Monday, December 29, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008: Black's Barbecue (Lockhart, Texas)

Man Up’s first outing was back in August. A 3.5-hour round trip to Lockhart that brought us BBQ at Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market and cobbler a la mode at Chisholm Trail. The one place we didn’t visit was Black’s Barbecue, and I’ve been waiting for the chance to return to Lockhart and finish what we started.

One car of 7 and one car of 4 made the 30-mile drive to Lockhart. Our first lunch got off to a rip-roaring start when Travis asked the lady behind the self-serve counter whether this was an all-you-can-eat line. Classic. There are several hot and cold sides, plus brisket, sausage, ribs, pork loin, smoked turkey, and chicken. Bottles of Black’s barbecue sauce are on the tables. Good iced tea, and great crushed ice.

I enjoyed all of my order – brisket, turkey, pork loin, and pickles – but the turkey and pork were particularly good. Both were very tender and moist. Louie Mueller is probably the only place I’ve been that has better turkey, but the pork might have been the best yet. My thoughts on the brisket are the same as Bo’s (see below). Somehow, I didn’t notice that they serve chicken, so I missed out this time.

What pushed the visit from good to great, though, was the service. Outstanding. All of the staff were personable and attentive, especially co-owner Kent Black, who took the time to give us a personal behind-the-scenes tour of Black’s. Kent showed us, and talked us through the Xs and Os of, the meat-cutting area, the pit, and the wood-aging grounds out back. He was an absolutely wonderful host and a pleasure to meet. Be sure to try to meet him, if you stop in.

Russell, on the hospitality and the food: “Mr. Black taking the time to explain to our group the 50+ year legacy of his family's restaurant, from the original smokers to the original cutting blocks to explaining the aging of the oak and brisket, was just tremendously informative. Their place has a very warm, welcoming Texas feel to it. Pork loin: This was some of the juiciest, most flavorful pork I've ever had, and is my recommended item at Black's. Turkey: I'm not a huge turkey fan at a lot of BBQ joints; but theirs was very flavorful and moist. I would also recommend this highly. Pork ribs: Great flavor, but mine were a bit on the tough and crispy side. Beef brisket: It had nice flavor and was very tender, but I was a little disappointed in the stringy, sort of roast-beefish quality of the brisket on this day. Sausage (jalapeno and cheese): Very solid. Overall: Ranks highly mainly because of the hospitality and authentic TX BBQ joint feel.”

Bo’s thoughts on his first Man-Up meal: “From the moment the door cracks open and you first get the aroma of the BBQ the hospitality begins in true Texas Style. Beef brisket: The flavor of the brisket was top notch. However, texturally, it was a bit over marbelized for me. Turkey: No disappointments here. The turkey was smoked slow, which allowed it to retain its moisture and the flavor was definitely there. Sausage (jalapeno and cheese): I like spicy and this sausage did the trick. Just enough combination of sausage flavor, jalapeno, and cheese. Pork ribs: I must echo Russell's review on these. Like the brisket, the flavor was there, but texturally they were a bit crispy. Hospitality: There isn't a score high enough. Even before Mr. Black was there the staff allowed us to view the pits. Once Mr. Black arrived, he gladly took the time to explain the legacy of what makes his restaurant special. He spoke with the enthusiasm of a little kid explaining what he got for Christmas. His passion and love for the tradition and history of not only his own restaurant but the overall Texas BBQ experience greatly shines through in the atmosphere of Black's and the food.”

Todd chimes in: “With our recent visit to Black's, my tour of the 4 BBQ joints in Lockhart is now complete! Black's has a truly unique flavor and flair all its own. The set-up is a cross between the Kreuz/Smitty's style and the Chisholm Trail style. You load your plate full of sides first, and then head to the meat counter for the good stuff! My sides were great (see rankings) and were a nice compliment to the meat. I ordered pork ribs and brisket, mac 'n' cheese, and a roll. Before we left though, we were treated to a pit & kitchen tour by Kent Black (yup, it's still in the family over 70 years later). Kent gave some excellent commentary and history behind the pits, post oak wood, cutting blocks, and the local ‘wood cat.’ While the meat is not a new favorite of mine, the Mac 'n' Cheese and hospitality certainly warrant a second visit.”

Jason is short and sweet: “What a treat we got today at Black’s…one of the Blacks himself showing us around and teaching us about BBQ! That was awesome! Brisket was pretty solid. Turkey was sweet! Thick and juicy! Thickest slice I’ve ever been given and still moist! Pork rib was just ok, had a chemical taste that I don’t enjoy too much. Reminds me of Ruby’s pork rib.”

Fresh on the heels of gallivanting around Western Europe, Julianne gives us her thoughts: “Hospitality: Fabulous. Mr. Black’s tour made me want to join the family and the family business. The idea of tracing your history through a carving board was amazing. Chicken: I'm not a huge chicken fan at a lot of BBQ joints; but theirs was very flavorful and moist. This is some of the juiciest chicken I have had a BBQ joint. Pork ribs: Great flavor, very good. Beef brisket: It had nice flavor and was very tender, but I agree with Russell on the roast-beefy quality of the brisket. Overall: Ranks highly mainly because of the great hospitality and authentic old-time TX BBQ atmosphere.”

Russell’s scores – Brisket: 8.2; Pork loin: 9.9; Turkey: 9.25; Pork ribs: 8.5; Sausage (jalapeno and cheese): 8.8; Service: 12 (on a scale of 10); Overall experience: 9.85

Bo’s scores – Brisket 8.5; Turkey: 9; Sausage (jalapeno and cheese): 9.2; Pork ribs: 9; Overall experience: 9.2

Todd’s scores – Pork ribs: 8.25; Brisket: 8.65; Mac 'n' Cheese: 9.43; Roll: 7.5; Sweet tea: 8.78; Service: 9.8; Overall experience: 9

Jason’s scores – Brisket: 8.4; Turkey: 9; Overall experience: 8.5

Julianne’s scores – Brisket: 7.2; Pork ribs: 8.9; Chicken: 8.25; Service: 10; Overall experience: 9.65

Amber’s scores – Brisket: 8.5; Sausage (jalapeno and cheese): 9.44; Atmosphere: 9.6; Service: In the words of Usher, on a 1-to-10, a certified 20! Overall experience: 9.99

Drew’s scores – Brisket: 8.4; Turkey: 9.5; Pork loin: 9.85; Service: 10; Overall experience: 9.8

Brad’s scores – Pork ribs: 8; Turkey: 7.85; Chicken: 8.25; Sausage: 8.5; Brisket: 8; Ambiance: 8; Hospitality: 10; Overall experience: 9.5

Amir’s scores – Brisket: 8.25; Sausage: 8; Turkey: 9.5; Pork ribs: 8.5; Overall experience: 9.25

Overall Man-Up Score: 9.4156

Black's Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Black's and Smitty's

Man Up’s second visit to Lockhart (“The Barbecue Capital of Texas”) was easily one of the most enjoyable outings we’ve had. A record number (11) – including 4 first timers – made the trip, which started with our first visit to Black’s Barbecue and ended with a return visit to Smitty’s Market.

Before we get to comments from some of the ones who made the trip, a couple of general comments with which, I believe, pretty much the entire group concurs: First, the service at Black’s was outstanding, arguably the most personal and hospitable service we’ve had yet. Second, the pork ribs at Smitty’s are as good as any we’ve had.

It was Bo's first time to Man Up. He reflects, "Being one of the 4 first time 'Man-Upers,' I almost couldn't sleep the night before with such anticipation. Even though I grew up in Central Texas (Buda) and worked at a BBQ joint for 6 years (The Salt Lick), circumstances had never allowed me to experience the wonderful world of Lockhart, Texas, BBQ (I know, almost a sin). These places had only lived in my imagination vicariously through the words of the editors of Texas Monthly and my luckier friends. But, no matter how exquisite one's explanation is of a Texas BBQ joint, the true flavor and appeal is in the experience of gathering together a group of friends and making the excursion yourself. Overall my first trip to Lockhart was not a disappointment, and it definitely won't be my last. Smitty's probably had the slight edge in taste, but the hospitality of Black's is unsurpassed. Maybe it was just my hope that one day I could also retire from the practice of law and run a bbq restaurant but I don't think there is a better host than Mr. Black."

Russell writes, "Our second trip to Lockhart turned out to be what TX BBQ trips are all about. It had the feel of bringing all our journeys thus far full circle, back to when the blogging all began a few months ago. Great friends and BBQ fanatics (11 of us made the trip), braving the elements (e.g. Travis and Jason getting a bit windblown as poor Amir's cheap window on his less-than-cheap-vehicle wouldn't roll quite up…but we rolled on!), in order to experience TX BBQ and hospitality at its best."

Pictures, reviews, and scores up next…

Friday, December 26, 2008

Man Up takes Facebook by storm

In case you haven't noticed the new link on the right side of the page, Man Up now has a Facebook group, thanks to Andrea. So, maybe 56 current members doesn't qualify as taking Facebook by storm, but check it out anyway.  

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Texas BBQ in the Big Apple

Whenever I hear anyone talking about New York City, I usually hear some combination of It's too big; It's too fast paced; It's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. But if someone were to ask me for my reaction to the Big Apple, I would respond that, with few exceptions, there's something for everybody in New York. Chances are, regardless of your ethnicity, race, gender, hobbies, interests, or any other characteristic, you can find something or someone catering to you. You can find similarly situated people. You can find something that makes you happy or makes you comfortable. Turns out this is true even for Texas BBQ fans.

In town for two days and one night, I wasn't leaving town without a meal at Hill Country Barbecue on West 26th Street. Thanks to a couple of friends here in Austin who are friends with the owner (Marc Glosserman), I was able to get word to HCB about my blog and that I would be stopping in for dinner. Marc was not in this particular night, but he got word to me to ask for John Shaw, who, along with Geoffrey Williams, took care of me and made my visit a fantastic one. After dinner, Geoffrey went out of his way to give me a personal tour of the two-level restaurant, which was absolutely packed. I am sure there was plenty he could have been doing, but he took his time to show me the cooking and cutting areas and the downstairs music venue. I couldn't have asked for better service.

HCB might be as close as you can get in New York to the Texas Hill Country and Texas BBQ. Lockhart, Texas, memorabilia on the walls (Marc's grandfather was mayor of Lockhart.); wood (post oak) and sausage from Kreuz Market; meat served on butcher paper; iced tea in a Mason jar; Blue Bell ice cream; Lone Star and Big Red; live Texas music (e.g. Heybale played on opening weekend and on the 1-year anniversary); Texas music playing in the dining area (Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas from the Family" came on right before I ordered). Geoffrey said it's the only Texas-style BBQ joint in NYC, calling it "100%, straight-up Texas" but noting that sauce is available on the tables.

One difference between HCB and BBQ in Texas: price. But this is New York, so not a huge surprise. For comparison, a pound of moist brisket at HCB is $22 (plus tax), while brisket at Kreuz Market in Lockhart is $9.99. A Big Red is $3, iced tea is $4, and a Lone Star is $5. But prices didn't seem to be a problem. The place was absolutely packed upstairs, and they were preparing for a private party downstairs later that night. There was even a rope line connected to the hostess station, blocking traffic into the dining area.

I ordered the Pitmaster's Combo: 1/4 pound of lean brisket, 1/2 chicken (white or dark), 1 pork rib, 1 beef rib (I took an extra pork rib in lieu of the beef rib.), and 2 sides (I got green bean casserole and baked beans.). The only thing I would change about the meal was the temperature of the BBQ. The brisket, ribs, and chicken were not hot but all had good flavor. The chicken (the least hot of all the items) was very moist. The sides were quite good, and the portions were substantial. (Sides come in 3 sizes: Good Eatin', Heapin' Helpin', and Feed Yer Family.)

All in all, a great visit to Hill Country Barbecue. The food was good, the atmosphere was fun and energetic, and the service was outstanding. Probably your best bet to cure Texas withdrawals in New York.

Hill Country on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Also coming up...

Just walked back to my hotel (about 20 New York City blocks in the gusting snow) from my first vsit to Hill Country Barbecue. My review and more pictures than you can shake a stick at coming up in the days ahead. In the meantime, read up on HCB.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Coming up...

Reviews, scores, and pictures galore from Man Up's second trip to Lockhart. Easily one of our most enjoyable outings thus far; and we set a record, with 11 people (including 4 first timers). We made our first trip to Black's Barbecue and our second trip to Smitty's Market. Stay tuned.

*Read the reviews from our first trip to Lockhart, Man-Up's first outing.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lockhart Redux

In preparation for Man Up's return to Lockhart tomorrow (read the review of our first visit: Kreuz and Smitty's), check out this Slate article. A sample:

When the latest Monthly rankings came out, two of its five "best of the best" were in Lockhart. A town of 11,000, Lockhart became Texas' barbecue capital for three reasons. First, Germans and Czechs settled in this part of Texas starting in the mid-19th century, bringing the central European butchering and smoking techniques that made Texas barbecue. Second, Lockhart is where the Schmidt family settled. And third, the Schmidt family can't get along.

In 1948, Edgar Schmidt bought a German meat store in Lockhart from the Kreuz family. Over the next half-century, Schmidt's Kreuz Market became the most beloved barbecue restaurant in the state. In 1999, nine years after Edgar's death, his children squabbled. Son Rick Schmidt was running Kreuz Market, while daughter Nina Schmidt Sells owned the building. Nina wouldn't renew the lease, so Rick took the coals out of the pits and hauled them five blocks down the road to the massive new Kreuz Market—a "barbefeud" that made the newspapers and even got a segment on 48 Hours. Nina and her son kept the old Kreuz and renamed it Smitty's Market—thus turning the greatest barbecue restaurant in the world into the two greatest barbecue restaurants in the world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008: Richard Jones Pit Barbeque (Austin, Texas)

Two weeks after we had 9 show up for our Monday-night dinner at Ruby’s, just 3 turned out for dinner at Richard Jones Pit Barbeque in Austin. I guess I’m glad that more people didn’t show up, so that more people would not be disappointed. RJ’s did not impress, and my best guess is that we won’t be making a return visit.

The food was decent—the chicken was sizable and tasted pretty good, and I enjoyed my side of caramelized onions, which were served right off the grill—but I would group RJ’s with Ruby’s and Iron Works as my least favorite BBQ joints thus far. The iced tea tasted like it had been sitting out for longer than it should have been. Looking back, a good sign of things to come was that no one else was dining there. The traffic usually doesn’t lie.

Julianne, whom I have unilaterally designated Miss Man Up, left dinner unfulfilled by the food and atmosphere but not entirely disappointed: “RJ’s, RJ’s…What to say…I am not as enthusiastic as Drew nor as cynical as Russell, therefore remove the outliers and you have just my review. I walked into a restaurant that was dead silent and completely empty at 7 pm. Granted, it was a Monday night but wasn’t sure what to think. It is BBQ in South Austin. The atmosphere left much to be desired. A French Bistro poster on the wall with faux ivy all around. Not exactly the BBQ joint we normally visit, but I was willing to give it a chance, for these small mom-and-pop places are the backbone of our capitalistic society. I got the brisket and the chicken. The brisket was not bad; it was pretty good. Kind of 'prime rib-ish' if that can be an adjective. The chicken was dry, but then it was white meat, and I am soo particular about my chicken. The beans were good—a tad too much salt—and, wow, that fried okra was great! As for the overall experience, how can it ever be bad with good friends and great conversation? Deer hunting, football, BCS rankings, European travels, and, of course, Russell’s take on the Obamanation we live in. He even went so far as to rhyme a few phrases. Those creative juices were rolling. All in all, can you have a bad night surrounded by two handsome gentlemen? Ladies, be jealous.”

And now we pause. Yep, that’s right. Be jealous, ladies. Julianne said it; I’m just echoing. On second thought, are you gonna just sit there and let Julianne have us all to herself? Or are you gonna man up and join us? I mean, not that Julianne is not more than enough for the “handsome gentlemen,” but we wouldn’t want you to feel excluded. If you ladies want to join the fun, I guess we can make some room. :)

Russell doesn’t hold back, and I would hope for nothing less: “RJ’s on SoCo is typical South Austin BBQ: They’re slightly more concerned with keeping Austin weird and with their own coolness factor than they are with serving you a quality meal. That said, I found the waiter, manager, and random homeless dude who came in to bum some water to be pretty entertaining. However, I can’t recommend the food. Traditional Texas BBQ this was NOT. The fried okra was probably the best thing on the menu, which clearly doesn’t speak well of the meat and more traditional BBQ sides. The moist brisket was almost entirely fat mixed with some gristle. It was also cold. The cornbread muffins and onion rings were just about hard enough to crack glass, and the cole slaw was mostly just a thick mayonnaise dip. The wait staff was friendly, but not very knowledgeable. You know you’re in trouble when the help doesn’t eat there and doesn’t really recommend that you order anything either. They were pretty cool, though; I especially liked the musician/part-time manager who writes love songs for vampires (apparently, they need a little lovin’, too). Bottom line: There’s a reason why Austin people make the drive down to the Lick, up to Louie Mueller’s or over to Lockhart for the good BBQ!”

Julianne’s scores – Brisket: 7.3; Chicken: 6.5; Green beans: 5.5; Fried okra: 8.5; Atmosphere: 4.5; Overall experience: 6.5

Russell’s scores – Brisket: 1.88; Sides: 2.55; Service: 6.75; Overall experience: 3.15

Drew’s scores – Chicken: 8.8; Caramelized onions: 8; Green beans: 6.5; Atmosphere: 3; Overall experience: 6.6

Overall Man-Up Score: 5.4167

Richard Jones Bar B Que on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 5, 2008

Battle BBQ (Round 2): Texas v. North Carolina

I flew into Raleigh-Durham today for 3 nites in the Chapel Hill area. Had lunch at Allen & Son Barbeque and got to thinking that now is a great time for the second installment of Battle BBQ. The first one was Texas v. Memphis, and now it's time for Texas v. North Carolina.

North Carolina has a rich BBQ tradition and, like Texas, has its own brand of BBQ (with two distinct styles). But how does its stack up against Texas? Are there really any places in NC that can compete with the likes of Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Driftwood, Lexington, and all of the other Texas BBQ meccas?

Like Memphis, NC BBQ is all about the pork, while beef takes center stage in Texas. So, is it even fair to compare? Or is saying "Well, it's hard to compare, since we're talking about pork v. beef" just a way to avoid picking a side or justifying your choice?

Enough, already. Man up on the question! Whose BBQ is better: Texas or North Carolina?

Weigh in, folks. The floor is yours.

In case you're wondering, my meal at Allen & Son was very good, and my Red Sox sweatshirt soaked up every smell, which I enjoyed on the ride home. I knew I was back in pork-BBQ country when I ordered an unsweet tea and was told sweet tea was all they had. Service left a little to be desired, but the food did not.

I had a smoked half chicken (served covered in sauce) and a side of "stew" (which turned out to be a Brunswick stew with just a little kick). The chicken was tender, moist, and flavorful; the sauce was very good; and the stew was fantastic. We got a quart of it to go, and it was gone before the end of the day.

It's hard to compare my meal to my Man-Up meals, since I didn't have brisket, ribs, sausage, beans, pickles, and all the other Texas-BBQ staples. But as Brunswick stew and smoked chicken in BBQ sauce go, Allen & Son was good. I didn't have any pork, but is a fan: There are too many variations on "barbeque" to claim that Allen & Son serves the best there is. I'll just leave it at that if my last meal were barbecue it would come from Allen and Son. Moist, great flavor just the right amount of "browns", it is a must try for anyone who covets great barbecue. Now, I have no idea who this girl is, but anyone who rates a restaurant with "Grease Stains," as opposed to stars or points, is bound to be trustworthy.

12-7-08 updates: (1) Had dinner last night at Tyler's Restaurant & Taproom in Durham. Turns out one of their "seasonal" specials was sliced brisket. Didn't know brisket has a season, but I was glad it was on the menu. Not a BBQ place at all, but I ordered it. Pretty dry, but I was hungry. With some slaw and beans on the fork, it wasn't bad. (2) Had lunch today at Mama Dip's. Had the pulled pork-Brunswick stew combo with black-eyed peas, baby limas, collard greens, cornbread, and iced tea. Took me back to my roots. The pulled pork was served in what I presume was Eastern Carolina-style sauce. I found it a little sweet. No doubt, I prefer the meat and sauce separate. The Brunswick stew was more soupy than stewy. Not bad but nowhere near as good as Allen & Son's stew. Vegetables, cornbread, and tea: great.