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Texas Eat 'Em

On my way out, I order another slice of brisket just to see if it is any better than the one I had. It is. In fact, lusciously textured and powerfully flavorsome, it is among the best slices of brisket I have ever eaten.

Bite of Brisket

To traverse deep into the heart of central Texas barbecue country, I turn east on State Road 29 toward Taylor. The land changes as I travel east -- less granite and limestone, more dark soil and farmland squares. In Taylor, a '50s movie-set kind of town 40 miles northeast of Austin, I park in front of a red-brick building with a rusted tin overhang. Its faded red, white and blue sign says Louie Mueller Barbeque.

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

The weathered black screen door slams behind me as I enter the spacious, high-ceilinged former basketball gym. Its nominally green walls are smoke-bronzed, the business cards tacked along one wall russet-colored and flaky.

In 1946, Mueller's opened as a meat market and grocery store, as so many central Texas barbecue joints did, and three years later began selling barbecue from an alley behind the store. The Czechs and Germans who settled the area brought their knowledge of smoked meats from the Old Country and adapted it to their new environs. They smoked the meat over indirect heat, placing logs of the mild and locally plentiful post oak at one end of the pit and the meat at the other. The smoke wafts across the pit and, over time, tenderizes meats until, if done right, they come out impossibly juicy. Shunning the baby-food softness of fall-off-the-bone tenderness, that overrated measurement of quality prized by chain barbecue restaurants, Texas barbecue is firmly textured, prizing a modest chewiness that practically requires one's palate to savor each bite.

When Louie Mueller retired in 1976, his son, Bobby, took over. He runs Mueller's to this day.

I order at the chest-high dark-wood counter. The pitman pulls the meats from the vault and slices off a bite-size chunk of brisket as a sort of Texas amuse-bouche. I eat it, as is custom, standing at the counter. The meal is served on white butcher paper atop a plastic tray, which I carry to one of the blocky tables.

One bite of the brisket and I am transported to barbecue heaven. Charred on the outside and smoky throughout, it explodes with a beefy flavor so deep and so primal that it makes steak seem like tofu. The pork ribs are equally exquisite, a little chewy and reddish-tan and freckled with black pepper. The coarse-ground beef sausage squirts when I cut into it, the spicy, well-balanced flavor the state of the Texas barbecuer's art. Although it isn't needed, I occasionally dip a bite of meat in the runny cup of peppery jus, flecked with tomatoes and onion, that is served in a foam cup.

Luxuriating in an afterglow, I reluctantly get myself up and leave. I want to hit one more barbecue place before the day is out. Fortunately, the eatery is just down the street.

Situated hard by the railroad tracks, it's a divey little joint with a low ceiling that, in its way, could still exist in the '40s, when owner Vencil Mares opened it. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke hangs in the air, almost defiantly against modern times. There are deer heads on the wall. A display of spurs on a slab of wood is suspended above the beer cooler.

The place is a throwback in other ways, too. The Taylor Cafe, as it is called, has two separate doors, one used by blacks, the other by whites. Two long Formica-topped counters run parallel nearly the length of the establishment. The evening I visited, blacks sat on one side, drinking beer mostly, whites on the other, drinking beer mostly.

No one is required to use a certain door or sit on a specific side of the room. "They just want to stay with their people," is the way Mares puts it.

To some ears, his words may sound racist. They're anything but. When Mares, who is 81 years old, opened the Taylor Cafe in 1948, his decision to allow blacks and whites under the same roof was nothing short of subversive. In the small Southern town of Taylor, segregationist laws prohibited the races from mingling. It wouldn't be until the 1970s that the public schools were desegregated statewide. The railroad tracks divided white from black. Mares opened right next to those tracks, skirting the border between the races, and he let them all inside.

He paid for it, too. The Taylor Cafe, Mares will tell you, witnessed lots of knife fights. But Mares kept the place going.

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