Austin, TX: Three days of BBQ and Food Carts

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2011/04/13 15:29:13 (permalink)

Austin, TX: Three days of BBQ and Food Carts

Last year around this time, several of my friends from another online community ( decided to go on a "Central Texas BBQ Run", visiting several well-respected BBQ joints in and around Austin.  They had such a good time of it that this year they decided to repeat it, also hitting several of the food carts (Austin has a very vibrant food-cart scene), and inviting me along as well.
So I figured it's worth a brief writeup.
First up, BBQ...
I flew down to Austin, TX on April 1st, rendezvousing with two other friends flying in for the event, and we headed down to Lockhart, TX to meet up with the rest of our party (who, meanwhile, had driven in from the Dallas area, hitting Louie Mueller's in Taylor, TX and City Market and Luling BBQ in Luling, TX on their somewhat out-of-the-way route to Lockhart.
In any case, my first stop was Kreuz Market in Lockhart.   Lockhart, TX claims to be “The Barbecue Capital of Texas,” and it’s not an idle boast (indeed, it was declared such by the Texas state legislature…). Lockhart sports several venerable BBQ joints, with some of them being around for quite some time. The grandaddy of them is Kreuz Market (pronounced “Krites”, by the way), founded in 1900 as a meat market and grocery store by Charles Kreuz. In what’s actually a pretty familiar pattern, Kreuz was primarily running a butcher shop for the prime cuts of meat, and would make sausages from the least desirable cuts, and smoke it and the brisket. That turned into a major business, as well as establishing what are really the two hallmarks of Texas BBQ: smoked brisket and sausage.
At pretty much every BBQ joint, our approach was pretty much the same: order a few lbs of brisket, a link or so of sausage for everyone, and a handful of ribs.  And maybe one other meat.  Watch them slice it up, pile it on the butcher paper, and you're ready to go.
So how did Kreuz do? It wasn’t a bad place for me to start this BBQ adventure, since everything they had was a few notches above what you can easily find in the Northeast. The prime rib was excellent, what would be called fork-tender (if you had forks), and with just enough smoke to flavor it. The brisket was actually a little hit and miss: the fatty end of it had a nice bark (the crust from the meat caramelizing with the rub, for you BBQ newbies reading this), a decent smoke layer (the dark layer from the smoke directly penetrating the meat), and good flavor, but the lean end was definitely on the tough side (in their defense, we came at ~3pm, which isn’t the greatest time to show up, stuff might have been sitting in the smoker too long). Good, but we did a lot better during the weekend.

Day two of the Central TX BBQ Run started with a trip to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, TX. Snow’s is a modest little BBQ joint, but got catapulted to fame back in 2008 when Texas Monthly gave it a Best BBQ in Texas award. It’s been popular ever since, and their 300 pounds a day BBQ soon found itself surprisingly popular, and increasing their production four-fold. So it was only natural that a group such as ours would go seek out Snow’s.  However, going to Snow’s is a bit of a logistical issue, since they only serve from 8 until noon on Saturday (they are closed the rest of the week), and they frequently run out of food, sometimes as early as 9:30. That means that if you aren’t taking it home, that means barbecue for breakfast! Also, the line forms well before they open, so if you want to make sure you get a good spot in line, that means getting up early. So we got up at 6am in Austin so we could get there before opening, and found ourselves arriving to a non-insubstantial line at 7:42am.
Luckily, once Snow’s opened they were pretty efficient with their serving line. Quickly our group found itself in the door. Our lead party bought our typical pile of pile of meat: Brisket, sausage, and ribs. The brisket was all it was made out to be. Perfect smoke line. A great rub resulting in a nice bark. Tender meat with the fat just starting to render. In short, this was excellent brisket, and one of the high points of our trip. They’ve got that dialed in pretty well.  It was so good I opted to get even more meat in the form of a brisket platter, served up with some good beans, some even better cole slaw, and some damn fine potato salad.   Eating all this before nine in the morning made this a true breakfast of champions.
As far as the rest of the meats? The sausage was good but not stellar (they don’t make it there, it comes from City Meat Market down in Giddings, our next stop), with a slightly tough casing and a rather loose filling. And the pork? Disappointing, in actuality.  But the brisket was good enough that I'd recommend the place, even with the logistical challenges (although continue reading, we found better, more accessible places later).

After Snow's, we decided that it was worth doing a repeat trip to City Market for the folks like me that joined the tour already in progress.  But the drive from Lexington to Luling goes through Giddings, so it would be irresponsible not to stop at City Meat Market in Giddings.  City Meat Market is distinct from most of the other barbecue joints this trip, since it’s actually a meat market as well a barbecue place. Walking in through the front door on Hwy 290 (instead of the well-weathered side door), the first thing you see is a classic butcher shop and a meat case (which is filled up with all sorts of meat that was insanely cheap by my Northeast-non-cattle-country-calibrated expectations). Sauntering through to the back of the store, you first come across a seating area that has “dive” written all over it. Slightly rickety tabled covered with cheap, slightly sticky and slightly discolored tablecloths, and surrounded by slightly rickety chairs. Each table is adorned with a single bottle of what was once Gallo Sweet Vermouth, but now has been transformed into a fairly delicious, and very spicy, hot sauce mix. 
As far as the meat itself? This wasn’t as good as Snow’s, but it was respectable in it’s own right. It sported a decent, clear, smoke line, and had a bark that was fairly substantial, but a little less tough than most places. The fat was rendered well on both ends, and both lean and fatty cuts were fairly flavorful, and a little moister than most places. The ribs were similar, with a nice texture, the not-quite-falling-off-the-bone texture I like, good smoke lines, and a nice rub flavoring everything. Nothing earth shattering, but certainly some good, well-executed barbecue where they haven’t cut any corners.

After that was City Market in Luling, TX (which apparently bills itself as the “watermelon capital of Texas”, home of the annual “Thump Queen” pageant), but like so many of the venerable central Texas barbecue shrines, the name comes from a history of being a meat market well before it was a barbecue stand. Sitting on the main corner in Luling, TX, it’s one of the central attractions in downtown, taking up two modest store fronts on the main drag in town. It’s also rather popular, and we were lucky to arrive when we did. While we had almost no wait, by the time we left, the lunch crowd had arrived and the the line was at least 75 people deep stretching through the dining rooms.
Despite being my fourth stop for barbecue this trip (the seventh for most of my friends), and the third this day (and only barely turning noon!), I quickly found myself hungering for the tasty meat arranged before me. Why? Because the meat here was excellent. Starting with the brisket, it had a near-perfect bark, very nicely seasons with salt and a lot more pepper than most joints, all caramelized into a nice covering for the meat. Inside the bark, there was a nice, bold smoke line and the smoke perfused throughout the entirety of the meat. Both lean and fatty cuts were well nicely cooked, with fat just starting to soften and liquify. The meat was tender, and fully flavorful.  The pork ribs were also near-perfect in execution. The meat was tender and fully-smoked, with a nice bark with the same peppered rub as the brisket. They weren’t too shabby with the sausage, either, having a grind that was coarse, but a consistency that held up a lot better than most of the other sausages on this trip.

The final stop was our last day, and was Franklin BBQ in Austin.  Franklin has only been around on the Austin BBQ scene for a few years, and until just this last March, was serving his well-respect BBQ out of blue and white trailer. But in March, he moved into a small, former BBQ joint on 11th St in Austin, and has thus established a permanent barbecue destination. Having grown up around BBQ (I believe he said his parents owned a BBQ place in Bryan?), he’s been trying to make some of the best barbecue out there, which for TX is quite the challenge. 
He opened just a few minutes before 11, and we filed into the fairly pleasant and clean interior of the building. Arriving at a still-clean serving counter, we got to watch Aaron unwrap the first several briskets, pork, and sausage. Upon our group’s order of two lbs of brisket, four large pork ribs and a decent amount of sausage, he first sectioned the brisket and proudly held up the resulting cross-section, allowing us to see the nice, heavy bark, thick (sometimes up to 1/2″ thick) smoke ring, and the the very moist interior of the brisket. We opted for 1.5 lbs of the lean end, and half a pound of the fatty. Assembling the meat, we then moved off to our table to feast in front of the less fortunate souls still waiting in line.  So now, we come down to the most important issue: How good was it? Well, quite frankly, it blew the other places out of the water. The brisket was head and shoulders above that sold by Snow’s and City Market, and indeed, head and shoulders above every other smoked brisket I had. Everything was spot-on perfect: the meat was moist and the fat rendered, the smoke perfusing throughout the meat with a solid 1/2″ smoke layer in most places.

That's it for now.  Will post on food carts later.

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