It was Saturday morning and I had snuck away briefly from a conference I was attending to check on a barbecue lead in Caldwell. My web searches brought up none of the details of the joint. From searching on Google’s street viewer I found the building and a couple of signs that read “Bar-B-Q Every Saturday and Sunday.” When I arrived at 11:30 the “Sold Out” sign was already taped to the door. I went in and begged in vain for any scraps. In fact, co-owner Robin Matus said I’d need to get there before 9:30 or 10:00 to get the full menu. The doors here open at 5:00 in the morning for sausage, and like Snow’s BBQ just thirty minutes away, the full menu is ready at 8:00 am. There wasn’t much to do but get back in the car for the defeated drive back to College Station.
It stung getting so close to a potential gold strike of a small town barbecue joint that certainly looked and smelled the part, and sadly a visit the next day wasn’t an option for me. Luckily, Texas Monthly’s Food Editor Pat Sharpe was attending the conference with me, and she agreed to scout it out like she’s done so many times in the past. Here is her full report:
I have seldom seen Daniel quite so glum. He had sneaked away from the excellent Saturday luncheon of the Foodways Texas conference in College Station and driven thirty miles to a promising barbecue joint he had heard about in the central Texas town of Caldwell. But when he got there, it was closed. Sold out at 11:30! What the hell?
Shameless when it comes to barbecue, Daniel had begged the friendly owners for scraps, but sold out meant sold out. So he moped back to the conference, where he shared his tale of woe with me. “I have to go back home to Dallas tonight,” he said, looking dejected. Then a light went on. “But you’ll be here tomorrow, won’t you?” Which is how I ended up standing in line at Matus Bar-B-Q at 9:15 on Sunday morning, ordering a little of everything from their short, to-the-point menu.
I was with two new friends from the meeting, Cecelia and Jeanne, who had said “What a lark!” when I saw them in the conference hotel lobby and shouted, “Who wants to have brisket for breakfast?” At the counter, pitmaster Tommy Matus wrapped the meat and his wife Robin dished up some homemade pinto beans. We carried the bundle of white butcher paper over to a picnic table in the tiny room and spread it out.
All I can conclude is that Matus’s customers must prefer the tasty crust and fat removed from their brisket, because there was barely a speck of either left on the slices. The meat had been pre-trimmed (but sliced to order), and it was hard to tell that it had even been near a puff of smoke. It tasted exactly like Sunday pot roast and was chewy to boot. We abandoned it and turned to the pork butt, which was about as different from the brisket as it could possibly be. A dark red seasoning rub coated the pieces, which were small and sort of gnarly looking but proved to be surprisingly moist and satisfyingly smoky. Next came the chicken, which had a medium-brown smoky exterior and juicy meat on the inside, but seemed a little deflated, like it had off the heat for a while. (The place opens up at 5:00 a.m. to serve the farming community where it is located, and it’s pretty casual. While we were there, one customer arrived in pink pajamas and a hoodie and, no, she wasn’t three years old.)
I looked up at my buddies, wondering if they were getting full, but they were totally into it. We each grabbed a pork rib, and that’s when the game changed. They were big, a little shaggy (from the electric knife used to cut them from the rack), quite meaty, and well-rubbed with salt, pepper, and (I would guess) a little paprika. Next came the highlight of the morning: homemade sausage, all pork, fairly coarse textured, quite firm, and simply seasoned; the flavor reminded me of breakfast sausage links. The pinto beans, with a fairly thick pot liquor, were equally plain and satisfying. Matus told us he buys ready-made potato salad (“but it’s good”), so we skipped it. The sauce, which was as mild as tomato soup, did not invite more than one exploratory sip.
I said goodbye to Cecelia and Jeanne–who were in line buying a couple of the two-foot-long (!) sausage links to go–and stopped to snap a few pictures. There are a lot of tchotchkes sitting around the shiny little metal building, including an array of signed dollar bills on the wall labeled “401K Plan.” To the left of the front door was another metal building with a big pile of oak logs and several direct-heat smokers inside, where Matus barbecues eight or nine briskets a day, plus the other meats. He’s been doing this for eighteen years and doesn’t show signs of quitting any time soon.
– Pat Sharpe