When I told folks that my son Nick and I were going to Texas to eat barbecue and nothing but barbecue, they thought I was joking. Some of them even went so far as to offer suggestions for non-barbecue food–like seafood and duck enchiladas (whatever those might be).
I was not joking. In fact, between pulling into Lockhart on a Tuesday afternoon and leaving on Friday, we ate nothing but brisket and ribs, half a sausage, one piece of barbecue turkey and candy. Thursday at 1 p.m, we had tacos. Thursday evening, we went back to barbecue. We weren’t there to goof around.
Given a limited amount of time in Austin and the surrounding environs, planning to hit a large number of barbecue joints can be difficult. What makes it difficult? A few key factors.
1. The human body. The capacity of the human stomach. And the tolerance of the human esophagus, nose and mouth for burped up brisket.
2. Human nature. A lot of people want to be helpful. And given half a chance, they’re going to lob a gajillion suggestions at you, even if they don’t know exactly what kind of quest you’re on or even if they don’t know the finer points of Texas barbecue. For example, given the options in the region, if a person is on the hunt for the best Texas barbecue, County Line doesn’t make the cut. I’m sure it’s a lovely place to spend the evening, but a) I could tell by the website photos it wasn’t what I was looking for; b) I received a couple of emails from serious barbecue fans in Austin that basically said, “County Line? No.”; c) It didn’t make the Texas Monthly 50 Best Barbecue Joints list. And people made some great suggestions in other towns — San Antonio for example — but I wasn’t driving that far.
3. That damn Texas Monthly list. So the same month Nick and I are going to Texas, Texas Monthly comes out with its list of the 50 best places in Texas. It’s technically called The 50 Best BBQ Joints in the World. And that’s technically correct. Best in Texas is best. Period. And if you really want to get into the fun, sports-fan-type arguments between Kansas and Texas and Memphis and the Carolinas, I encourage you to check out the entire issue.
Even if you don’t think Texas-style barbecue is the best (it is), you have to agree that Texas talks the biggest game in barbecue. Editor Daniel Vaughn referred to North Carolina cue as: “the self-basting pork shoulder that my four year old daughter could overcook to a point that a North Carolinian could eat it.”
And, as you can imagine, making or not making this list is a big deal.
At any rate, having this list come out made the selection process a little more difficult. Just when I thought I’d had my list edited down, out comes this thing. Look at this map. Go on, just look at it.
4. Operating hours. This was actually only the real insurmountable problem. Many of the best establishments open early in the day and close when they run out of meat. Snow’s, which is a shack out in the middle of nowhere operated by a nice little old lady, is only open on Saturday. And we weren’t going to be there on Saturday. The night-time, sit-down establishments aren’t really in the same ballpark as these daytime joints, either. There’s also the issue of traffic. My cousin Corey mentioned something about Austin traffic and I sort of scoffed at it. The first day traffic wasn’t a problem. But after that? Lord. And the thing about Austin traffic is that it’s just STUPID traffic. Badly timed lights and purely random road closures in the city and rubber-neckers on the highways.
I guess I should get on with things — though I’d like to point out that I haven’t even mentioned a place yet and some of you are probably already itching to fight over barbecue.
Black’s was not only the first stop on this trip, it was my first stop in Lockhart the first time I set foot in the town years ago. But back then, I was new, overwhelmed and ultimately won over by the atmosphere of Smitty’s. But make no mistake: Black’s is the best there is in Lockhart. I could waste a few hundred words trying to describe the food, but what’s the point? It’s Texas barbecue. It’s smoked meat with salt and pepper on it. If it’s done right, it’s done right. And beyond that, it’s just degrees of deliciousness. (If you want to see the challenges of writing about barbecue, read the Texas Monthly list and count how many times “snap” or “snappy” is used to refer to sausage. Answer: about 50 times.) And Black’s was done really, really right. Indeed, I’d meant to stop at Kreuz after leaving Black’s, but I remembered that well enough not to be tempted. Also, after splitting one pound of brisket and some ribs with Nick (and a link of sausage), I wasn’t exactly hungry.
Stop 2: Stiles Switch Barbecue, Austin, Texas. Tuesday night.
This is a relative newcomer in Austin, a sit-down place that’s open until 9 p.m. It’s actually built in the place that was used as the pool hall in Dazed & Confused. It came highly recommended, but was the only place I was mildly disappointed in. The brisket and sides were good, but the ribs I got were falling off the bone mush. (Falling off the bone might be what crappy cue joints try to sell as a mark of quality, but it ain’t.) The flavor was fine and I chalked it up to end-of-the-day ribs (as in maybe they’d been resting in an overly moist environment for too long). Still, if you’re looking for a sit-down joint in a part of Austin that is still being developed (or don’t feel like driving out to Salt Lick), I’d recommend it.
Stop 3: Franklin Barbecue. Austin, Texas. Wednesday morning.
One does not simply show up to Franklin’s. Dubbed the best barbecue in Texas by Texas Monthly, Bon Appetite and about a trillion other places, Franklin’s is the stuff of legend. It’s one of those joints that opens at 11 and closes when it runs out. We ate at 11:40. We showed up to stand in line at 9 a.m. That’s right, a two-hour-and-forty-minute wait. On a Wednesday. In June. In Texas.
Some tips for going to Franklin? Go on a weekday. Get there well before 9 a.m. Show up with the following: plenty of water, perhaps a light snack, coffee, a chair or blanket, an umbrella to keep off the sun, sunblock, a good attitude. Look, it isn’t a New York line, in which people are fidgety and stressed out. They’re there to eat some of the best meat in the world. Most of them are friendly. Hell, it’s a little like tailgating (yes, some folks bring beer). There’s even a guy who rents chairs and umbrellas. But be warned, if it’s summer time, a lot of that line is in the direct sun and that direct sun can be brutal. But if you’re prepared, you’ll have fun.
Is it worth it? Hell. Yes. (Of course, after baking in the sun for almost three hours like an idiot, what would you expect me to say? “Eh, it was ok.”)
I’m not a food photographer and the above does the meat at Franklin no justice at all. But let’s put it this way. The smell and appearance of everything at this place was so good that I actually ordered turkey. TURKEY! White meat, no less. That’s practically diet food. Aaron Franklin, to my knowledge, doesn’t use tricks or secrets. He does use high-quality meat and lets it smoke for hours and hours. What elevates it above others? I don’t know. It’s like pornography: You know it when you see it.
Stop 4: Louie Mueller Barbecue. Taylor, Texas. Wednesday afternoon.
I’d hoped to get to all of the Mueller clan’s barbecue joints, the original in Taylor as well as La Barbecue and John Mueller Meat Company in Austin, but I knew it would be tricky considering our schedule. The Austin joints wouldn’t happen on Wednesday because, like Franklin, they close when they run out of meat. And after after a half-hour walk to Franklin, the heat while waiting in line, stuffing ourselves silly and the half-hour walk back, facing another line was out of the question. So after a little air-conditioning in the hotel room, we hopped in the rental and drove out to Taylor, Texas, home of Louie Mueller. We’d arrive around 3:30 or 4, I figured, and should be hungry enough by then.
It was a hot day, temps approaching one hundred. When arrived in Taylor we were confronted with a blocked off main street and this:
They were filming Transformers 4 in Taylor and the town had been shut down. Luckily, Louie Mueller wasn’t. But the brief walk from the car to the front door was brutal. And while I’d normally be swept up by the dark-walled, smoky charm of a place like Mueller’s, it was damm hot in there. It didn’t help that there were about fifty or sixty movie extras and crew sitting like zombies in there, no doubt recovering from the heat and possibly Michael Bay awesomeness. There was also the small matter of neither of us not being hungry.
So we ordered one pound of brisket and a half rack of baby-back ribs to go. I’d really wanted a beef rib, but they were out. We made the 45 minute drive back to Austin, chilled for a while, then went to see the bats, then ate. This is how good Louie Mueller barbecue is: Even five hours after ordering it and eating it at room temperature, it’s still some of the best stuff you’ll ever put in your face. Indeed, the baby-back ribs had a touch of sugar in them, which was not only a nice little change from the salt-pepper-smoke, but made us want to keep eating, well after the point of being full. If you can picture two dudes standing in a hotel room, suffering from meat sweats and on the verge of tears from eating so much barbecue, but completely unable to stop because it is so delicious…. yeah, something like that.
Stop 5: Salt Lick Barbecue. Driftwood, Texas. Thursday evening.
Salt Lick didn’t make the Texas Monthly list. Indeed, the meat can’t compare with the other places we went. But Salt Lick was my first experience with Texas barbecue — someone had it mail-ordered to me once. And it’s a Texas institution. And while it might not be the BEST in Texas, it’s still good. And good in Texas is damn good. So after spending the day playing arcade games and swimming at a poll and eating a lunch of tacos with my friend Corey and his family — reader, I’ll confess: I went so far as ordering FISH tacos (but Nick ordered straight beef) — we all headed out to Driftwood. Once you escape the inexplicably stupid traffic of Austin and get out into hill country, the drive is lovely (there’s even a giant Hindu temple out there).
Salt Lick is a beautiful place in a beautiful location. And it’s huge. It’s a sit-down joint. BYOB. And gets a lot of tourists and families. But it can handle the traffic. And then some. Here we got brisket, pork spare ribs, a beef rib and sausage. As well as sides — which was almost a shock to the system.
And while I didn’t expect Salt Lick to measure up to the other places, the ribs were definitely better than those at Stiles Switch and I liked the sausage there better than at Black’s (full sausage disclosure: I’m not a fan of Texas sausage in general. I think it’s just too crumbly for someone raised on Louisiana sausage. The texture of the Salt Lick sausage was a little closer to Louisiana sausage). But, as Nick pointed out, the brisket at Stiles Switch bested the brisket at Salt Lick. Oh, it made my heart proud to hear a barbecue judge in the making.
I’d thought of stopping at one of the Mueller joints on Friday morning on the way back to Louisiana. But neither of us could do it. We’d gone three days in a row, with 99% of our food consumption being barbecue. I gave Nick the choice — it was his birthday trip, after all — and he bowed out. Thank God. Besides, we had to make it back to Louisiana in time for a fish fry.
But that just means we have a couple of places to start with next time around.
The upshot? I want to make it very clear that we didn’t have anything remotely resembling bad barbecue on this trip. The ribs at Stiles Switch and the brisket at Salt Lick? I’m nitpicking.
Oh, and a special note: While I did have some good beer down there and some very good bourbon (thanks to my friends at Proof Advertising), my drink of choice for most of my barbecue meals? Big Red. It’s just red cream soda and it’s delicious. Dr Pepper with real cane sugar is also a good choice.
If I had to rank them.
2. Tie: Black’s & Louie Mueller
3. Tie: Salt Lick & Stiles Switch.
Note: Factoring in other Texas joints we’ve been to, I’d put Smitty’s in Lockhart at 3, Central Market in Luling at 4, then Salt Lick & Stiles Switch, and lump in Kreuz with the last two.
But that’s my personal ranking. Results may vary.