By Phillip Townsend
Special to the Texas BBQ Posse
The North Carolina barbecue tradition runs in my veins. Doctors say that might account for my triglycerides, but that’s another story for another day.
As a kid, I grew up helping my dad raise, butcher, and cook hogs on our small farm. Through my teen and college years, I eagerly embraced every opportunity to sample good barbecue — the Eastern N.C. style of my youth (whole hog, chopped, with a vinegar-based sauce), the Piedmont style of central N.C. (pork shoulders, often coarsely chopped or pulled, with a tomato-based sauce), and even the Western/Mountain style sometimes found near the Tennessee border (shoulders, coarsely chopped or pulled, with a sweeter sauce, heavy on molasses).
Barbecue meant pork, plain and simple — slow-roasted, either pulled or chopped, sometimes with a sauce mixed in, sometimes with sauce served only on the side.
After college, my new bride Trish and I made Ft. Worth our home for nearly two and a half years. Our daughter was born in the DFW Metroplex, so we’ve always been proud to count a native Texan in the family.
Try as I might, though, I couldn’t find what we considered “barbecue” anywhere we traveled during our Lone Star State sojourn. I can’t even remember seeing many Texas-style barbecue restaurants around the parts of the Dallas-Ft. Worth region we explored in the mid-1980s.
On a day trip from Cowtown to somewhere in East Texas, Trish and I stopped at a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint advertising barbecue. The name and exact location have long since faded from memory, but I’ll never forget my excitement when I saw “pork barbecue” on the plastic letter menu board above the counter . . . or my complete and utter disappointment when served a slice of pink ham covered with barbecue sauce.
A Ft. Worth friend cooked brisket for us once or twice, in her home oven, and even the oven-cooked version was a revelation. But I’m not sure we ever ate brisket in a restaurant, and we certainly didn’t think of it as barbecue. I look back now and shake my head at how little we knew, and how much we missed.
In the 31 years that have passed since we headed east on I-20 and watched the Dallas skyline fade in the rear view mirror of a Ryder moving truck, Trish and I have spoken many times about our desire to visit Texas again. But good opportunities to head halfway across the country are few and far between when you’re raising a family and tending a business. Except for a quick drive across the panhandle on a return trip from New Mexico, we had not set foot in Texas since 1988 until my growing interest in Texas barbecue took me back a few weeks ago.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a wide network of friends, both domestic and international, who cook competition barbecue on the KCBS circuit. Brisket accounts for one quarter of the points at each KCBS event, and friends who aspire to cook world-class brisket speak with reverence of tasting trips through Texas. Conversations with these friends awakened an interest in the Texas barbecue tradition.
As my interest grew, I started recording episodes of Aaron Franklin’s PBS show on the DVR, then ordered his first book. Wyatt McSpadden’s photography hooked me after I found a copy of his Texas BBQ in a used bookstore. Daniel Vaughn’s The Prophets of Smoked Meat kept me company through a long night’s hospital vigil, waiting for the birth of our first grandchild. I began keeping an eye on the calendar for a chance to head west and spend some serious time eating serious Texas barbecue. The opportunity finally came in mid-November.
Before I mention any restaurants, a brief disclaimer. I’m no expert on Texas barbecue, so my impressions are extremely subjective. To render any kind of qualified evaluation, I would need to visit more places, visit them all multiple times, and sample a broader slice of each menu. Even a great barbecue joint can have a bad day, or serve one dry brisket after 30 perfect ones, and I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize after one experience.
I can share experiences, and impressions, but not judgments.
Trish and I landed at DFW on a Wednesday and headed straight for Austin. First stop was Terry Black’s, for beef ribs and brisket — mainly because Terry Black’s is open late, and a couple of friends had recommended it.
We had no complaints about the brisket, but the beef ribs blew us away — perfectly rendered, tender, beefy and intense. Couldn’t finish what we ordered, but probably tried a little harder than we should. And a late-night stop at Valentina’s that was penciled in the margin of our itinerary? There was no way. I was done.
Reflecting on our meal later, I felt that perhaps a rather heavy smoke profile factored into my mild indigestion, but the blame might just as well go to overindulgence.
Thursday was all about Franklin’s. On a drizzly cold weekday morning, we felt safe arriving around 9 a.m., which proved to be a good call. With fewer than 50 in line ahead of us, space was still available under the awning, out of the rain. With camping chairs we borrowed from a bin holding dozens left behind and donated by previous occupants of the line, we passed the two-hour wait in relative comfort, all things considered.
In his chapter on Serving & Eating, Aaron Franklin explains that the person “cutting lunch” has the most important and most difficult job in his restaurant — greeting guests, making them feel welcome, talking them through the ordering process, and keeping the line moving, all while slicing constantly and sculpting beautiful trays for the photos that everyone is sure to take.
Once we worked our way to the front of the line, our cutter was amazing — immediate warmth and connection, generous with his portions, throwing in a few pork end ribs that we didn’t order for us to try, all while dissecting a brisket with grace and precision. I didn’t see anybody work a cutting station better in Texas.
The smoked turkey we ordered ranked among the best I have ever eaten. But turkey is turkey. The fig and blue cheese sausage just tasted like smoked sausage, and I’m not really much of a smoked sausage fan. The pork ribs our counter man threw in were a tasty surprise — excellent — but I’m not sure I would wait two hours for them.
That brisket, though. If brisket perfection exists, we found it on 11th Street in Austin. The salt and pepper rub was balanced, not the least bit harsh or aggressive. The smoke flavor was mild, delicate, almost sweet — not the heavy smoke that comes back to haunt you later. Each slice pulled apart with just a gentle tug, glistening with rendered fat, cooked right to that sweet spot — exquisitely tender, but not the least bit overcooked, dry, or crumbly.
There’s a lot to be said for premium Angus beef, simply seasoned and flawlessly smoked. My only regret might be sampling the pinnacle of brisket so early in the journey. After Franklin, it was nearly impossible to generate as much excitement about any other brisket.
After a pit room tour, we headed north to Ft. Worth, to visit the little house we rented when our daughter was born, then over to Dallas, where Trish was registered for a conference on Friday and Saturday. Before leaving Ft. Worth, I slipped in the back door of Heim’s Barbecue on Magnolia for a take-out order of brisket. I’ve heard good things, but maybe it wasn’t fair to try their brisket on the same day as Franklin’s. I found it a bit over-cooked — not terrible, by any stretch — but just a little chalky.
Friday morning, riding solo, I fought Dallas rush hour traffic for an hour, then headed south toward Taylor, for lunch at Louie Mueller. Waited in line for half an hour, just enjoying the atmosphere — the cavernous space, the dark, smoke-stained walls and ceiling, the deep shadows alternating with shafts of light from the cupolas above.
The “cathedral of smoke” description I’ve seen applied to Mueller’s seems apt. There can’t be another place quite like it. Ordered brisket and a beef rib, then sampled by myself at one of the indoor picnic tables. Since the gospel according to Louie Mueller prescribes 9 parts pepper to 1 part salt, the rib and brisket slices were peppery, but pleasantly so. The smoke profile was a bit more pronounced than Franklin, but not overpowering.
After paying about $38 for one beef rib to eat by myself, I was slightly disappointed to find it was not quite as well-rendered as the rib I ate at Terry Black’s. A little more time on the smoker would have helped. The brisket was well-cooked and tasty—not quite in the same league as Franklin’s, at least for me, but very good. The thin, oniony dipping sauce complemented the meat well. . .enough that I walked back to the counter and asked for more. Overall, I would heartily recommend the Louie Mueller experience to any barbecue pilgrim.
The hour drive from Taylor to Lockhart gives you enough time to start digesting a Louie Mueller lunch, but not enough time to work up a fresh appetite. When you’re in Lockhart, though, you eat barbecue, whether you’re hungry or not.
First stop was Kreuz Market, on the outskirts of town. If we were giving an award for the most impressive pit room, Kreuz would be a top contender. I think I counted eight large traditional brick pits, and one of the guys working the pit room told me that all are full on weekends, with lines of hungry patrons extending out the door all day.
Kreuz must be doing something right to keep so many folks queuing up, but I don’t think I sampled the best they put out. I’ve heard that sausage is the star of the Kreuz menu, but sausage just isn’t my thing, so I opted for shoulder clod (something I had never tried before) and the pork chop (based on an online recommendation). The shoulder clod reminded me of a dry, tough roast beef, and I found the smoke on the pork chop (also a bit dry and tough) harsh and unpleasant. I stopped at a couple of bites.
Next stop was Smitty’s downtown. Walking through the back door, I stepped into a Wyatt McSpadden photograph — ancient brick pits, open fires burning right on the floor, smoke-layered walls, and the smell of history.
Online reviewers recommended the pork ribs. The lady across the street in the used boot store recommended the pork ribs. But I really didn’t fly to Texas for pork ribs. I asked for a recommendation at the counter, and the young lady who greeted me said, “Most folks go for the brisket.” I had read that you just can’t get really good brisket at Smitty’s, but I took a chance and was pleasantly surprised. I sat and nibbled my slices next to a family visiting from Brazil, wearing shirts from the Churrascada. I’m not sure Smitty’s brisket was quite on par with Louie Mueller, but the slices they served me were at least in the same ballpark.
On the way out of town, I ducked into Black’s for just a second. My brisket slices were a bit greasy, and a little tough. Not terrible, but definitely not exciting. Thankfully, I drove out of Lockhart anticipating something better.
After a pleasant evening at the Rainbow Courts Motel in Rockdale (the oldest continually operated motel in Texas), I rose early on Saturday, scraped heavy frost from the windshield of my rental car, and headed back down toward Lexington for breakfast at Snow’s.
By the time I arrived a bit after 7:00 a.m., a few folks were starting to mingle around, but the line wasn’t really taking shape yet. I was thankful for the chance to walk around the cooking area, snap a few photos of Tootsie at work, and chat with Clay, visibly exhausted after a very long night, about his briskets and our mutual friend Mauro Chiefari (or, as Clay calls him, Italian Max).
A little past 7:30, the line started to form up. Owner Kerry “Snowman” Bexley brought out a cooler of free beer and chatted up the crowd a bit as trays of meat were ferried from the smokers to the serving line inside the building.
Our brief wait in line for the 8:00 a.m. opening gave me an unexpected opportunity to meet members of the Texas BBQ Posse on their 10th anniversary trip — a highlight of my Texas barbecue journey. Gary Jacobson and Chris Wilkins tipped me off not to miss Tootsie’s pork steak, so I ordered half of a pork steak, plus a few slices of Clay’s brisket.
The pork steak, a thick slice of shoulder, was just the perfect combination of smoky, crusty, chewy, tasty goodness. To find pork that good in Texas just warms the heart of an old N.C. pig cooker. And Clay’s brisket was top-notch — if I’m completely honest, maybe not quite the perfection I experienced at Franklin, but at least as good as anything else I sampled in Texas. I was so excited when ordering that I forgot to request one of Tootsie’s half-chickens, but that’s just another reason to go back.
Before my visit, I read several articles about Snow’s and watched some interviews with Tootsie, Clay, and Kerry. How can you come up with a better storyline than Tootsie Tomanetz, member of the Barbecue Hall of Fame and James Beard Award semi-finalist, still cooking some of the best barbecue in Texas at age 83?
Somehow, though, I failed to pick up that Tootsie cooks in a style quite familiar to North Carolina barbecue enthusiasts, spreading glowing coals directly under her pork steaks, chickens, and sausage rather than cooking them in the indirect style typical of most Texas barbecue. I think that direct exposure to the coals helps explain the incredible taste and crust of Tootsie’s pork steak, but maybe that’s just my N.C. roots talking.
A chef friend who recently cooked a special event with Nancy Silverton in California quotes her as saying,: “This is how I judge a great meal. When I’m eating it, I don’t want to be anywhere else.” That’s exactly how I felt sitting out on the upper deck at Franklin, savoring bite after perfect bite of the best brisket I’ve ever tasted.
And it’s precisely how I felt just after a frosty Saturday morning daybreak, sitting out next to the cooking shed at Snow’s with members of the Texas BBQ Posse and other barbecue enthusiasts, alternating bites of Tootsie’s pork steak and Clay’s brisket. Two absolute peak experiences in three days.
If I were giving awards, the award for the best brisket would go to Franklin. . .hands down. If I were giving an award for the best overall Texas barbecue experience, though, that award would go to Snow’s, without a doubt.
Next trip? Franklin’s again. Snow’s again. And then on to visit top recommendations from the Texas BBQ Posse.