Fire is hypnotic. Staring into it can be mesmerizing and may even alter your state of mind. Take the fire at Smitty’s Market for example. Just inside the back door, which is really the primary entrance, an open fire is the first thing you encounter. The flames lick their way beyond the edge of a towering brick wall. Beyond the wall, the space opens up into a large room with meat-filled brick pits. At a greasy cutting block, meat cutters clad in aprons stained with drippings go about their business. A now-perspiring brow keeps you keenly aware of the fire. This is a good thing since there are no warning signs posted nor is the pit chained off. The stack of charred wood and glowing coals is riveting. The only thing that can break the trance is the pointed beckoning from one of the cashiers. It’s your turn to order. Don’t hold up the line.
I provided my order in a flurry. The Texas trinity of brisket, pork ribs and sausage was a requirement, but I had to add one of those behemoth pork chops and some shoulder clod as well. There were two of us eating and the butcher paper was already filling up. It was time to fork over some cash (credit cards are not accepted) and find a place to sit. The main dining room is great with its high ceilings and endless picnic tables, but we instead sought the lesser known dining area upstairs. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday and the only company we had in this sparse room was a decade-old poster of a scantily clad Sandra Bullock with an inscription singing the praises of Smitty’s fine smoked meats. I couldn’t have agreed more…a decade ago.
I once endangered my wife’s life and my own by driving back to Dallas from Lockhart with the steering wheel in one hand and a hot Smitty’s pork rib in the other. It was smoked meat bliss: Every bite brought a giddy laugh of satisfaction, which was no doubt unsettling to my captive passenger. But that was years ago. On my recent trip there was little to praise. The ribs could have been steamed for all the smokiness they provided, and the sauce provided nearly all the flavor. The sauce. This in a joint that makes you ask for sauce at the drink counter if you want it. Sure the ribs have had that sweet glaze for some time, but that was a glaze that shimmered and was crisped by the smoke. This was pork that looked like it had just seen a dunk tank before being sliced and served. The poorly rendered fat layer seemed like a minor issue in comparison.
Just last year I had some of Smitty’s best brisket and shoulder clod. I’ve always preferred their pork offerings and ring sausage to the beef here, but that day was great. Cooking so hot and so fast can wreak havoc on the moisture level in a brisket, but that last visit had me wondering if my mind could be changed. On this day, that was all erased. Breaking apart a slice of brisket with your hands tells a lot about how tender it is. Does it stretch? How much does it yield? An ideal brisket slice will elongate ever so slightly before breaking apart cleanly. These slices just stretched and stretched, like the waistband on an old pair of boxers. I clenched each end with a fist and pulled with considerable effort before it finally tore in half. The rest I cut with the plastic knife, which soon snapped in two. To be fair to the knife, it had already been overexerted by the dry pork chop. If there was anything redeeming in the flavor of the brisket it probably would have made little difference, but there wasn’t. This was easily the worst piece of brisket that I’d eaten in Lockhart. Just to be certain that we weren’t losing our minds, a return trip with another taster was arranged for later in the week. The results did not vary.
There are some that find joy in saying that they knew a barbecue joint way back when it was really good. But isn’t that because memory often trumps the here and now? I have eaten many great meals at Smitty’s. The pork chop was never this dry or this lacking in smoke flavor. I don’t remember clod so unmemorable. I felt a bit sad when biting into the beef sausage. The first bite from the curve in the ring brought a pleasing snap and the fat rushed forth along with smoky, peppery beefiness. This was the great Smitty’s sausage of my memory, which made the rest of a very bad meal much more real.
Matt Duckor lives in New York and writes for Bon Appetit. While in Austin for SXSW this year, he went on a long Central Texas barbecue tour with mostly positive results, then wrote an article about it. His only comment on Smitty’s was “The decor at Smitty’s would be worth the trip if the barbecue wasn’t so epically disappointing.” This comes from the crowd that normally goes no further into barbecue criticism than saying “fatty brisket rocks” and “they really eat with their hands down here.” For them it was a disappointing visit because the food wasn’t up to par with the rest of their itinerary. For us, this visit to Smitty’s was disappointing because it confirmed that the joint would have to fall from Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list. Every barbecue list ever compiled by the magazine had included this address on South Commerce in Lockhart (before it became Smitty’s, in 1999, after a family dispute, it was Kreuz Market). But our Top 50 list isn’t a hall of fame vote. It was about what Smitty’s was cooking now, and on this day (and on several repeat visits) it wasn’t worthy.