Originally published in Everywhere magazine.
It’s a little after 8 a.m. on Highway 142 in central Texas and the pick-up trucks keep pulling onto the shoulder of the road to let us pass. We’re moving quickly but not that quickly. I ask about this.
“That’s just the Texas way,” my brother tells me.
That’s good enough for me so we keep passing, flashing our taillights in thanks and bearing down on the town of Lockhart. The one barbecue shack we pass on the way—a trailer with a barrel smoker and a picnic table out front—is closed, owing to the fact that not many people wake up willing to eat large amounts of beef fat first thing in the morning.
But we are willing. In fact that’s why we’re here now, hung over and hungry after a long night of karaoke with carnies and bikers at a beer joint in San Marcos, on our way to Smitty’s Market because it’s the first place on the barbecue trail that’s open. Our goal for the day is to hit as many of the classic shacks and markets in Taylor, Elgin and Lockhart as our stomachs can stand. We want the best Texas has to offer.
Of course any time you start looking for the best barbecue around you’re going to get a lot of varying opinions and that’s as true in Texas as anywhere else. Out in Houston and further east you’ll find the more traditional Southern style barbecue with sticky sweet sauces slathered over pork. Further south and west you’ll see the Mexican influence with chile-infused sauces applied to mutton and some less desirable parts of the cow. Here in central Texas, the heart of German and Czech country, you’ll find beef, always smoked over oak or hickory and sometimes sauced.
This kind of barbecue originated as food for the working class. Back when German and Czech immigrants were opening meat markets in this part of the country, they’d sell their fresh cuts out front and smoke their tough cuts of meat and stuff the rest into sausages in the back. When farmers and laborers started showing up and buying lunch portions of these less valuable cuts then eating them on the spot, the enterprising new Americans realized they’d stumbled in to an entirely different business: The business of barbecue.
The beauty of Texas barbecue, however, is that even today it doesn’t feel like a business. While the beef may not be organic the experience feels that way. In the old market days meat was bought by the pound and served on butcher paper. If you wanted sides you could go around to the front of the store and buy a box of crackers, hunk of cheese or some pickles. More often than not there was no barbecue sauce.
That’s how they gave it to us when we arrived at Smitty’s Market. Occupying the building that housed the universally praised Kreuz Meat Market, Smitty’s was a good introduction to what awaited us on the trail. A dark, soot-stained building just off the town square, Smitty’s brick pits have been in use for over 100 years and the fires smolder right there on the concrete floor. There was no notion of design, no license plates on the walls or neon signs that barbecue joints the world round use to give their walls some “authenticity”. There was just simple food in a simple setting with no forks or sauce to be found.
Down the street in Lockhart at Black’s Barbecue they’ll give you the sauce but still no plates. Forks are also available but Texas barbecue truly is finger food, it’s not meant to be tidy nor tough to cut and Black’s brisket certainly wasn’t. By the time we had finished pulling apart, saucing and eating our beef under the eyes of three mounted deer heads the brown butcher paper our meat was served on was nearly translucent. Like most food adventures, the barbecue trail is not the place to count calories. In fact, proprietor Edgar Black Jr. raised a suspicious eyebrow when we ordered so little meat but after a quick glance at my camera bag I think he knew the mission we were on.
A little more than an hour north at the Taylor Café—a honkytonk hewn out of corrugated steel and particle board that unfortunately sits next to a railroad and under an overpass—you might have to squint through the smoke to read the hand-written menus but the sandwiches we had there were significantly better than a simple combination of white bread, onion, pickle, sauce and sausage has any right to be. The key is in the snap of casing and the crunch of the raw pickle and onion and that sort of total experience is something only a well made sandwich can provide. Most of the meat markets will just toss four or five slices of white bread down on the paper with every order. What you do with it—slap it around a sausage, use it to sop up the juices—is up to you but at the Taylor Café they wrap everything up nice and neat in wax paper and normally that would make it the perfect takeout food for the workingman (or traveler) on the go. I doubt, however, that anyone’s ever been in a rush to leave.
In Elgin, “The Sausage Capital of Texas”, they produce over 3 million pounds of links every year. While the two big meat markets in town, Southside and Meyer’s, lack some of the folksy charm of the other stops on the trail, their cafeteria style dining situated in huge factory-like buildings may most closely represent the way Texas barbecue truly got its start. At either place you could eat your lunch on the spot will picking up the steaks you’re going to cook for supper at home later that night. They’ll process your deer for you or ship barbecue worldwide. They truly are one stop shops but they’re also top-class restaurants.
The hot links at Meyer’s—don’t be scared, the true aficionados always get the “hot guts”–were beautifully flecked with black pepper with a pleasant heat that truly distinguishes this sausage from those you can buy at the grocer. But if you crave the heat, grab a bag of their heavily peppered jerky for the trip home and make sure you have a beverage nearby when you decide to open it.
At Southside Market, our final stop, we found a true barbecue delicacy: mutton. Much less tender but richer in flavor than lamb, mutton is the perfect sort of meat for barbecue. It’s an unpopular meat that requires some patience and careful attention during preparation to truly unlock its full flavor. Most Americans have never had it but when done right, like they do it at Southside, mutton is like the perfect cross between lamb and beef, bold flavor with just a touch of tenderness still left in it. And don’t forget to pick up a bag of Southside’s pecan brittle on your way out the door. You won’t be hungry but a few miles down the road you’ll eat it anyway.
We didn’t make it to every stop on the trail. After four different towns and six different restaurants we had barely scratched the surface of what’s in the hill country much less the rest of the state. It’s hard to define Texas barbecue and even more difficult to experience it completely in one day. I wouldn’t claim that we did that but I do feel like we got a good idea as to what makes this particular style of barbecue Texan.
Texas barbecue is pride without pretense. It’s knowing you do something well and allowing that work to speak for itself, an increasingly rare commodity in these gourmet times. More than anything it’s simple. Simple food, simply prepared.
That’s just the Texas way.
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