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Texas Eat 'Em

In the heart of Austin's barbecue country, no two joints taste the same.

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page P01

The skies are not cloudy all day? Yeah? Not this day. This day, they're nothing but cloudy. Rainy, too. The windshield wipers slapping back and forth make it tough to spot all the 'cue joints. And out here, there are a zillion of them.

I am journeying into the heart of Texas barbecue country, driving west out of Austin on serpentine Texas Highway 71 toward the small town of Llano, about an hour away.


Randy Olfers and Douglas Roberson at the Taylor Cafe in Austin, Tex. (Matt Archer - Getty Images for The Washington Post)

In other barbecue hot spots, like Memphis and North Carolina, barbecue is pork. A person will find pork -- and chicken and mutton and even cabrito (baby goat) -- on Texas pits. But what defines Texas barbecue is beef. And the king of the plate is smoked brisket -- usually unsauced. That's a characteristic specific to central Texas barbecue -- its aversion to sauce. They'll serve it (usually). But invariably on the side. Sauce, the pitman will tell you, is just used to cover up inferior barbecue.

A Texas barbecue excursion, though, isn't solely about food. It's also about history and, oddly for that most primitive of foods, change.

As I head toward Llano, I think about history and change, but mainly I think about how full I am. Since arriving two days ago, pretty much all I've done is eat barbecue.

My first stop was a Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin called El Azteca -- for barbacoa, or Mexican barbecue. The heaping mound of shredded and chunked beef was sinfully rich. I ate it with pico de gallo in a flour tortilla and loved every bite. There was just one problem: It's not barbecue.

Traditionally, barbacoa is prepared by wrapping a cow's head in leaves and burying it with smoldering coals overnight. Like almost every other eatery in the state these days, El Azteca steams the head.

No smoke, no barbecue. Simple as that. But the meat was delicious, and a taste of nostalgia is, I suppose, better than no taste at all.

The following day for lunch, I drove into a predominately African American neighborhood of Austin and pulled up to a dilapidated house on the crest of a hill. I pushed open a metal door patched with wood, tin and duct tape. Thumbtacked photos of family and friends blanketed the yellow walls.

This is the venerated Sam's BBQ.

The hole in the wall is so beloved that when it burned down in February 1992, the community raised money to help rebuild it. Stevie Ray Vaughan had its ribs shipped to New York when he played Carnegie Hall.

Sam's is best after 2 in the morning (it is open till 4 a.m. on weekends) when the bars close. But it's fine at this hour of the day, too, Sunday lunch.

Decked-out churchgoers approach the counter in a steady stream as I sit with friends, eating from paper plates with plastic forks and cheap white sandwich bread. "Which is the mutton?" asks one friend.


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