In Search of Texas BBQ

11/26/2014

Winter 2014/2015

Does driving around Texas for an entire day with the sole purpose of hitting some of its best barbecue joints sound like just about the best time ever? Of course. Is it wise? I’m about to find out. 

 

They’re not lying when they say everything is bigger in Texas, including, most prominently, Texas. It’s enormous. And while I love the idea of tearing around the entire state at speed, my WRX turbo whirring in search of delicious smoked meats, determining a reasonable limit on time and distance was going to be necessary. Plus, I tend to get hungry quickly. 

AN AUSTIN STATE OF MIND

Dallas and Houston are two of the three largest cities in Texas. They both have amazing BBQ, and I’m not going to either city. Today I start in Austin, the perfect launching point for my BBQ quest. I arrive the night before, treat myself to some bourbon and blues on 6th Street, and get some rest at the very classic, very Texas Driskill Hotel, where the longhorn mounted over the fireplace in the bar reminds me unmistakably of where I am. 

The next morning I wake up early and skip Austin’s famous breakfast tacos – today, breakfast will be brisket. 

You may have heard of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, the current darling of educated and determined BBQ eaters the world over. I’m not going there either. If you want Franklin, that is your entire day – waiting, moving inches at a time, waiting some more, moving, repeat. Of course, I want Franklin, but I also want to cover BBQ ground quickly. I’ve got work to do. 

I hop back in my WRX and burn up U.S. Route 290 to FM (Farm-to-Market) Road 973. There are definitely farms; there are far fewer markets. Once you get a bit outside town, whatever town it may be, Texas roads are hellaciously fun because, other than the odd dually pickup here and there, they’re 100 percent yours and relaxing to drive.

THE SALT LICK

Back into the car. Headed southwest now. I cut through Round Rock, catch a long glimpse of the shiny Austin skyline to my left, and admire some abnormally lush golf courses. (In case you didn’t know, it’s hot and dry in Texas – how do they do that?!) Eventually, the road opens into an area that’s a bit more barren, save for the expansive parking lot of The Salt Lick in Driftwood. 

Texas has hundreds of barbecue joints; this may be its only barbecue COMPOUND. It’s huge – encircled by stone-and-wood fences, there are picnic tables everywhere, and open pits covered in meat – a true meat-lover’s buffet. 

Looking at the menu, the only reasonable move is the unlimited $21.95 family-style meal – except today, the family is just me. It’s around noon, and I survey my haul: brisket, pork ribs that couldn’t be more different (and also more manageable) than Mueller’s beef behemoths, sausage, plus potato salad, coleslaw, and beans (which I largely ignore). 

While The Salt Lick may not currently be considered by some Texas purists to be in the upper echelon of the state’s BBQ biggies, it’s definitely an experience like no other, and – again – THEY NEVER STOP BRINGING YOU FOOD. I drop my cash-only payment on the table and sneak out before they realize my plate’s empty and try to give me more. I’m feeling ... decent. 

KREUZ MARKET

As the meal sets in and I inch toward full, I drive southeast toward Lockhart. I take the scenic route through a few tiny towns, trusting that the navigation system will put me right back on course when I summon it. Old churches. Tiny lakes. Sleepy weekend neighborhoods. More of those duallies. It’s a uniquely American kind of beauty. 

The brisket was amazing that day. The man making that meat and the rest – pork spareribs and even a pork chop, not something even the most intrepid barbecue hunter will see all that much – is Roy Perez, and his muttonchops would shame Civil War generals.

He’s also got rules, and they’re outlined very clearly: no sauce, no forks (“They are at the end of your arm”), and no salads – it’s like my mission was sensed when that last one was penned. Luckily I don’t need any of them: The food’s perfect, and my hands can be cleaned on the way out, when I strongly consider picking up a box of 25 jalapeno cheese sausage links to go, then remember exactly what I’ve done today. And more importantly, what’s left: even more BBQ.

TWO BROS. BBQ MARKET

Nearing dinnertime despite having had three meals that could last most men for days, it’s back into the car. San Antonio is just a little more than an hour away. Driving down Interstate 35 and into town, I realize it’s pretty silly to call this place a town – at 1.3 million people, it’s the seventh-largest city in our country. The skyline gets larger, the eternal weirdness of Austin and the nothingness of the side roads get smaller in my memory, and I realize this is how all driven pilgrimages should be: seeing it all. 

And, of course, eating even more. 

Two Bros. BBQ Market is a little different from the rest of the spots I’ve hit. Most importantly, it’s new (circa 2009), but, thanks to picnic tables inside, plenty of corrugated aluminum, and a huge train-engine-looking smoker out back, it’s still as Texas as you’d ever want. 

As just-watched-enough children play on a playground in the middle of it all, I enjoy my cherry-glazed baby backs and some pork butt, plus a Shiner beer I’ve allowed myself, now that the gastronomical journey is through. 

MAKE THAT “TO GO”

Hitting four classic barbecue temples in a single day was ambitious, and my waistline proves it. But who cares. I feel like I really DID something today. Looking down at my sticky, saucy fingers, I realize I’m probably going to have to get the car detailed pretty soon. 

FROM AUSTIN TO SAN ANTONIO: FUN SIGHTS ALONG THE WAY

It’s only a quick, 75-minute drive from wonderfully weird Austin to the Alamo City, but be sure to take time out from your BBQuest to enjoy these fun stops along the way. 

Want to follow in our footsteps? Download our Google™ Map to your smartphone to guide you on your way.

Run Away and Join the Circuit

Visit the Circuit of The Americas™ to see how the pros drive when they get hungry. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the X Games, you might see Subaru Rally Team USA in action. 

Savor the Classics

About halfway between Austin and San Antonio is the city of San Marcos, home to Dick’s Classic Garage, a museum dedicated to celebrating cars from the first half of the 20th century. Their rotating exhibit features dozens of beautiful and historic automobiles, including the last of only 51 complete Tucker Torpedoes to roll off the line from that ill-fated manufacturer – still never driven – and the only one on public display in the state of Texas.

Walk, Don’t Run

San Antonio’s River Walk seems like something of a miracle when you first step down into it out of the Texas sun. Ten feet below street level in the center of this bustling, modern city you’ll discover this popular  tourist attraction: the San Antonio River Walk. This bucolic stretch of the San Antonio River is bedecked with flowering trees and gardens, and lined with an assortment of fun bars, restaurants with shady alfresco dining options, and interesting shops. Be sure to take the entertaining boat tour. You will wonder which was stranger: that the local Conservation Society decided that the best way to save the River Walk was by putting on an impassioned puppet show for the city commissioners, or that it was successful. Only in Texas.

Touch History

Say, remember the Alamo? Well, it’s right in the heart of San Antonio (figuratively and literally) and a visit here is one that you’ll not soon forget. The former Roman Catholic mission, now a shrine to the soldiers who perished defending it against the Mexican army in the famous Battle of the Alamo in 1836, remains a beloved symbol of the indomitability of the Texas spirit. 

Get Your Cultural Thrill On

Mere steps from the River Walk and the Alamo lies HemisFair Park and the Institute of Texan Cultures, a wonderfully entertaining museum dedicated to celebrating the vibrant culture and surprising diversity of the Lone Star State. With more than 65,000 square feet of exhibits, there really is something here for everyone, with hands-on activities for kids. Allow for at least a four-hour visit – or longer – if you want to give the museum its due. 

BBQ AROUND THE COUNTRY

No food inspires regional rivalries quite like barbecue. Proponents of the amazingly specific styles of prepping and smoking pork and beef that have developed over the decades wage a unique battle: never quite at war with each other, but also never believing that any approach other than theirs is the best. 

Because we want to make you extremely hungry, let’s take a look at some of the non-Texas meat destinations you must hit so you can try them all and decide for yourself. Our rundown ranges from century-old classics intractably rooted in tradition to some upstarts interestingly twisting, while simultaneously respecting, the precepts set forth by pit masters the country over. Make sure you’ve got some Wet-Nap® towelettes. 

Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Hemingway, South Carolina

After 42 years in business, Scott’s looks like it’s about to fall down, like any good barbecue shack should. You’ll probably trip over yourself after you take down a pit-cooked BBQ hog – call ahead to make sure they’ll have one ready for your party.

Oh, and bring a party; it’s a lot of food. If your friends are foolish and do not want to eat a pit-cooked BBQ hog, Scott’s still has you covered with half- or full-pound plates of pulled pork. The slow-cooked chicken is spectacular, too. But these are the Carolinas – it’s all about the pork. 

Oklahoma Joe's Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, Missouri

If you’ve never had burnt ends, you have to get the burnt ends. If you HAVE had the burnt ends, you already know that you’re getting the burnt ends again. If they’re available, that is: The charred flavor firecrackers of brisket ends are limited, and they always go quickly. 

The pork ribs at the outpost that’s actually inside a gas station in Kansas City are also a must. (The location was devised when Oklahoma Joe’s competition BBQ team realized it needed a permanent home.) And the Z-Man brisket sandwich, which comes topped with provolone and onion rings, is as unconventional as it is delicious. 

Ducks Eatery, East Village, New York City, New York

Get the goat neck. Repeat: Get the goat neck! Unless you’re there on Tuesday night, the only night of the week the funky, decidedly unconventional East Village ’cue kings serve their aged brisket sandwich with ricotta. In which case, get that AND the goat neck. 

It’s done up with yellow curry, fish sauce, and brown sugar and is served for two, although you’d better hope the other person isn’t that hungry. Other must-gets: the crispy pig ears with hot sauce and the giant hickory-smoked jerk chicken wings. 

Payne’s Bar-B-Que, Memphis, Tennessee

With everything everywhere pulled, nobody talks about chopped pork. But they sure do at Payne’s, where light and darker hog meat mingle with pickle/mustard seed sweet slaw on a simple bun. The place also is perfectly simple: The family behind the joint itself spends so much time making you not-hungry that it doesn’t bother with non-meat stuff like creating a navigable website. 

Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, Decatur, Alabama

Pork and beef are deservedly the darlings of cue-kings around the country, but sometimes, someone’s gotta focus on chicken. Big Bob’s is more than happy to stand up and be that someone, and their whole chicken with white sauce run through with horseradish and mayo is nothing short of a smoked revelation. 

Podnah’s Pit Barbecue, Portland, Oregon

With all the BBQ joints that specialize in something or other – and lord knows they’re plentiful and beautiful and necessary – it’s nice to hit one where you’re basically doing yourself a disservice if you don’t eat every single thing on the menu. Enter the Pitboss from Podnah’s: pulled pork, ribs, sausage, brisket, corn bread, and two sides, neither of which, thankfully, is more pulled pork, ribs, sausage, or brisket. If there’s any city better than Portland at faithfully co-opting fantastic cuisine from around the country, and even the world, I haven’t been there. 

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Syracuse, New York

Do you own a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle? If you answered yes, you already know about Dino and are possibly even there right at this very minute. If you answered no, don’t worry: You’re still allowed in. 

This venerable upstate New York biker haunt has been building its legend since 1988 as a place where the service is the right kind of abrasively friendly, and the food is terribly unfriendly to your waistline. It’s also another place where the sampler is a must – grab the Tres Niños with pulled pork, brisket, and some sticky-icky-icky ribs. 

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE …

by Andrea Poe

When you bite into Texas barbecue, you are tasting the primal heart of the American frontier. 

“There’s an attraction embedded deep in our DNA, our souls, to cook over fire,” chef David Guas, host of the Travel Channel’s “American Grilled,” said emphatically.

Growing up in neighboring Louisiana, Guas was weaned on the Lone Star State’s barbecue. “Beef is king in Texas,” he said. “The pride of generations that have come before, of the Texas culture, is embedded in the flavor.” 

Right now the barbecue scene in Texas is red hot. Staking out new turf in this competitive scene is hard to do. Maintaining it is even harder.

Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, is one of the few who has longevity on his side.

“This little chapel of barbecue has become an institution and my job is to ensure that it continues long beyond me,” he said with a gravity that anchored his voice. 

Although Mueller was “born into barbecue,” after high school he jetted out of the tiny town of Taylor and opened a sports marketing business far from the snarling flames of the pits.

“I never thought I’d go back, but the longer I stayed away the more fundamental questions of self, of identity, emerged,” he said.

By 2006, he took over where his father left off just as his father had done with his own father years before. 

“I am humbled by our customers. When people come here, it’s a pilgrimage,” Wayne said. “I’m convinced that it’s more spiritual than corporeal. They will endure long drives and horrible heat to be here, to take part in this.”

By the time Wayne Mueller took the reins, Louie Mueller’s had garnered a Texas-sized reputation for some of the country’s finest barbecue, earning a James Beard America’s Classic award in the process. “The way I see it my job is not to screw it up,” he laughed.

Louie Mueller’s Barbecue began as a country grocery shop. To extend the life of meat that didn’t sell, Mueller’s grandfather started barbecuing. Although the big-box stores drove the grocery store to its death, the barbecue business blossomed.

The restaurant is still in the original 1906 grocery building. “Sometimes I feel more like a museum curator than a restaurant owner,” he said. “We even use the same cutting board that we have for 100 years. The counters haven’t changed.” 

A century of near constant smoke from the pits has tinted the formerly teal walls mellow amber.

There are four heaving indoor pits, including the 1946 original made from plate steel his grandfather secured from a decommissioned naval vessel after World War II. In the depth of summer when the flames from the pits lash out temperatures can soar to 120 degrees, but Mueller has resisted installing air conditioning. “I cool it down the way we always have. I open the windows,” he said. 

Louie Mueller’s time-honored rub recipe has not changed: 9/10 pepper and 1/10 iodized salt. Easy, right? Not so much. “The flavor is all in the process,” he shared. 

That brings us to Mueller’s one concession to modernity: the addition of new 21st-century pits, including a horizontal system where a firebox on one end sends the heat scooting along the 18-foot chamber like a river. 

“Good barbecue comes down to understanding and respecting heat,” he said. “You don’t want to move the meat around much.”

To keep the heat stoked, Louie Mueller relies on post oak, a tree so ubiquitous in Texas it’s nearly considered a weed, to flame the pits. “Just the way that different soil lends a slightly different flavor to grapes depending where a vineyard is located, the same is true for trees. It may be subtle, but the flavor profile is different in Texas post oak,” he maintained. 

Post oak has been used for Louie Mueller barbecue since the beginning. And one of Mueller’s wood suppliers is an 82-year-old who has been making deliveries for decades. 

The legacy factor also looms large for Keith Schmidt, owner of Kreuz Market, who followed two generations of his family’s stewardship and two of the original Kreuz family.

Although Schmidt got a master’s degree in marine biology and left dusty Lockhart, Texas, to work in a scientific lab, barbecue lured him back when his father retired. “I never thought I’d come back, but I couldn’t let this place be sold,” he explained.

“Barbecue is a cult,” Schmidt said. “This is about way more than food. This is about family, culture, and tradition. We have been operating for 114 years. Children who came in with their grandparents are now grandparents themselves.” 

One customer, a 96-year-old man, still sidles up daily for a slice of beef that he pairs with pickles and onions. Every single day.

Several years ago, the restaurant moved from its original 1924 location. “It was a big old dungeon before. This space has given some heat relief to employees and customers,” Schmidt said of the new ventilated setup. 

What hasn’t changed is the rub, which has remained the same for more than a hundred years: salt, coarse ground pepper and a dash of cayenne. “It would be a sacrilege to change it. It’d be like new Coke®. A failure,” he maintained.

Kreuz Market shares many traits with Louie Mueller. It also began life as a grocery. It too sources local beef. And it claims post oak as its wood of choice. However, where it differs is in process. Unlike at Louie Mueller’s, where moving meat is all but verboten, at Kreuz, meat in motion takes on a downright acrobatic flair with multiple pits vying for the pit master’s attention. 

Roy Perez, the primary pit master, has been taming the flames since 1987. An Elvis fan, who sports ’70s-style muttonchops sideburns, is the inspiration behind Kreuz Market’s beloved Love Meat Tender T-shirt. 

 

Low and slow may be the mantra at other barbecue joints, but not at Kreuz Market, where the meat cooks quickly, sizzling and snapping over a blazing hot fire that Perez can coax upward of 600 degrees.

Perez is one more symbol that consistency is what takes smoky blackened slabs of flesh and catapults them into legendary heavyweight status, the finest of Texas barbecue.

“This place is bigger than me,” Schmidt said. “My job is to ensure that long after I’m gone, the barbecue lives on.”