Sunday, March 7, 2010
The Barbecue Chronicles: Our first journey to Central Texas
A half-hour earlier, when we left our motel, none of us felt hungry. But the smell of wood smoke changed our minds. We ordered thick slices of tender brisket on white bread.
"That's the best breakfast I've ever eaten," said Chris Wilkins.
"I could have gone home at that point and the trip would have been worth it," said Gary Barber.
Our lightning tour of the best barbecue in Texas covered nearly 600 miles over 28 hours one weekend last month. We ate at five places, four of them ranked among the top handful in the state.
Discipline is paramount in such undertakings. Wilkins, the leader of our eating posse, planned the details nearly hour-by-hour, including a Saturday afternoon break for a game of horseshoes.
"Every time we passed a barbecue joint I looked it up on my iPhone, read the review, and wondered why it wasn't on our itinerary," said David Guzman. "Oh wait, we only had 24 hours to eat."
Four of us work at The Dallas Morning News. Another, Mike Gibson, is a freelance photographer. Our sixth barbecue devotee, Jesse Hart, is a Texas newbie. He recently moved to Dallas from Kansas City.
"Count me in," said Hart, my nephew. "It should give me a good idea of whether Texas barbecue can hang with K.C."
As a group, we consider ourselves fairly sophisticated about smoked meats. We follow Daniel Vaughn's Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. A couple of us have well-thumbed copies of Texas Monthly's June 2008 issue rating the 50 top places in the state. In it, Snow's is No. 1. Until then, it was largely unknown among barbecue fans.
We have our favorite places in North Texas, like Meshack's in Garland and the Baby Back Shak in Dallas. But we had never eaten in what Vaughn calls the Central Texas "barbecue belt." We wanted to taste the real deal.
So, on a Friday after work, we headed south on Interstate 35 in two cars. We took two big coolers - one for drinks and one for meat to bring home - comfortable, loose-fitting clothes and big appetites.
A quick note on our eating strategies: We didn't order many side dishes on Saturday. Mainly meat and drinks. While several of us sampled items in smaller portions, Barber and Gibson ate four full meals, including a couple of desserts. It was impressive.
Our first stop was about two hours away, at Michna's Bar-B-Que in Waco.
"Look at all the John Wayne stuff," Gibson said. "This place is great."
Located on the south side of the city, near Baylor's Floyd Casey Stadium, Michna's is a shrine to the Duke, packed with photos, prints and paintings. There's even a four-foot engraving of Wayne on the mirror in the men's room.
Michna's is not among the state's barbecue elite, but it's good. And it has a buffet, filled fresh for us.
Barber, a multimedia editor, considered the buffet an omen. His plan was to gorge himself the first night, expanding his ability to eat more the next day.
He ate brisket, pork ribs, sausage, corn, macaroni and cheese. He went back for more ribs and turkey. He ate four slices of homemade bread and finished with banana pudding.
"Mission accomplished," Barber said.
As we left Waco, we drove east past the stadium, then turned south on Highway 77. We had reservations at the Comfort Inn in Rockdale, a little more than an hour away. From there, it's a short drive to Lexington, which is about midway between Austin and College Station.
The night was cool. The moon was bright. At picnic tables behind the motel, we smoked cigars and drank beer before turning in just past midnight.
No one wanted to oversleep. The key to the entire trip was getting to Lexington early. Snow's is only open Saturdays from 8 a.m. until the meat is gone, which is often by noon.
At Snow's, we ate our brisket breakfast outside, at tables near the meat smokers.
Even before taking a bite, Hart, the Texas newbie, sprinkled sauce liberally on his meat.
"Whoa," Wilkins said. Real Texas barbecue, of course, doesn't need sauce.
After breakfast, we talked technique with one of the pit tenders. He explained that the brisket is cooked at low heat (250 to 300 degrees) for six hours. Then each brisket is tightly wrapped in foil and put back into the smoker.
"Don't know," he said. "I just kinda cook by feel."
When Snow's owner Kerry "Snowman" Bexley heard we were on a barbecue tour, he gave us six can holders touting Snow's as the best in Texas, including the motto: "Smokin' the good stuff."
"Make sure they see these when you go into Mueller's," he said of our next stop.
As we left Snow's, we heard cows mooing down the street at the Lexington cattle auction. Guzman thought it was eerie. In the barbecue belt, though, some might consider it almost poetic.
We returned to our motel, cleaned up, watched a football pregame show, checked out at 11 a.m. and headed to Taylor, about a half-hour away.
Louie Mueller Barbecue is in downtown Taylor. Smoke stains cling like paint to everything. The menu is written on butcher paper. All the meats, sold by the pound, are served on butcher paper. Utensils, if you can find them, are plastic.
And the line was almost to the door, a 20-minute wait.
Later, Wilkins, a photo editor at The News who grew up in Tyler, compared the Mueller experience to his first trip to Wrigley Field in Chicago. When he saw the stadium's ivy-covered walls, he said, "I knew I had found the holy grail of baseball. Louie's is the holy grail of Texas barbecue."
One difference: Wilkins said he cried at Wrigley. There were no tears at Mueller's.
We left Taylor and headed south again. Near Pflugerville, we picked up the new toll road, Highway 130, which allowed us to bypass Austin and game-day traffic.
Lockhart is about 40 minutes south and slightly east of Austin. Arriving a little before 3 p.m., we hit Smitty's Market, located downtown, near the square. Locals go in the back door, tourists use the front.
Open wood fires burn on the floors, feeding brick smokers. "I can picture this place a hundred years ago cooking up barbecue the exact same way," said Guzman, a multimedia editor at The News.
More brisket, ribs and sausage, but some of us started to slow our intake markedly. Still, most made room for Blue Bell ice cream at $1 a cone.
Afterward, we walked around town and then went to the city park, where we played horseshoes for a couple hours, getting ready for our final stop, Kreuz Market.
Earlier in the day, we had heard that Kreuz was overrated, that it was the Walmart of barbecue, that its huge building resembled a honky-tonk more than a restaurant.
"Let the meat speak for itself," Wilkins said as we walked through the swinging doors, one sporting the likeness of a cow, the other a pig.
The meat did speak. It was good and we left stuffed.
"Think of the fullest you have ever been at a Thanksgiving meal, then multiply by two," Barber said.
Hart proclaimed Kreuz his favorite place and acknowledged that Texas barbecue can indeed hang with K.C. Just one question, he said. "Where is all the sauce?"
Wilkins became more reflective. "I didn't realize until today that I knew nothing at all about great barbecue," he said. "Everything I ate was better than anything I had eaten before."
Four hours later, we were back in Dallas, eager to hit the barbecue trail again sometime soon.
Postscript: A week after the tour and still an extra notch out on his belt, Wilkins finally had the courage to step on a scale: Up four pounds. "I'm thinking I have to eat just salads for a while," he said.
Central Texas BBQ Tour itinerary
6 p.m.: Leave downtown Dallas
8 p.m.: Dinner at Michna's Bar-B-Que, 2803 Franklin Ave., Waco
10:30 p.m.: Check in at Comfort Inn, Rockdale.
8 a.m.: Breakfast at Snow's BBQ, 516 Main St., Lexington, (979) 773-4640. Open Saturdays 8 a.m.-til the meat runs out.
Noon: Lunch at Louie Mueller Barbecue, 206 W. Second St. (Highway 79), Taylor, (512) 352-6206. Open Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
3 p.m.: Afternoon snack at Smitty's Market, 208 S. Commerce St., Lockhart, (512) 398-9344. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
4 p.m.: Lockhart city park for horseshoes and recreation
5 p.m.: Dinner at Kreuz Market, 619 N. Colorado St. (Highway 183), Lockhart, (512) 398-2361. Open Mon-Sat 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
10 p.m.: Back home in Dallas
Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos © David Guzman, Gary Barber & Gary Jacobson