Before I begin this journey through the heart of Central Texas BBQ, I’m obligated to lay some background. I started loving BBQ as a resident of pork-heavy, Memphis BBQ influenced Arkansas. For the first two years of college in Texas, my exposure to Texas BBQ was limited to dry, under-seasoned brisket and grocery store grade sausage drowned in non-distinct bottled sauce. It was the kind of BBQ eaten at all the catered events in college with pickles and slices of plain white bread. I didn’t understand how anyone could love this stuff. How is it even BBQ when the meat doesn’t have the slightest hint of smoke? Can we just douse any kind of meat with sauce and call it BBQ? In my mind, Texas BBQ fans were nuts. They would all be converts if they just laid their hands on a juicy rack of BBQ pork ribs or a tender pulled shoulder sandwich. I was sure of this.
My harsh opinion of Texas BBQ shifted with a visit to Cooper’s BBQ in Llano during a summer road trip. I saw pit BBQ for the first time and the sight, taste, and texture of Cooper’s pork ribs and beef brisket left a deep impression. Later, I learned through my Texas BBQ bible (Robb Walsh’s amazingly well-written, chock full of first hand interviews, and complete with drool-inducing photos Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook) that Cooper’s falls under the cowboy style of BBQ with its mesquite smoked flavor and luscious, brisket drippings-infused sauce. It’s Robb Walsh’s writing that triggered my fascination with Texas BBQ and its various styles and historical roots. To rephrase, there isn’t one definitive style of Texas BBQ. The expansive geography of the state lends itself to diversity by regional influences. Those who believe that Texas BBQ is all about the beef might be surprised to find the popularity of pork-heavy, traditional southern BBQ served throughout east Texas in establishments like The Country Tavern in Kilgore, famous for its tender pork ribs and a sweet, tomato-based BBQ sauce. Those who believe that BBQ requires the use of wood logs or wood chips for flavor might be surprised by the barbacoa style of BBQ served throughout central and lower Rio Grande Valley, where meat is sealed in maguey leaves and buried in hot coals to cook.
Texas BBQ has many faces. But there is one style of BBQ completely unique to Texas, a style that didn’t start out as BBQ (some will argue still isn’t BBQ) and evolved by circumstance into what we now know as Central Texas pit BBQ. Tracing its roots to the German and Czech immigration to central Texas during the 19th century, Central Texas BBQ is based on old world butchers’ meat smoking methods. Leftover meats that didn’t sell at the market were smoked so they would keep longer. Migrant farm workers that came through town during harvest bought the smoked meat, served on plain butcher paper, and ate them right on the spot with no utensils. These smoked meats were not served with sauce and the no sauce tradition lives on in a few Central Texas establishments today. This staunch belief that only salt, pepper, and post oak smoke should touch the meat is why some other BBQ proprietors around the state will argue that Central Texas BBQ isn’t even BBQ, it’s just meat smoking. BBQ or not, one thing is for sure, these meat markets in the front, smokers in the back establishments are disappearing around the state. Robb Walsh expresses this sense of nostalgia in his book:
- “As small-town retail districts fade away, some of the oldest barbecue joints in Texas have closed their doors or moved to greener pastures. Meanwhile, in urban Texas strip malls, new barbecue restaurants are decorated to look like old country stores. The high-school kids who work there probably don’t even know why. In these new automated operations, employees load meat onto the racks of gas-fired rotisserie ovens, push a button, and go home. The virtual barbecue oven does the rest. The quality of the smoked meats pales in comparison to the taste of meat cooked the old-fashioned way with nothing but smoke…Old fashioned Texas barbecue has become an art form. As each old barbecue joint disappears, the ones that remain become more treasured.”
And it’s with this sense of nostalgia that I started this pilgrimage trip to four legendary Central Texas BBQ establishments with five other enthusiasts on this particular Saturday. Knowing that I would be stretching my stomach to its fullest capacity, I wanted to treasure (and compare) each of these savory, smokey bites of history.
First Stop: Louie Mueller Barbeque
206 West 2nd St, Taylor, TX 76574
Louie Mueller BBQ opened in the 1940′s behind Louie Mueller’s Complete Food Store to meet the demand of hungry cotton pickers who came through town during the harvest (Taylor was a cotton shipping center). Louie Mueller BBQ moved to its current location in 1959.
Smoke pits at Louie Mueller BBQ:
Timing this Central Texas BBQ pilgrimage trip was tricky. All the establishments we were planning to visit operate under the “close early evening or until we run out of meat” philosophy. In order to fit in all four places before closing and break up the BBQ eating with a brief “work up your appetite” period between each establishment, we hit Mueller’s at 10:00 am, right when they opened. As BBQ is a finicky brand of cuisine, it’s arguable whether this early timing may or may not have influenced the food.
Mueller’s being our first stop meant that we were most ambitious here, ordering every kind of meat on the menu for sampling except the turkey.
Brisket, like all meats at Mueller’s, had an outer crust of dry rub. The brisket had two distinct portions, a fattier top portion and a leaner bottom portion. Though the fattier portion with the seasoned rub was juicy and well seasoned, the moisture and flavor didn’t seem to penetrate into the bottom of the brisket. In other words, the fat hadn’t quite “melted” into the rest of the brisket yet. Mueller’s does offer a sauce with its BBQ, and adding some of the vinegary goodness helped the dryness of the bottom half of the brisket.
Mueller’s regular sausage had good smokey flavor, but the casing didn’t have the kind of crispy crackliness I like. The chipotle sausage had a snappier skin, but left an odd, almost sweet, after taste.
Mueller’s Pork Ribs:
Mueller’s pork ribs fell on the dry side. Again, the rub provided good flavor on the bark but did not penetrate into the meat. Though the pink smoke ring is evident, the flavor was not pronounced.
Mueller’s Pork Tenderloin:
Pork tenderloin was Mueller’s weakest meat this morning. The meat was dry and bland.
Mueller’s Beef Ribs:
Beef ribs were the standouts at Mueller’s. The rub had penetrated its flavor all the way to the bone. Smoke flavor was pronounced. The substantial bark, when eaten by itself, was like peppery beef jerky but with more moisture.
About an hour south, we arrived in the “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” as state legislation declared in 1999. Lockhart is home to three of Texas’ most famous BBQ establishments: Smitty’s Market, Kreuz Market, and Black’s BBQ. Having only so much stomach capacity, we only managed to eat our way through two of these three legends. I visited the one that we skipped, Black’s BBQ, last September and you can read some notes about the food here.
Caldwell County Courthouse in Lockhart:
Right on the town square near the courthouse was our second destination.
Second Stop: Smitty’s Market
208 South Commerce, Lockhart, TX 78644
Smitty’s location is actually the original Kreuz Market location. That’s “market” as in “butcher’s meat market,” and Smitty’s continues the tradition of serving its BBQ on plain butcher paper with no utensils today. This is a site with a long history, the smokers responsible for blackening these hallway walls are over a hundred years old.
The source of all that smoke? Flaming post oak burning at the pits.
On to the feast!
Smitty’s brisket had good smoke flavor, but were on the lean side, especially since we specified “fat brisket” with our order. The brisket was a little dry. The glistening end shown in the photo here had been touching some of the other more moist BBQ meats in our order. The taste reflected the look of the dryer end of the brisket. The fattier end had a pleasant, almost crunchy texture. Smitty’s brisket was well seasoned, something Mueller’s brisket lacked.
Smitty’s sausage is, in my opinion, the finest in Texas. I’ve only been here twice, but the sausage has been sheer perfection each time. The crisp casing is filled with peppery, smokey ground meat. Each bite snaps and breaks the skin to reveal juicy, coarsely ground morsels of smoke. It’s juicy but doesn’t feel greasy. Sausage is probably my least favorite out of all the BBQ meats, but Smitty’s does sausage so well that I would not hesitate to order a link all for myself.
Smitty’s Pork Ribs:
When I first tried Smitty’s pork ribs three years ago, I swore they were the best I’d ever had. My better half, a devoted rib enthusiast, went back for a second order and ended up eating somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 or 10 ribs. Impressive yet disgusting, I know. On this visit, I wanted confirmation that these were indeed great ribs, and they were worthy of all the praise I’d given them leading up to this trip. The pork ribs had substantial bark and were still fall off the bone tender. The interior was tender and juicy without being mushy. Too many pork ribs suffer from being dry and requiring extensive teeth work to get off of the bone or on the other end of spectrum, being overcooked to the point of mushiness so the meat is tender but loses its meaty texture. Smitty’s manages to achieve the perfect balance between the two, giving the bark excellent texture and maintaining the meat’s tissue integrity without sacrificing moisture and tenderness. In short, they are still the best ribs I’ve ever had.
Smitty’s Prime Rib:
Smitty’s prime rib had perhaps the best smoke flavor out of all of its meats. The photograph here does more to convey the prime rib’s juiciness and tenderness more than I can ever do with words. The prime rib had the kind of unadulterated beefy flavor that really satisfies. However, it could’ve used a touch more salt.
We also tried the pork chops at Smitty’s, which were tender but didn’t really stand out when compared to the other meats sampled here.
We were only halfway through our day of gluttony but most of us started feeling full. Not stuffed, but reasonably full. We needed a break, so it was off to Lockhart State Park for a short hike and some fresh air. All of us smelled like camp fires.
An hour later, it was back to the feasting.
Third Stop: Kreuz Market
619 N. Colorado St, Lockhart, TX 78644
Kreuz Market’s history dates back to 1900, when it was a meat market and grocery store in the current Smitty’s location. Kreuz Market moved to its current location in 1999. Even though the newer, bigger, and brighter location doesn’t quite have the same kind of historic feel as the old location, the German meat market BBQ traditions haven’t died. In fact, they’re spelled out clearly as soon as you enter Kreuz’s front doors.
Kreuz also uses post oak for smoking. In fact, piles of post oak logs are stacked for aging so that most of the logs used for smoking are two years old.
A row of Kreuz’s many pits:
Full as we were, as soon as we walked in and smelled the air inside Kreuz, our appetites started stirring again. But knowing that we still had one more stop on our journey, we kept to the basic meats and didn’t sample the entire range of Kreuz’s menu.
Finally, we encountered a brisket that neared perfection. Kreuz’s brisket was smokey and moist, with the fat melting into the meat to give it a loosened texture. Between the crusty outer ring and juicy interior, this was beef BBQ at its finest.
Kreuz’s Sausage (somewhat hidden under all that beautiful brisket):
I didn’t find Kreuz’s regular sausage memorable at all. In fact, the inside was mushy. The jalapeno and cheese sausage had excellent flavor and better texture than the regular sausage, but the casing was not as crisp and snappy as Smitty’s.
Kreuz’s Prime Rib:
Kreuz’s prime rib was not as moist as Smitty’s, but was seasoned well and a tad more smokey. I would say this is the better prime rib of the day in terms of overall taste, but there is something really satisfying about the balance of textures (fatty, juicy, and tender) in Smitty’s prime rib that is unrivaled.
We all piled into the van en route to our last stop of the day. By this time, the van smelled like a campfire even without all of us in it. What started the day as an enticing smell is now growing tired. After a brief excursion to a winery tasting room in San Marcos, we perked up for our last stop of the day.
Fourth Stop: City Market
633 Davis St, Luling, TX 78648
City Market in Luling, not to be confused with the unaffiliated Luling City Market in Houston, has been open since 1930. Unlike Kreuz, City Market does offer a sauce upon request. But don’t ask for forks, they’re still a stickler for the no utensils rule (unless you get sides like potato salad, then you can have a spoon). Unfortunately for us, we hit City Market at around 5:00pm and they were sold out of sausage, what many would argue is one of City Market’s strong suits.
City Market’s Brisket and Pork Ribs:
Brisket at City Market on this Saturday was a little on the dry side. Still, the brisket was smokey and had the best beef flavor of the day. It’s important to note that we arrived at City Market just in time to get some of the last brisket of the day (they ran out just a few minutes after we received our order), and it looked like we were getting a leaner, dryer cut of brisket than usual. The pork ribs at City Market had beautiful bark with great texture, but the interior meat didn’t quite have the juicy porkiness of Smitty’s ribs.
I had some rather tasty potato salad at City Market as well, which was the only thing I ate on this Saturday outside of too much BBQ meat, a couple of slices of pickles, and two bites of white bread.
The journey was over and we were all beyond stuffed. Here are the votes from the group of six on their favorites of the day:
Best Brisket (out of all 4 establishments): 3 votes for Kreuz, 2 votes for City Market, and 1 vote for Smitty’s
Best Pork Ribs (out of all 4 establishments): 6 votes for Smitty’s
Best Sausage (out of Mueller’s, Smitty’s, and Kreuz): 6 votes for Smitty’s
Best Prime Rib (out of Smitty’s and Kreuz): 4 votes for Kreuz, 2 votes for Smitty’s
The group was also surveyed on their top 3 meats overall (each person picked 3, so there are 18 votes total):
Smitty’s pork ribs: 5 votes
Mueller’s beef ribs: 3 votes
Smitty’s sausage: 3 votes
Kreuz’s brisket: 2 votes
Smitty’s prime rib: 2 votes
City Market’s brisket: 1 vote
Kreuz’s prime rib: 1 vote
Smitty’s brisket: 1 vote
It’s a little ironic that amongst all that beef-heavy Central Texas BBQ, the singular winner of the day was Smitty’s pork ribs. Then again, it was the only pork cut that made it onto the favorite list of the day, so maybe it’s merely the exception to the beef lover’s rule.
The favorite establishment of the day? The group unanimously voted for Smitty’s. Whereas each establishment did something exceptionally well, each cut of Smitty’s BBQ was impressive even when it wasn’t the best compared to the others. Plus, if you’re bringing a visitor for a true taste of Central Texas BBQ, it’s hard to beat those dark hallway walls blackened since 1900.