On Friday February 12 (coincidentally the 45th anniversary of our parents' first date), my sister Emily and I went on a road trip to Luling and Lockhart to eat BBQ. My intention in recounting our adventure here is not to provide some authoritative ranking but to simply let y'all know what the two of us found that day. Also, I know there are at least two restaurants we did not visit (Chisolm Trail Icehouse & BBQ, Luling BBQ). For that, I apologize and promise I will go next time. The priority was to expose my sister to neighboring BBQ joints that excel in conveying what is possibly Texas' finest tradition.
We decided to start our trip by heading down I-35 to San Marcos and taking Highway 20 to Luling. It seemed to be the quickest way to get the adventure started. We had coffee for the car ride and had intentionally eaten nothing before we left the house. On the way out the door I grabbed last year's Texas Monthly's Texas BBQ issue so that Emily could get a better handle on the scope of the subject. Being from North Carolina, she is no stranger to the intensity with which people handle, consume, live, and breathe BBQ. (The irony was not lost on either of us that in that issue of Texas Monthly, Snow's BBQ of Lexington, TX was named #1. She and I have known for most of our lives that the Lexington in North Carolina is the BBQ capital. Now all of a sudden the Lexington in Texas is the best. Come on, Texas Monthly.) During previous visits to Austin, Emily has eaten at the Salt Lick, Opie's in Spicewood, and Cooper's in Llano (our favorite). These trips opened up her world to Texas BBQ stylings yet were only a fraction of the joints worth seeking. Though these previous experiences were quite spaced out and only partially introduced her to the intricacies of Texas-style BBQ, she was a pro by the end of this day.
Despite the large amount of cars and trucks parked in front of the restaurant, the main dining room wasn't packed when we got to Luling City Market (LCM). As the digital clock on the wall struck 12:30, we entered the meat room in the back right corner of the restaurant after only standing in line for a minute. Once the door shut behind us, Emily understood that we were somewhere special. I know that every time I am greeted by the (typically geriatric) person standing patiently behind a counter, scale and cash register, I get pretty excited. This person has a similar role to that of a bartender. They are between you and what you want and you have to deal with them to get what you want. And if you know what you want and how to order it, you'll be in great shape.
With breakfast forwent, we had accrued a mighty hunger that made us dive in with wild abandon once we picked a seat in City Market's secondary room. Fortunately, Emily had the presence of mind to call a halt to the feedback session so that we didn't ruin ourselves for the
rest of the adventure. This being said, Emily was blown away by the ribs. Upon her first bite,
she was OMGing all over the place. She liked that there wasn't a heavy spice rub or any sort of sauce slathered all over the ribs, delivering nothing but the taste of the perfectly smoked pork each time. The sauce was terrific, having a South Carolina mustardy quality that I did not expect. With the excellent brisket, I made my ceremonial half-sandwich with onions and sauce, each bite followed with a jalapeno chaser. I did this being well aware that ingesting bread would just prove to be filler on a day when stomach real estate was more precious than spiky hair and a sculpted goatee is to a Nu Metal bassist. The sausage was loosely packed and coarse, throwing a mouth party upon every bite. Despite all these kind words, somehow it wasn't as magical as it had been last summer when I ate there on the way to the beach. Emily and I were both disappointed by the "sweet tea" which was iced tea flavored with Nutrasweet and lemon juice. In actuality, it was probably just some crappy powdered mix. Anyway, the verdict was that the ribs and sauce were king at Luling City Market.
Our second stop on this journey was Smitty's Market (SM) in downtown Lockhart, TX. I had been there many times and was quite thrilled to share the experience with Emily. An even more dramatic experience than standing in the smoker room at LCM, the open pit fire at the rear entrance of Smitty's caught Emily off-guard and immediately let her know we were amidst hallowed greatness. We had forgotten to find an ATM on the way to Smitty's and so as to not totally embarrass ourselves, we stepped back outside and assessed our cash situation. Cool. $29.00. That got us 1/4 lb of brisket, 2 links of sausage, 4 ribs, two jalapenos, sliced onion and sweet tea. Oh! The sweet tea! The best of the trip. A bonus for Emily was that they had the small pellet-style ice cubes. The sausage was incredible. Just perfect. It had a similar coarseness to LCM's sausage, but it was juicier and tasted even better, which I didn't think was possible! The ribs were totally different than those at LCM. There was definitely a sauce on them though only a light coating. Emily thought she tasted beer somewhere in there. Another difference here was that Smitty's ribs had more meat on them. The brisket was great but the pieces I got were cut a little too thick for my taste and I'm not sure if it's the reason, but the meat wasn't as tender as I had wished. At this point, we decided that Smitty's sausage and sweet tea were unbeatable. The last time I went to Smitty's I made this same assessment, which I think is a testament to their craft. Oh yeah. The sauce set out on the tables was basically hot sauce (ie Louisiana Red Dot, Texas Pete) and if one were to apply too much of it, it might ruin the experience.
Upon giving Emily a rundown of the day's itinerary as we barreled down I-35, we decided that Black's BBQ should be last joint we visit. This was borne out of concern that Black's sides and desserts would tempt and distract Emily, ultimately running the risk that these side dishes would gentrify what was left of her precious abdominal real estate and derail our motives. This meant that Kreuz Market (KM) was the third stop on our tour. The giant building at 619 N. Colorado is the tourbus friendly version of Smitty's, except it may be even more stripped down when it comes to what is offered. Regardless of its menu, Kreuz Market houses the newest and most spacious restrooms of the four temples and it was at this point in the trip that they came in most necessary!
The family lore that surrounds SM and KM looms large in Central TX BBQ history but when it comes down to the meat, the two speak for themselves. It was at this point in the day that Emily decided she cared only about pork ribs. While I understood her point of view, I couldn't enter KM and not also try the sausage and brisket. But wait! When we got to the scale, I was informed they were out of brisket.
"What? No moist beef with which to make my half-sandwich?"
"You mean to tell me in all those pits behind you there is no moist brisket. Whatever, man."
Thinking quickly on my feet, I heeded the advice of my friend (Andy Wilson) and chose to try a slice of the prime rib. We took one sausage link, two pork ribs, and one attractive slice of prime rib into the dining room where we got two cups of unsweetened tea (strike two) and groggily chose our seats.
One might think that at this point a person could lose perspective on the whole situation. I mean, four BBQ joints in one day? Really? I totally see that argument. In most cases, such skepticism would be a tenable position. Cue-buzz not withstanding, we ate so little at each restaurant that we had truly not overwhelmed ourselves and were pretty much still on point.
Emily dropped the first judgement by dissing the ribs. She didn't like them because they were covered with an pepper-heavy rub that got in the way of the flavor of the pork. I love pepper and I appreciate the whole spice rub thing, but I'm gonna side with her in that it was too
much. Perhaps if there had been more meat on the ribs then there would have been a better meat-to-rub ratio and it wouldn't have reminded me so strongly of beef jerky. The sausage was much different than LCM or SM in that it was finer and had a distinctly stronger flavor. Despite its finer consistency, the flavor of Kreuz's sausage wasn't as smooth and ended up not topping our lists. The real winner here was the prime rib (pictured, left). It was so moist, so tender and so flavorful that I couldn't stop eating it. The outside was just as tender as the rare-ish inside so I alternated bites between the outside and inside sections, marveling each time at how spectacular it was. Why had I never gotten this before? Andy was right! Even if they hadn't run out, there was no way that Kreuz brisket would have been more satisfying than their prime rib. I'm a changed man. So while it may seem that Kreuz Market was a letdown, the prime rib was stellar enough to take me back next time I go to Lockhart.
For our fourth and final stop, we slowly made the short drive over to Black's. While Emily got out and walked around, I chose to sit in the car for a few minutes and collect my thoughts. The cafeteria/buffet style line was confusing because so many things looked appealing but we knew we had to stay on track and not let our eyes do the ordering. Emily couldn't resist and got creamed corn and green beans, both of which turned out to be too garlicky for our tastes. They had deliciously sweet tea which became one of Black's saving graces because we ended up being none-too psyched about the meats. The pork ribs were kinda tough. The brisket was just fine. The sausage had a great flavor and had a similar coarseness to LCM's but the casing was a little tougher which brought it in at third place. Black's BBQ provided the most traditional BBQ sauce of the four joints, and one of the more enjoyable sauces I've had in Central Texas. When John Anderson's classically crappy "Swingin'" came ringing out over the stereo, the ambiance at Black's reached for the skies. Unfortunately for , the evaluation of the day's events was gonna put Smitty's in first place in the ambiance category. Emily was put off by the croakies-and-oakleys-wearin' white boy behind the counter at Black's, claiming that he kinda tainted the otherwise old school feel of the joint. While I agree with her, the big yellow and black billboards all over town have kind of led me to expect a little more cheesiness from Black's. Having learned a lot about Texas BBQ in just a few hours, Emily noticed this fellow's timidity when in a pinch he was forced to pick up the knife and cut some brisket. It's something like this that can effect a person's experience when going walking these sacred halls of grubdom. All I'm saying is that if they are going to cut the meat right in front of you, they better know what they're doing. They at least need to put on a convincing act. So, Black's had cool souvenir cups which Emily liked. I like the cup too, but I feel it puts Black's in a category with Rudy's or Stubb's where there seems to be some smoke-and-mirrors merchandise action that distracts the customer from what may be middle of the road BBQ. That's just me...
So, what a great day! I got to spend some excellent time with my sister and I ate some amazing food. If anyone says it can't be done, they're either lazy or lying. Going to four legendary BBQ joints in one afternoon not only can be done, it should be done.