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Texas Eat 'Em

"This, here," I reply.

She tries a bite.

"Mmmmm," she says, in surprised delight.


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

Not only does Sam's still offer mutton, which you don't find much anymore, but it also serves meltingly soft brisket. Central Texas barbecue is known more for its meat-market-style brisket, which is firm and dense. And if you say yes when offered (and nearly everybody does), Sam's will douse its 'cue in a peppery, thick, velvety-smooth red sauce. A lot of area barbecue purists eschew sauce; when offered at all, it is usually thin, vinegar-based and served on the side. The differences distinguish Sam's as a classic example of Texas African American-style barbecue, with roots in the Deep South.

'Cowboy Style'

A couple of miles and a world away from Sam's is Ruby's BBQ, whose style might be called College 'Cue. Housed in a wide wood edifice that calls to mind an Old West saloon, Ruby's is on the University of Texas campus. Ristras of red chiles hang from broad windows. Cow skulls decorate the faux-weathered walls.

Ruby's offers nouveau old-time barbecue. Which is to say, it slowly cooks its meat in the indirect, smoldering wood tradition. But its brisket is hormone-free, and its side dishes include vegetarian jambalaya, Mediterranean salad with feta cheese and a dinner salad with ginger soy dressing. But the homemade sweet potato pie takes you home to your Southern roots even if you never stepped foot in the South. And the spicy chopped beef sandwich is the best in town.

After my weekend barbecue debauch, here I am on Monday morning, nursing a barbecue hangover while heading toward Llano, home of Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, one of President Bush's favorite barbecue places .The rain makes the scraggly green of cedar, juniper, live oak trees and prickly pear cactuses seem somehow lush. With verdant, if bristly, hills overlapping one another to the distant horizon, the land strikes me as a sort of Lone Star Tuscany. A Texas flag snaps in the breeze in the front yard of a sprawling rock house. But mostly, there is nothing but road, land and sky. Occasionally a hawk glides overhead.

As I travel west, the land becomes more hardscrabble, fertile ground for the scrawny mesquite, which doesn't require much water or rich soil. Mesquite wood, then, is what Cooper's and a lot of other places west of Llano use. But mesquite tends to be bitter. So the pitmen typically burn it down to embers, then shovel the coals into a pit, roughly two feet directly beneath the meat. The method is called "cowboy style."

With its population of around 3,300 people, its wide, raised sidewalks under wood overhangs supported by skinny wood posts, and its old-timey stores such as Acme Dry Goods and Fort Llano Mercantile, the town seems content to remain in the '90s -- the 1890s.

Driving through town, I come to a barbecue objet d'art. On a cement slab under a corrugated tin roof are about a dozen smoke-darkened brick pits. Above them is a web of pulley wires that weight the pits' metal lids. If barbecue were the Louvre, this scene at Cooper's would be its Mona Lisa. I walk up to the pit closest to the entrance, where customers choose what they want.

The pitman opens the lid. "Whattaya like?" he says.

On the grate are brisket, sausage, chicken, pork ribs, beef ribs, cabrito and giant pork chops. With each choice, the pitman asks if I want the meat dunked into a pot of the thin, dark red, smoke-flavored sauce sitting on the pit. Some I do, some I don't.

Inside, I sit down at one of the long communal picnic tables under the baleful eye of mounted bobcat, javelina and deer heads, and dig in. The pork ribs are crusty, sharp with salt and wonderfully chewy. The beef rib is Fred Flintstonian enormous and perfectly cooked, its exterior blacked crisp, its interior succulent. The brisket had been sitting too long. It is leathery. But the flavor is deeply meaty. The sausage is fine, if a bit bland. The gargantuan pork chop is just plain flat-out amazing. Reddish bronze on the outside, it oozes clear juice when I slice into it.


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