Thursday, October 27, 2016

Miller's Smokehouse in Belton is moving on up

Dirk Miller, owner & pitmaster of Miller's Smokehouse in Belton. (Photo ©Michael Ainsworth/ Texas BBQ Posse)
We got a chance to visit Saturday with one of our favorite pitmasters in the state, Dirk Miller of Miller's Smokehouse in Belton. Posse member Marshall Cooper & I first visited Miller's in early 2012, after Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn tweeted about a promising little joint in Belton. It quickly became one of our favorite BBQ places in the state.

Our group of four caught up on all the BBQ news with Dirk, including their move down the street to a much larger space. On our first trip to Miller's four and a half years ago, you walked into a tiny dining room, which has expanded twice since then into a 1600 sq. ft. restaurant. Only 14 months after our first visit, Miller's was named to Texas Monthly's top 50 BBQ joints. Their growing reputation and success since then has been a credit to the Miller family's pursuit of BBQ and dining excellence.

The new restaurant, located a block and a half south on Penelope St., is 7000 sq. ft. and will feature five 1000-gallon indoor smokers. Dirk has the new smokers lined up outside the current building so they will be well-seasoned before the move, which is expected in December. Also, Miller's is now open seven days a week, a rarity in the barbecue business.

I often get the question from co-workers and friends, "I'm heading to Austin the weekend, where's the best BBQ there?" I tell them to pull off I-35 when they get to Belton, then drive a couple of minutes to Miller's Smokehouse. You won't find trendy two-hour lines there, just some of the best BBQ in the entire state. And if he's around, you'll probably get to talk barbecue with one of the top pitmasters in Texas.

Miller's Smokehouse, 208 N Penelope, Belton, 254-939-5500. Open Sun-Thurs 11am until the meat runs out, Fri-Sat 11am-9pm or until the meat runs out.
Work continues on Miller Smokehouse's new location at the corner of Penelope & Central in downtown Belton.
(Photo ©Michael Ainsworth/ Texas BBQ Posse)
Three of Miller Smokehouse's five new 1000-gallon smokers are seasoned beside the current restaurant. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/ Texas BBQ Posse)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

And everywhere the BBQ Posse looked there were other posses

Member of the Bandera County Young Life BBQ group pose for a photo with legendary Snow's pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz.
(Photo ©Chris WIlkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

My memory isn't what it used to be, but I was pretty sure we ran into a first -- for us anyway -- during the Posse's trip to Snow's BBQ in Lexington last weekend.

We met two groups of fellow barbecue lovers, each wearing special shirts championing their meat-loving pursuits.

One group of a half-dozen guys from North Texas wore very nice black and red bowling shirts with the words "BBQ Burnt Ends" above the word "Caliente."

Another similar-sized, but younger, contingent had simple white sleeveless t-shirts that said: "Bandera County Young Life Texas BBQ Tour."

After eating, both groups had their photos taken with Snow's great pit master Tootsie Tomanetz.

"The greatest BBQ Lady in the world," Ric Clark of Burnt Ends wrote when he posted his group's photo with Tootsie on the Posse's Facebook page.

To double check my memory, I consulted with other long-time Posse members. Co-founder Chris Wilkins reminded me that we did run into a couple of California guys at La Barbecue early this year who wore special shirts commemorating their Texas tour.  And while we all remembered meeting many other dedicated barbecue lovers since our barbecue travels began in 2009, no one could remember meeting such similar organized groups.

"It's my impression there are way more organized groups now," Wilkins said later as we discussed the phenomenon by email. "I rarely remember running into groups in the early days. Also, there were no paid tours then either."

He referred to the sponsored tours and other barbecue experiences organized by Drew Thornley at Man Up Texas BBQ, Daniel Vaughn at Texas Monthly's TMBBQ, and others.
The Bandera County Young Life BBQ group digs into a Snow's BBQ feast.
(Photo ©Chris WIlkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

"It's also interesting how many of them have been following us (on the blog) and use that in their planning, much like we did with Daniel's original blog in 2009," Wilkins said.

Before TMBBQ, Vaughn wrote the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog and still has a Facebook page with that name. In the early days, Full Custom was indeed our barbecue gospel.

So, what's going on here? Is the organized barbecue "posse" concept becoming a thing?

Well, yes, it appears. And the better answer, actually, is "has become" not "becoming."

Jacob Raitz, director of the Bandera County Young Life organization, says this is the fourth year he has led his high school-aged group on a barbecue tour. He continued the idea from his predecessor who started the tours two years previously.

"Barbecue and fellowship just go together," Raitz said in a telephone interview. "They really do. Anything where you sit down and eat a meal together. We're talking about barbecue. We're talking about life."

The Posse couldn't agree more.

Raitz said his group ate barbecue Friday, Saturday and Sunday, visiting Black's, Louie Mueller, and M-Train BBQ as well as Snow's. M-Train is a new joint in Austin, started by a former employee of John Mueller at the trailer site of the former John Mueller Meat Co.

"We do a burger tour in the spring, which is great, but it's nothing like barbecue," Raitz said. "Tootsie gave us all hugs."

To those hugs, and to all the other barbecue posses out there, The Texas BBQ Posse adds its salute.
The BBQ Burnt Ends tour group from the D/FW area pose with Tootsie Tomanetz. (Photo Ric Clark/Facebook)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Cooking up a kosher BBQ storm in Big D

I don't know who invented the double-barreled lede, but old Charlie Dickens had it down:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

After talking to barbecue competition judge Jennifer Shiflett in advance of the Dallas Kosher BBQ Championship next weekend, we found ourselves in need of the same technique.

She said there's no difference in taste between kosher barbecue and regular barbecue. And she wondered if competitors are using too much sauce on some of their entries.

Either idea would make a good lede -- beginning --  for this blog item.

During the interview, we the got the taste question out of the way right at the start:

In a blind test, can you tell the difference between kosher barbecue and regular barbecue?

"Absolutely not," Shiflett, a lifetime member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, said. "I don't think anybody could."

Shiflett and her husband, Bill, live in Fort Worth and are both Master Certified Judges. They are the KCBS contest representatives at the second annual Dallas Kosher championship at Sunnyland Furniture.

The big difference in kosher competitions, of course, is that there is no pork. Competitors cook beef brisket, beef ribs, chicken and turkey.

All the meats, smokers, grills, knives, utensils, spices and condiments are provided by the organizers to ensure that kosher dietary laws are followed. Teams do their prep work Thursday night. Cooking begins after sundown Saturday and judging begins at noon Sunday (Oct. 30).

The competition is organized by the Men's Club of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. Last year, nine teams competed. As of the beginning of this week,  nine teams had registered for this year's event.

Jennifer said that she and Bill do a couple dozen or so competitions a year as judges and competitors. "I bought Bill his first smoker for his birthday in 2010 and it’s been a whirlwind since then," she said.

Regular readers of this blog know that the Posse, generally, is anti sauce. Real Texas barbecue, we think, needs only a good spice rub and smoke. We've been to a few competitions, though, and noticed that many expect sauce. Jennifer concurs.

"It seems like it's gotten sweeter and sweeter over the years," she said. "There's a ton of sauce on chicken and most of the time it's ridiculously sweet."

"I don't think I've seen a dry rib all year," she continued. Judges are even starting to see sauce on brisket. "And I think that's horrifying," she said. Wonderful brisket, with a nice crust, can be cooked with a rub of mainly salt and garlic.

The Posse couldn't agree more. Good luck to all the competitors this week in Dallas.

And, as for Dickens, it's always the best of times in barbecue.
Bill & Jennifer Shiflett at a BBQ competition in 2015. (Courtesy photo) 

Monday, October 17, 2016

The top 10 posts in the history of the Texas BBQ Posse Blog

Our first trip to Snow's BBQ in 2009 was a life-changing event for a group of friends. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)
If a milestone occurs and no one notices, is it still a milestone?

That question certainly doesn't rank with the great philosophical barbecue debates -- i.e., foil or butcher paper? -- but it is something we're pondering this week.


This is the 400th published post since we launched the Texas BBQ Posse blog in March of 2010, six and one-half years ago.

The initial post in our Barbecue Chronicles is still one of my favorites. It was about our first trip to the Central Texas barbecue heartland. We ate at Snow's, Louie Mueller Barbecue, Smitty's Market and Kreuz Market the same day.

"Think of the fullest you have ever been at a Thanksgiving meal, then multiply by two," Posse member Gary Barber said at the time.

And the trip coined what has become the guiding principle in all our travels: "Let the meat speak for itself," Posse co-founder Chris Wilkins said.

For barbecue fans, such wisdom is worthy of Socrates.

In the years since, the Posse has roamed a good portion of the state in search of great barbecue and found plenty, including a trip to Aaron Franklin's original Austin trailer operation in the autumn of 2010.

"Is this the best brisket in Texas?" we wondered then. In a close vote, yes, it was. Re-reading the post now makes me nostalgic. Eating at Franklin's little trailer was a truly wonderful experience.

That Franklin post remains the sixth most read in the history of the blog, which has totaled nearly 1.4 million page views overall.

The two most popular posts by far were by Marshall Cooper and Wilkins. They explain, in words and photos, how to smoke a great backyard brisket and how to use butcher paper to wrap brisket during a cook.

Together, those posts account for roughly 10 percent of the blog's total traffic. Weekends and holidays, as people get ready to fire up their smokers, they still get lots of readers.

So, on this milestone that someone is noticing, here are the top 10 posts (with links) in Posse blog history:

1. Pit talk: How to smoke a great backyard brisket.
2. Butcher paper wrapped brisket.
3. Tips for choosing a backyard smoker.
4. The thrill is gone from New Zion Missionary Baptist Church BBQ.
5. Road trip to Llano.
6. Franklin Barbecue -- Is this the best brisket in Texas?
7. Barbecue Chronicles: Back to East Texas.
8. First trip to 3 Stacks.
9. Map of the Posse's favorite joints.
10. Hipster pitmasters...a barbecue revolution.
Backyard BBQ guru Marshall Cooper has shared his smoking techniques with thousands of Posse blog readers.
(Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Posse finds that John Lewis, indeed, has arrived in Carolina

(Note: Posse members Mike and Libby Gagne recently visited John Lewis' new barbecue joint. This is Mike's report from that visit.)

Charleston, South Carolina has long been a culinary destination showcasing some of the most American of cuisines.

Lewis Barbecue, the eponymous BBQ haven for Texas pit master John Lewis opened just a few months back and has caught the attention of many along the eastern seaboard.

Given the Posse's past with John and the mark he left at places like Franklin, John Mueller BBQ, and La Barbecue, being only an hour away from our beach vacation spot seemed too apropos and we had no problem convincing the rest of our party that a lunch excursion to Charleston was in order.

It was immediately apparent that John Lewis has arrived.

Situated in East Central Charleston, Lewis finds itself the newest and most modern construction in its area but it’s clear this mixed commercial/industrial neighborhood is growing rapidly.

In many ways it feels much like East Austin not but 10 years ago. Lots of old, historic buildings; a good deal of industrial zoning, and a few run down lots sprinkled in with new developments.

The restaurant venue was clearly new and intentional in design with a striking modern feel that had more than enough rustic elements to continually remind you this is a real BBQ, not someplace for show.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attention to detail on everything from the custom made pits, the oak filled wood cage, the picnic table area laid out neatly under a sprawling oak, the full cocktail bar with beers on tap, and the dual meat-cutting lines – something that really helped the line move quickly.

Subtle and not so subtle tips of the hat to Lewis’ Texas roots were all through the restaurant. Horseshoe stamps and lassos adorned the wall and directly above the line hung a horned steer. The horchata and Texas beers at the bar reminded me of East Austin bars.

But the coup de grace was the the massive “All Hail The King” beef mural outside the restaurant on the adjacent building. It shined like a BBQ beacon to those parked through the neighborhood and looking for the restaurant. There were even directions painted on the sidewalks and road around the neighborhood.

We arrived to a moderate 5 minute wait in line -- on a Saturday! -- and wore our favorite BBQ shirts, me with La BBQ and my daughter in her Franklin BBQ tee. We were greeted by two friendly employees who quickly recognized the Franklin shirt and began chatting us up.

We made sure we got a little bit of everything. The Texas brisket, hot guts and beef rib, some Carolina pulled pork, and some thin sliced turkey along with a smattering of sides.

The brisket was just as we remembered from the La Barbecue's heyday: moist and smoky, perfectly tender and full of flavor. Libby and our daughter, Ella, were partial to the beef rib, which is always a favorite.

The pulled pork was juicy and filled with flavor, and not the over-dried stuff we can sometimes see in Texas. The turkey, the often forgotten smoked meat that John tended to perfection at Franklin, was as good as we’d remembered (and the first thing we’d run out of). The hot gut had an excellent snap, and more spice than we’d remembered.

We were lucky to visit Lewis BBQ on a Saturday, the only day of the week they serve beef ribs. While certainly not the lowest cost alternative (a single rib cost over $50), it was well worth it!

The bone effortlessly slipped out of the meat, which was smoky and crusty on the outside and absolutely tender and delicious on the inside.

Our baby, Jake, loved gnawing on the massive bone.  In fact, he had the beef rib bone in one hand and a pork rib bone in the other, a true Posse member in the making.

We weren’t the only ones who drove a ways for good food.  Another guest recognized our shirts and was wearing a Franklin hat of his own.  He was from Dallas and had convinced his family, who lived in the Charlotte area, to drive nearly seven hours round trip for a taste.

His family didn’t even come inside.  They waited in the minivan while he ordered take out, and their plan was to take it to a nearby park and stretch their legs while eating.

Behind the restaurant is a separate building where the BBQ magic is created.  John wasn't there during our visit, but according to the manager, John and his dad built four huge smokers out of propane tanks, and they are happy to take customers back there for a tour.

When we went to check it out, the pit master (an apprentice of John’s) was smoking a couple dozen briskets, and estimated there was room for nearly 40 on each smoker.  So this place has room to scale up. The halved horseshoes welded to the handles and the custom Lewis branding iron highlighted the Lewis craftsmanship -- it starts with the metalwork and ends with the food.

Contrary to the good-old-days, when visitors had to get there bright and early for a chance to sample the delicious meats before they sold out, lunch is no longer the busiest time of day.  In the short time the restaurant had been open, the line now has a tendency to extend out the door at dinner time.

Despite being open only a few weeks at the time of our visit, the restaurant had already become a destination.

Lewis Barbecue, 464 N Nassau St, Charleston, SC, (843) 805-9500,
Former La Barbecue pitmaster John Lewis and his new brisket pit in 2013. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)