Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Barbecue) A South By Southwest primer on Central Texas’ finest cuisine
If you want me to suggest where to eat barbecue in Austin and outlying areas, you are going to have to make some leaps of faith. Good barbecue is a mysterious thing, and great barbecue is downright mystical. So the first thing I have to tell you is that the best barbecue in Austin is, in fact, not in Austin at all, but in the small towns nearby. I have a theory as to why this is.
Consider how central Texas barbecue is “smoked,” or cooked (there are several other styles around the state, but we won’t get into that). At one end of the enclosed pit made of brick or steel is the heat source — usually, in this part of the state, slow-burning oak, but sometimes mesquite, pecan or hickory. At the other end, the meat sits atop a grill directly under a chimney or vent. Smoke is thus drawn across the pit, up through the meat, and out into the open air. With a few exceptions, the idea is to keep temperatures low (200-300 degrees F) so that the smoke, not the heat, does most of the cooking; a big brisket can thus take a day. Now, what urban health department is going to allow that much smoke to go into the air?
But that’s been the traditional technique for nearly two centuries, since Germans and Czechs first settled the area. Their grocery store and meat market butchers smoked leftover meat — sometimes by itself, sometimes after it was made into sausage — to keep it from going bad, and they smoked cheap, tough cuts to make them tender. The meat was invariably beef, because this is cattle country, and often a dry rub of salt, pepper and other spices was applied before it went into the smoker.
Farmers in town to do their weekly shopping, and itinerant cotton pickers and agricultural workers who weren’t allowed in restaurants, ate the meat along with items they picked up in the store such as crackers, pickles, tomatoes and onions. There was no sauce.
Some of the most prominent Texas cookers today — such as Kreuz Market in Lockhart and Luling City Market — are still meat markets as well as barbecue joints. More have evolved into full-service restaurants with a variety of meats beyond beef and sausage, and with side dishes such as potato salad, cole slaw and beans. At Texas barbecue joints, you can usually order and pay for your meat by weight, and pay a set price for each side, or you can order fixed-price “plates” of one to three meats with sides; some eateries let you order either way.
For my money, the best barbecue in Texas, and therefore in the world, is in Lockhart, about 40 miles south of Austin. There, at Kreuz Market, I lunch regularly on fat, juicy pork chops with a slice of beef shoulder (lean) or brisket (fattier) and, more recently, a pork rib. (The other options are prime rib and sausage links made in-house.) It’s served right out of the pit on butcher paper, with Saltine crackers or white bread, and a plastic knife but no fork (you eat with your hands). There’s no sauce to detract from the taste of the meat. In the main dining room, I pick up a wedge of onion and a jalapeno pepper as my “sides,” and some ice tea or Big Red (a super-sweet red soda pop which traditionally accompanies ‘cue in these parts).
Though it’s one of the few places to master fast-cooking — their pits run as hot as 600 degrees — Kreuz is purist Texas barbecue, and has been since it first opened sometime before 1900. They only started offering ribs (which are bigger than most) in the last year or so, and beans as a side maybe a year before that (yes, you can get a plastic spoon with your beans; you don’t have to eat them with your hands).
Kreuz has remained in just two families since it first opened, and until 1999 was housed in a classic meat-market building, with smoke and grease stains on the walls and an open firebox that meant flames licked at your feet as you stood in line. Rick Schmidt owned the business and his sister Nina Sells owned the property. They had a bitter falling-out over rent and he moved into a huge, modern building on the north edge of town; surprisingly, the quality of the food didn’t diminish.
Nina and her husband kept the old location open under the name Smitty’s. Though I am a Kreuz loyalist, I have eaten at Smitty’s a couple times out of professional obligation. The first time, I found the pork chops overly salted and the brisket dry. More recently, both proved first-rate, and the sausage links were even better.
Finally, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, which bills itself as the oldest in the state under one family, began in 1932 as a meat-market operation, but has evolved into a full-service restaurant. You go through a cafeteria line to pick up rather uninspired salads, sides and desserts as well as your meat. The sauce is sweet and nothing special, but I like their hammy, sliced pork loin. Further down Highway 183 at Luling City Market, the pork ribs have fantastic flavor and the orange, peppery, mustard-based sauce is a welcome change of pace.
East of Austin, Southside Market BBQ, which evolved out of a sausage factory opened in 1882, moved out of a downtown Elgin meat-market and into a spiffy former bank building on Highway 290 in 1992. In the process, their “hot guts” beef sausage lost a lot of heat, which is a shame because Elgin is the sausage center of central Texas. Of their many meats — brisket, sausage, steak, pork ribs, mutton, chicken — the pork steak now stands out most.
Back downtown, Cross-Town BBQ serves some of the fattest, funkiest pork ribs around, as well as juicy brisket and sausage; this is good, greasy, old-school ‘cue. Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse now has the exemplary sausage in town, both a traditional beef and a zinging garlic-pork, as well as other meats.
Further northeast in Taylor, Louie Mueller’s has been a statewide standard-bearer since it was established as a meat market/grocery store in 1959. Today, it’s a counter-service restaurant housed in a dark, former high-school gym with faded brown walls (and recently expanded). Mueller’s can have bad days, but when it’s “on,” which is most of the time, the smoky beef absolutely rocks, whether it’s falling-apart-tender brisket (cooked while wrapped loosely in butcher paper so it’s basted by its own fat), huge ribs or gnarly sausage. Their thin red sauce, with chunks of onion floating in it, is ideal for dipping, and their potato salad, slaw and beans are all pretty good. Usually, I’ll take Mueller’s over anyone within an hour of Austin except Kreuz.