This stone covered building along Highway 29 in Bertram was once home to barbecue royalty. Bertram Smokehouse had a place in Texas Monthly’s Top 50 BBQ joints in 2008. Then they moved into a bigger building across the tracks and soon folded. Tin Star BBQ also came and went a couple years back. Now Corey Thibodeaux and Morgan Scott have the pits fired up again since opening the doors here last August.
Painted wood ceilings tower above after walking through the front door. The floor is a simple polished concrete and the walls are mostly undecorated white plaster. A few simple wooden tables and larger picnic tables made for communal seating fill the interior. A small ordering counter is in the back of the space with a bold yet scant menu. Brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken are the meat options. Beans, slaw and potato salad are the only sides. It’s a classic Texas barbecue menu within a classic barbecue setting.
Meat is sliced at the front counter as you order. The option for fatty or lean brisket is given. I liked the direction thus far as I watched a blackened behemoth of beef quiver under the knife’s faint pressure. This brisket was gonna be good. The ribs have what looked like a cherry lacquered finish with a generous smattering of black pepper. A link of sausage was sliced and placed on the tray, but chicken would have to wait for another time. It was gone for the day. As Scott explained “nothing carries over to the next day.” That means they have to be conservative when loading the pits, especially on a weekday where the regulars might feel more like eating at the Tex-Mex place down the street.
The spare ribs had a great smokiness to accompany the hammy flavor from a good amount of salt. Those ribs were big, and required some serious gnawing to separate meat from bone, and the black pepper bit back. The brisket was superb from the first bite to the last. It had a muted pepper flavor compared to the ribs and a sweet vanilla overtone from the post oak. At 2:00pm the beef was still plenty moist with a crisp exterior from the well formed bark. Links of garlicy sausage come from Miiller’s Smokehouse in Llano. The casings had great snap and the filling was juicy.
Scott helped developed the blend for this particular sausage that is now carried at the Miiller’s storefront in Llano. Scott grew up on barbecue in Lockhart, so he wanted to try an 85%-15% beef-to-pork ratio with a coarse grind, but was warned away from it. It seems Hill Country folks prefer a finer grind and more pork, so they acquiesced to the sausage maker and went with a 60%-40% beef-to-pork mix. It seems to have worked out because this was a good one with plenty of spice.
The sides come from all over Texas. Corey’s wife makes the banana pudding, the potato salad is from Morgan’s mom, and the beans are from Texas author Frank Dobie’s recipe. They were all good, but the only one I finished was the creamy pudding. It had plenty of banana chunks and on top were crumbled Nilla wafers mixed with cinnamon and sugar. This is what most banana puddings aspire to be. If you like mustard in your potato salad, then you’ll like this hearty mixture, and the simple beans were well seasoned and satisfying. Nothing was overdone, overwrought, or overthought. It was well executed food that tasted like some old-timers made it, not a gaggle of twenty-somethings.
Hwy 29 BBQ is in an old building, but the smoker is brand new. They built it before the place reopened. There’s one smokestack with two big steel smoker chambers lined with stone coming off either side. They use all post oak to smoke and keep things low and slow.
These folks are putting out some great Central Texas barbecue here on the edge of the Hill Country in Bertram. Just don’t come on a Monday or Tuesday. As Morgan Scott explained “you’ve gotta be closed for two days to get one day off in the barbecue business.” So for five days a week, just forty-five minutes outside of Austin, you’ll find classic Texas smoked meats and sides in a classic Texas barbecue joint in a classic Texas small town. That sounds like the makings of a road trip.