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
To master anything, you start with the fundamentals. Texas barbecue is no different. Anyone who thinks that they can grab a brisket sandwich at Pecan Lodge in Dallas or Franklin’s in Austin and know what all the shoutin’s about has charcoal for brains.
The fundamentals of Texas ‘cue start with kickin’ it old school. And it doesn’t get anymore old school than in the tiny farming town of Lockhart, the Official Capital of Texas Barbecue, where German butcher shops started making and smoking sausage to preserve it over 150 years ago.
Lockhart is an easy, 30 minute drive from the Austin airport. There’s not much to see en route — the landscape is fertile but depressingly flat — and about the only thing to get excited about is the big barn-looking Kreuz Market that looms on your right as you enter the town. The other thing to get excited about are its two competitors — Black’s and Smitty’s Market — each located at opposite ends of the quaint town square.
(Caldwell County ‘cue HQ)
The proximity of these three icons of smoked meat to each other — you can walk between Smitty’s and Black’s, and Kreuz is a two minute drive from either of them — makes for quite the ‘cue consumption conundrum: Where do we start? How much do we eat? What if we love one so much we don’t want to leave?
The answers of course are: It doesn’t matter, one order of anything will serve two (and go easy on the sides), and force yourself to move on (you won’t regret it). It will take a Herculean effort, but put your knife down (no forks at Smitty’s and Kreuz, more on this later), no matter how much you’d like to slather your face with all this deliciousness.
You order by the pound, and we found that a few slices of brisket, a couple of pork spareribs, and a single link of sausage were enough to get a taste of each pitmaster’s artistry.
Of course, all of this careful planning went out the window as soon as we saw the sign that said “Giant Beef Ribs” at Black’s.
“Giant,” as you can see, being an understatement. These were huge. 24 ounces of spoon-tender, juicy, smokey beef with a bark so sweet, black and peppery it could be sold as meat candy.
One was more than enough for two. Hell, one of these puppies could feed a family of four. It was the single biggest piece of food I have ever seen on a plate in front of me, and one of the singularly most delicious pieces of meat that has ever defeated me.
The beauty and the wonder of a something this dense being cooked this long and remaining this moist and baby-food soft is a mystery only the Black family has solved. Indeed, we didn’t see “giant beef rib” on any other menu of the other six places we visited on our ‘cue quest.
About the only thing at Black’s we found lacking was the sauce — it being slightly thin, standard issue stuff — but the meat was so amazing we quickly forgot about it.
Black’s is more conventional than its two neighbors in downtown Lockhart. Ordering of sides is done on a cafeteria line that leads you to the meat ordering station where you choose how much, per pound or slice, you want of the meat. Instead of the butcher paper that most joints use, here you get the real plastic plates and utensils. It may not be as authentically “old school” in appearance as Smitty’s, but its brisket beats theirs by a country mile.
Speaking of bona fides, it’s those antiquated, authentic details that separate Texas barbecue from many other pretenders. All of your meat is sliced to order, and to a place, every person taking your order lets you be as particular as you want, whether you want fatty brisket or lean (or a combo), or a thin slice of this or two thick helpings of that. Nothing looks or tastes like it’s been sitting around in a steamer tray for hours (because it hasn’t), and the intensity of the meat, the bark and the seasonings is front and center with every bite. Bites that are worth traveling across the country for, by the way.
Something else worth traveling to see are the pits themselves. The one’s at Black’s are tucked in the back but at Smitty’s (pictured above), and Kreuz, they are front and center in the room where you do your ordering. So front and center, in fact, that your clothes will smell like smoke for hours afterwards.
Calling Smitty’s old school is like calling that rib a little beefy. It’s housed in a structure built in 1924, untouched by modernity and covered in a layer of fatty soot and meat smoke that’s been a century in the making.
You walk down an long hallway lined with benches where the trenchermen of years past would sit eating their lunches of smoked meat, taken right from the butcher shop on paper, and sliced and stabbed with knives hanging on chains from these walls:
These days, things are slightly more modern (there’s a dining room to chow down in that’s straight from the 1940’s, replete with wobbly benches and a soda fountain), but you still go into the smoke room to order and see your meat sliced.
Smitty’s is a trip, literally a trip back in time. Unfortunately, its brisket didn’t hold a candle to Black’s — it being on the dry side and without the seasoning or smoke of its rival. What saved Smitty’s for us was the vibe, and the kick ass sausages — loaded with black pepper and steaming with fat and snap — they were a beef/pork blend of uncommon toothsomeness, and, my favorite “hot guts” of the trip.
On the plus side, the smoked prime rib (the pinkish meat below) was ethereally good (attaining an almost cured-ham-like texture while maintaining its beefy integrity), and the sausages were the stuff smoked sausage dreams are made of.
At least we had The National Beer of Texas on hand to help us wash away our disappointment:
“This is not beer,” we remarked to The Official Number Two Son of ELV after a sip of this lightly carbonated, water-based beverage, “it is the idea of beer.”
“You’re right, Dad,” he countered, “but it goes perfectly with this food.”
And so it did, and so it does. As we were about to find out the next morning, when we traveled to the Texas hinterlands in search of the best barbecue breakfast on earth.
(This is the second part of a three part article on ELV’s recent trip to Texas.)
Never cared much for Texas. Never will. Too many cowboys, too many myths, too many guns and too much country music. Too many Republicans, too.
The weather ain’t all that great either. If the floods don’t get ya, the humidity will. The eastern part of the state is as damp as a sweatback hog on a July afternoon, and the western hills are drier than a Comanche’s sense of humor.
Whatever you expect the weather to be, it’s not. You want cool, football weather in the fall? Try enjoying yourself in 90 degree sunshine while watching the Aggies slug it out with the East Jesus State Teachers College in a 67-0 nailbiter. Want some warmth in early Summer? Good luck with that. I once froze my windblown ass off in El Paso….in June.
I also spent the longest summer of my life one week in Houston — where I sweated through seven days of clothing in three, while taking at least that many daily showers. (Houston is the only city in America where you can walk out the front door, shaved, showered and crisply attired, and still feel like you need to wash up (and change clothes) again AFTER SIMPLY WALKING TO YOUR CAR!
Yep, pardner, there’s a lot to dislike about Texas. Everything is bigger there, including their egos and their disasters…but they sure can rustle up a plate of good grub.
From the tacos of El Paso to enormous steaks of Armarillo to the fried shrimp of Galveston, Texans know how to eat. San Antonio pretty much invented the Tex-Mex cuisine that conquered America, and Dallas is no slouch either when it comes to everything from steakhouses to sophisticated dining. Their state beer (the “I can’t believe it isn’t water” Lone Star) may be crap in a can, but Shiner Bock is the real deal. Amazingly, there’s also a budding wine industry here, and it’s getting good reviews!
Steaks, wine, sophistication, it’s all good (or getting better) in the Lone Star State, but what Texas is most famous for is barbecue. Barbecue beef brisket to be precise, and big, thick, natural-casing beef sausages (usually containing some pork) to be even more precise. They also do a fair amount of slow-cooked pig as well (that we’ll get to that in parts 2 & 3), but beef is king here, and the brisket is legendary, so off to Austin we were.
Our plan was simple: land, rent a car, head to Lockhart, and start eating all the smoked meat in sight. Lockhart is only a half hour drive from the Austin airport, and within an hour of touching down, we were chowing down in the Official Barbecue Capital of Texas. (pictured above)
The legend goes that all of these smokehouses began as butcher shops begun by German immigrants who settled in the area back in the mid-19th Century. Sausage making is a natural by-product of cattle and pig slaughtering (and the best way to sell all of the tidbits left on the chopping block), and smoking these nasty bits was the fastest way to preserve the meat in the days before refrigeration. Then and now, these fresh-made, farm sausages are minimally seasoned and loosely packed, sometimes very loosely packed:
…not the fine, dense samples you find in central Europe, where long curing and various spicing develops an entirely different product.
Having toured all the major barbecue micro-climates of America (the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas City, Houston) over the past forty years, we were anxious to see what all of recent shouting was about. It seemed like Texas barbecue was suddenly getting more of its share of publicity, and it was more than a little puzzling how a form of cooking that is hundreds of years old, was suddenly a “thing.”
Back in the day (and by “back in the day” I mean the 20th Century and the first ten years of this one), you went barbecue hunting with only your nose as a guide. If you were lucky you had a an address or a scrap of newspaper (or a weather-beaten magazine article) in your pocket, and the best you could hope for was to find a local and ask for directions — directions that were always of the “go down ’bout two miles an look fer the Pete’s Garage sign and take a left” variety. But mostly you just drove around until you saw the cars and smelled the smoke. Your nose told you you were pointed in the right direction, and the cars (always a mix of everything from beat-up pickups to brand new Mercedes), let you know you’d found the real deal.
Then, as Texas Monthly has noted, a “tectonic shift” in barbecue occurred — a shift, it should be noted, that coincided with the rise of social media and the economic recession. Seismic events that led to everyone seeking out cheaper eats, and lots of out-of-work young chefs to look for inexpensive ways to feed them. These days, everyone’s an expert. Google “Texas barbecue” and get ready for an information overload. There are barbecue trail maps, learned academic essays, and more blogs than you can shake a hickory stick at.
Part of this can be ascribed to the rise of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and part of it is what I call the “ramen renaissance” in vox populi punditry. Put them together and you have a vortex of strongly-held opinions, based upon cheap food that can be consumed willy-nilly, and then critiqued with all of the imperiousness of a true connoisseur. Thus, in the last five years have we seen the hoi polloi expounding on everything from tonkotsu ramen to cupcakes. For the price of a plate lunch ($10-$20) you can do the same with brisket, ribs and sausages to your heart’s content. And sometimes, it seems, that’s what everyone in Texas has done.
But we wanted to dive a little deeper, to use the current cliche, and see what makes this old-fashioned cuisine so popular, and of-the-moment. And to do that we started where it’s been going on for the longest, a quaint little town in Central Texas that fairly reeks of smoke and soot of the most delicious kind. Stay tuned this week and next for the savory details of our meat-fest in Lockhart, and our subsequent tour of four other barbecue icons — both old and new — all in and around the Texas capital.
(This is the first of a three-part article on ELV’s recent trip to Texas)