Texas ‘Cue Quest – Part 2

(The pit at Smitty’s)

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.

https://ricksamericancafe.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/055.jpg(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.

(Please sir, may I have some more?)
 For the record, the sausage was stellar as well, and it wasn’t until we  got to Snow’s the next day that we ate a brisket as gorgeous as the one at Black’s.  We were also nuts about the mac-n-cheese and that ginormous dill pickle….although in the interest of maintaining our full hunger capacity we left most of them barely touched on the plate.

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.

(Yes, they burn the wood right on the floor. You gotta problem with that?)

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.

(The apotheosis of beef meats pork at Smitty’s)
 And then there was Kreuz Market. It’s as big as a barn (actually several barns), and seats hundreds in its several dining rooms. You do the same order-in-the-smoke-room thing here, but then you repair to one of its feed halls to eat. What shows up on the plate would, no doubt, be the best damn barbecue in 46 States in the Union. In fact, if we had tried it first we might’ve thought more highly of it. Unfortunately, the competition pretty stiff (another understatement) in these here parts, and its stringing, tepid brisket didn’t meet the challenge. And no matter what the owners say, it could’ve used some sauce. (Kreuz is famous for stubbornly maintaining, since 1900, that its brisket is so good it needs no sauce. It needs a sauce.)

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.

(Look Ma, no forks!)
Kreuz  (pronounced ‘Krites”) may have become too big for its Texas britches. It’s been world famous for over half a century, and does a bang up mail-order business. From the size of everything, you can tell it’s a very big operation that moves mountains of meat. But as the godfather of Texas barbecue, we expected the brisket to knock us out of the saddle, and it didn’t.

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.)

Texas ‘Cue Quest – Part 1

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!

Texas is also one the few states in America that gets both hurricanes AND tornadoes. Big ones. I rest my case.

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)



Odds, Ends and Veal Parmigiana

(No one can beat Enzo’s meat)

A few things as we head into the stretch run of this holiday season:

1) O-Face Doughnuts announced it’s closing at the end of the month, leading our staff to ask: If downtown can’t support a freaking doughnut shop, what gastronomic chances does it have? Answer: We haven’t a clue. Every time we were in O-Face (and that was dozens of times) it always seemed to have customers. Not wrapping-around-the-block numbers mind you, but a fair amount of folks ready to make their own O-face after biting into the pastries. Were they the best doughnuts we’ve ever had? No, but they were a damn sight better than any others in town. And the coffee was superb. Pity all around, and a real head-scratcher when it comes to predicting what, if anything, this signals for the future of downtown dining. Speaking of which…

2) The Smashed Pig is now open, on East Fremont Street, right across from the failed experiment that was Radio City Pizza. It’s another Downtown Project-funded operation, but initial visits have been very positive, with chef/owner Martin Smith firmly in control of a tight, controlled menu of the English pub food he has in his veins. Don’t miss his fish and chips:

…served with superior mushy peas, or his steak and ale pie, or the sticky toffee pudding:


The burger and beers are also top notch, and only the noise level gives us pause. (Tip: eat at the bar if you want to hear yourself think.) All and all though, TSP is a flat out winner, and a nice addition to your downtown dining options. Eating Las Vegas loves restaurants that are so much better than they have to be.

Continue reading “Odds, Ends and Veal Parmigiana”