest edition to a barbecue empire founded in 1953 by his father, George T. Cooper, in his backyard in nearby Mason, Texas. Current owner Terry Wooten bought the place in the mid-1980’s. Cooper’s in Llano was first made famous by deer hunters passing through town and stopping for barbecue. The original Cooper’s location in Mason still exists, and there is also a new branch in Round Rock, just north of Austin and home to Dell Computers.
A long line forms outside the cinder block building at Cooper’s along the exterior wall as people wait to select their meat from the holding pit. The selection of meats is broader than you find in the barbecues east of Austin, and some even swear by their barbecued sirloin. Once you’ve selected your meat from the pit (you always end up getting way too much because it all looks so good), you go inside to have it weighed, and packaged for take-out, or put on a red plastic tray to eat in the dining room.
Once inside, your meat is weighed and packaged by a series of meat wranglers.
On any given autumn day, you’ll see a room filled with guys dressed in camouflage, on their way to or from hunting trips. Barbecue sauce in a warming bath, plain pinto beans, pickles, chopped jalapenos, soda crackers, and white bread are all available in the dining room, and the seating is family style along picnic tables in the fluorescently lit, low-ceilinged dining room.
The dining room at Cooper’s in Llano.
Our meat selection that day included brisket, pork ribs, and chicken. They didn’t have lamb or goat available that day, though they often do.
Check out the entire series Great Barbecues of Texas