Barbecue is the great equalizer. It’s the only American food that inspires $70,000 cars to line up next to $700 trucks to get the good stuff.
It is also the only food that can inspire yours truly to hit the road at 7:00 am to make a one hour drive to a speck of a town called Lexington, Texas to have barbecue for breakfast.
Even after making that bleary-eyed trek through foggy, central Texas flatlands at that ungodly hour, we were still late to the party:
….a party that commences but once a week, at 8 in the morning, at Snow’s.
That party goes on until the meat runs out (pretty darn fast, i.e. usually around noon) so arriving early is a must. Ever since both Texas Monthly and Calvin Trillin proclaimed it the best Texas barbecue in the world (in 2008), Snow’s has been the place to get Central Texas ‘cue. And even after being challenged by urban upstart Franklin’s, its ranking (now #4 according to @TMBBQ‘s every-four-year survey), keeps it one of the toughest tickets in Tejas. Not bad for a joint that’s open for only four hours a week, and has only been open since 2003.
Was the cue worth the drive? And the wait? And the experience of it all?
Well, we’d have to say, yes, yes and really yes. The holy grail of barbecue is brisket, and Snow’s obviously calls on a higher power to achieve a heavenly bark and out-of-this-world succulence. The ribs (pictured at the top of the page) were so smokey they should’ve come with a FDA warning, and the loose-packed, wrinkled-skin, jalapeno sausages also stopped us in our tracks:
As good as the food is, it’s the experience of standing in line at Snow’s that’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for ‘cue connoisseurs who don’t live in Texas. You’re there with folks just like yourself, folks who’ve driven quite a distance just to bathe in the smoke and bask in the food. The excitement in the air is as palpable as snap of those sausages. Even before we ate, we were asking our self if the food could possibly live up to the hype, and for the most part it did. (Only the dry, uninspiring pork steak, that we were told was THE thing to get, disappointed.)
Regarding those folks, you can tell that pretty much every one of them is either a dedicated barbecue hound (or stuck with someone who is), and waiting for forty-five minutes is a small price to pay for food this good.
Speaking of hounds, if there’s a first among equals among Texas ‘cue mavens, it would be Daniel Vaughn. As barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, he spends most of his waking hours thinking and writing about Texas barbecue, and as luck would have it, he was stationed in line at Snow’s right in front of us. (For people who don’t live in Texas that last sentence raises a number of questions, such as: There is such a thing as a “barbecue editor”? Can a writer write about nothing but barbecue? Does a writer actually make a living writing about nothing but barbecue? And assuming all of those things to be true, why would Daniel Vaughn be a Snow’s at 8 am on a Saturday morning with his two kids?)
The answers are: yes, apparently yes in Texas, absolutely yes in Texas, and apparently he was on a busman’s holiday. As you can see from his Twitter feed, Daniel Vaughn loves barbecue like a Kardashian loves cameras.
45 minutes also goes very quickly when you’re chewing the fat with someone like Vaughn, and in between him stopping to do star turns with 80-something pitmistress Miss Tootise, we got to ask him a few questions. First of all, we wanted to know what made Franklin’s so of-the-moment, and he had a ready answer: “Aaron (Franklin) brought Central Texas barbecue to the big city, and his biggest contribution was making it consistent. When you go there you always know you’re going to get an excellent brisket that’s as good as the last time you were there,” he said. We also agreed that the rise of social media had a lot to do with the Franklin phenomenon (“FOMO -fear of missing out,” he called it), and that San Francisco is to barbecue what Tony Bennett is to line dancing.
We finished at Snow’s around 9:30 and needed to reset our digestive systems for our next conquest. And the 40 minute drive over to Louie Mueller – family owned and operated since 1949 — was the perfect respite before our second bbq breakfast.
Like Smitty’s the day before, Louie Mueller looks like a dump. But inside it is actually quite pleasant, in a 1950s time warp sort of way. You order at a counter, and joke around with the staff if you get there before the lines form, but form they will, especially after 11:00 am.
LM consistently ranks in the top 5 joints in the state for good reason: it’s fantastic. More of a polished operation than Smitty’s or Snow’s, it’s every bit their equal when it comes to top quality ‘cue.
There was plenty to love about everything at Louie Mueller (their jalapeno barbecue sauce was the best of the trip) and if I had to pick a single barbecue restaurant to eat in for the rest of my days, this would probably be it.
Man does not live by barbecue alone, of course, so we took off after Mueller for a side trip through the Texas Hill Country (beautiful) to the charming town of Fredericksburg. Aside from checking out the National Museum of the Pacific War, we didn’t spend a lot of time there, but it was quite a bit larger than we expected, and a genuine destination in its own right, teeming with galleries, shops, restaurants and wine bars. In some ways, it reminded me of downtown Nantucket, minus the ocean, the boats, the cobblestones, and the seafood. Nantucket in the middle of Texas? Who knew?
Culture can only sustain you for so long, so soon enough, back to barbecue hunting we were. And by “barbecue hunting” I mean it was time to hit Austin, and see what the city slickers were up to.
Micklethwait Craft Meats doesn’t look like a citified operation — it being nothing more than a barrel smoker and a trailer in a parking lot. As with Franklin’s (its competition down the street), the line forms early. Unlike Franklin’s (which has gotten the whole Anthony Bourdain/Jon Favreau treatment), the line is manageable. In our case we got there right when it opened, and as with Snow’s, it took us about 40 minutes to get our plate of grub.
And what a plate it was: wonderful poppy seed slaw, first rate pinto beans, ribs, brisket and sausage that were all stellar.
About the only disappointment at Micklethwait was the pulled pork — it being mushy, poorly-pulled and bland. Word to the wise: When you want a pulled pork sandwich in Texas, head to the Carolinas.
There were no disappointments at our final stop, however.
Everything was just about perfect at Freedmen’s. The service was fast (it’s more of a sit-down restaurant), the food came quick (but was obviously sliced to order), and they were playing old 60s rock instead of one gawdawful Willie Nelson tune after another. It describes itself as a laid back lounge and beer garden serving barbecue and retro-inspired cocktails, and that about sums it up. We didn’t partake of any libations, but the bar looked serious. The ‘cue (pictured above) took a backseat to none of our previous six places, and the ribs might’ve been the best overall for pure, sweet-smoked porkiness. (If they’re not the best, they’re a close second to Louie Mueller.) Freedmen’s even smokes their banana pudding here. How smoky-cool is that?
The trouble with eating great barbecue (or great anything for that matter), is that it spoils you for anything else. Smoked meat is a tradition in Central Texas. It’s a tradition that has morphed into a secular religion, in part because so many people want to worship at the altar of artisanal foods, made by dedicated craftsmen, that respects the ingredient, the process and the history of what is being served. (Part of the resurgent popularity, no doubt, is the price. It’s something of a miracle that $30 gets two people a mountain of food at any of these places.)
If three days of ‘cue immersion taught me one thing it’s that it’s impossible to make barbecue this good — whether you’re in Los Angles or Long Island — unless you respect and learn from the traditions that made it great. Austin’s young guns are doing this. Would that other barbecue restaurants in America would try to as well.
Best pork ribs – Louie Mueller; Runner up – Freedmen’s
Best brisket – Snow’s; Runner up – Louie Mueller
Best sausage – Micklethwait Craft Meats; Runner up (tie) – Kreuz and Snow’s
Best beef ribs – Black’s
Best sandwich – Brisket at Louie Mueller
Best slaw – Micklethwait Craft Meats
Best pie – Micklethwait Craft Meats’ pecan pie
Best pudding – Smoked banana pudding at Freedmen’s
Best cobbler – Peach at Louie Mueller
Best sauce (tie) – Jalapeno at Louie Mueller and house-made at Micklethwait
Best smokehouse – Smitty’s
Best restaurant atmosphere – Black’s
Best music – Freedmen’s
Best line to wait in – Snow’s
Best breakfast drive – From Lexington (Snow’s) to Taylor (Louie Mueller)
Best guy to get pre-trip Texas barbecue advice from – Jeff Meeker
Best guy to wait in line behind – Daniel Vaughn
Best person to take on a Texas ‘cue quest for his 32nd birthday – Hugh Alexander Curtas