Wednesday, January 25, 2012
The Barbecue Chronicles: Tales from the Speedtrap BBQ Tour
Last Friday night, a friend and I went to see Tool. My friend, a student at Texas Christian University, doesn’t have a car, so I picked him up.
I got off work and headed west on Interstate 30 from downtown Dallas to the TCU campus in Fort Worth. Then we got back on I-30 and drove east, to the concert arena in Grand Prairie. After the show, it was west on I-30 again to drop off my friend.
Then I drove home.
All in all, between 5 p.m. and 2 a.m. I drove 150 miles.
If that seems nutty to you, then A) you’re probably not a Tool fan; and B) wait till you hear what the Texas BBQ Posse did on Saturday.
We met before sunrise and hit the road to take in five joints in five Central Texas towns – a trip that covered 527 miles in just over 12 hours.
On the tour, we discovered one new gem.
And we learned what the speed limit is on the road into Lexington.
Our rendezvous point was the North Dallas home of Marshall Cooper, the Posse’s pitmaster. There were four of us. Marshall, a commercial real estate broker, agreed to drive.
Marshall’s home is exactly 191 miles from our first stop, Snow’s BBQ in Lexington.
At Mile 190, we met Officer Wooldridge.
Officer Wooldridge, one of Lexington’s finest, was of the opinion that 67 mph in a 55-mph zone was excessive. He should know. He seemed to spend most of his time parked by the side of the road with a radar gun, no doubt collecting data to test his hypothesis.
After receiving a written invitation from Officer Wooldridge to appear in Lexington Municipal Court at a future date, Marshall slowly drove that one last mile to Snow’s.
Snow’s is the reigning champion on Texas Monthly’s list of the Top 50 barbecue joints in the state. (The select list is published every five years; the next one comes out in 2013.) It’s only open on Saturdays, there’s always a line out the door, and we usually make it our “breakfast stop” when we’re in the Austin area.
It’s never disappointed.
The bill came to $30. “I can spend almost that much eating barbecue by myself in Dallas,” said Jim Rossman, a tech specialist at The Dallas Morning News.
Everything was cooked to perfection. The only criticism came from Marshall, who thought the meats didn’t present enough smoky flavor.
“It’s tender. It’s juicy. It’s delicious. There’s just no smoke,” he said.
Marshall cooks brisket with the best of them. He’s been doing it for almost 30 years. His palate is well-trained, and when he talks, the Posse listens (unlike Officer Wooldridge, who ignored Marshall’s polite apologies and perfectly legitimate defense: “We’re on our way to eat barbecue.”)
So we took his observations to heart.
As we devoured every last morsel on the tray.
Next was a return visit to a place that we knew deserved one: City Meat Market in Giddings.
The Posse had been there in November 2010, on a tour that took in eight Central Texas joints in just over 24 hours. The last stop on that trip was City Meat Market. We got there late in the afternoon, owner Gerald Birkelbach had sold out of everything but sausage and pork, and by that time, we were about as close to barbecued-out as any of us get.
And it was still darned good.
This time, Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins, the News photo editor who plans our trips, made sure he scheduled City Meat Market on the front end.
As we had at Snow’s, we ordered brisket, ribs and pork. We found a table and dug in, surrounded by regular customers: Lots of Wranglers and work boots, not a designer logo anywhere (unless you count “Dickies”).
Barbecue lovers can argue endlessly about whether this joint is better than that joint. The arguments rarely settle anything -- that’s one reason they’re fun. With its Top 50 list, Texas Monthly sets itself up as a sort of authoritative arbiter, but c’mon. Can they really know that Buzzie’s is a 4.5 (out of 5), while Bubba’s is a 4?
And neither would be wrong.
I thought City Meat Market’s brisket was too dry, which was puzzling, since Birkelbach stores his meats in pans of broth between servings.
Chris, sampling the very same brisket, said: “The flavor of this is just tremendous.”
He liked the pork butt even better.
“I don’t want to sound like my kid brother who’s always saying, ‘Man, this is the best thing ever,’ ” he said.
“But the taste of this pork may be the best ever.”
We hoped for an under-the-radar find with the next spot on our itinerary, Gil’s Bar-B-Que Shack in Ellinger. It certainly looked promising. It’s in a tiny, reddish wooden building that really is a shack. It’s festooned with faded plastic American flags. The sign out front is hand-painted.
Inside, three small tables share the crowded space with haphazard stacks of foam cups, empty cardboard crates, and 12-packs of Dr Pepper.
Mary Vrazel has been running Gil’s, named for her husband, for 36 years. She smokes the meats, cooks all the side dishes, runs the cash register and makes sure she has a cheerful word for everyone who comes in. She also bakes a heavenly lemon cake – moist and airy, sweet and buttery, with a delightful citrus tang.
The barbecue was, to be kind, passable. The brisket fought back against a plastic knife. The first ribs that Mary served us had spent way too long in the pit, or in a warmer afterward. There wasn’t much to them but bone and a stiffly caramelized outer layer. Later, she brought us a bigger, juicier sample, one that hadn’t been overcooked, and the difference was night and day.
If I’m ever that way again, I’ll stop in for a slice of lemon cake.
From Ellinger, we headed northeast to Navasota. We were looking for Ruthie’s Pit Bar-B-Q. We only sort of found it.
Ruthie’s had been closed for several weeks, re-emerging recently as Rattlers Pit Soul Food House. (The yellow-and-red sign out front, however, still says Ruthie’s Pit Bar-B-Q.)
They still serve barbecue – and pretty good barbecue, at that – on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Sunday is soul food day, with oxtails, smothered pork chops, and the like. There’s also a standing menu of quick, inexpensive fare: burgers, fried wing baskets, stuffed potatoes.
The brisket had a dark, flavorful bark and a pronounced pinkish smoke ring – signs of attentive cooking by a skilled pitmaster.
Our favorite, though, was the peppery sausage. Its dark red casing had a snap when you bit into it, and the inside was tender and juicy.
“It’d be great with an ice-cold beer on a warm day,” Marshall said.
There was one off-note: On some of the brisket, we thought we detected the faintest whiff of charcoal starter. It wasn’t everywhere on the platter, and it wasn’t strong enough to ruin the meal. Still, there’s a reason many top pitmasters stay away from lighter fluid when building their wood fires. You ever taste that stuff?
It was mid-afternoon by the time we pulled up to Fargo’s Pit BBQ, on a forlorn stretch of North Texas Avenue in Bryan.
We told owner Alan Caldwell about our day’s tour. We told him that his place was our last stop.
Caldwell smiled knowingly and said in a quiet voice, “You should have started here.”
Once we tasted his barbecue, we could see his point.
“Fargo’s,” as Chris put it, “can hunt with the big boys.”
It deserves to be on anyone’s list of the best barbecue joints in Texas. In the annals of Posse tours, it could be a Top 10.
Caldwell declined to give us a tour of his pit, which is housed in a metal shed out back, behind a six-foot fence topped with strands of barbed wire.
We don’t know his secrets for turning out briskets and sausage links and slabs of ribs with a flawless, aromatic crust of deep reddish brown.
What we do know is that his food looked good enough to grace a magazine cover – and it tasted even better.
There’s no seating inside, so we opened the back of Marshall’s SUV and tailgated as we watched a steady steam of customers drop by for bags of take-out.
Marshall was particularly fond of the ribs. At last, he said, he’d found a plate that packed the wallop of wood flavor he’d been craving.
“They’ve got a great balance of rub and smoke,” he said. “Juicy. Tender.”
Jim concurred. As we were packing up to head contentedly home, he said: “It took us all day, finally, to get our smoke.”
Fellas, if it’s smoke you wanted, you should have been at the Tool concert.
The Speedtrap BBQ Tour itinerary
6:30 am: Leave Dallas.
9:30 am: Unscheduled stop on the outskirts of Lexington for a visit with Officer Wooldridge.
9:45 am: Snow’s BBQ, 516 Main Street, Lexington TX 78947. Phone: 979-773-4640. Hours: Sat, 8 am until the meat runs out.
11 am: City Meat Market, 101 W. Austin Street, Giddings TX 78942. Phone: 979-542-2740. Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:30 am-5:30 pm; Sat, 7:30 am-4 pm.
12:15 pm: Gil’s Bar-B-Que Shack, 399 E. State Highway 71, Ellinger TX 78938. Phone: 979-378-2366. Hours: Sat-Sun, from when the meat is ready (usually around 9:30 am) until it runs out.
1:30 pm: Rattlers Pit Soul Food House (formerly Ruthie’s Pit Bar-B-Q), 1106 W. Washington Ave., Navasota TX 77868. Phone: 936-825-7770. Hours: Tue-Thur, 11 am-4 pm; Fri, 11 am-8 pm; Sat, 11 am-4 pm; Sun, noon-4 pm.
3:15 pm: Fargo’s Pit BBQ, 1220 N. Texas Ave., Bryan TX 77803. Phone: 979-778-3662. Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 am-7 pm.
7 pm: Back in Dallas.