The World’s Best Barbecue is in Taylor, Texas. Or is it Lockhart?
A Cityslicker's Guide to the Pits.
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After years of scouting for the perfect barbecue behind swinging screen doors in such towns as Round Top, Elgin, Hondo, Alpine, and Pflugerville, I recently stopped by a place called the Dallas Cowboy in the improbable city of New York.
Designed by owner Clint Murchison as a fashionable setting for authentic Texas food, the Dallas Cowboy caters to an enthusiastic Madison Avenue crowd that differs from the customers of a typical small town Texas barbecue meat market in just about every way possible. Pert English waitresses offering the obligatory lunchtime martini and a choice of steaks or barbecue have replaced the aproned country carver at his chopping block. “Try their barbecue,” my conscience told me. So I did.
Barbecue, in mid-Manhattan? Anyone from the Southwest who has tried to convince a New Yorker of the merits of this regional dish has usually been met with withering scorn edged with pity for his oafish provincial palate. To the gourmet east of the Hudson, "barbecue" means three-day old dried-up shards of delicatessen roast beef which a cunning proprietor has drenched in warm catsup to disguise their rapidly-deteriorating flavor. After this mixture has been left on a steam table for a few hours, the problem of uneven texture is conveniently solved as well.
No Easterner in his right mind would eat the stuff. Many earnestly question the sanity of anyone who would. There is no telling how much damage was done to Lyndon Johnson's credibility up there by such headlines as "LBJ Greets German Chancellor with Barbecue Dinner." Probably served it with Liebfraumilch, the Eastern observer would mutter as he wandered away to the Princeton Club to ponder the impending collapse of the Atlantic Alliance.
I would like to be able to tell you that the Dallas Cowboy has cured all that; that well-intentioned Texans have finally exported the wisdom of ten generations of barbecue cooks; that the real thing can now be had even in darkest Gotham. I would like to; but I can't. Imagine, if you will, paper-thin slices of lukewarm beef piled on a sesame-seed bun, less than one-eighth of a pound in all, covered with a thick overpowering sauce reminiscent of Kraft's (which at least served to relieve the dryness of the meat), and topped with lettuce and tomato. Just like dinner from the old chuckwagon, right? Imagine too the price—$2.50 per sandwich. There is no getting around it: if you want barbecue just stay where you are. No place has better barbecue than Texas, and what we have simply doesn't travel well.
Even on its native soil, "barbecue" means different things to different people. When etymologists run out of better topics, they have been known to quarrel over whether the word derives from the Mexican term "barbacoa," meaning a frame on posts; from the French "barbe" (beard) and "queue" (tail), connoting the roasting of an entire carcass; or from some extinct Indian language. No one really knows. And until a suitable doctoral dissertation pursues the matter, it will probably remain shrouded in well-deserved mystery. What is certain, however, is that real barbecue has next to nothing to do with the little backyard grill used for charcoaling hamburgers.
The surest way to spoil good barbecue is to cook it directly over a fire. Slow heat, not flame or coals, yields the tenderest, juiciest meat. The typical commercial barbecue pit in Texas is a low, brick structure ten to twenty feet long, covered with a sheet metal lid suspended on pulleys for ease of lifting. Roasts and other large chucks of meat are placed on a grill at one end, and a wood fire is tended at the other. Convection currents aided by a fan (or prevailing winds) draw the heat and smoke across the meat. Cooling time may be as long as 24 hours, depending on the size of the fire, and seldom is less than eight hours. This technique is ideal for a cut of meat like brisket, which has enough fat to stay moist as it slowly gets tender. The process cannot be hurried.
Not every corner of Texas has good barbecue. South of San Antonio is a veritable wasteland, unless you like cabrito. Someone who had sworn to eat only creditable barbecued beef could starve between meals in West Texas, the Edwards Plateau, and the Panhandle. The strongholds of barbecue cookery are East and Central Texas, and while they employ the same basic procedures, these two regions produce remarkably different tastes.
East Texas barbecue is usually chopped instead of sliced, made from pork as often as beef, and ordinarily served on a bun. Its finest manifestations are found in restaurants operated by blacks. It is actually an extension of Southern barbecue; you can find something of the sort all across the cotton states, best in black neighborhoods, with pork gradually supplanting beef until it too gradually disappears in northern Virginia. East Texas barbecue is mercifully free from that special perversion of the Southern variety — a glop of cole slaw on top of the meat — but it is still basically a sandwich product heavy on the hot sauce. Some of these can be excellent if made-to-order; but beware of the proprietor who slices the meat in advance and lets it sit in a tray, drenched in sauce, awaiting customers. You could do as well in New York City.
West of a line running from Columbus and Hearne northward between Dallas and Fort Worth, the character of the barbecue, like the land, changes. This is Central Texas barbecue (although the name underestimates its territorial extent). It has reached its highest expression in the middle-sized prairie towns settled in the last century by Germans and other central Europeans—towns like Lockhart, Taylor, and Luling.
A staple feature of each town in the early days was the meat market, where cuts of beef were often barbecued in the back of the shop and served on red butcher paper to hungry shoppers who thronged the town on weekends. This tradition still lingers, right down to the red butcher paper, and it is not unusual to find a country barbecue place that has its fires going only on Fridays and Saturdays. (Noon is still the best time of day to find barbecue anywhere in Texas, and most places are locked and shuttered all day Sunday).
The emphasis in Central Texas is overwhelmingly on the meat itself—sauce, if available at all, is usually just a side dip. At many of the best places, sandwiches are unheard of—a situation that leaves the urbanite altogether mystified until he realizes that he can simply "roll his own" by taking a slice of the meat and wrapping a piece of bread around, or dispense with the bread altogether and eat the meat with his fingers, alternating occasionally with a slice of onion, pickle, or saltine cracker.
The etymologist who finally comes up with a satisfactory history of the word "barbecue" will have to account for such differences as these. At first blush, the East Texas chopped pork sandwich with hot sauce has little in common with the slab of Central Texas beef. Culturally and historically they are miles apart. It seems likely that they are the product of two quite different traditions, one carried eastward from the open range, the other carried westward by Southern blacks, meeting in Texas where the name of one (which one?) was fused to the other.
In any event, one plausible theory which has been offered to explain the difference between the two goes something like this: The heavily-sauced, chopped East Texas barbecue is a reflection of the fact that it was originally a Negro phenomenon, an ingenious method for rendering palatable the poorer, less-desirable cuts of meat which often were the only ones available to the poor black. Hence most of the attention was lavished on the hot sauce, whose purpose was to smother the dubious flavor of the meat which the barbecuing process had at least made tender. (Culinary experts tell us that we owe the finest continental sauces, like bearnaise, to a similar problem of semi-spoiled meat in Bourbon France).
In Central Texas, by contrast, the Saturday barbecue at the town meat market was developed by the dominant social class, who could choose from among the best cuts of meat and cooked them to emphasize their flavor. Piquant sauces had little appeal in that situation, and it is therefore not surprising that Central Texas sauces are often a rather bland incident to the large well-flavored chunks of beef enjoyed for their own sake.
Although the problem of borderline, bad-tasting meat has largely disappeared, the hot sauce itself persists in East Texas. And although many of the German meat markets have long since closed their doors as the sons and daughters of their loyal customers drifted off to the polyethylene wonderlands of Safeway and H.E.B., the "back of the market" has often endured on its own by gradually effecting a transition from Fleischwaren to restaurant. The search for these authentic survivors of the heyday of Texas barbecue (and for their few successful city imitators, which are few, but do exist) can be as rewarding to the eye as to the palate.
Judging barbecue on the basis of a typical city restaurant or a roadside café that lists it as merely one of several entrees on a Steaks-Chops-Chicken menu is foreordained to failure. It is like judging the aesthetics of a religion on the basis of its parish churches instead of its cathedrals. Go to the country and taste the real thing, then come back to the city and find the handful of places that measure up. Herewith some pointers for that enterprise:
1. Go only to a place that specializes in barbecue.
The only barbecue worth eating is cooked fresh, kept warm in the pit, and carved to order. Rapid turnover is the key. If a restaurant has a general menu, chances are that the barbecue was prepared in advance and perhaps even (God forbid) stored in the refrigerator and reheated. Your best rule of thumb is to look for a pile of wood outside and smoke coming from the pit. If everybody in the room isn't eating barbecue, you shouldn't be, either.
2. Pick the right time.
Go for lunch. Most good barbecue places close by 7, and some of the best shut down by 5:30. The choice cuts are gone well before then. Fridays and Saturdays draw the largest crowds, but the only day you should usually avoid (other than Sunday) is Monday. Since the cooking process is such a lengthy one, the meat must be in the pit before the suppliers commence their weekly rounds; in consequence, the Monday selection is often more limited—sometimes containing weekend leftovers.
3. Try to get acquainted with the carver.
Easier said than done in a city restaurant, but not very difficult in the rural places. Barbecue cuts vary widely—some are too dry, some too fatty, some not as good a grade of meat. The carvers rule their domain with as much discretion as federal judges have in their courtrooms, and preference regularly goes to the steady customer or the visitor who knows what he wants. The best-tasting barbecue always has some fat on it, so don't fall into the trap of demanding only lean. Ask the carver's advice; he'll usually give it.
4. Order by the pound whenever possible.
At most of the Central Texas places, you'll have no other choice. Don't be intimidated; even if they do make sandwiches you'll find it's better and cheaper to make your own. Policies on this will differ from town to town, however, so be prepared to play it by ear. In sandwich-oriented East Texas they may refuse to let you eat on the premises if you buy it by the pound; west of Austin, in places like Mason and Junction, they won't carve or cut a chunk in two for you, and you simply have to rummage around in their pit until you find the size piece you want—or do without. But then again, if you're tired of the standardized hamburger and the ten-piece Thrift Box, you may appreciate the fact that barbecuers represent a last stronghold of stubborn individuality in marketing.
Every barbecue buff has his own list of four-star places; the surprising thing is how often these lists overlap. My own preference is for the old-fashioned Central Texas type, with the emphasis on sliced beef rather than sausage or ribs. It's hard to find all the good barbecue in a state of 250,000 square miles, and the following recommendations make no pretense of being inclusive. But they certainly rank near the top offerings in their locality, and you could seldom go wrong at any of them.
Louie Mueller's in Taylor probably serves the best all-around barbecue dinner in Texas. Successor to a meat market which now stands on its own as a restaurant specializing only in barbecue, Louie Mueller's offers sausage, club steaks, and brisket in a big, high-ceilinged, aromatic barn of a room in downtown Taylor. Operator Fred Fountaine is one of the few outsiders in this business; he came to Texas from Rhode Island in 1946 and mastered the art as few others have done. His secret: keep the beef wrapped in paper after it's cooked; the result is an unusually moist, tender brisket that you can cut with a fork. The real glory of Fred's operation, however, is his sauce—one of the two best I've ever tasted. It's rather liquid, perfectly seasoned with an emphasis on onions, and spicier than normal for this part of the state. It complements rather than dominates the oak flavor of the meat; a perfect match.
To lift your meal into the realm of the sublime, stop beforehand and pick up a loaf or two of fresh brown Swedish rye bread at the Lone Star Bakery in Round Rock, 17 miles east of Taylor on Interstate 35. They're open Tuesday through Saturday at 106 West Liberty.
If Louie Mueller's is closed (an unlikely predicament, since Fred tends to his carving seven days a week), Zak's Place a mile or so down the Austin highway is an acceptable second choice.
For the most succulent, perfectly-seasoned beef, you can do no better than Kreuz Market in Lockhart. At the same location since 1900, Kreuz's comes closest to matching one's mental image of what an old-time barbecue place should be. If the interior has changed since the twenties, you would be hard pressed to notice it. A meat market still functions in the front, and butcher knives were chained to the dining room tables until last year. At Kreuz's forget about sauce or sandwiches—they don't have either one—and concentrate on the bewildering array of meat cuts; short ribs, prime rib, chuck, brisket, sausage, and occasionally pork. (Ask carver Johnny Frizzell for suggestions.) Your plate is an extra sheet of butcher paper; your napkin, a paper towel from beside the sink; your trimmings a pickle, an onion, some bread or crackers, and a winey Shiner beer. Not for the fastidious, but once you have tasted it you are hooked.
Almost alone among barbecue places, Kreuz's cooks its meat quickly—about four hours—and does not baste it. Instead, the meat is rubbed twenty-four hours beforehand with a mixture of salt, pepper, and spices that seal in the flavor and make the outside slices a transcendent culinary experience. Tour d'Argent could do no better. The salt mixture, incidentally, can be purchased cheaply at the meat market for home use.
The principal competitor to Kreuz's is Black's, on the opposite side of downtown Lockhart. If you insist on middle-class surroundings—formica tops instead of rough-hewn tables and benches—Black's may be your choice. Their food is good, certainly; but it nowhere approaches the glories of their crosstown neighbor.
Pity the Luling City Market, situated in the shadow of Kreuz's. Anywhere else it would be recognized for what it is: one of a handful of top-quality Texas barbecue places. For travelers on Interstate 10, however, the couple of miles' detour is mandatory. If there is a better place between Houston and San Antonio, I have not found it. The City Market is in the center of Luling, facing the railroad tracks; a grocery store occupies the front, and good solid chunks of barbecue are available in the back. Tables are few, so it is best to avoid the noontime rush.
Houstonians wishing to make only a brief jaunt to find top-notch country barbecue should head straight out Westheimer, to the little town of Fulshear. Here, in the midst of absolutely nothing, is a thriving general store and barbecue place. The building is severely modern, alas, but the barbecue (especially the beef ribs) is a missionary outpost of the Central Texas orthodoxy. Dozier's Market is no longer a secret, and neither is that potent flavor in their meat: they use pecan wood. To my taste pecan, like mesquite, is almost too heavy, too strong; but there is no denying that it gives a rich, delicious flavor.
For contrast, the Houston connoisseur might swing up to Hempstead, where Swan's Country House offers an interesting blend of the black and Central Texas traditions. The food is good, and the decor, including poster-board quotations from the Bible and portraits of all the presidents except John Tyler on multicolored construction paper, must be seen to be believed. But that's another story...
In the Hill Country, the standout restaurant is Inman's in Llano. Despite the spartan interior, it offers excellent beef which you can enjoy with homemade bread and a superior sauce. One unusual feature is the barbecued turkey sausage, which regrettably sounds better than it is. Stick to the beef and you can't go wrong.
Finding good barbecue on a day trip out of Dallas may be more difficult than it is from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. I have never found a really good place. One area I have never visited, however, is the group of towns near Gainesville which by reputation have barbecue comparable to the best anywhere. Metzler Brothers in Lindsay has the recommendation of Russell Guffey, Mayor of Gainesville, and several other residents of nearby towns.
Residents of Fort Worth don't need to make a day trip to find classic barbecue; one of the finest places in the state is five minutes from downtown. It's Angelo's, half honky-tonk and half barbecue shrine. Though sandwiches are available, you'd do better ordering by the pound. Your meat will come in big, bite-sized chunks with toothpicks; brown bread and sauce are on the side. Angelo's carvers are the swiftest, most skilled I have seen anywhere — like the legendary Chinese cook with his cleaver moving quicker than the eye can see.
The meat is tender and fragrant, with a distant hint of sweetness. I swear they must use molasses somewhere in the process, but they deny it. Sawdust floors and low ceilings heighten the atmosphere. You'll want to sit and nurse your beer for awhile before you go.
Dallas appears to have a considerable number of fair-to-middling barbecue places, mostly of the East Texas sandwich type. I have only found one that qualifies as absolutely outstanding, and it even flunks the test if you are seeking even a minimum of comfort in your surroundings. The Dallas champion is Sonny Bryan's, a drive-in barbecue specialty house that looks like a long-abandoned Dairy Queen. This is the only place I know that regularly runs out of meat before closing time. When you have tasted one of their sandwiches you will understand why. Not only are they the largest I have ever seen (equivalent to two of anyone else's), they are stuffed with incredibly well-flavored beef. To get one, however, is like trying to shop at Northpark on the weekend before Christmas.
The tiny interior is divided into three parts: the back, where the carvers and other personnel bump into the each other preparing the sandwiches and trimmings; a runway in the center no more than five feet wide and twenty feet long, where hopeful customers jostle for position; and a glassed front room scarcely larger than the runway, where those who have succeeded sit at one-armed desks with their sandwiches, their faces wreathed in smiles of triumph and contentment. To place your order, you inform the clerk at the counter and she asks for your initials; when they are called, your order is ready. The sauce is served separately, in resurrected catsup bottles on a hot plate. It is thick, rather sweet, and among the best anywhere. At Sonny Bryan's there is no need to order by the pound, since one overstuffed sandwich is plenty. Just remember to go at off-hours, or be prepared to wait and eat in your car.
Houston is blessed with several outstanding barbecue places. Among the best is Otto's, originally a hamburger specialty shop that served barbecue in the back. Its fame as a purveyor of Central Texas-type has now equaled or outstripped its original reputation. Closer to downtown, Matt Garner's holds securely to its position as one of the best black barbecue places in the state. My personal favorite, however, cannot be explained in conventional terms—though it appears to be as conventional as a restaurant could be. It's the Western Kitchen. The sandwiches here have remained of consistently high quality for the fourteen years I have sampled them. Although the beef, pork, ham or ribs can be purchased by the pound, they lose their special succulence that way. The sauce, by itself, is nothing special. Disassemble the sandwich into its component parts and the magic is gone; I don't know why, but it is. Try the sandwiches (especially the pork) on the premises, accompanied by some of the last homemade non-frozen french fries to be had, and you may agree that the East Texas tradition is alive and well in Houston.
Although Austin is squarely in the center of the best barbecue in Texas, nothing in the capital can equal Kruez's or Louie Mueller's. Enough good places do exist, however, that you are in no danger of going hungry. The best is The Pit #3 downtown (not to be confused with others in this owner-operated chain). Young Mike Schroeder returned from Vietnam to salvage the reputation of what was once one of the state's feeblest excuses for a barbecue restaurant. With the aid of a ferris-wheel type grill that bastes the meat with its own juices, he has succeeded admirably. The best bet is the chunk, a large well-trimmed piece from the fat end of the brisket. The ribs are also excellent. If you prefer extra-lean beef, the sliced sandwiches and the orders are all taken from the lean end of the brisket—a nod in the direction of quality that many barbecue places don't bother with.
The best of the other Austin places include Dale Baker's (one of the few in town to carry pork regularly; their mustardy sauce is something you'll either love or hate); Hobo Joe's (thinly sliced beef or sausage accompanied by a watery sauce whose appeal doesn't become apparent until after several bites); and Howard's, a top quality black barbecue place outlandishly misplaced in a shiny converted Ozark Fried Chicken building on far-suburban Burnet Road.
Some of San Antonio's best barbecue can be found in a little white frame building on the East Side, tucked away across an alley-like street behind a supermarket loading dock. It's called the Gulf Street Inn—but the only identification you'll see outside is a faded orange sign reading "BAR-B-Q." The dark, smoky interior of this tiny place has all the ambience of an opium den, but the owner Buster Landrum serves a solid blend of the two regional styles: brisket by the pound in a spicy sauce. A side order of beans comes free. Not the place to go for elegant dining; but when your taste buds are begging for some basic Texas food, slip away from that crowd going to La Louisiane, put on your Levi's, and come here.
A more conventional citified barbecue emporium is Meggs, specializing in Hill Country type brisket and ribs in the city's southwestern quadrant. Mesquite is the favored wood of the Hill Country, imparting a full-smoked flavor that stays with you all afternoon; personally I find it rather acrid, but there's no doubt about its authenticity. Meggs cooks their brisket sixteen hours, starting during the night with slow-burning oak and switching to mesquite in the morning once the meat has become tender enough to absorb the more highly-flavored smoke.
A Barbecue Baedeker
2533 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth
Mon. thru Sat. 11-10, Closed Sun.
Dale Baker Food Products
3303 Lake Austin Blvd., Austin
201 North Main, Lockhart
Mon. thru Sat., 7-7, Closed Sun.
Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse
201 North Main, Lockhart
Mon. thru Sat., 7-7, Closed Sun.
Dozier's Grocery & Market
Farm Rd. 359, Fulshear
Tues. and Thurs., 7-6:30, Fri. thru Sun,. 7-7, Closed Mon.
138 West Gray, Houston
Tues. thru Thurs., 9-7, Closed Mon.
Gulf Street Inn
231 Gulf St., San Antonio
Mon. thru Fri. (ex. Wed.), A. A.M.- Midnight, Sat. 8 A.M.-1 A.M., Closed Wed. & Sun.
Hobo Joe's Barbecue
5812 Manor Road, Austin
Tues. thru Fri., 11-2 & 4-2, Sat., 11-7, Closed Sun. & Mon.
5119 Burnet Rd., Austin
Mon. thru Sat., 11-9, Sun,. 11-8.
1006 Berry St., Llano
Mon. thru Sat., 7 A.M.-8 P.M., Closed Sun. except deer season.
208 S. Commerce, Lockhart
Mon. thru Fri., 7 A.M.-6 P.M., Sat. 5 A.M.-7 P.M., Closed Sun.
Luling City Market
633 Davis St., Luling
Mon. thru Sat., 9:30-6 P.M., Closed Sun.
3543 Military Drive Sw, San Antonio
Mon. thru Sat., 9-7 P.M., Closed Sun.
206 West Second, Taylor
Mon. thru Sat. (ex. Thur.), 7-7, Thur., 7-2, Sun 7-1.
5502 Memorial (in the back), Houston
Mon. thru Sat., 11-7 P.M., Closed Sun.
The Pit #3
501 East Fifth, Austin
Mon. thru Sat., 10:30-7:30, Closed Sun.
Swan's Country House Barbecue
US Highway 290, Hempstead
9 A.M.-Midnight every day.
2171 Richmond Ave., 7610 Kempwood, Houston
Mon. thru Fri., 11-9, Kempwood location open Sat., 11-9, Both closed Sun.
1107 West Second, Taylor
8-7 every day.
Metzler Bros. Barbecue
Highway 82, Lindsay, Tex.
Tues. thru Sat., 9 A.M. Midnight, Sun., Noon-Midnight.