A BBQ Pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, Part 4 of 4
by Donna Fong
Image by Harry Soo
It was 5:10PM and we were on our 5th restaurant for the day. Black’s Barbecue claims to be the oldest BBQ restaurant in Texas. Black’s was established in 1932 and has been running continuously ever since. We parked in the lot across the street and noticed a sign for Terry Black, CPA. Lockhart was definitely a small town. Black’s is housed in an old building with wooden side panels that are washed with time. The red awning shelters the heat in the summer and is almost unnoticed now. When we walked in, we were immediately greeted by a happy staff member who passed us a plate and asked us to choose our sides. He helped us figure out what to order and was patient with our lack of familiarity. We ordered the meat trinity and added a beef rib for good measure.
Eric Lenderman, the manager and Black family member, noticed us and said hello. He introduced us to his staff members who probably never watched any television show about barbecue. Eric was a tall slender man with a relaxed composure. As we sat down to enjoy our brisket, ribs and sausage, we admired black and white photos of Edgar Black, Jr. and Norma Jean. It is said that Edgar, Jr. was the first barbecue proprietor in the United States to exclusively use the brisket cut of beef. So this is where brisket started.
The restaurant is rustic and intimate and has the feeling of a saloon. It was hard to believe that this place has been around for 81 years. Black’s beef rib was a nice treat since we missed our beef ribs the day before at la Barbeque. Eric came by after our meal and gave us a tour of their kitchen. We talked about the business of BBQ and how they handle all of the customers that come through Black’s each day.
From here, it was only a few blocks drive to get to Kreuz, the largest of the three restaurants in Lockhart. Kreuz is the original name for the location of what is now known as Smitty’s Market. Edgar A. "Smitty" Schmidt purchased Kreuz Market in 1948 from the Kreuz family. When he died in 1999, the business was divided between his daughter, Nina, who kept the original Kreuz building and re-named it Smitty’s Market, after her father, and Edgar’s son, Rick. Rick re-opened Kreuz in a new building a few blocks away.
Kreuz is huge. There were two very large dining rooms and one main room to order your BBQ. The pits in Lockhart are all the same design as Smitty’s. At Kreuz, everything was spread out and multiplied. After a long maze like walk to the counter, we ordered brisket, sausage and beef clod. They ran out of ribs. It was 6PM and too late in the day to get everything. As we sat down in the bright dining room, we bit into a thickly cut brisket that was moist. The clod was similar to Smitty’s’ clod, which was also very tender, flavorful and had a nice bark. The only difference I could detect was that the Kreuz beef clod looked darker. They were very comparable.
On our last full day in Austin, we entertained the idea of having breakfast before hitting Southside Market. We smartly ignored the inclination and drove 39 minutes east to Elgin, the sausage capital of Texas. I crunched on my apple along the freeway that has the highest speed limit in the country (85MPH).
We noticed that if a local restaurant didn’t bother to make their own sausage, they were likely to serve Elgin sausage. We wanted to see if the local Elgin sausage was any better than what we had tried in Austin.
We reached Southside Market by 11AM. This place was as much of a market as it was a restaurant. Half of the restaurant was retail, selling items like fresh chicken, prepared sausages, sauces, ribs and BBQ paraphernalia. We walked past the Blue Bell ice cream counter and fancied working at the extensive meat counter. There was no line this early in the morning, so we snaked through the barriers and ordered our 7 meats from two women who seemed a little tired. We took our tray to a table and gathered napkins, BBQ sauce and drinks from various sub-stations in the middle of the restaurant. We noticed a computer in the middle of the room. Should you want to have sausages delivered directly to your home, Southside made it easy for you to do. It reminded me of the quick self check-in counters you see at airports but instead of sending yourself from one place to another, you were sending sausages home.
I took a bite from both of the sausages and shook my head in agreement. That was the best beef sausage I had ever eaten! I don’t generally like beef sausage but now I do. The jalapeno cheese was also very good. And though the mutton rib wasn’t pretty, it tasted fantastic. I had cooked lamb breast several times earlier in the year for a contest in Oakland. If you undercooked lamb breast, the fat won’t render giving you a bad mouth feel. And in order to bring out the lamb flavor, it had to be heavily seasoned. These were well rendered and well seasoned. I didn’t bother asking if my partner cared for the last piece of lamb and finished it up before he noticed.
The manager wearing a name tag that said Robert, noticed us eating/writing and said hello. He looked at our plates and went back and brought us a slice of pork steak, thinking it improper to eat at Southside and not have this cut. Pork steak, as I learned, is a sliced bone-in pork shoulder that is smoked and grilled. We thanked him and enjoyed this flavorful cut. After our meal, Robert gave us a tour of the Southside restaurant which was by far the largest facility we toured. They even had a local USDA inspector onsite. Southside distributes its sausages at Costco and other warehouse stores during the spring/summer/fall months. Robert showed us their 5 Olyer smokers in the back and several walk-in refrigerators. Everything was spotless and orderly. Though the Olyers have the option of running on gas, they only use local post oak as their source of heat and flavor, which gives their BBQ a beautiful robust smoky flavor.
From here we drove a few blocks south along highway 290 to Elgin’s other famous establishment, Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse. Meyer’s motto is "Real Texas, Real Good!" We walked in and passed by a retail counter of cold sausage that Meyer’s is famous for producing. Next to the sausage were racks of BBQ spices, jams, preserves and yet another Blue Bell ice cream counter. Though it was noon, we resisted the creamy dessert to serve a higher purpose.
We stepped on a spot under a large arrow indicating the beginning of the line. One of three cashiers waved her left arm at us to come down and order. We ordered the trimmed three meat plate for $12.49 and tacked on an extra beef sausage for comparison. We chose the coleslaw and creamed corn as our sides. I eyed a ½ pecan and ½ coconut 5 inch pie in saran wrap and weakened. I put it on the tray as well.
The dining room was largely empty. I guessed the church crowd hadn’t gotten out yet. I set down our tray and poured for ourselves some of their honey mesquite and original sauce into small plastic cups. If you had ordered it, you could also serve yourselves some sweet tea.
There was a good smoke ring on the pork rib and brisket. The rib was cooked to competition standards and was moist. I found the beef sausage to be better than the pork and comparable to Southside. The two sauces were mild with a hint of sweetness. My California tastes yearned for more spice which I had tasted only once during my trip (la BBQ’s pork sausage). I promised myself to pack some hot sauce next time in my purse.
An interesting side note about Meyer’s is that they have a drive-thru window which opens 2 hours before the restaurant does. Here, you can get a quick brisket and bean taco combo for breakfast at the reasonable price of $2.49. Vegetarians, if there are any in Texas, could get a bean and cheese taco for $1.89. This proved to me that Texas was my kind of place.
We jumped into the rental and continue with our journey to the next restaurant, Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew. I honestly didn’t know anything much about Stiles before going, other than it was well regarded by some yelpers. It wasn’t listed on the Austin crawl at Amazingribs.com from which I was largely operating on. I learned later that Stiles was only a year old.
It was 1:15PM and we entered another mostly empty restaurant. The winter break combined with a slow Sunday crowd resulted in a day without any waiting. Stiles is one big square shaped restaurant with the feeling of a modern bar and grill. We escaped from the bright Texas sun through a black door and walked counter clockwise around the perimeter to meet a man whom we would eventually know as Lance Kirkpatrick, the pit boss at Stiles.
By far my favorite thing that can happen at any BBQ restaurant is to have the actual person who cooked the meat take and serve you your order. BBQ is a labor of love. It is more of an art than a science, that much is certain. If you’ve gained enough skill to cook BBQ well and have the courage to serve it, you will have a certain pride that comes along with this brave act. A trained pitmaster will stand with authority and gauge your gastronomical needs with skill. If you happen to be a cook as well, an immediate intimacy develops, establishing yourselves as peers. I love this feeling when it happens at restaurants. It is also something that happens at every ballgame that I have ever attended. If you are wearing the same jersey as mine, we are brothers (or sisters).
When we reached the cashier, I noticed a fresh tray of chocolate banana pudding and asked for that too. We smiled, paid for our order and found a table that had a good view of the Bears vs. Lions game above our heads. Lance had invited us to a tour of his smoker and the restaurant after we were done eating.
The meat looked beautiful. Lance was careful with the food. I appreciated his consideration. I took a bite into the brisket and exhaled a sigh of relief. It was moist and cooked perfectly. The pork rib had a dry rub and gleamed in the absence of sauce. I wrote in my notebook that it was perfectly finished. The pork sausage had the Elgin snap I now desire. And of course, the beef rib, which I could tell Lance was proud of, was the best we had in Texas. I looked up from my plate and exclaimed that I would be completely satisfied if I could cook this well at a restaurant of my own. My partner agreed.
Stiles had joined the ranks of Franklin and la BBQ. I didn’t expect there to be a third joint. In my mind these three restaurants were a tier above the others (though if you ask me now I think Luling is still pretty close). Stiles served boutique BBQ in the comfort of a sports bar. It was unsettling. Food isn’t supposed to be that good in a sports bar. But it was. If you wanted microbrews, great BBQ and a ball game, this should be your place.
We asked for a to-go box, stacked our uneaten BBQ, closed the lid and wrote Stiles on the lid with my trusty black Sharpie. We walked over to Lance and he introduced himself as the cook. He also introduced his young assistant, Andy. Together, they walked over to the single Klose smoker they had in the back.
The large Klose still held a brisket in the center chamber which Lance quickly checked before re-closing the lid. That one was for the dinner service, he explained. Surrounding us was a netted steel cage that looked similar to the other smokers we saw outside at la and Franklin. It was a health code requirement. Other than the narrow walkway to the street, the cooker was sheltered by two adjacent buildings. Sliding shelves on the Klose, the sheltered environment and the easy access to the kitchen made us envy how comfortable it was to cook at Stiles. It seemed much more sustainable for the long term than some of the other layouts we’d seen.
When we complemented Lance and Andy on the BBQ, Lance gave us a brief explanation of his culinary background. Lance worked at the famous Louie Mueller BBQ back in Taylor, Texas. When grandson, John Mueller finally left Louie Mueller, Lance eventually became the lead pitmaster, which explains the fine BBQ. Shane Stiles, the owner asked Lance to be the pit boss of his new restaurant which he opened about a year ago. Business seemed to be doing well enough to justify a second smoker soon.
Lance is a humble guy and easy to talk to. He looks straight at you, listens to what you are saying and nods his head. He isn’t in the limelight like the two other restaurants, though he rightly deserves more attention than he is currently getting. We wished them well and thanked them for a great lunch.
There were two more restaurants on our list before we called it quits. Both were popular chains in Austin: Rudy’s Country Store and County Line on the Lake. We drove 20 minutes to a Rudy’s located on Research Blvd in Austin. There was a big Rudy’s sign which could be seen from highway 360. A big red barn housed the restaurant. Rudy’s doesn’t take itself too seriously. Their motto is that they serve the worst BBQ in Texas which is written in big letters on the outside of the building. There’s a gasoline station in the front, in case you needed some gas. Inside are a small market and then the restaurant. As you enter the line, there a "cutting cam" monitor that shows meat being sliced by the staff. We noticed that there is also a camera on the patrons watching the cutting cam. If no one is in line, the cutting stops.
You can grab your sides from a refrigerator conveniently located along the switchback queue. There are five registers to place your order, all run by young people. They’ll ask you if you this is your first time and if you say yes, they’ll shout out in unison "NEEEWBIE!" It felt a little like being at TGIF and being forced to sing happy birthday even if you weren’t happy. As Rudy’s virgins, we were given a sample of their meats on white wax paper. From that, we made our selection. The gal at our register seemed a little disappointed that we didn’t order much. It was 2:30PM and this was our 5th restaurant for the day. I was definitely slowing down. The meat was served on white paper, inside a plastic tray with high walls, sort of like the trays we use at contests in the judging area, only smaller.
The dining room wrapped around the cooking area which was encased in glass. I positioned ourselves near the smokers and watched the guys pull and slice meat on the cutting cam. The fatty brisket was surprisingly good while the lean seemed to be just that, lean. Rudy’s meats were all sliced deli thin. I wasn’t sure I liked that idea.
I looked up and noticed signs reminding me that my mother wasn’t around and that I should pick up after myself. The turkey, sausage and pork rib were all fairly average. With 12 different meats to choose from, I was glad we limited ourselves to four.
By the time we walked out to the parking lot, I hesitated about going to another joint. But my driver pressed forward. Within an hour from our last meal, we were now seated at what turned out to be our last BBQ meal in Austin, County Line on the Lake. There are quite a few of these in Texas, but I decided to go the most scenic restaurant. The place rests on the shore of Bull Creek that feeds into Lake Austin about a mile south. We were seated by a host and a young waiter took our order. I was disoriented by the service but tried to adjust. Only this place and Stubb’s were real service restaurants. The rest of central Texas thought it best for you to come to them. I like to call it Sizzler style ordering.
We ordered the 5 meat combo of brisket, sausage, turkey breast, beef rib, baby back ribs with a side of cole slaw, beans and potato salad. It was a delight to see a white swan and several ducks grace Bull Creek as we waited for our meal. We watched as guests enjoyed a stroll along the bank after their meal which we also practiced later on. The walls at County Line are littered with memorabilia and kitsch that reflected BBQ, Texas or fishing. I picked up the giant plastic rib and smiled for a photo. I was disappointed to learn that the talking deer head was at the main branch.
Our dinner arrived and I sighed at the enormity of it. It was difficult to initially distinguish one item from another under the thick layer of matte sauce that was generally applied over everything. If that wasn’t enough, they also gave you an extra container of sauce on the side. I felt disconnected from the cook and guessed my young waiter didn’t know the anatomical difference between a baby back and a spare rib.
We packed up our BBQ that tasted old and reheated and enjoyed our stroll along the water that was sheltered within a small green canyon. County Line was our last restaurant for the day and for the trip.
Eating at15 BBQ places in 48 hours was more than we had planned but they also exceeded our expectations. I now think about fat on brisket very differently from before, about the different ways to interpret tender, and how to appreciate the snap of natural casing.