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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

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.

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.

"This, here," I reply.

She tries a bite.

"Mmmmm," she says, in surprised delight.

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.

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.

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.

One of the last surviving original Texas pitmen, Mares is proud that he is keeping current, developing not long ago a turkey sausage. "People like something a little lighter sometimes," he says. "Especially the ladies."

I try some. It is flavorful and moist, more so than I anticipated. I take a last look around at the anthropological set piece, then leave. I don't know by which door.

Hold the Sauce

The next day, the skies are still cloudy all day. Not as rainy, though, I'll allow. In a persistent mist, I drive south from Taylor on sloping, winding, two-lane Farm Road 963 through undulating black-soil fields veined by creeks and dotted by cows. Around Austin, I turn onto U.S. Highway 183. On the outskirts of town, continuing south, I pass a helter-skelter of machine shops, discount tire stores and XXX video places. After a while, the landscape yields to gently rolling farmland, till I get to Lockhart.

I pull into the parking lot of an enormous red-tin, wood and brick building that is part barnlike and part hangarlike: Kreuz Market. Established in 1900 as a meat market and grocery store, Kreuz (pronounced Krites) was sold in 1948 to Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt. A falling-out between Schmidt's daughter, Nina Sells, who owned the building, and his son, Rick Schmidt, who owned the business, resulted in Rick Schmidt leaving the original premises in 1999 and reopening Kreuz's in this new building down the street.

Since then, a lot of things have changed. Kreuz Market was famous for its almost obstinate refusal to bend to the culinary wind. It didn't sell side dishes, didn't offer forks (the meat was served with crackers, white sandwich bread and plastic knives) and didn't provide sauce, not even on the side.

Nowadays, Kreuz Market offers three sides--pinto beans, sauerkraut and German potatoes. It also provides (plastic) forks. Scandalously, it even has a convection oven to cook the sausage.

The oven is a touchy subject in these parts, where wood smoking, it is understood, is the only way to make authentic barbecue. Owner Rick Schmidt defends the oven, saying its electricity turns off when the thermostat hits 200 degrees and that wood in a smoking chamber cooks the meat--aided, he allows, by electric fans for the convection. The oven can cook 1,200 rings of sausage in the same amount of time it takes a pit to cook 225. The efficiency argument worries barbecue purists. With its long hours of careful firetending, barbecue is the antithesis of efficient. What's next? Liquid smoke?

I approach the counter. Behind it are brick pits where, except for the sausage, Kreuz indirectly smokes its meat using smoldering post-oak logs. A pitman slices my order on a big butcher block and places it on reddish butcher paper. I saunter into the dining room, which is spacious, sparkling clean and utterly without smoke aroma. It doesn't feel like a barbecue joint.

With some trepidation, I dig in. The first bite is, to put it indelicately, orgasmic. The thick hunk of tender brisket is almost sweet with salt, downright ominous with black pepper and shot through with smoke. The prime rib (yes, prime rib) is crusty on the outside and burly with flavor on the inside. The ribs have a nice tug and a good flavor of smoke and dry rib. And the beef sausage, deliciously piquant, cooked in that convection oven? Well, it exudes a pleasant smokiness. Truth is, if I didn't know, I wouldn't know. Don't know if I like that.

One thing hasn't changed. Kreuz Market still doesn't serve sauce.

Jim Shahin is a freelance writer in Silver Spring.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company