You Can’t Beat This Meat – MABEL’S and SIN CITY SMOKERS

(A man and his rib)

Las Vegas is where barbecue goes to die.

If I’ve said these words once, I’ve said them a thousand times.

Great ‘cue has come and gone over the years. From Struttin’ Gates to Paul Kirk’s R.U.B. to Salt Lick to Little Joe’s at Plant World (remember him?), all the good ones barely make it two years in Vegas before picking up stakes and heading back where they came from. (Kansas City, Kansas City, and Driftwood, Texas if you’re interested.) As far as we know, Little Joe departed for that great red neck smoker in the sky years ago.

Because of the failures of actual, pit-cooked, smokehouse barbecue, the real, smokey deal has been harder to find around here than a pork chop in an ashram.

And because mediocrity in all forms sells in these here parts (Guy Fieri, Giada, Donny and Marie…) set-it-and-forget-it has become the watchword of all of our barbecue restaurants. Why bother trying to do something good, the thinking goes, if your customers can’t tell the difference?

But things they be a’changin’. First out Green Valley way with Sin City Smokers, and more recently with Michael Symon’s Mabel’s.

Steve Overlay’s Sin City Smokers has been around for a while, and the only thing I can find wrong with it is that it’s too far from my house. His ultra-long smoke times produce a beautiful bark, and spoon-tender brisket ($9) that is dense and moist — whether you’re biting into a lean or fatty cut. No mean feat that.

Speaking of brisket, Valley Cheese and Wine proprietor Bob Howald sprinkled the finishing salt you see on the cuts above. He told me he always does it with brisket and he was right: the little flakes of sodium chloride really bring out the beefiness (and smoke) in the meat. Try it sometime.

Symon (pictured at the top of the page) is a well-known celebrity chef from Cleveland. (Full disclosure: I once judged him on an episode of Iron Chef America. He won, if memory serves.) As a Greek-Sicilian, you might presume that he has as much business doing barbecue as dim sum, but like all accomplished chefs (and Overlay, for that matter, who also did some serious work in professional kitchens), when he sets his mind to cooking something, he does it right.

And I’m here to tell you: Mabel’s has got it right.

The brisket is straight outta Austin. More particularly, I’d hold it up to the stuff being done around Lexington, Texas like Snow’s or Louis Mueller). As good as the brisket is, it is the brontosaurian beef rib — straight from Black’s in Lockhart — that will get your attention.

Keeping the Texas vernacular going, Symon’s hot links have that snap, bite and serious heat you rarely find outside of the Lone Star State.

More Carolina-like is his spicy pulled pork sandwich ($14), a thing of beauty in its own right:

(Spicy pulled pork)

And then there is that beef rib ($50). Coated with “pastrami spices”, it is 2+ pounds of pure, unadulterated beefy bliss. According to the menu, it’s enough for 2+ hungry adults. Realistically, it’ll feed four.

Of course, the disclaimer didn’t dissuade yours truly from tearing into one all by his lonesome:

(I enjoy eating things as big as my head)

When I got done with it, there was plenty more on the platter to tackle, including some righteous ribs, truly sour kraut, house made pickles, and cheddar-jalapeno hot links that take no prisoners.

Put it all together and you have the most complete barbecue restaurant to come to town since Salt Lick threw in the towel ten years ago at the Red Rock Resort.

About the only thing I’m not wild about at Mabel’s are the sauces. Three are offered: Cleveland Mustard, Sweet and Sour, and Green Chile. They’re plenty tasty (especially the mustard), but have a guar gum-my thick stickiness to them which imparts a cheap mouthfeel and  impedes their flow from the bottle. Better, if less complex, are the house-made sweet, or sweetly-spicy stuff Overlay is pouring at Sin City:

(Why are these pigs smiling?)

As for sides, I barely pay attention when the meat is this good, but Mabel’s does a killer poppyseed slaw and Sin City does a super-filling “Five cheese smack-a-roni” of uncommon cheesiness.

Desserts at both are minimal and forgettable, but who cares when things are this smokin’?

For years, I’ve told anyone who’ll listen to avoid the beef in our barbecue joints. (I’ve eaten so much lousy, tough, dry, stringy ‘cue in this town, I’ve taken to making my own a few times a year.)

Sin City and Mabel’s are the first places in a long time where I can firmly and happily advise to park the pork and bring on the brisket.

Just like they do in Texas.


2861 N. Green Valley Pkwy

Henderson, NV 89014



Palms Casino and Resort





Texas ‘Cue Quest – Part 3

(Smoked meat the way it’s supposed to be, at Snow’s)

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.

(Son, there are three important things in life: family, friends, and fatty brisket)

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.

 Damnation…what a sandwich! Crusty, smoky and moist, it pulled apart with barely a nudge, and needed only a smidge of stewed onions on top (and a raw one with pickles on the bottom) to accentuate its beefiness. If ever there was a piece of brisket that didn’t need barbecue sauce, this was it. Eat your heart out, Kreuz.

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.

(Even the house-made pickle was impressed)
“It’s more chef-y than many other barbecue joints,” one of our Texas ‘cue confidants had told us. And so it was. And so was everything from the peppery bbq sauce to that pecan pie that was worth the wait all by itself. But what really stood hoof and shoulders above the other cuts was the kielbasa — a sausage of uncommon pork, beef, spice, cure and peppery compaction:
It was the sausage of the trip, and a beautiful expression of how a thoughtful chef can hew to tradition and still improve upon it.

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.

The meats:

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

The sides:

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

The incidentals:

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

(Breakfast time is the right time for a birthday beer at Snow’s)


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. 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.)