Monday, March 29, 2010

Support your local Shak: Part Deux

D Magazine is soliciting readers for their Best of Big D Readers’ Choice Poll, which will be published in the August 2010 issue. From their website: "Every August, D Magazine publishes its Best of Big D issue in which the editors name their favorites in food and drink, nightlife, shopping, goods and services, and culture and media. This year, we’re giving our readers a chance to vote for their favorites in each of the above categories."

Needless to say, the Baby Back Shak is among the favorites for best BBQ in Dallas. After all, it's the unofficial headquarters of the Texas BBQ Posse! Clarence Cohen & his team at the Shak need our support to take them to a well-deserved title in the reader's poll.

As the say in Chicago, "vote early and vote often." You can vote once a day through April 4th to choose your favorite BBQ joint in Dig D.

(Photo by Guy Reynolds)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Historic Smitty's Market

We arrived in downtown Lockhart and stumbled out of the car for an afternoon snack, meat drunk but ready for more BBQ. This was our third stop on the Central Texas BBQ Tour. We entered the screen door with a sign proclaiming "BARBEQUE" over it and walked down the long corridor into something out of the1890's.

Smitty's Market was established in 1999 by Nina Schmidt Sells in the building that housed her father's Kreuz Market for more than 50 years. The market sits in the same location where barbecue has been sold in Lockhart since the turn of the last century. Rumor has it that a family squabble led to Kreuz Market moving to a new location north of downtown.

The pit fires were burning on the floors of the building, feeding into the brick smokers that cooked every kind of meat imaginable. The walls were coated with 100 years of smoke. We were reeling from the meat intake at that point, but sampled fatty and lean brisket, aka shoulder clod, and pork ribs, washing them down with Big Red. For desert some Blue Bell ice cream, one dollar a cone, to coat our stomachs for the final round at Kreuz market.

Smitty's Market, 208 South Commerce St. Lockhart, Texas. Open Mon. - Fri. 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.

(Photos by David Guzman)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Unexpected stop on the East Texas BBQ Tour

We spotted the smoke while cruising eastward down Hwy. 31 toward the Country Tavern in Kilgore. Since we were in no particular hurry, the BBQ posse hooked a u-turn and headed back to Hickory Hill BBQ. It turned out to be a great stop on the journey. Like Pat Gee’s, they are open Friday through Sunday, closing when the meat runs out.

Husband and wife team Kelly and Kerry Shaw opened the joint seven months ago, after years of preparation by Kerry. “I’ve been cooking BBQ all my life,” he said. We ordered up some ribs for the crew and chatted with Kelly about their place.

Their motto is “The way it used to be.” Kelly explained they set their prices to be affordable to everyone. Ribs, brisket and links are $8.99 a pound, smoked chicken is $6.99, overall the cheapest we’d seen. Best of all, they offer the “Working People Special,” two pieces of hickory smoked chicken with one side for $2.99.

Kerry isn’t modest when it comes to his ribs. “My goal is to the best. Not the best in Tyler, the BEST in the world.” Hickory Hill BBQ is located on Texas Hwy 31 between Tyler and Kilgore.

Click here to see our East Texas BBQ Tour story online.

Hickory Hill BBQ, 20101 Highway 31, Tyler. Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. until the meat runs out

Photos ©Guy Reynolds

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Road trip to Louie Mueller Barbecue

Shortly after 11am, we pulled into the Louie Mueller Barbecue parking lot in Taylor, a storefront in an old downtown that had seen better days. The smoke clung to the walls and windows like paint. It was immediately apparent this place was like a Hollywood set for the classic Texas BBQ joint.

The line was almost to the door already, giving us time to soak in our surroundings. Unlike Snow's, where the pits were outside under a steel awning, these folks were smoking meat inside the restaurant. The smells and the memories they evoked were unforgettable.

Twenty minutes later we finally made my way up to the front of the line, past the menu, which was written on butcher paper and masking taped to the wall. The pit master tore off a big piece of wax paper, cut off a burnt end of brisket and tossed it on my paper, not saying a word. I ate it and immediately changed my order to include one pound of their incredible brisket, in addition to beef ribs and beef sausage, undoubtedly the best sausage I've ever tasted.

Click here to see Gary Jacobson's story on our first Central Texas BBQ Tour.

Louie Mueller Barbecue, 206 West 2nd Street, Taylor, Texas. Open Monday-Saturday 10:00 am - 7:30 pm.

Photos ©Gary Barber

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Barbecue Chronicles: One day, four pit stops in East Texas

The wheelman on a barbecue tour needs thick skin and quick reflexes. During a 240-mile trip from Dallas through East Texas on a recent Saturday, our driver had both. Moments after getting needled for poking along at 50 in a 70 mph zone, David Woo quickly had his car at the speed limit.

Then we spotted smoke coming from a portable smoker in front of a low building. We were headed east on State Highway 31, between Tyler and Kilgore, about 115 miles from Dallas.

"That looks interesting," one posse member said.

"Let's go back."

Woo, a photographer at The Dallas Morning News, quickly slowed and did a U-turn.

Hickory Hill BBQ wasn't on our itinerary, which consisted of three long-famous East Texas Oil Patch joints: Stanley's, Pat Gee's and Country Tavern. Oil and water may not mix, but oil country and barbecue do.

Open only seven months, Hickory Hill was short on history, long on promise.

"What's your best item?" we asked husband-and-wife owners Kerry and Kelly Shaw.

Their place had the feel of a clean, small-town diner. A picture of the Last Supper hung on one wall. The menu touted the Working People Special, two pieces of hickory-smoked chicken with one side, $2.99.

Kerry said everything he cooked was the best: "I want to be No. 1, not just in Tyler, but the world."

"You're raising expectations considerable," I cautioned.

It was about 3 p.m. We had lunched at Stanley's and had left Pat Gee's just minutes before. We ordered a plate of pork ribs to share. Several of us would call these the best ribs we had all day. Photographer Guy Reynolds said he would be happy if these could be part of his last supper.

As it turns out, the Shaws also have some marketing flair. They use the portable smoker to lure passing motorists. The pit is inside.

On the road again

Our barbecue posse, composed of staffers from The Dallas Morning News, took its first tour last November. We traveled nearly 600 miles in 28 hours, hitting five of the best places in the Central Texas barbecue belt.

After our story ran, we received lots of feedback. Some readers loved the tale. Others criticized our itinerary, our expertise and our ability to describe the ambience of great barbecue joints.

We were invited to have dinner with barbecue champ Myron Mixon (of BBQ Pitmasters on the TLC network). We couldn't make it. A serious local amateur wanted our take on his barbecue prowess. We're still waiting for nice patio weather to sample his stuff. A prison inmate (and former Dallas barbecue king) wrote to tell us he would soon be out and planned a comeback. We eagerly await the opening of his new place.

And almost a month after the story appeared, we received an e-mail from a group that duplicated our trip. They drove the same route and ate at eight places, all in one day.

All of the feedback convinced us there was appetite for more stories from the barbecue trail.

Posse expansion

Our East Texas trip included three members (Chris Wilkins, David Guzman and myself) of the original six-person posse and added five more, mostly from Dallas Morning News photo staff. We came armed with still and video cameras. At times, we had guys taking pictures of guys taking pictures of ribs, brisket and pit masters.

Wilkins, a photo editor, again set the itinerary. This time he focused on personal nostalgia. He grew up in Tyler and went to Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q as a kid.

We left downtown Dallas a few minutes before 10 a.m. Nearing Interstate 20, Woo asked Wilkins how he would rate the barbecue we expected to eat.

"Dude, I've had to re-rate everything in my life since our last trip," he said.

Wilkins' younger brother, Jonathan, was the fourth passenger in our car. A second car would meet us in Tyler, as would several other members of the Wilkins family, including his father, James.

Ribs were on our minds when we arrived at Stanley's shortly before 11:30 a.m. The sold-out sign by the door caused disappointment. Barely a half-hour after opening, the baby backs were gone.

Stanley's has changed little over the years. An outdoor deck has been added, but the roadhouse atmosphere is the same as when J.D. Stanley acquired the business in 1960. Stanley died in 2003.

The four-meat sampler is perfect for barbecue tours. Just meat - pick from brisket, pulled pork, ribs (when they have them), turkey, sausage - and two slices of white bread. No sides. Some members of the posse loved the brother-in-law sandwiches: chopped beef or pulled pork with sausage and a slice of cheese.

The smoked turkey breast came highly recommended. It was good. When I went back to order a pound to take home, it was gone. Never underestimate the quick reflexes of a good wheelman: Woo got the last of the turkey. By the time we left, the sausage was also sold out.

We drove a short distance to James Wilkins' house, where Nick Pencis, a musician and neighbor who now owns Stanley's, joined us.

Pencis explained the origin of Stanley's famous sandwich: It was made by J.D. for a guy who reminded him of his brother-in-law. "Old-school guys would never considering putting cheese on barbecue," Pencis said. "Just try it, man."

He had never been to Pat Gee's so we invited him along.

On to Pat Gee's

Pat's Barbecue is a few miles outside Tyler, near several rural churches. Woo's GPS got us close. Then, we followed the wood smoke.

The small, wood-frame building sits on a small lot notched between pine trees and pasture. An outhouse is out back.

Inside the main room, near the front door, is a fridge. Once, it was white. Four fly swatters hang from the counter, under the drink cooler. The light bulbs are bare, and the wood framing lumber is black, coated not with paint but 50 years of smoke.

Pat died in 1999, so family members run the place now. When his son, Arthur Gee, opened the door to the pit room, smoke sifted through.

"This isn't the best barbecue I've ever had, but it's the best place," Chris Wilkins said.

Several of us ordered brisket sandwiches. Billy Walker, another of Pat's sons, poured on their homemade sauce. "You'd offend him if you asked him to hold it," Chris said.

Pencis ordered ribs, sliced beef and ham. "I like the ham," he said. "I've never done ham."

Behind the counter, Arthur Gee concentrated on chopping and slicing. He wasn't much for conversation.

After eating, we said goodbye to Pencis and James Wilkins and worked our way back to Highway 31, detouring briefly to Hickory Hill BBQ.

Country Tavern

From the 1970s, the Wilkins brothers remembered the Country Tavern, outside Kilgore, as a smoky beer hall.

No more. Now the place is lit by neon, the napkins are cloth, a squadron of young waitresses greets customers at the door, and steamed towels are provided so guests can clean their hands after eating.

"This isn't a joint," Jonathan Wilkins said, "it's a restaurant."

At the large eating area filled with Saturday regulars, we ordered two pounds of ribs. Even though the posse quickly converted them to a plate of bones, there was some disappointment. "I liked the look of them better than the taste," said Michael Hamtil, a photo editor.

News editor Marty Melendy, an old-school traditionalist, spurned the cloth napkins. "We're in a barbecue place," he said. "I'm sticking with paper napkins."

With the help of Woo's GPS, we found a shortcut to I-20 and made it back to Dallas at 7:30 p.m. I kept thinking of something that Nick Pencis of Stanley's had said earlier:

"Everybody's favorite barbecue is what they grew up with."

There is some truth to that.

East Texas BBQ Tour itinerary

9:45 a.m.: Leave Dallas
11:30 a.m.: Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, 525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler, (903) 593-0311. Open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2 p.m.: Pat Gee's Barbecue, 17547 Jamestown Road, Tyler, (903) 534-0265. Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (or until the meat runs out)
3:30 p.m.: Hickory Hill BBQ, 20101 Highway 31, Tyler, (903) 566-7923. Open Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. until the meat runs out
4:30 p.m.: Country Tavern, FM 2767 at Highway 31, Kilgore, (903) 984-9954. Open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
7:30 p.m.: Back in Dallas

Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by Guy Reynolds & Chris Wilkins

Attending church can be good for your soul

A quick post from our friend and fellow posse member Gary "G" Barber, who's on the road today. He just made a lunch stop at the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbeque in Huntsville and felt compelled to send us a short email and a great iPhone photo of his plate.

We were all surprised last month when Daniel Vaughn, aka the BBQ Snob, wrote his review about a disappointing trip to New Zion, giving them a 2-star rating (out of a possible 6). Click here to see the review of his journey to the church. He wrote, "After all the hype, our carload of hopefulness was dashed."

G had a different take on the joint, it was obviously a better day for the pitmaster than Daniel's trip. Here's the email chain between posse members:

Gary: "Ain't nothing wrong with the church, Daniel was wrong."
Chris: "Damn......i could almost eat that picture!"
Irwin: "A little church won't hurt anyone. Except "G", who is stuffed right now."


New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbeque, 2601 Montgomery Rd, Huntsville, Texas. Open Thursday - Saturday 11 am-7 pm.

(Photo by Gary Barber)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Breakfast at Snow's

We had a full tank of gas, two big coolers, a set of horseshoes and an big appetite for central Texas BBQ. Our bags were packed with the consummate BBQ tour attire: sandals, extremely comfortable shorts & our favorite Hawaiian shirt. Why two coolers? One for the ice-cold beer, a necessity on any BBQ Tour, and one with the capacity to bring home 20 pounds of smokin meat.

We overnighted in Rockdale, north of Lexington, and arrived at a foggy Snow's BBQ in Lexington before 8am, beating the crowd by 15 minutes. They're only open on Saturdays and the meat runs out quickly, By 8:30am the line was out the door and growing by the minute. Things have never been the same in Lexington since June 2008, when Texas Monthly named Snow's the best BBQ in Texas.

After an amazing brisket breakfast, we hung out in the smoky pit area & talked BBQ technique with one of the pitmasters. We peppered him with questions. How long? What temp? What kind of wood? He explained they cooked the brisket uncovered, then tightly wrapped in foil & put back into the smoker. How long? Don’t know, just kinda cook by feel. This was the best brisket we had ever tasted, by far.

As we stood out front, chatting and listening to the surreal sound of cattle mooing down the street at the Lockhart Cattle Market, I remarked to the BBQ posse that it was all downhill from here. Click here to see Gary Jacobson's story on our first Central Texas BBQ Tour.

Snow's Barbeque, 516 Main Street, Lexington, Texas. Open Saturday 8 am til the meat runs out.

(Photos by Mike Gibson, David Guzman & Gary Jacobson)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Road trip to Randy's Bar-B-Que in Red Oak

Texas BBQ Posse members loaded up a couple of cars on Tuesday and headed down to Red Oak to check out lunch at Randy’s Bar-B-Que. Daniel Vaughn had named Randy's the number 2 BBQ joint in DFW in his recent D Magazine rankings, so we had to check it out for ourselves.

We were wheels up at 11:10 or so from downtown Dallas. Posse member Irwin Thompson warned that we better get there by before noon or risk a long line. We pulled in the lot a little bit after 11:30 and barely beat the crowd. It's a nondescript building without a sign on it, so keep an eye out for the Randy's sign beside Hwy. 342, the main drag in Red Oak.

As soon as you open the door, the smell of smoke hits you full force. I ordered a half-pound of brisket and the same of ribs, with a couple of pieces of white bread thrown in. Both were amazing, cooked almost perfectly. Gary Barber, pictured above, is voted the posse member most like to eat the most food on any BBQ tour. He did not disappoint at Randy's.

Gary, aka "G", plowed through a turkey sandwich, then a brisket sandwich. After that he turned his attention to the two giant ribs waiting on his tray. Fellow original BBQ posse member Gary Jacobson had to ask, "How he could you eat so much meat at one sitting, especially lunch?"

G's comeback was a classic Texas BBQ Posse response. "I don't know when I'm gonna be back down here." Priceless......

Randy's Bar-B-Que, 101 Eagle Dr, Red Oak, Texas. Open Monday - Saturday 11 am-8 pm.

Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Monday, March 8, 2010

Flashback at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q

We started our recent East Texas BBQ Tour at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler. It's been around since the 1950s, when W.G. Watson owned the joint. J.D. Stanley, a former oil field worker, bought and renamed it in 1960. Nick & Jen Pencis now own Stanley's, with deep respect to a 50-plus years of the history within.

I grew up in Tyler and some of my earliest dining memories are from Stanley's. Much to my surprise, the place is almost exactly how I remember it 40 years ago, when Mr. Stanley was taking orders at the counter. I always had my dad order a chopped beef sandwich with a Big Red back then.

These days, Stanley’s four meat sampler seems like the perfect offering for a BBQ tour. Just meat, a couple of white bread slices and no sides.

On tour, I always go for brisket and ribs unless I get a good tip on another meat. My sister Melissa Brigman, who lives in Tyler and eats at Stanley’s once a week, calls their smoked turkey the “best she’d ever had.” Like me, she was raised on Greenberg smoked turkeys, so I had to take her word for it. She was bang on, the turkey was tender and seasoned perfectly. Finishing second for me was the pulled pork, with brisket and links tied for third. Great meat all around and kudos to pitmaster Nick Pencis!

Click here to see our East Texas BBQ Tour story online.

Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, 525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler, Texas. Open Monday - Friday 7 am-2 pm, Saturday 11 am-til the meat runs out.

(Photo of W.G. Watson courtesy of Nick Pencis)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Coming soon: Tales from the East Texas BBQ Tour

A couple of weeks ago, the Texas BBQ Posse headed to east Texas in search of the best BBQ in the area. Posse founding member Gary Jacobson will once again be writing a story on the road trip for The Dallas Morning News, but you can click here for a sneak peek at the slideshow from our journey to the piney woods. We'll let you know when the story is published in two weeks or so.

The posse was made up of three of our members from the central Texas tour and five newbies. My dad James Wilkins, a Tyler artist, and Nick Pencis, pitmaster and owner of Stanley's joined us for part of the trip. Posse members in the photo below, from left to right, are Chris Wilkins, Gary Jacobson, Jon Wilkins, Marty Melendy, Michael Hamtil, David Guzman, David Woo and Guy Reynolds.

(Photos by Guy Reynolds)

Speaking of BBQ and Shacks

Another great BBQ joint in the Dallas area is Meshack's Bar-B-Que Shack in Garland, some of the best brisket you'll find north of Snow's BBQ in Lexington, Texas. Meshack's opened in May 2009 in a small building east of old downtown Garland. It was discovered by Daniel Vaughn, the BBQ Snob, later in August and the rest is history.

Daniel blogged about Meshack's on his Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog, assigning it his first 4-star ranking in the Dallas area, outside of a few in Ft. Worth. He recently ranked DFW BBQ joints for D Magazine, in his story titled "The Best Barbecue in Dallas (That’s Not Really in Dallas)."

Daniel named Meshack's no. 5 on his list of 16 top BBQ restaurants, an amazing accomplishment for a place that's been open for less than a year. It's a true testament to the pitmaster skills of Travis Mayes, who runs the place along with his wife Donna. They are two of the most wonderful folks you'll ever meet. Good luck to Travis & Donna as they serve up some of the best smoked meats in Texas.

Meshack's Bar-B-Que Shack, 240 E. Ave. B, Garland, Texas. Open Tuesday 10:30 am-5 pm, Wednesday-Saturday 10:30am-7pm.

(Photos by Irwin Thompson)

A shout out to the BBQ Snob

For guidance and inspiration along the BBQ trail, the Texas BBQ Posse has turned many times to Daniel Vaughn, aka the BBQ Snob. Daniel is a local architect. He has a great website, the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog, reviewing Texas BBQ joints.

We had already started following his blog when fellow posse member David Woo and I had a chance to have lunch with Daniel at The Baby Back Shak. The Dallas Morning News was doing a story on the phenomenal success of his blog. David and I ate ribs and talked que with Daniel, then David shot photos of him back by the smoker for the article.

Daniel has been to hundreds of BBQ establishments & you can search his blog by city, name, ranking, etc. If you scroll down a little on the page, you can view his list of 5-star places on the right, he has 14 total in the state. Click here to see the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog. He also created a handy Google map of BBQ joints around the state, both visited and on the list to visit. Clink here to see the map.

The is no better resource than his blog if you're hunting BBQ joints in Texas. We thank Daniel for sharing his time and appetite for BBQ with us all. Click here for a link to the story we did on Daniel in the Morning News. One last thing, click here to check out and join Full Custom Gospel BBQ's fan page on Facebook.

(Photo of Daniel at The Baby Back Shak by David Woo)

Support your local Shak

Despite what you might read in D Magazine, the best BBQ in the city of Dallas is located at 1800 South Akard St. Just a mile south of City Hall, it's worth the trip any time to enjoy pitmaster and owner Clarence Cohen's masterfully prepared ribs and other meats at the Baby Back Shak. The ribs are the best we've had in Dallas, bar none.

Clarence also offers great sides, including his green beans (reminds me of my grandma's) and the infamous Shak beans, some of the best BBQ beans you'll ever have. Click here to visit the Shak's website and view the menu. Clink here to check out or join the Baby Back Shak Fan Club page on Facebook. Enjoy!

Baby Back Shak, 1800 South Akard St., Dallas, Texas. Open Monday-Thursday 11 am-5:45 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-6:45 pm.

Photo © Guy Reynolds

The Barbecue Chronicles: Our first journey to Central Texas

In thick fog on a Saturday morning, we missed the turn for Lexington. We quickly doubled back and arrived at Snow's BBQ a little after 8 a.m., relieved to see only a short line.

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.

Eating practice

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.

An early start

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.

How long?

"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.

Game plan

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.

An exercise break

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