(CNN) — Daniel Vaughn's got the best meat-loving gig ever: He's Texas Monthly's barbecue editor, the only full-time barbecue-focused journalist in the United States.
Growing up in Ohio, Vaughn didn't truly fall for barbecue until he moved to Dallas more than 16 years ago. It didn't take long for him to become obsessed, and he started chronicling his weekend journeys across the state on his blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, while working as an architect.
By 2012, Vaughn had earned a spot on the tasting team for the next Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ list, which published in 2013. Then came a book deal with Anthony Bourdain's publishing imprint for "The Prophets of Smoked Meat," and by 2013 he had been hired as the full-time barbecue editor at Texas Monthly.
"My book was published on May 14, 2013, and the new Texas Monthly Top 50 came out the next day," Vaughn said. "It was just the start of a very big year."
Vaughn is still traveling the state to find the best barbecue and chronicle it for the magazine's dedicated barbecue site, TMBBQ.com. (The magazine's latest list published in 2017, taking a team of 20 people six months to eat through 500 barbecue joints around the state before settling on the top 50.) The current top 50 list features some of his longtime Texas favorites: the No. 1 ranked Snow's BBQ in Lexington, featuring octogenarian pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz cooking Texas Hill Country barbecue; Vera's Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville featuring some of the best South Texas style barbacoa de cabeza; the world-famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin; and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor cooking Central Texas style barbecue; or Gatlin's BBQ in Houston, "where it's hard to beat the ribs and dirty rice," Vaughn says.
CNN asked Vaughn about his love of this most delicious food tradition and where he finds it cooked just right.
Is there something unique about barbecue? Every culture has its cooked meats.
The slow smoking of Southern barbecue makes it unique from the rest of the world. Plenty of cuisines cook meat over fire, but most focus on either quick, direct-heat grilling like Japanese yakitori or the cured and cold smoked items like ham or whole fish.
Barbecue was first advertised in meat markets in the late 1800s, and it looks like the first restaurants dedicated to barbecue appeared in El Paso, long considered a Texas barbecue wasteland, not in the bigger cities in the eastern half of the state.
Those old advertisements also tout lamb and pork just as much as beef, and brisket rarely gets a mention. That sort of research keeps me grounded when I might otherwise get too consumed with the most current trends in barbecue.
How do you choose where you'll eat next?
If there's "BBQ" on the sign, I'll probably be stopping, but I have to plan my trips around a few good leads. I keep a Google map up to date with markers of the places I've visited and all the others on my to-do list. If someone sends me a lead, I'll add it to the map. Then I'll consult the big barbecue map before I set out on a barbecue road trip.
What is special about Texas barbecue?
The variety of Texas barbecue is what I love about it. Of course there's brisket, the undisputed king of Texas barbecue, but the pork ribs, sausages, smoked turkey and even pulled pork are coming on these days.
The giant beef short ribs that have become popular across the country originated here. They're like the poster-child for our love of beef barbecue. There's something very Texan about skipping a rack of puny pork ribs and instead ordering a pound of beef on a bone the size of your forearm.
What are the different kinds of Texas barbecue?
There are four distinct regions of Texas barbecue, but a fifth is emerging. Big city barbecue, also called craft barbecue, is becoming its own style with a focus on high-quality brisket served by the pound. The fattier slices from the point of the brisket are especially adored. The big city places also tend to have better sides and more meat options than some of their small town counterparts.
The more traditionally recognized regions are East Texas with its saucy ribs and ultra-tender brisket usually served chopped on a bun.
In the Hill Country, they cook directly over the coals, so meats are done more quickly and get a unique flavor from fat dripping down into the fire. This is where you'll find items like mutton and cabrito (goat) on the menu.
South Texas is known for barbacoa de cabeza, or beef head barbacoa. Beef heads are cooked in the ground until tender. The meat is then pulled from the head, chopped and served on tortillas with salsas, cilantro and onion.
Central Texas is the most popular and is a reflection of its meat market roots. The style began in old meat markets that smoked their leftover raw meat and served it as barbecue. The meat was all sliced in front of the customer and sold strictly by the pound. Butcher paper serves as plates, eating with your hands is encouraged, and sauce is always served on the side.
What's the best way to order?
If you're ordering barbecue from a joint where the cutting block is in full view, you'll be able to see if the meat looks good or not. If it looks tender and juicy, order it. If you see the cutter struggling to cut through the ribs, maybe it's a good day for brisket instead. If it all looks bad, then a chopped beef sandwich covered in barbecue sauce, pickles and onions is a safe haven.
Houston hosted the 2017 Super Bowl, which put the spotlight on the city's meats. Where do you eat in Houston?
Head south of town to Pearland for the popular Killen's Barbecue and their monster beef ribs, or far north for the brisket at CorkScrew BBQ in Spring. Both are fantastic, and fantastically popular. Pizzitola's is a classic joint for peppery ribs, while the newish Pappa Charlie's Barbeque does their ribs a little sweeter and smokes the finest meatloaf you might ever try. (Yes, Pappa's spells it "barbeque." Just deal with it.)
Where else would you eat barbecue?
Despite the difference in preferred protein, I think the closest style to Texas barbecue is in North Carolina. They cook primarily pork, but they still value cooking with wood just as much as we do in Texas.
One of the more unique bites of American barbecue I tasted was on a recent trip to Hawaii. The fatty, crispy nuggets of smoked salmon belly at Guava Smoked in Honolulu were as good as any burnt end in Kansas City.