This post is the first in a series of entries dedicated to the Austin Food Blogger Alliance City Guide 2012, aimed at helping visitors and newcomers sort out the city’s most notable food establishments. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be covering a broad array of topics dedicated to the best places to eat and drink and socialize in Austin.
You can’t visit or live in Austin without experiencing the centerpiece of Central Texas foodways, barbecue. (I might know a little bit about the topic.) While Austin certainly boasts a number of remarkably delicious barbecue restaurants, there are a number of long-established, iconic barbecue joints beyond the city limits. Long before Aaron Franklin, the brisket ninja, took Austin by storm (indeed, long before he was a twinkle in his parents’ eyes), these folks have been smoking brisket and sausage to great acclaim.
Opinions differ on what constitutes excellent barbecue. For me, it’s brisket that’s tender and moist (nothing gets under my saddle like dry brisket), with a bright smoke ring and a dark, flavorful bark. Sausage should have a nice snap from the casing, a slightly coarse grind, and a peppery bite. Ribs should have a nice caramelization on the outside from the rub, and the meat should be fall-off-the-bone tender. Sauce is a sacrilege; if you serve me a plate of barbecue smothered in sauce, you’re dead to me. Again, though, this is all a matter of opinion. Some people — people who are wrong, wrong, wrong, I should note — think sauce is important. Some people prefer lean brisket. Some are vegetarian. (I can joke because I’ve given up meat for Lent and am totally okay with that.)
The rankings here are the result of a survey taken of the Alliance’s approximately 100 members. As such, I should note that these rankings do not reflect my personal opinions about what constitutes the best barbecue beyond Austin city limits. That said, I do offer my personal opinions on the restaurants because, well, I have opinions about barbecue.
5. Kreuz Market
Located about 30 miles southeast of Austin in the small town of Lockhart, Kreuz has long been a beacon on the Central Texas barbecue landscape. Indeed, Lockhart is home to so many fiercely loved barbecue joints that it has long been a destination for out-of-towners looking for an authentic barbecue experience. Kreuz Market started out as a grocery store and meat market in 1900, where the proprietor, Charles Kreuz, would smoke the meat to help prevent spoilage. It has been a dedicated barbecue restaurant and meat market since its second owner, Edgar Schmidt, converted it in the 1960s, and is a very popular stop for barbecue road-trippers. (Seriously, go to any of these spots on a weekend and you’ll see great clumps of pudgy, red-faced, middle-aged fraternity brothers in khaki shorts and Robert Earl Keen t-shirts sat at large tables, surrounded by giant Styrofoam cups of iced tea or a dozen six-packs of crappy beer, going at huge mounds of brisket and sausage. It will likely be their first stop of many for the day/weekend.)
It’s been a while since I ate at Kreuz, but I really like their jalapeno sausage. It’s got a nicely textured grind and the zing of the jalapeno is a message from the sausagemaker that says, “Yeah, you’re a grownup. You can take the heat. Don’t be a pansy.” Kreuz is cash-only, and plan to stand in a long line of a lunch hour. Also plan on using your hands (no forks!) and being offered saltine crackers with your meat.
Head about 15 miles farther south from Lockhart and you’ll find yourself in Luling, home to City Market, another general store converted into a barbecue restaurant. When you walk in, you’ll probably feel some dismay when you realize that not only is the end of the line about six inches from where you walked in, but all of the tables are full. Good luck getting to the bathroom! As you get closer and closer to the pit room at the back of the space, where you will order your meats by the pound, you will have had plenty of time to inspect the display of various chips, homemade pralines, ice cream, watch the cashiers in action, and so on. People watching is part of the fun of a trip to City Market; not only will you see fellow city slickers like yourself, you will get to watch the locals in their natural habitat. (Pro tip: if the locals outnumber the tourists, you’ve found a winner.) But then when you get your meat and you’ve knocked over a little old lady to get your bum in a seat at a recently vacated table, you’ll forget the wait. Brisket, sausage, ribs: you can’t go wrong. (I’m partial to the brisket, tho.)
Part of the charm of Luling City Market is the small-town Texas experience you get as part of the barbecue meal. Another pro tip: if you time your visit for late May/early June, you will be witness to the aggressive campaigns of ambitious high-school girls angling to be elected the Watermelon Thump Queen. (Luling’s trademark crop is watermelons, and they hold an annual Watermelon Thump in the summer. The entire town is decorated with a watermelon motif.)
Smitty’s was established in 1999 by Nina Schmidt Sells, the daughter of Edgar Schmidt, in the wake of a bitter split with her brother, who now owns Kreuz Market. Smitty’s is situated in the original Kreuz space on the square in Lockhart. I’ve never been to Smitty’s, but I hear the brisket is the star here. Smitty’s also offers a smoked pork chop, which is pretty unusual for a barbecue place.
This is hands-down my favorite barbecue outside Austin. If you love Franklin Barbecue, you also love Louie Mueller, because Aaron Franklin learned from the masters. Located in Taylor, about 30 miles to the northwest, Louie Mueller’s, like so many other barbecue joints in Texas, started its life as a grocery store in the 1940s. Bobby Mueller took over operations at the barbecue place in the 1970s and established himself as a major player on the Texas barbecue scene. When he died suddenly in the fall of 2008, he had worked more than 150,000 hours at the pit, and his loss was keenly felt. His sons, John and Wayne, were forced to contend with the business; Wayne took over the business in Taylor, while John foundered for a while before opening his new trailer in Austin. (The February 2012 issue of Texas Monthly has a very moving profile of John Mueller and Aaron Franklin, and I highly recommend you check it out.)
At any rate, the brisket at Louie Mueller in Taylor is the best brisket I’ve ever had. Period. Hands-down. Yeah, if you get there too late in the morning, you’re going to wait in line, and it’s smoky and the sticky brown patina on the walls and photographs bear testament to decades’ worth of that smoke. But the brisket, my god, the brisket.
Okay, here’s where I part ways with my AFBA peers. I don’t think that the Salt Lick has very good barbecue. But, whatever. It’s a fun experience to drive the 22 miles west out to Driftwood (BYOB, by the way), hang out with your friends and family while you wait for a table, and eat family style at the same picnic tables I scrubbed down as a drink girl (and waitress) in high school. But just know that when you go to the Salt Lick, you’re not getting the same quality of meat that you would at Mueller’s. I will say, though, that the blackberry cobbler is the best I’ve ever had. The bottom line? Go for the experience, not the food.