|Steven Hecht visits with La Barbecue pitmaster Dylan Taylor, 21, who was trained by the legendary John Lewis. (Photo ©Tom Fox)
Posse Note: During our barbecue tour of Central Texas last weekend, we met Steven Hecht, born in Texas who now lives in California. He said that he's a regular reader of this blog and he used it to plan his Texas BBQ tour. Of course, after learning that, we asked him to write about his experience. Here is his story:
I just returned from my first BBQ Pilgrimage to Austin, Texas and it was a life-changing experience.
My name is Steven Hecht and I was born in Dallas. Though my family moved to California when I was 13, the love for barbecue has forever coursed through my Texan blood. I had returned many times to Dallas to visit family and eaten “chain prepared” BBQ, but what my BBQ-lovin’ friend Steve Barnes and I found on our road trip was a nirvana of indescribable tastes, smokey scented air that made our mouths water, and new friendships with fellow BBQ lovers from all over the USA.
|Steve Barnes at Snow's BBQ. (Photo ©Steven Hecht)
Steve had been pestering me for years to take a sojourn to Texas barbecue country. We had sampled any and all southern California barbecue joints through the years. Of course, my backyard ‘cues were the best of all! When I learned my in-laws were coming cross country for a week-long visit, the opportunity suddenly revealed itself.
We arrived on a Thursday late afternoon and from the airport car rental spot we called ahead to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor to get the status on what barbecue was still available. Disappointed but not unexpectedly we learned that the prized beef ribs were long gone and what was left was rapidly dwindling. Undeterred, we made a beeline over to La Barbecue. With our hunger rapidly increasing we were dismayed to find only pulled pork and turkey remaining as the sun was beginning to set.
We had organized our dining destinations and timing using the Texas BBQ Posse's blog. I had spent many hours reading Gary Jacobson’s stories reveling about the great times he, Chris Wilkins and the whole Posse had on their Texas barbecue road trips and utilized their advice on timing, days, wait lines, etc.
With no backup to our backup plan we figured that Salt Lick would still have plenty of food. We made the pleasant drive east of Austin on the country roads as the sun set and our stomachs rumbled. We were quickly seated and ordered the beef rib, pork ribs, sausage, and brisket. We were so hungry and this being our first taste of “real” Texas BBQ we were satisfied with tasty beef rib, the rural setting, and the blazing rotund BBQ pit. Even though the brisket was chewy we were satisfied to having crossed off a fallen BBQ star and were ready for sleep, as an early Friday morning line at Franklin Barbecue awaited us.
|Aaron Franklin with Steven Hecht.
(Photo ©Steven Hecht)
The hotel alarm sounded at 6:30 a.m. and we were pulling into the Franklin parking lot at 7:20 a.m. There were nine hardy souls ahead of us and we huddled in against the just above-freezing cold and the biting wind. After Steve made a quick walk to a place behind the parking lot for some coffee and hot chocolate we started to settle in and get acquainted with the barbecue lovers ahead of and behind us.
Around 9 o’clock a Franklin employee brought out some of their folding chairs and a much appreciated heat lamp. The restaurant doors were unlocked, the bathroom was available, and the feeling was slowly returning to my hands as a small, ever changing group warmed themselves surrounding the heat lamp. Spirits were picking up and the smoke wafting through the air was ratcheting up our anticipation.
Steve rejoined me at the heat lamp and showed off his selfie with Aaron Franklin! The man, the myth, the legend! The proprietor and leader of the Austin, Texas barbecue renaissance was leaning on the counter talking to his meat cutter as they were preparing the day’s preorders. I got my own selfie with Aaron, who was smiling, gracious and as nice as could be.
We met people from New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Kentucky, North Carolina, and California. There was even Eddie from Austin who took his birthday off from work to spend four hours in line to eat Franklin barbecue. He was a great source of knowledge about all the region’s BBQ restaurants and we enjoyed his experienced opinions. Tip: One easy way to start up a conversation with anyone in Austin is to ask them about their favorite BBQ places.
|Working the pits at Snow's BBQ on a cold Saturday morning. (Photo ©Tom Fox)
When Aaron Franklin opened the screen door to let the line move inside we were thrilled. We ordered brisket, pork ribs and sausage. As we had three days and four BBQ tastings planned, we figured that a half pound of each would be about right. But, when the oakwood fired smoke hits your nostrils and you see the shiny sauce reflecting off the ribs and juices pouring out of freshly cut brisket, well, you’ll know what to do! We ordered a pound of brisket and ribs each and four links of sausage.
Line mate Eddie joined us at our table and we chowed down. The brisket had a great bark and was so tender and juicy. So good! The ribs were fall of the bone and the best I have ever had. The sausage was real good but not to Steve’s tastes. As we ate and licked our fingers, line mates who were waiting to order looked on with anticipation. Franklin was the bomb!
Well, it was about noon and we were stuffed, tired and what do visitors do in Austin after that? Nap. LOL. Then drink. We were staying at the Westin on E. 6th St. and had a good time that night. Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington, Texas was awaiting us and we set the alarm for 6:30 a.m.
Saturday morning is the only time you will find Tootsie Tomanetz shoveling hot coals into her barbecue pits at Snow’s. The Texas BBQ Posse has praised Snow’s. In one blog post, six Posse members rated their personal top-five picks in the state and Snow’s was at the top on three of the lists. A must-eat, only an hour east of Austin.
|The line at 8am at Snow's BBQ in Lexington. (Photo ©Steven Hecht)
Just about a quarter before 8:00 a.m. we pulled up to Snow’s and were about twentieth in the mist-filled morning line. As we waited, the wonderful smell of smoked meat filled the air. About 45 minutes later we were ordering at the counter. This time we intended to stick to our original plan of half a pound of brisket, ribs and sausage. No. Once again our senses were overwhelmed by the sights and smells. One pound of brisket and ribs each and 5 sausage links (these looked a bit smaller than Franklin’s.)
We couldn't believe how good it was. We whispered conspiratorially, “This brisket is more tender than Franklin’s.” It literally fell apart in our hands before we could lift it to our mouths. Dripping with juices. The ribs were sensational, not quite quite as good as Franklin, maybe, but certainly right up there. The regular and jalapeño sausage links were good but I didn’t finish mine as I gorged on the brisket and ribs.
Snow’s brisket has less bark than Franklin’s. I prefer the heavier bark. After finishing I approached Tootsie and owner Kerry Bexley to thank and compliment them. I asked Kerry how he cooks his brisket and he told me that it cooks about 8-10 hours and that they wrap it in aluminum foil the last few hours to increase the juiciness. That foil wrap is why the bark is less than at Franklin, he explained. Franklin uses butcher paper.
“Look out, now”, Kerry said as Tootsie carried a shovel full of hot coals to keep her chickens smoking.
As Steve and I took some photos we met a group of five or six guys from Chicago. Like us, they had pre-printed their own T-shirts for the special pilgrimage. I didn’t think anyone could be as nutty as we were. They informed us they were going to another four joints that day, had planned on hitting about 15 in all on their trip and invited us to tag along. It sounded real fun but our bellies were full again and we started back toward Austin. But, they had planted a seed in my mind.
As Steve drove and I tilted back the seat in our rental car I mentioned that these Chicago guys were following the guidelines that the Texas BBQ Posse recommends. Eat small and hit a lot of places. That wasn’t my style. I don’t have that kind of self control. But I suggested that we head over to La Barbecue and finish this road trip with one more experience for comparison’s sake. He agreed and I closed my eyes.
|Patrons enjoy a sunny afternoon as they dine at La Barbecue in Austin. (Photo ©Tom Fox)
I woke up as we exited Cesar Chavez Boulevard back in Austin a few minutes from La Barbecue. We parked and got in what seemed to be a relatively short line. We were in luck! In front of us was Greg with a cooler full of IPA’s and a 40-year history of local barbecue stories to share. He imparted some new knowledge and reinforced some old talk we had heard about what we were calling the Austin, Texas BBQ family tree.
Lockhart, Texas is regaled for being the origin of Texas barbecue, but Austin is now the showplace, thanks in part to descendants of Louie Mueller. Two of his grandchildren run joints in Austin. John Mueller has John Mueller Meat Co. (Aaron Franklin once worked for John) and LeAnn Mueller owns La Barbecue. The LA stands for LeAnn.
Our wait was about 90 minutes before we ordered. Greg’s old high school friend and La Barbecue regular Larry joined in with his daughter, son-in-law, and other friends. Up ahead a group of young women joined in and Steve whispered that he wished La Barbecue observed Franklin’s Manifesto about cautioning people in line not to let in too many “joiners.” But, the IPA’s were flowing, we were still full from Snow’s and they were so nice and friendly we really didn’t mind at all.
As we got close to the ordering window we recognized from Snow’s earlier that morning a character with a blue knit cap tilted on his head and a Berkeley sweatshirt. Steve talked with him and he told us he was Bruce Tomaso and he was with the The Dallas Morning News. I instantly perked up and excitedly asked him if he knew Gary Jacobson (co-founder along with Chris Wilkins of this blog). He answered, “Sure, he is right back in line”.
I was so pumped up to learn that the Texas BBQ Posse was HERE. We had read their blog and everything we were doing was because of their stories and now they were actually at La Barbecue. I went back to introduce myself and thank him profusely for all of their stories and insight.
|La Barbecue pitmaster Dylan Taylor with Steven Hecht.
(Photo ©Steven Hecht)
Gary smiled and seemed almost as happy as I was to meet. He brightened even more when Chris told him I had offered to order their food for their small group to save them two hours more of waiting in the growing line. We were best friends now!! Meeting Gary, Chris, and the rest of the Posse was the highlight of my trip. Chris gathered up the order and we jumped back into our spot near the window. Hey, everyone else had joiners.
This time Steve and I had to curtail our portions and just had a few ribs, brisket and sausage. The brisket was the best tasting of the whole trip. So juicy and buttery and amazing! The ribs and sausage were super but we were stuffed. I was dismayed that we didn’t order the renowned beef rib but at 1.5 pounds we had to say no.
I went into the La Barbecue smoker where 21 year old Dylan Taylor was tending to the brisket. He was so friendly and so level headed and grounded for a young guy. Just two years ago he had been delivering pizza. He told me he cooks the brisket at 250 degrees for 16 hours and wraps them in butcher paper about the last quarter of the cooking time. I could taste the love and time he puts into his cooking.
We spoke and I recounted our trip: Salt Lick, Franklin, Snow’s…Miss Tootsie isn’t a spring chicken anymore. Aaron’s fame, fortune and the pressure it takes to run that kind of operation where people wait four hours in line can’t last forever.
I imparted my vision on Dylan: La Barbecue was the future of Texas BBQ. Their brisket was the best tasting, now. They have a promising future ahead. Good luck to them!
As our trip was ending, I looked back at all the great memories we had. The outstanding food, the smokey joints, the lines. But, the best part was the people. The like-minded folks who all shared a love and passion for great BBQ. That was the uniting tie that bound us all. From Aaron to Tootsie and Kerry, to LeAnn and Dylan, to Gary and Chris and the rest of the Posse, to Eddie and Greg and Larry, to Steve and I. We love barbecue and good barbecue means good times and good friends!!
I will be back to Austin for BBQ Road Trip II. After all, there is still that beef rib at La Barbecue I must try.
|Steve Barnes, left, with Steven Hecht at Snow's BBQ. (Photo ©Steven Hecht)