By Will Baldwin (Atlanta, GA)
About 1 year ago, my brother and I were brainstorming ideas for a gift for our dad's 60th birthday. We wanted to do something for him that we would all enjoy and remember forever. My brother mentioned how much my dad talked about the barbeque he got at a place outside of Austin when he was out there for a wedding. We quickly established a plan to drag him out to Texas to experience the very best that the state had to offer in the ways of brisket, sausage, and beef ribs.
Obviously, my father was ecstatic about the trip, so we began to lay the groundwork for our culinary immersion. I quickly stumbled on the Mecca of Texas bbq information in the form of the "Man Up Texas BBQ" blog. I spent long nights cross-referencing locations, reviews, Best of '08 and '09 lists, and the beautiful pictures of beef and sausage that littered its posts. With input from my brother and dad, I put together a rough itinerary that would maximize our exposure to the best of the best within the limited time we had available.
The final list ended up looking like this - City Market, Kreuz, Smitty's, Meyer's, Louie Mueller, Salt Lick, and Cooper's. I knew we were missing out on the hidden gems and locals-only type places, but sometimes you've gotta check out the standard-bearers before you go looking for the obscure.
After flying into San Antonio late Wednesday night, we were up well after the dawn and up and on the interstate headed east to make an early lunch at City Market in Luling. With our windows down, we pulled into a spot across the street and our car instantly filled with a smoky smell that let us know this might just be the best day of our life. I was nervous approaching the small box of a room in the back corner to place my order. I managed to get out my requests for lean and moist brisket and 2 links of sausage, and we quickly ran to a booth to see what was in store for us.
The lean brisket was a good start; it had a nice crust and a robust smoked flavor. However, to our inexperienced palates, it paled in comparison to the moist brisket. The moist had a great edge and intense flavor, it was tender, but had enough resistance that you still got to chew the very best taste in each mouthful. We all agreed that from this point on we would focus our future brisket purchases on the moist variety. Then, in a twist that blew us away, we bit into the sausages and realized we were just starting on the best part of the meal. The casing gave way with a nice snap and released a small stream of grease. The meat crumbled gently in a way that I had never experienced in a sausage. The balance of the spice, smoke, and meat flavors was perfect, and if we hadn't had two more stops in the next few hours, I think we would have been sitting in that booth eating City Market sausage until they kicked us out.
With one last look over our shoulders, we got in the car and headed north to Lockhart. It wasn't an easy decision to bypass Black's, but the history and publicity that Kreuz and Smitty's bring to the table couldn't be ignored. The massive brick entrance to Kreuz had us a little intimidated, but the pleasant folks at the counter had us loaded down w/ moist brisket, jalapeno-cheese sausage, regular sausage, and a couple of pork ribs. Eating the brisket, I immediately remembered a Man Up post that said don't bother with the prime rib at Kreuz, because the moist brisket really tastes like prime rib. I couldn't agree more. The flavor was good, but seemed almost watered down by the extreme tenderness of the cut. It was the first time I've every thought, I wish this meat wasn't quite so tender. The sausage also was good, but it suffered in comparison to City Market. The jalapeno cheese brought some nice oomph, but the texture of both was a little mealy/mushy with casings that were a little bit rubbery. The pork ribs also suffered in comparison, but this time it was to the experiences of three guys who have spent their whole lives in North Carolina and Georgia and have a real high bar when it comes to pork. The ribs were pretty tough and just didn't seem to soak up any of the smoke like the other two menu items, leaving them chewy and bland. The table sauce (like every place we visited but the Salt Lick) seemed like a complete afterthought and did nothing for any of the meats.
With our hunger sated, but still some room to spare, we rolled downtown to Smitty's. The long, smoky entryway was very cool; the communal seating gave off a happy vibe, and the food was solid. We were most impressed with the sausage- its texture and base flavor was so similar to City Market that it must be from the same producer, but it seemed to lack a few extra hours over the coals and fell just shy of the City Market level. The brisket had a really nice external flavor but was substantially tougher than any of the other briskets we tried. Our continued issues with pork continued as the pork chop was dry and very chewy with not enough flavor to make the effort worth it.
After getting 9 holes in at the scenic Lockhart St. Park Golf Course (40$ for 3 players, 2 sets of clubs and 15 balls - hard to beat), we headed north in an effort to hit both Meyer's Elgin Smokehouse and Louie Mueller's for dinner. Unfortunately, we found ourselves running late and had to drop the hammer just to make it to Meyer's before they closed. Our "misfortune" continued when we got to the counter and were informed that they were out of beef ribs. We pulled ourselves together enough to get a pile of brisket and a good sampling of sausages. The sausages were really tasty, well cooked, but a little on the dense side. The brisket was the second best of the day- tender with a nice crust and hearty smoked flavor and just the right amount of fattiness. The atmosphere was a bit of a let down- it felt almost like a fast-food restaurant and lacked the smokey ambiance of the first three.
The next morning, a solid Austin migas breakfast got us started on the right foot. As a group we decided that though we had an early lunch date with some cousins out at the original Salt Lick, we couldn't leave the area without trying Louie Mueller. So we pushed the mechanical limits of the Mazda 3 hatchback to get to Taylor and see what the Man Up fuss was all about. We just beat the early lunch rush and got our order in for beef ribs, brisket, and sausage. The complimentary brisket bite was near-perfect and definitely upped our anticipation level. Our plan was to bag up the goods and save them for a late dinner at the campground, but we did have to dip in and try a rib on the way to Salt Lick. The rib was perfectly cooked- the meat pulling off with moderate pressure, but giving a nice meaty chew to work on. We were a little overwhelmed initially by the crust of a 1/4 inch of pepper on the ribs, but we quickly learned to distribute the pepper evenly over the giant chunks of meat we were pulling off and passing around. We managed to hold off on diving into the rest of the bag until that night. Eventually, we ended up heating the sausage, brisket, and remaining ribs on the metal top of our cabin's firepit. Amazingly, the sausage and brisket rivaled the best we had on the trip. The brisket had a perfect blend of smokiness and fatty meaty goodness, probably the most complete brisket we had. There was some disagreement on the sausage as to whether it was better than City Market or not, but we all agreed that to prosper under the adverse conditions that it suffered that day was a remarkable achievement for the Louie Mueller products.
When we arrived at Salt Lick, our jaws collectively dropped. It seemed like we were pulling into EuroDisney after two days of working in Walt Disney's 1950s home studio. Tour buses, waitresses, faux smoking pits, and silverware greeted us, and we could only imagine that the food would be a let-down. So we were pleasantly surprised by the presence of some pretty good pork ribs that were tender, flavorful and well dressed with the first decent sauce we had encountered. The brisket was solid- not phenomenal, but with a legit smoke ring and nice bit of fatty flavor. The sausage was a major fail. It reminded us of an average piece of Hillshire Farms smoked sausage- greasy in a bad way, dense, with minimal flavor or character. Still, to serve the number of folks they do, to do well with 2 out of 3 items was a pleasant surprise. It was a nice change to see some time and effort paid to making a sauce that adds something to the experience as the sweet/spicy combo of the house sauce caught our attention- and was put to good use helping get the sausage down.
A scenic cruise across the hill country made the hours out to Llano some very pleasant ones, and it gave our stomachs a little time to make room for the final BBQ stop. Our arrival at Cooper's marked a completion of a circle to an extent as it was Cooper's that my Dad had eaten at several years ago and which made such an impression on him. Getting out of the car, I could see why. Massive twin wood burners/coal producers, rows of huge cookers, folks lined up to pick their meat- a truly impressive sight. We stuck with our two big guns- brisket and sausage, but we couldn't resist grabbing a couple of ribs and a healthy chunk of the sirloin steak. We should have left the steak for the grilling roadtrip as it wasn't particularly inspiring- bland, chewy, with none of the well-rendered or crispy bits we had come to expect in our other selections. The brisket was first class, with an excellent flavor and nice crust, though just a fraction too chewy for our taste. It fell just shy of the heights set by City Market and Louie Mueller. The same could not be said of the sausage which rivaled only Salt Lick in its commercial/store bought consistency and flavor. A bit of a let down after the first day had seen such heights of sausage quality. Where Cooper's did shine was the flavor of their beef rib. The salt/pepper/spice rub was perfect- complimenting the beef flavor without overwhelming it at any point. The first bite of their rib was rivaled only by the first bite of City Market's sausage for the taste that will most define our trip. As we continued to enjoy the rib, we did notice a bit of toughness that we hadn't experienced with Louie Mueller ribs. So our final consensus on the two ribs was Cooper's won by a nose on flavor, but Mueller's won by a nose on cooking/consistency.
The night was a good one, spent on the Rio Frio, eating a reheated Louie Mueller buffet, reflecting on 40 hours of some of the best food we had ever had. We slowly made our way back to San Antonio the next morning, stopping only for some really delicious migas and melt in your mouth homemade donuts at an exceptional little spot on the north side of the city called Cocina Mexicana/The Original Donut Shop.
Thanks to the Man Up guys for the great information and reviews that guided our trip and never steered us wrong. It was an eye-opening and gut-expanding trip, and we look forward to coming out again real soon.
Our Final Rankings:
1. Louie Mueller - great all around, great atmosphere, brisket, sausage and ribs- first class operation.
1A. City Market - Your first is always special. The sausage was phenomenal, the brisket delicious, cool atmosphere. Wish we had tried more of the menu.
3. Cooper's - The ribs and brisket were great, just falls short of the big two due to the average quality of the other meats.
4. Smitty's - A little uneven, but nailed the sausage and the brisket was solid.
5. Salt Lick - Touristy, but good.
6. Meyers - Brisket was tasty, sausage wasn't bad, but not what we had built ourselves up to expect. No real atmosphere.
7. Kreuz - Cool pit, but must have caught the food on a sub-par day (not that we didn't eat it all)