There are many folks around the country that may have just been introduced to the existence of City Market, in Luling, earlier this year when Newsweek published their list of the “101 Best Places to Eat” around the world. I myself have joked at the dubious nature of most lists like this one, but as one of only fourteen restaurants in North America to make the list alongside such names as Husk, Daniel, and Momofuku, City Market was in good company. I too had sang the praises of this temple of Central Texas-style barbecue to anyone that would listen. “No barbecue trip to Lockhart is complete without a stop in Luling” was my normal line to smoked meat novices on a virgin Central Texas barbecue tour. It’s only a fifteen-minute drive after all. My first visit was after an early morning drive from San Antonio, where a religious experience was had with a breakfast of beef brisket smoked simply over post oak and a link of homemade sausage baptized in a golden sauce. I thought it would always be that good, but it is no longer. One of the mighty in Texas has fallen off a bit, and that sweet memory from years ago was strong enough to cloud my better judgment for a few years.
|A visit here earlier this year was when the sad realization manifested itself. The brisket was tough, dry, and lacking in smoke and flavor. The ribs took too much effort to clean, and my jaw got quite a workout. The excellent beef link has never wavered, but the pleasure I took in eating the sausage occasionally dipped in sauce heightened the flaws of the other cuts (there are only three smoked meat menu items here). I was eating with my photographer Nick that day, who also agreed that this place just wasn’t living up to the best we’d been enjoying on the road. I scanned my meat memory bank to recall that two previous visits had also been lackluster, but this was still one of my favorite places (not just favorite barbecue joints) to eat in all of Texas, so I needed to be sure.|
After that meal I strolled back to the alley behind the building and walked to the open door of the pit room. Pitmaster Joe Capello Sr. was there and greeted us warmly. He showed us the smallish steel pit and the wood pile that was just disorderly enough to know that somebody was actually using it. Joe didn’t explain much about their smoking process but did fill us in on some history of the Bar-E Ranch that was owned by the family that started City Market (the sign above City Market reads “Bar-E Barbeque & Sausage”). The ranch still exists north of town, but the briskets aren’t from the cattle at the ranch any longer. As I turned to leave I noticed a stainless steel Southern Pride rotisserie smoker in the corner. I tried to hide my disdain when asking Joe why it was there, hoping that it was just a joke, but Joe said they had to crank it up during busy weekends to keep up with demand. The smoker felt cold and hadn’t been fired up recently enough to cook the meat I ate on this day, but the fact that a recognized pillar of Texas barbecue tradition uses it at all is alarming.
Several months later we found ourselves back in Luling. It was early in the morning just like it had been on my first visit, that religious experience in 2007. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t fallen victim to the barbecue doldrums of mid-afternoon. I carefully guided the meat cutter to select a fresh brisket and cut liberally from both the fatty and the lean end to get a good sample. I selected pork ribs from both the short end and the center of the rack to keep from getting that one bad rib that might be lurking in the rack. Two links of sausage would also be needed because, well, I wasn’t going to share one.
|We sat at a table in the side room, near the window to let the light in. I wanted it to be good—no—great. I wanted the brisket to sing but instead it was George Strait on the speakers that cut through the silence of the empty dining room with “He’s got a fool-hearted memory.” George was right. It was great only in my memory. Tough slices of brisket and tougher ribs were several hours from being done. The brisket slices could not easily be pulled apart, and the visibly unrendered fat along the edges was tough to chew through. They both had the smoke and the ribs got a flavor boost from a restrained sweet glaze. Mind you, this was still good-tasting barbecue, but I’ve come to expect some of the best in the state from this joint. It wasn’t.|
Leaving a painful amount of meat on the butcher paper, we polished off the links of sausage and purchased a container of the best sauce in Texas. Maybe next time it will be perfect again and all will be right with the Central Texas barbecue world, but probably not.
(This review originally appeared on Full Custom Gospel BBQ.)