Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Barbecue Chronicles: Central Texas 5-Star BBQ Tour, 8 joints in 26 hours

Some of us didn’t know what good smoked brisket was until we ate at Snow’s during our first Barbecue Posse tour a year ago. Since then, the Lexington place has been our unanimous standard. Nothing compared.

But after a recent two-day, 555-mile “anniversary” tour to Central Texas, there’s a new favorite for several of us: Franklin Barbecue, a trailer joint at 34th street and I-35 in Austin.

Over a 26-hour period, we ate at eight places, including lunch at Franklin and breakfast at Snow’s BBQ the next morning. Tour organizer Chris Wilkins, a photo editor at The Dallas Morning News, planned it that way so we would have a good basis for comparing the two places.

Sheilagh Cooper, making her first posse tour, called Franklin’s brisket “salty heavenly goodness.” Posse veteran David Woo, a photographer for The News, said he “began to drool” like his old basset hound when he watched proprietor Aaron Franklin cut the meat.

Franklin’s, located behind a former gas station, has been open about a year. Two trailers house barbecue pits. Everything is served from a third trailer. Aaron Franklin said he hopes to soon move into a permanent building.

“I’m telling friends they should visit Franklin as soon as they can,” Bruce Tomaso, an editor at The News, said. “The trailer experience will never be duplicated in a restaurant; and the brisket might not be, either.”

We’ve made six barbecue tours around Texas in the past year, covering nearly 2,000 miles. More than any other, this was a trip of contrasts. In addition to small joints like Franklin, Snow’s and the Taylor Cafe, we visited a classy restaurant, Lambert’s in Austin; a big-box barbecue outlet, Southside Market in Elgin; and classic butcher shop/BBQ combinations like Prause Meat Market in La Grange and City Meat Market in Giddings.

There was some very nice central Texas scenery, too, especially during the early Saturday morning drive from Taylor to Lexington. Steam rose from the creeks and farm ponds. Patches of fog covered the grass meadows. The air smelled of sage.

And if you like railroads, there are plenty of train-watching opportunities, particularly the switching yard just outside the doors of the Taylor Café in downtown Taylor.

The tour started at Franklin. Some of us had eaten there before, but the posse hadn’t yet made it a stop. The place opens at 11 and usually sells out within a few hours. This Friday, the sold-out sign was posted at 12:30. Impressive, considering that Aaron Franklin said he had cooked about 325 pounds of brisket that day, in addition to ribs, sausage, and pulled pork.

Fortunately, posse member Mike Gagne, who lives in Austin, had ordered ahead. And when the main contingent from Dallas assembled about 1 p.m., a whole brisket, a rack or ribs and sausage were waiting for us.

A dozen strong, we dived in.

On taste and tenderness, it’s hard to choose between Franklin and Snow’s brisket. What gives the Austin joint the edge, most of us said, was the nice crust. Aficionados call it bark.

After we finished eating, Aaron Franklin came out from his serving trailer and talked to us. We learned that after a few hours of smoking, he wraps his brisket in butcher paper and continues smoking until it’s done. The theory is that butcher paper doesn’t trap moisture to the same extent as foil, which is used at many other places, including Snow’s. That allows for a crispier crust.

Franklin said he built his two smokers himself, from large propane tanks. And, he is working on two more smokers that he said he plans to incorporate into his new location.

Several people help him prepare the meats, side dishes, and serve, but the proprietor himself is indispensable.

“When I’m sick or not here, we’re not open,” Franklin said.

Our next stop was a short drive away, Lambert’s in downtown Austin.

Without a doubt, Lambert’s has the classiest bar we’ve ever seen in a barbecue place. It offers many brands of single-malt Scotch, including Oban, several high-end tequilas, like Reserva de la Familia from Jose Cuervo, and Blanton’s bourbon.

“Excellent sausage, damn good shots of whiskey,” said tour veteran Marshall Cooper, who is married to Sheilagh.

We arrived too late for the regular lunch menu, but we were able to sample several barbecued meats. We loved the sweet and hot wild boar ribs, served with a touch of blue cheese.

Normally on barbecue tours, we’re not much into side dishes. But posse member Libby Jacobson, my daughter and an Austin attorney and regular at Lambert’s, said we shouldn’t miss the mac and cheese. Even though it wasn’t on the abbreviated bar menu, she talked them into preparing some.

“That was sublime,” said posse veteran Jim Rossman, a tech writer at The News.

The short drive to Elgin, east of Austin on Highway 290, was complicated by rush-hour traffic, and we arrived at Southside Market at dusk. In business since 1882, Southside is proud of its sausage. It says it has made so much that it could circle Texas with links.

Marshall Cooper wasn’t impressed. “You gotta sauce this to get some flavor,” he said. “That’s bad.”

Southside did have something we had never seen before: an automatic plastic utensil dispenser. Hit a lever and out pops a fork.

From Elgin, we drove north on Highway 95 about 16 miles to Taylor. When we walked through the door of the Taylor Café about 8 p.m., Vencil Mares was holding court, much as the octogenarian has for more than half-century as owner.

Don Kovar, who assists Vencil, gave us a tour of kitchen. He said Vencil’s methods haven’t changed much over the years. “Ask him what’s high-tech and he’ll tell you turkey sausage,” Kovar said.

No one in the posse had much room left for barbecue, but a couple of us ordered small plates.

“This place is a bargain,” said Rossman. “$6.50 for a brisket sandwich and two beers. Vencil’s got it going on.”

We stayed at a motel in Taylor, about a 40-minute drive on Highway 112 from Lexington, home of Snow’s.

A year ago, we thought brisket for breakfast was odd. Not anymore. It tasted just as good as we remembered.

We told owner Kerry Bexley that we had eaten at Franklin’s the previous day.

“I’ve met him, but never eaten his stuff,” Bexley said. “I hear he’s putting out good stuff.”
Prause Meat Market, on the town square in La Grange, is still operated by the same family that founded the business a century ago. Tourists use the front door, locals the back, just like at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, the barbecue capital of Texas.

We sampled the sausage and pork. Both were good.

The dining room serves as a community bulletin board. “Deer Pictures Bring Yours! Other critters welcome,” said a hand-written sign on one wall. Above it were dozens of photos of hunters posing with dead deer and wild hogs.

On the opposite wall, there was a long cord. Notices were attached with clothespins: A big barbecue at the VFW, a course for concealed hand gun permits, La Grange’s Schmeckenfest featuring the lighting of the tree and Santa, a 24-hour family crisis hotline, and a hand-written plea for a community member in need. “She has cancer, needs prayer,” the note said.

If we lived in La Grange, we’d make Prause a regular stop.

Probably not Zimmerhanzel’s Bar-B-Que in Smithville. The line for food was long when we arrived, just after noon. And, talking to the locals in line, they loved the place, especially the ribs. But there wasn’t any atmosphere. Just a big room with tables.

By the time we ordered, the ribs were gone. We ordered chicken to take out and went to a city park to eat. There was some nice smoke taste, but we didn’t finish our order.

Our last stop was City Meat Market in downtown Giddings. Snow’s buys its meat there. We passed the place earlier in the day on our way to La Grange and probably should have stopped then.

By the time we arrived, 3 p.m. or so, they were out of everything except sausage and pork. Both were among the best we had on the trip.

“I have a feeling that City Meat Market might be right up there with the best places we visited,” Tomaso said. “I’d like to try it again when they’re not almost out of meat, and when it’s not my eighth barbecue meal in 26 hours.”

As we left City Market, Marshall Cooper, a commercial real estate broker and amateur barbecue master, asked if there was any place he could buy butcher paper. The server behind the counter gave him some.

A few hours later, back home in Dallas, Cooper fired up his smoker to test Aaron Franklin’s method. His verdict: Great crust, butter tender, but too smoky.

“Need another test or two,” Cooper said.

Central Texas 5-Star Anniversary BBQ Tour itinerary

Friday
10 a.m.: Leave Dallas
12:30 p.m.: Lunch at Franklin Barbecue, 3421 N. I-35 (old address), Austin, (512) 653-1187. Open Sun-Sat, 11 a.m.-until the meat runs out. (New address is 900 E. 11th, Austin)
2:30 p.m.: Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, 401 W. Second, Austin, (512) 494-1500. Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
5:30 p.m.: Southside Market BBQ, 1212 U.S. 290, at Hwy 95, Elgin, (512) 285-3407. Open Mon-Thur 8 a.m.-8p.m., Fri-Sat 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.-7p.m.
7:30 p.m.: Dinner at Taylor Cafe, 101 N Main St., Taylor, (512) 352-847. Open Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat-Sun 10a.m.-11p.m.
Overnight in Taylor.

Saturday
8 a.m.: Breakfast at Snow’s BBQ, 516 Main St, Lexington, (979) 773-4640. Open Sat. 8 a.m.–12 p.m. or until the meat runs out.
10:30 a.m.: Prause Meat Market, 253 W. Travis, La Grange, (979) 968-3259. Open Mon-Wed & Fri 7 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Thur 7 a.m.-1 p.m., Sat 5:30 a.m.-1 p.m.
12:30 p.m.: Zimmerhanzel’s Bar-B-Que, 307 Royston (Hwy 95), Smithville, (512) 237-4244. Open Mon-Sat 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
3 p.m.: City Meat Market, 101 W. Austin, Giddings, (979) 542-2740. Open Mon-Fri 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sat 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
4 p.m.: Head back to Dallas

Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by Chris Wilkins

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