On the Texas Barbecue Trail
Among polite society, a few subjects are invariably touchy, threatening to flare into heated debate. Politics. Religion.
And don’t forget to add one more topic to that list if you’re in Texas: barbecue.
Whether you spell it barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-que, or just bbq, one thing’s for sure: barbecue is more than just a meal, it’s a mantra.
At last count, Texas boasted over 1,300 barbecue joints, ranging from side-of-the-road greasehouses with slamming screen doors to sit-down restaurants with beautiful vistas, air conditioning and even (gasp) wine lists. The business of barbecue rings up over a half-billion dollars annually, a cobweb of commerce that connects an otherwise diverse, sprawling state with a common mission: Go forth and seek out good barbecue.
Although you can find good barbecue throughout the South, the Texas variety is different from that in other barbecue capitals. Texas barbecue means beef brisket, basted meats, and tomato-based sauce, or sometimes no sauce at all. The selection varies from pit to pit but in most tradition reigns.
In each region, divided by hundreds of miles, the local barbecue is influenced by other culinary cultures, from Southern to Tex-Mex to Southwest. Cabrito or barbecued goat is often served in the western portion of the state while pork or lamb is a more common offering in East Texas. Cooking styles vary as well. Out on the West Texas plains, barbecue is usually cooked over a slow fire of mesquite wood while in Southern and Central Texas pecan and oak are more common. Farther east, barbecue pits are stoked with hickory. Throughout the state, meals are served with sides of cole slaw, pinto beans, and spongy white bread, often on plates of butcher paper. Dessert, if found at all, is usually a scoop of banana pudding with a dose of vanilla wafers.
Unlike Kansas City and Memphis, Texas has no clearly defined capital of ‘que. But Texas does have what’s sometimes nicknamed the “barbecue belt,” a smoky swath that runs through the central part of the state and includes:
Llano: On the westernmost edge of the barbecue belt lies the community of Llano. What makes Llano unique among the central Texas barbecue towns is its cooking style. Most pit masters in this town rely on indirect barbecuing. In a firebox, wood burns down to coals, then it’s transferred to the main section of the pit beneath the meat to impart a delicate smoky taste subtler than ordinary smoking. Don’t miss Cooper’s Old Time Pit Barbecue. From its huge rectangular pits located by the front door to the dining room lined with loaves of white bread and jars of jalapeño peppers, this is the real deal.
Taylor: Taylor calls itself “The Barbecue Capital of the World,” home of two legendary barbecue joints separated only by a parking lot and small road at their locations on Second Street. Louis Mueller’s is housed in one of the most authentic barbecue joints in Texas, with an old-fashioned screen door, smoke-covered walls, and giant fans that provide the only cool breeze on a hot summer day. Next door, Rudy Mikeska’s serves its equally fine offerings in a more citified atmosphere. During his lifetime, Rudy Mikeska was the dean of Texas pitmasters. If there was a political function to be held, Rudy Mikeska and his barbecue specialties were there.
Elgin: In Texas, the town of Elgin is synonymous with sausage. The small community, located about 25 miles east of Austin, produces the sausage sold by many barbecue joints through the state. The best known of Elgin’s smokin’ stops is the Southside Market, probably one of the most recognized names in Texas barbecue lore. In business since 1882, the market is known for its Elgin hot sausage, sometimes known as Elgin Hot Guts.
Lockhart: Twenty-three miles south of Austin lies another “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” Lockhart. The test of a real Texan is to know the correct pronunciation of the town’s Kreuz Market. No, don’t say “Cruise.” It’s “Krites,” rhyming with “lights.” Also in town, don’t miss Smitty’s, housed in the building where the original Kreuz Market was located, and Black’s BBQ, which claims to be the oldest barbecue house in Texas continuously owned by the same family. Since 1932 the Black family has been firing up these brick pits every day for lunch and dinner.
Luling: Located east of Austin, Luling is the land of oil wells. No longer a boomtown, today the barbecue restaurants are the ones producing black gold. The best known spot in town is the City Market, a no-frills smoky meat market, with ambiance replaced by plenty of local atmosphere.