A Conversation Between Two Critics: Jonathan Gold and Daniel Vaughn

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Jonathan Gold and Daniel Vaughn at Valentina’s Tex Mex Barbecue in Austin

Jonathan Gold is the Pulitzer Prize winning food writer for the LA Times where he covers restaurants in Los Angeles County. Daniel Vaughn is the BBQ Editor at Texas Monthly where he oversees all barbecue coverage for the entire state of Texas. During a trip to Austin for SXSW, the two talked shop over brisket tacos at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. Below is a transcript of their conversation:

JONATHAN GOLD: Can I ask kind of a restaurant critic question? When you’re going to Franklin’s, or you’re driving a hundred miles out of town and you’re not from around here, it may be your one experience to taste the meat. But barbecue is such a variable product – it will vary not just from day to day, pit to pit, or month to month but from piece of meat to piece of meat. As somebody whose opinion on this is the last word, do you have a way of judging consistency? Do you have a way of knowing that your visit to a particular pit or another is just on a good day or a bad day?

DANIEL VAUGHN:  Well, Texas is a big state. And I have to cover all of it. So yeah you’re right there’s often times where I’ll go into a place and that’s my one visit to it and that’s what my review is going to be based on. When I had my old blog, I reviewed every restaurant that I went to. I pick and choose these days. I pick and choose based on if I think it’s a good representation of what they do and if it’s a good story. I also do a little more scouting as well.

You know I try to eat barbecue all day and I know that if I go into a place at four o’clock in the afternoon I’m not going to get their best stuff. I think it’s unfair if I write a review about that restaurant based on one visit at three or four o’clock. So if I am going to write a review about a place based on one visit, I’m going to go prime time. I’m going to go in at eleven thirty when I know everything’s going to be fresh and hopefully by eleven thirty I’m not getting yesterday’s meat – that’s an important thing to know as well.

If I have the opportunity and I know that I’m going to be back in a place I will wait till I at least visit twice. So I use those late afternoons as like a scouting mission. You can also tell pretty quick if a place has potential, if they really do put some care into what they’re putting out or if they’re just slinging meat. So, as with all criticism it’s a judgment call. But I do try to put a lot more thought into if I’m getting a good representation of what they’re doing than when I was just churning out restaurant reviews on my old blog.

JG. I mean when I review a place for the L.A. Times I go back four and five times but obviously I’m covering L.A. County which is giant but it’s not as big as Texas.

DV. Yeah, you know I’ve got a few trips coming up. They’ll be day trips that I’m taking – flights out in West Texas and South Texas – and I’m not going to wait a couple months and schedule another flight out there to eat at those places. So it’s like I said, it is a hard judgment call.

As far as the Texas Monthly Top Fifty and my reviews, whether people agree with it or not, we do give a little bit of leeway based on your location. And if you’re a great barbecue joint in El Paso you’re going to get a lot more attention, I should say, then if you’re another great barbecue joint in the 78702 [zip code] in Austin. I mean if I could just find a great barbecue place in El Paso it would be newsworthy.

JG. There’s obviously a huge element of nostalgia in the longing for Texas barbecue that, you know whether or not it’s supposed to be really good or not, or even is any good or not. I’m still going to go to South Side Market in Elgin because those hot guts are great. But you don’t really feel it necessary to hold some of the legendary places in veneration right?

DV. You know, not if they’re just skating by, no. I think people who are making a point to take time out of their day to take a long trip to go somewhere really need an honest opinion about whether it’s worth that long trip or not. You know when the last Texas Monthly Top Fifty came out, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart was not on the list. That was based on three separate visits, none of which were very good. And it was just a statement we were trying to make, not about “well we’re going to punish Smitty’s here.” It was a statement that while Lockhart is the capital of barbecue in Texas, if you’re coming here you really need to understand the quality variation between the places that are here and Smitty’s at that point was just skating by. And I think their meat has improved since then. I don’t know if not being on the top fifty had anything to do with that. I interviewed the owner Nina Sells about a year after that happened, and I think she ended the interview with something like, “I think we might just survive anyway. You know we’re doing just fine here.”