Tuesday, August 13, 2002

LLANO, Texas — Even in a state where barbecue is as vital a part of the culture as rodeos or high school football, Cooper’s Old-Time Pit Bar-B-Q has become something of a cult destination. And that was before one of its devotees became president of the United States.

Like most of those who have sampled the meat at Cooper’s, George W. Bush learned of it by word of mouth and decided to try it in May 1998, when he was the governor of Texas. Shortly after the 2000 election, the president-elect had Cooper’s cater a picnic at his Crawford ranch and publicly proclaimed it to be his favorite barbecue.

“Ninety-nine percent of barbecue is smoked,” says Jason Wootan, 28, operations manager of Cooper’s and son of the owner, Terry Wootan. “Ours is what you call cowboy-style: in two words, direct heat. We take mesquite it burns hotter and faster than any other wood and we place those coals directly under the meat. By doing that, you sear the flavors in.”

There are other “cowboy-style” barbecue joints throughout the picturesque Texas Hill Country, where the meat of choice is beef. Barbecue purists in the Southeast particularly in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and the Carolinas insist that barbecue by definition is pork, smoked with hickory, and that everything else is merely smoked meat. But what makes Cooper’s special is that it was named the No. 1 barbecue spot in the state by Texas Monthly magazine. “We’re the only ones who have taken it to a different level,” the son says, referring to its new mail-order barbecue operation.

His father, Terry Wootan, 52, a real estate broker in this town of 3,700, explains that the original owner was Tommy Cooper, a high school friend. Mr. Cooper opened the restaurant in 1960 but was killed in an automobile accident in 1979. Mr. Wootan leased it from Mr. Cooper’s family in 1986, as a way to buttress his earnings because of the bad real estate market. He purchased the business in 1991 and doubled its floor space.

He learned barbecuing “in the back yard and by hard knocks.” He trained a Mexican immigrant, Lorenzo Vences, to replace him full-time so he could spend more time with real estate.

“When I started here, I couldn’t speak English,” recalls Mr. Vences, 39. “Now I’m a U.S. citizen. Everybody wants me to tell them our secrets.”

Mr. Wootan was a classmate at Texas A&M of Gov. Rick Perry, who frequented the restaurant when he was Mr. Bush’s lieutenant governor. “I believe Rick Perry told him about us,” Jason Wootan says. “Rick is one of our biggest promoters.”

After Mr. Bush’s 1998 visit, Terry Wootan catered several functions at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, 75 miles to the east. After Mr. Bush’s elevation to the presidency, Cooper’s catered a meeting of Republican governors at the Crawford ranch, and Terry Wootan says they sent a mail-order shipment to a presidential adviser at the White House.

“I’m sure the president got some of it,” he says with a chuckle. Although he has agreed to “seven or eight” franchises in Houston, he knows the danger of a franchise not living up to the reputation of the original. “I’ll keep my eye on it,” he promised.

Barbecue aficionados insist the best barbecue is found in holes-in-the-wall rather than in glitzy franchise places. Cooper’s is housed in the original, unostentatious cinder-block building, wreathed in sweet-smelling mesquite smoke. The interior is almost as austere; the cement floors and picnic tables arranged in rows give it a mess-hall appearance.

About the only decorations are deer heads and a display of samples of barbed-wire (or “bob-war,” as it’s pronounced in these parts) from 19th-century ranches. There’s a letter of appreciation from then-Gov. Bush: “The ribs were excellent!”

“I’ve been eating here since I was in college, which is 19 years,” says Renee Richards of Houston.

“This is the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten period,” declared Lee Ann McChristian of Fort Worth, who says her parents come here from nearby Kingsland about four times a year.

Bill Tarleton of Gail, Texas, 280 miles to the west, was unaware of Cooper’s reputation when he stumbled on it by chance four years ago and has been coming back ever since. “We have a daughter in Austin, so we always stop here coming and going. It’s consistent. There are good barbecue places all over Texas, but this is the best and there’s a unique atmosphere.”

The serving procedure differs from many other barbecue joints. Patrons queue up at a meat-holding pit outside and select their “entrees.” Besides the standard beef brisket, sausage, chicken and ribs, Cooper’s offers, for a few dollars more, double-thick pork chops, ham, sirloin, slabs of T-bone and rib-eye, and cabrito, or kid goat, a Mexican specialty. The selections are slapped onto a plastic tray, which the patron takes inside to be weighed.

Sides of potato salad and coleslaw can be purchased, but the pinto beans, jalapeno peppers and barbecue sauce are included in the price of the meat and served from two buffet tables. The sauce is thinner and not as sweet as most bottled varieties. Patrons ladle it into Styrofoam bowls and use it for dipping. Its recipe is secret, as is the blend of spices in the rub, which Jason Wootan says “brings out the flavor.” One-pound bags of rub sell for $5.95 each.

There are no buns at Cooper’s. Those who want sandwiches can fabricate them using the loaves of sliced white bread placed on the picnic tables. There are also no plates. Patrons are issued sheets of butcher paper.

The logistics are of military proportions. Jason Wootan says they serve about two tons of meat on weekends. He contracts with someone to cut mesquite trees considered a nuisance by ranchers and the wood is aged for a year and a half. The wood is trucked in several cords at a time on wooden pallets.

The logs are burned down in two huge ovens, and the coals moved by 15-foot-long shovels to six cooking pits. Once cooked, the meat is moved to the holding pit by the front door.

The Wootans are not the first Texas barbecue specialists to achieve national renown by their presidential association. When he didn’t cook the barbecue himself, President Lyndon B. Johnson had Walter Jetton of Fort Worth cater state functions at the LBJ Ranch.

Jason Wootan says that Lady Bird Johnson dined at his restaurant last year because the LBJ ranch is only about a 45-minute drive away. Other notables who have eaten at Cooper’s include entertainers Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi, who came here together last year, and film stars Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie, now in the process of divorcing, in happier times.

About the only trade secret Terry Wootan is willing to share is his “four-second rule” for cooking temperature. “Hold your hand over the coals,” he says. “If you have to move it in four seconds, it’s the right temperature.”

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