This was a trip I’ve been intending to make for about the last two years, and yet something always seemed to get in the way. Often it was an international trip, or it was dead of summer and I didn’t want to be in Texas because of the heat. And though it was hovering around 100 degrees much of the weekend, it was also Labor Day. And that’s the barbecue holiday of the year, so it seemed like the perfect time although I suppose I worried that others would see it the same way.
First stop was Franklin Barbecue which is actually in Austin. Arriving just before opening, there was already a line. It was a young crowd, people brought coolers ready to hunker down and wait for the barbecue. At 11am an employee came around surveying what people wanted to eat, by the time she came to my spot in line she said it would be about 2.5 hours before I’d see any food and there might not be any ribs left, either.
It was blazing hot, almost 100 degrees, the wait wasn’t covered. And looking at the other people in line, it was young, hip and attractive and seemed like as many people were there for the experience as the food. Drawing on the lessons learned from Tyler Cowen, I judged the crowd as not serious about the barbecue per se. So I didn’t wait, instead moving on to Lockhart. (And at the other restaurants, the teenage track teams notwithstanding, everyone was older and many were overweight and looked serious about what they were eating.)
Eventually I’ll have to make it back to Austin, get in line earlier, and try it out to see if the hunch was right. I could see the line taking an hour to process, but two and a half? My uncorroborated guess was that the food wasn’t actually ready to serve and thus that they hadn’t been up all night cooking. Could this place possibly live up to the legends I was about to experience? Probably great for Austin proper, but not worth killing my chances of barbecue for the whole day.
Barbecue places in Texas open early. It takes long slow cooking to prepare, the briscuit especially, they work the fire pit overnight. They want to sell out each day so they open and start selling the barbecue when it’s ready, it’s also best earlier in the day as soon after it’s been finished as possible. And when they’re sold out, they’re sold out. It takes too long to make more they can’t just adjust the quantity available during the day. I sure didn’t want to delay making it to Lockhart until after 2.
Ultimately I had made an error in judgment in not making it to my first stop until 11, something that would be rectified the next day.
Lockhart, Texas is maybe half an hour outside of Austin and has a legendary status, having been dubbed the barbecue capital of the state. It’s a small town, less than 15,000 people, but its four major barbecue restaurants are estimated to serve a quarter million people a year.
The first stop into town may arguably have been the best barbecue I had all weekend, though it was challenged by the final stop at Black’s.
Kreuz Market is the biggest building with a giant parking lot. Unfortunately I arrived just behind a large group of several early teens that had just run at a track meet. Turning up just before noon, it was 1pm before I was eating barbecue.
As was common in all of the restaurants I visited, there’s a primary line for the barbecue and then a separate place to queue up for sides and drinks. Barbecue is served on butcher paper, only at the last place were there trays, you carry it to a seat mostly at long communal tables with rolls of paper towels.
Kreuz Market has been in its current location since 1999, when a split in the family caused them to move from the original location where Smitty’s now stands (and is run by the folks on the other side of the feud).
Kreuz does not offer sauce. They’re serious about their meat. The sauce hides the flavor they say and the flavor is tremendous.
The pork ribs were almost like bacon. The beef ribs, served only on Friday and Saturday, were my least favorite — a deep smoky flavor, but little beyond that. I should have guessed that ribs not offered daily aren’t part of their core repertoire and wouldn’t live up to the other offerings. The sausage was excellent, a perfect crisp snap. And although I tried the sausage in each place I went I actually felt like the sausage never lives up to the rest of the barbecue and is almost a waste to order. The most amazing thing, though, the brisket. You can order it fatty or lean, I didn’t try the lean and can’t speak to it. But truly melt in your mouth unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
After finishing up at Kreuz, the next stop was going to be skipping the rest of Lockhart — the other two places I wanted to try, Smitty’s and Black’s, would be open on Sunday. But further south in Luling is City Market and they would be closed the next day.
You had to wait outside until there was enough room to stand in line inside. Once in the restaurant the first room is a dining hall, and the line wraps through that and into the next room which has both tables for eating and the door you enter to buy your barbecue.
This place was clearly different from the last. Immediately you saw a yellow mustard-based barbecue sauce on all the tables. Customers were applying it liberally to the white bread and eating some of their barbecue as though it was a sandwich.
All of the barbecue places offer packaged white bread to go with the barbecue, part of me doesn’t understand this, I certainly don’t want to fill up on bread. But a single piece or two is nice, I would use the bread almost like a plate and the bread would absorb the juices from the meat, eating a single piece makes sense to me towards the end of the meal…
Soaking the bread in sauce though I don’t get, except I did discover that at City Market the brisket was really dry. The rub was tasty but it almost needed the sauce to be juicy. This was the most disappointing of the places I visited over the weekend.
The pork ribs though were good, much more like the traditional notion of ribs I’m used to, much sweeter than at Kreuz where the pork ribs were salty.
After City Market I headed back towards Austin, which meant passing through Lockhart. I could have hit a third barbecue joint but I was full, it was late in the day so more time had passed since the barbecue was done cooking, and I thought a third stop would mean I wouldn’t want any barbecue the next day. So that was it for the day’s barbecue.
Sunday morning started earlier. Smitty’s opens at 9am. That’s a little before I’m ready to eat a ton of smoked meat, but I did turn up at 10.
I’ve seen it written that the entrance looks more like the hallway you’d walk through on the way to hell than like you’re entering a restaurant. But the building has been serving barbecue since the turn of the century. It’s not a modern structure.
Everything at Smitty’s was good, though not quite as good to my taste as Kreuz. The sausage was probably better than anywhere else I’d tried. The brisket and ribs were closer in style to Central Market, though in both cases juicier.
Kreuz was busy, they were just getting’ the job done. Almost no one was at Smitty’s so early in the morning, but the staff seemed entirely indifferent. They weren’t happy or welcoming. You ordered, you got your meat, you ate it and left. Overall I encountered very few friendly people in Austin, but the vibe of Smitty’s was the least friendly of the barbecue places I visited.
Don’t get me wrong — anything at Smitty’s (anything at Central Market, even!) would be amazing barbecue for any other city I’d ever been to. But I started off with my favorite barbecue of the weekend, though the final stop would come close to being as good overall.
The last barbecue visit of the weekend was Black’s.
Walking in I was a bit taken aback. It was the most decorated of the restaurants I’d been to. It also looked almost “corporate” — you got in line and while in line there was an extensive array of sides to choose from, there were bottles of branded sauce to buy and take with you, there was a sign indicating you could order online (frozen, shipped barbecue? From Lockhart?). There were even signs advertising their Twitter presence and that you should talk to them before posting a negative review on Yelp.
I needn’t have worried though. First, I was comforted to see what would have been health code problems in any major city. I saw them refilling the sides, adding to trays of mac and cheese with more mac and cheese instead of replacing what was already out. And I saw some bugs crawling around in the dessert. I compartmentalized, told myself that wasn’t what I was there for anyway. And proceeded to order meat. The staff was friendlier than anywhere else, made suggestions (like two beef ribs was going to be way too much food).
The beef ribs here were unquestionably the best. The brisket may have been the equal of Kreuz, though I tend to think it was just a shade behind. The ribs were sweet, I like the salty ones at Kruez better.
They have an outdoor seating area, and I was going to eat outside, but flies were swarming and I went back inside.
And with that, my weekend of Austin-area barbecue had come to an end, it was time to head back towards the city to catch a flight home. Though all four of my upgrades had cleared, I wasn’t planning to eat much on the plane. I am generally happy with the first class food on American Airlines (though I wish they’d change it up more frequently). But I had just finished eating some of the tastiest meat I’ve ever had in my life, someone nothing they’d serve me in the air would be all that appealing. And it wasn’t.
I have a real choice to make going forward. I like barbecue, even though I’m rarely in a place that it’s excellent. Before visiting Lockhart I think I was happy with a much lower standard of quality. Will I be willing to make that sacrifice in the future?
I discovered I liked the Texas style barbecue where it’s made early, eaten straight away and especially where it’s good enough that you wouldn’t want to add any sauce. I’ll probably make pilgrimages to other barbecue meccas to satisfy the fix, instead of settling for whatever is offered where I happen to be. But I suspect I’ve found the barbecue I like the best already, which in some ways is disappointing. I know I’ll be back to Kreuz Market and to Black’s again some day, for sure.