Friday, April 29, 2011

Report from the new Franklin Barbecue: It's still the same ol' amazing BBQ

Texas BBQ Posse member Phil Lamb checks in after a visit to Franklin Barbecue's new location at 900 E. 11th in Austin. Franklin's former home, the little blue trailer at Concordia & I-35, quickly became a Texas BBQ legend.

Can pitmaster Aaron Franklin continue to produce what some call the best brisket in Texas at his new sit down restaurant? That's the million dollar question among Texas BBQ followers.

Phil writes:

I had another great BBQ lunch at Franklin this afternoon. My uncle and I did 1 lb. brisket (lean), 1 lb. brisket (fatty), 2 lbs ribs and 2 sausage links. All were outstanding. Lots of smoke, great bark.

Brisket burglary! Is there a worse BBQ crime?

In our recent post about Baby J's Bar-B-Que & Fish in Palestine, we promised to tell you why Jeremiah "Baby J" McKenzie padlocks the cooking chambers on his brisket pit.

Well, that wasn't the only instance of brisket burglary we encountered on our recent East Texas barbecue tour. Taste and temptation must be the devil's work.

Ron Davis, who runs Stacy's Bar-B-Q in Jacksonville, told us that "every now and then" someone breaks into the small building that houses his two big gas-fired smokers and grabs some meat.

"They don't wear gloves and the briskets are hot so they usually drop them right outside the door," he said.

McKenzie, also the pastor at One Way Apostolic Church in Palestine, keeps the cooking chambers locked on the brisket smoker outside his joint.

That may be for the sake of the tempted as well as the temptation -- the meat.

When we visited, he told a story about a woman who swiped a foiled brisket from the pit. As she tried to get away in her car, the hot juices started leaking through the foil, scalding her. That caused her to mistakenly hit the gas and crash, he said.

The lord works in mysterious ways. Either that, or she's a fan of Texas BBQ.

Photos © Gary Barber & Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q in Lockhart: Where the locals eat

Finishing our I-10 BBQ roadtrip in Lockhart was never the plan. We pulled away from our fourth stop, Family Tradition Bar-B-Q in Waelder, without a destination in mind.

Jeff and I headed west on Hwy. 90 toward Luling, where we had started the day with a 10:30 am BBQ breakfast at City Market. Passing through town we saw the sign: Lockhart - 17 miles. You gotta do what you gotta do.

We headed north up Hwy. 183 and were in Lockhart in no time. Carl Ellis, a former Dallas Morning News sports editor who now lives in Lockhart, had told me about Chisholm Trail, the fourth and least famous of Lockhart's famous BBQ joints.

Carl and I were talking BBQ one day when he came back to visit the DMN. He was raving about Chisholm Trail and asked if I had been there.

"The tourists go to Kreuz, Smitty's and Black's," Carl said. "The locals go to Chisholm Trail. Just as good but costs less."

I put the joint on the top of my must-visit list from that day on. After four joints in six hours, this would be the icing on the cake of our BBQ daytrip.

We stepped up to the counter and ordered a half pound of brisket and a ring sausage, there wasn't much room left in the tank at that point.

We had previously agreed that our last stop at Family Tradition Bar-B-Q in Waelder was the best overall of the day, but the meats at Chisholm Trail were nothing short of spectacular. Both the sausage and brisket were perfectly cooked, making us wish we had a little more room for meat.

We split a peach cobbler with Blue Bell vanilla on top as a nightcap, then headed back to San Antonio.

Five joints in seven hours, 225 miles roundtrip from San Antonio. Just another little BBQ roadtrip, as we continue searching for the finest smoked meats in the greatest state in the union......

Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q, 1323 South Colorado Street, Lockhart, TX, (512) 398-6027. Open daily 8am-8pm.

Photos by Jeff Haynes & Chris Wilkins

Saturday, April 23, 2011

BBQ Signs of our Times - Chapter 3

Back by popular demand, our BBQ signs series continues. A rule of thumb: The more homemade the sign, the down home the barbecue. Here are some signs from our recent East Texas II BBQ Tour and a couple of other recent BBQ roadtrips. You can click to see the first BBQ Signs of our Times post or BBQ Signs of our Times II. Thanks to new posse member Phil Lamb for his contributions to this chapter.

Family Tradition Bar-B-Q, Waelder, TX

Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, Palestine, TX

Lonnie Ray's BBQ, Harrisburg, MO

Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Que, Tyler, TX

Stacy's Barbecue, Jacksonville, TX

Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, Palestine, TX

City Market, Luling, TX

Gonzales Food Market, Gonzales, TX

Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, Palestine, TX

Cripple Creek BBQ, Athens, TX

Smok'n J's Butt Nekkid BBQ, Montalba, TX

Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, Palestine, TX

Photos by Philip Lamb & Chris Wilkins

If we're the posse, he's the sheriff

The tough part about always being the guy behind the camera is that you're never* in the photo.

Chris Wilkins, the driving force behind the Texas BBQ Posse, is a professional photographer. So are a lot of posse members. But Chris is the guy who's always ready with his lenses and flash when we pull up to a new joint. He's the guy who's always walking in with at least two cameras around his neck. He's the guy who's always in perfect position to record the moment when a pitmaster agrees to take us around back and show us where the magic happens.

Which means, as I said, that he's seldom in the shot.

So here's my amateur-shooter's** gift to readers of the Posse blog: A Portrait of the Artist as a Hungry Man. (Looking closely, it appears that Chris might have three cameras around his neck.)

*One exception is the group picture that Chris always makes when we go on a tour. For those, he uses the shutter timer and joins us in the frame. Once, to get this shot, I saw him use a beer can as a tripod.

**Want to know just how amateur a shooter I am? Well, I count four telephone poles in the background in photo above, and I'm impressed that I don't have a single one growing out of Wikins' head. (OK, one's close...)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pit Talk: Smoking brisket in a grocery sack

Jason Hoskins writes:

First of all, I enjoy your blog. Check in on it everyday.

I have one question. I am planning on smoking a brisket this weekend and I wanted to try the butcher paper method you all wrote about. The problem, I can't find any plain brown butcher paper and I don't have time to order it.

I was wondering if you all thought a plain brown paper sack (grocery bag) would work? I figured it is basically the same as butcher paper but I'm not totally sure.

Thanks for your time.

Posse Pitmaster Marshall Cooper responds:

Interesting question Jason. I had always heard of family members using paper grocery sacks to roast turkeys in the oven.

The day we returned from the Central Texas Tour I didn't have enough butcher paper from City Market to wrap the size brisket I had, so I chose to try a paper bag from Whole Foods (organic right!).

Looking back, and comparing the paper bag experience with subsequent cooks with butcher paper:

1. The large-sized grocery paper bag wasn't big enough to fold over to obtain a reasonably tight seal on the brisket. This resulted in smoke entering the bag and way oversmoking the brisket (aka meteorite). Then again, while waiting for the butcher paper to be delivered in the mail, I tried it a second time with two paper bags, taped and stapled. But, again, too much smoke seeped into the bag!

2. Using the paper grocery sack also meant an extremely long cook time for the brisket. Maybe the paper sack was too thick, which may have over-insulated the meat causing it to cook slower, which compounded the over-smoke issue.

So I've tried using the paper grocery bag on two separate occasions and the results were very similar, long cook times and way too much smoke. The brisket was much drier using the paper sacks compared to butcher paper.

I suspect there is something to being able to tightly wrap and fold the brisket three times, producing a decent seal to keep smoke from directly seeping inside. But my experience is based on using my offset BBQ pit, which surely produces unique results compared to someone else's pit. The butcher paper method does not work well in a direct heat smoker like a Weber bullet and WSM. It works best in an offset, stick burner.

If your pit is efficient, burns clean and maintains steady, even temps, it might work with a paper grocery sack. But the 25-30 hours of cook time I spent ended with poor results. If you have the patience and time it takes to spend smoking briskets, I say be a little more patient and just mail order some butcher paper.

Photo by Chris Wilkins

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Best name ever for a barbecue joint? Smok'n J's Butt Nekkid BBQ

We were driving on Highway 19 between Palestine and Athens when we spotted the smoke.

No one wanted to cram an extra stop into our East Texas barbecue tour last weekend. We were stuffed after eating at three places and we wanted only to sample the Hog Wings at Cripple Creek in Athens before returning to Dallas.

But the smoke on the side of the highway in Montalba was enticing. We drove past, but Posse co-found Chris Wilkins said, "We probably should turn around." Wheelman Marshall Cooper obliged.

And so we pulled into Smokin' Jay Galloway's Butt Nekkid BBQ.

"We don't put anything on our brisket except smoke," Galloway said, explaining the name.

Open about a year, Galloway said he cooks every night and sells out every day. He offers a chopped beef sandwich special with chips and a drink for $5, sales tax included.

He was out of ribs when we arrived about 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon. We sampled his brisket and sausage and decided it would be nice to visit again when he still had ribs.

The joint itself, with its loose brick entryway and hand-strung, lighted "BBQ" sign, is unique. I would call it cute or quaint. Tour veteran Sheilagh Cooper called it "eclectic." Bruce Tomaso said "faux rustic."

However you describe it, it's one of a kind.

Smok'n J's Butt Nekkid BBQ, Hwy. 19 at FM 321, Montalba, 903-373-2956. Open Wed-Sun 10 a.m.-7 p.m. or when the meat runs out.

Photos by Chris Wilkins

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Texas Monthly's Pat Sharpe joins the Top 50 BBQ dialogue....

Texas Monthly executive editor and food writer Pat Sharpe graciously comments on our blog posts regarding their Top 50 BBQ rankings. We wanted to publish her comments in a seperate post to be sure everyone got a chance to read it.

Hello, all.

Since I am the person who heads up Texas Monthly's top-fifty list every five years, let me respond to a couple of questions. We do, in fact (as Jacob said, above), indicate whether each place uses wood or gas/electric, but it's in the form of a symbol (of flames or a commercial smoker) so a reader might not notice it immediately.

This thread suggests we should put the description in words next time. Forty-one places on the list use wood and nine use gas or electric (one of those has a combo).

Like all of you, I prefer wood-smoked barbecue (who in their right mind doesn't?). But if we had not considered 'cue done in a commercial smoker when we did the tasting in 2008, we would have left out these cities altogether: Austin, Crockett, Dickens, Harlingen, Jacksonville, Los Fresnos, Paris, Peadenville, and San Benito.

No matter how much we might regret it, the barbecue world is moving rapidly in the direction of commercial smokers. When I participated in my first Texas Monthly barbecue round-up in 1997, there was probably not a commercial smoker in use except at the big chains. Now they are all over the place.

We made the decision to judge the meat solely on the basis of taste, on the theory that there is more to smoking than fuel source (like keeping the temperature constant and quality of meat, to name just two).

Was that a good or a bad decision? I'm curious to know what readers of Texas BBQ Posse think. We'll be doing the story again in two years, so there is time to mull it over.

Pat Sharpe, executive editor and food writer, Texas Monthly

More on Texas Monthly’s taking the gas

I don’t mean to pour charcoal lighter on the fire, but Gary is indisputably correct about gas versus wood: No one who cooks with gas belongs on a list of Texas’ best barbecue joints, any more than grape Nehi belongs on a wine list. (And the offense isn't pardoned just because the gas cook throws on, as Marshall Cooper puts it, "a couple of sticks of wood for perfume.")

Texas Monthly, more than most, ought to realize this. Indeed, in the introduction to the magazine’s last Top 50 issue (published in June 2008), the editors described their vaunted list thusly:

Our quintessential, quinquennial review of the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas, with special attention paid to the top five (one of which you’ve probably never heard of), the cherished components of the classic barbecue meal, and the pits in which our meats are smoked, seared, or (Lord help us!) gassed. (Emphasis added.)

Patricia Sharpe, Monthly’s superb food writer, wrote that the 2008 list differed from the 2003 list in at least one important way:

[T]he biggest change over the past five years is that the gas-burning commercial smoker is gaining ground. …To give the devil his due, this contraption has brought acceptable barbecue to areas where it hardly existed, like the Rio Grande Valley. The danger is that it will replace traditional pit-smoking, as fewer and fewer people are willing to get up at three in the morning to sustain this labor-intensive craft. The smoker has also enabled giant, mediocre chains … to proliferate like houseflies. With so many children cutting their teeth on institutional barbecue, one fears for the future.

All of which leads one to ask: If the thought of cooking with gas instead of wood makes you gasp, “Lord help us!”, if the nicest thing you can say about gas is that it’s made “acceptable” barbecue more widely available, if there’s a danger that it will drive true wood-smoking into a small corner of the barbecue world, if it’s to blame for the success of “giant, mediocre chains,” and if it threatens to produce a generation of Texans who know nothing but “institutional barbecue” – then why can’t you people find 50 top joints in the Great State of Texas that cook brisket the way God meant it to be cooked: With wood?

Photos by Chris Wilkins & David Woo

Monday, April 18, 2011

'Someone needs to call out Texas Monthly on its Top 50 BBQ joints'

One of the great things about full-day barbecue tours is the time it allows for important, spirited debates about important issues.

Some of the topics we've addressed: Is it ever worth making a special stop at a joint that advertises on a highway billboard? (No.) Should you make an impromptu stop at a place that has "Soulman" in its name? (Probably not. They're trying too hard.) Can "great" sausage ever truly compare to "great" brisket? (No. We need a new grading system for sausage.)

On our East Texas tour last weekend, we got into a new hot topic.

"Someone needs to call out Texas Monthly on its Top 50 BBQ joints" one Posse member said as we were driving back to Dallas after eating at five places. Four of them were Texas Monthly Top 50 picks in 2008, the last rankings. Two cooked with wood (Stanley's in Tyler and Baby J's in Palestine) and two with gas (Stacy's in Jacksonville and Cripple Creek in Athens).

To us, there was no comparison. In taste, the guys with the gas-fired smokers didn't come close to the guys using all wood.

"They should have separate lists," someone said of Texas Monthly.

"They shouldn't include the gas guys," another said.

"They should at least tell you when the place uses gas," another said. "What does it take to walk to the back of the joint and check out the pit?"

None of the criticisms were uttered lightly. We consider Texas Monthly's once-every-five-years ranking the bible of Texas barbecue. And, we love going to Lambert's in Austin. We just don't consider it a true BBQ place.

So, Texas Monthly, consider yourself called out.

Photos by Chris Wilkins & Jeff Haynes

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pitmaster and preacher, Baby J McKenzie wins BBQ converts in Palestine

It's the most unusual smoker any of us have seen. A giant black metal box on short stilts with a smokestack reaching 20-feet high, located just out the side door from Baby J's Bar B Que and Fish near Palestine.

With a flick of his wrist, Jeremiah "Baby J" McKenzie toggles one of the huge counterweights and a door magically lifts, exposing eight rotating cook racks filled with chicken and ribs.

There is an identical cooking chamber on the opposite side. "That's just heaven," says Posse veteran Marshall Cooper, clearly smitten with an acute case of smoker envy. In Cooper's case, that takes some doing. He owns a Jambo J-3.

Jeremiah calls this unique smoker Big Baby. He can load 10 logs at a time in the converted fire box underneath.

"This had gas when I got it," he says. "We don't want gas."

Then, on a beautiful East Texas Saturday afternoon, he leads the Posse, 12 strong, on a slow procession to the parking area in front of his building where a more conventional, tank-style pit is smoking away.

"The big one don't pass my test on brisket," Baby J says. "For chicken, ribs, it's perfect. But for brisket, this one here made my reputation."

He takes the padlock off one of the cooking chambers and starts unwrapping a couple of the foiled briskets.

"This still has about an hour or so to go but you can get an idea," he says as he cuts samples and passes them out to reaching hands.

The pieces are hot, dripping in juices, and a little more than one bite in size, which makes for some interesting contortions as we try to eat without burning our mouths or getting grease on our chins and clothes.

"Outstanding," says Phil Lamb, an attorney making his first tour with the Posse. "Can I buy half of that brisket?"

Baby J nods yes. He explains that he cooks his briskets for 18 hours or so, never allowing the temperature to go above "boiling."

"I never get in no hurry," he says.

McKenzie, the youngest of eight children, therefore Baby J, started his joint in 2007 and made Texas Monthly's Top 50 list in 2008. He closed for a while but opened again last year.

For a decade, he has also been pastor at One Way Apostolic Church in Palestine.

"Do you ever use barbecue in your sermons?" I ask.

"Yes," he replies. "I say in the Christian religion, you can't be fast. You gotta go slow. When you go fast, you mess up."

We'll have more later from our East Texas tour, including why Baby J padlocks his pit.

Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, 111 ACR 1405, Palestine, 903-729-8402. Open Tues-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse

Friday, April 15, 2011

On the road again: East Texas II BBQ Tour begins tomorrow at Stanley's

The posse returns to one of our favorite joints in the state on Saturday to begin the second East Texas BBQ tour. Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler was the starting point for our first East Texas tour in February 2010.

We've gotten to know owner and pitmaster Nick Pencis pretty well since then, he's one of the "young gun" pitmasters who are leading the next generation of great Texas BBQ cooks. We can't wait to try Stanley's ribs, considered by many to be among the best in the state.

The first time the Posse was there, a customer bought out all the ribs by 11:15 a.m., so we didn't get a taste. Nick has been anxious to get us back since then.

All four of the scheduled stops are Texas Monthly top 50 joints. Of course, we'll let you know what we discover and also hope to find an off-the-radar joint or two along the way.

Here's the plan for Saturday. If you happen to be around any of these stops, please keep an eye out for the Posse and let us know what you think.

East Texas II BBQ Tour itinerary April 16. 2011

11 a.m.: Meet at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q, 525 S. Beckham Ave., Tyler, 903-593-0311. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-til the meat runs out.
Stop no. 2: Stacy's Bar-B-Q, 1217 South Jackson Street (Hwy 69), Jacksonville, 903-56-1951. Open Tues-Sat 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.
Stop no. 3: Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, FM 2419 at U.S. 287, Palestine, 903-729-8402. Open Thur-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Stop no. 4: Cripple Creek BBQ, 500 S. Palestine Street, Athens, 903-677-4226. Open M-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9.

Photo by Chris Wilkins

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pit Talk: Finding the best level of BBQ smoke

Here's a new feature on our blog, Pit Talk. Texas BBQ Posse pitmaster Marshall Cooper will share insights he's gained in almost 30 years manning a backyard smoker. Here are a few of his thoughts on smoke and BBQ.

Marshall writes:

So, it seems there could be a big disparity on desired smoke levels between competition judges, BBQ restaurants and everyone else.

In talking to several competition guys, "the judges just want a very subtle layer of smoke, so you can taste smoke but not enough smoke that it makes you burp" is one comment.

"I always lose points if I put too much smoke on the product," says another.

In contrast, many BBQ restaurants in DFW seem to put more smoke (but not too heavy) on the meat, like Pecan Lodge, Meshacks, Off The Bone and Lockhart Smokehouse. To me, Franklin, Kreuz and Snow's don't seem to be as heavy on the smoke as some of DFW BBQ joints.

Historically, I have put a heavy smoke layer, to the point of needing a Tums and Nexium/Prilosec cocktail to be able to sleep! Looking back, I like heavy smoke but my bbq tastes have recently changed.

My Jambo pit gives you better control on smoke levels, either to maintain a clean fire [due to the way the pit is so well engineered and tuned] and get lighter smoke levels or to burn a less clean fire and get more smoke, by varying the time in the pit before wrapping the meat with foil or butcher paper.

Aaron Franklin told me, "I can always tell if the BBQ was not cooked on a clean fire."

So does anybody have any comments on smoke levels? What are your preferences? Mid-level or less? A cleaner fire with slight smoke layer?

Tell us what you think.

Photos by R.J. Hinkle & Marshall Cooper

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Novosad BBQ & Sausage Market: The I-10 BBQ adventure continues

After lunch at Gonzales Food Market, we headed east on Hwy. 90. The next official stop was going to be City Market in Schulenburg, but we hoped to find a joint or two on the 41 mile drive over.

We talked about having a cold Shiner beer in the town of Shiner, of course. This was the first decent sized town on the route, but we came up empty. The brewery was closed and we didn't find a bar open. Onward to Hallettsville and Novosad BBQ & Sausage Market, a joint I had heard of but didn't know much about.

Another classic small town setting, with historic courthouse. Lots of deer trophies on the walls along with a classic three-sided meat counter and well-worn butcher block, all good signs to the BBQ daytripper.

The lunch rush was over as we joined three other guys in the dining room, sitting down at a table adorned with a red hot chili pepper tablecloth. The joint was classic 1970s Texana decor, taking you back to the glory days of Novosad BBQ, which was selected as one of the top 50 BBQ joints in the state by Texas Monthly magazine in 1997.

I could tell by looking at the meat choices that we may not have hit them at a peak time to eat. We tried the ribs, which had good taste but were dry, and the sausage, which was better but still a little dried out. Both had probably been off the pit for a while.

We were soon joined by a group of 11 guys from New York, who pulled up in an RV they had rented for the weekend after flying into Austin. They were on their eighth stop of the day, their third day on tour, and this was their second annual Texas BBQ trip.

They had started with a group of 12, but lost one along the way. Not sure exactly what happened to that guy, but our BBQ journeys have convinced us that you can indeed overdose on meat. I've been meat drunk more than once, it's just part of the life of a BBQ posse member. Always think portion control when on a BBQ tour!

We nibbled a little more on our ribs and sausage, took a deep breath and loaded up, heading north toward our fourth stop in Schulenburg......

Novosad BBQ & Sausage Market, 105 South La Grange Street, Hallettsville, TX, (361) 798-2770. Open Tues-Sat 8am-3pm.

Photos by Jeff Haynes & Chris Wilkins