Texas is barbecue land, so of course I had to go chasing down some of the real stuff.
My first experience of Texas barbecue started with Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse in Dallas, which I was told was famous. One of the eight branches of Sonny Bryan wasn't too far from the office, so I headed there on a hot summer's day. It turned out to be inside a strip mall, looking all the world like takeaway Chinese. The stories on the wall were entertaining but, unfortunately, the barbecue was not much better than ... well ... takeaway Chinese. In short, a washout. I went a few weeks later to Tioga, TX where a Sonny Bryant prodigal started Clark's; the resut is much the same. I discover later that Sonny Bryant is no small operation - its a franchise chain with a CEO.
First a bit about Texas barbecue. It's not the regular backyard stuff - here things are very slowly cooked over woodsmoke heat in massive pits. The traditional way is to start with raw meat that's dry-rubbed with salt and other condiments and left to smoke for 5-8 hrs, though some people shortcut the process by boiling it first and then smoking it for a the finish (this produces noticeably inferior results). This technique that was brought over in the late 19th century by immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe who still dominate this part of Texas. The really good places start the smoking process at ungodly hours such as 2am, and serve the real thing straight out of the pit from 10 in the morning. In Texas, barbecue sauce is always on the side. The common cuts are ribs, brisket, shoulder and sausage.
A little research showed me that most of the famous barbecues in Texas seemed to be clustered around Austin. I thus gave up on Dallas entirely and headed for the small town of Lockhart just a little southwest of Austin. If any place can be called obsessed with barbecue, Lockhart TX must be it - the four well-known barbecue places in Lockhart can accommodate a sixth of the whole town in one sitting. Lockhart has four well-known barbecue joints. By far the best advertised is Black's; big yellow signs start miles outside the town assuring us that it is the oldest in Texas still run by the same family. The restaurant is what I later discovered to be a typical layout in Lockhart - the entrance door leads to a narrow corridor where you queue for the counter and order, then carry your tray into the much larger seating area which boasts a soda and beer bar. Ordering usually means choosing how much of each kind of meat you want and which of the standard sides.
Black's nearly turned me off further exploration. The barbecue was hardly worth a two-hundred-mile drive (or even the drive from Austin). The famed pork loin was dry and not particularly flavourful, while the ribs though juicy and competently smoked was only averagely droolworthy. Coupled with the previous debacle in Dallas I was ready to accept that like so many other things American, Texas barbecue was more hype than substance. Somewhat depressed, I drove off to take a closer look at the Town Hall three blocks down; a building that teetered on the fine line between elegant and garish but eventually stepped into the merely loud. I must mention here that Lockhart is a nicely preserved historical town with some very interesting houses and storefronts.
There, almost next to the Town Hall, I stumbled on the second place on my list. Smitty's Market isn't much to look at from outside but I was charmed when I walked through the door. In Smitty's the ordering area is next to the smoking pits; you walk into a barewalled, brick-lined, circular room with soaring ceilings and a dark, dungeon look befitting a gothic horror movie. The choices are listed in a simple handpainted sign near the door - brisket, ribs, sausage, all the usual suspects. I decided to ask the girl at the counter and a grizzly-looking old man behind me what to order; this led to an animated discussion which spread to half the people in the room. Eventually, sausage and brisket were recommended ("we make our brisket a fattier cut" I was told) and I was offered a small taste. That's when I changed my opinion. Black's hinted at a good smoking technique, but the results failed to transport. Smitty's tiny bite of brisket however, was more transport that a fleet of cars. A rich, smoky flavor combined with dripping fat from the brisket and convinced me that Texans, when talking barbecue, weren't outright idiots after all. The hot sausage was fantastic too, grimly loaded with cholesterol and touched with a little pepper.
Chisholm Trail BBQ was my last stop in Lockhart, and my third lunch of the day. Sausages and brisket again, and this time a touch of pork ribs. Chisholm has the best sausages around - firm, rich and supremely flavourful - though a little less peppery than Smittys. The ribs were fantastic too but the brisket fell shrot of Smitty's. My liver protested so loudly I veered away from the fourth lunch of the day - at Kreusz - but I hear they're closely related to Smitty's (where they originally operated from) and produce an indistinguishable product.
The next day, I went to Elgin, TX - The Sausage Capital of Texas. And we're talking the official capital here - it seems the Texas legislature, while discussing weighty matters such as education reform and state budgets found time to officially christen Elgin with this rather grand title in 1998. It has one historic barbecue - the Southside Market and BBQ Inc (1882) - and two more sausage makers. It was once illegal to call a restaurant after the town's name it seems, so this less interesting name was chosen. An upstart has since claimed the name Meyer's Elgin Sausage Company (now legal) but from the looks of the huge hall filled with maybe a hundred families and tens still standing in line, I'm guessing Southside does not care. This is a massive operation, large even by Texas standards, with a parking lot to put Wal Mart to shame (this in a town of 6,000 residents). The beans pans alone would feed Ethiopia. The barbecue, including the famed sausage, was very good, but in final analysis I thought Lockhart beat them to it.
Southside serves, among other things, mutton ribs. Now this is not the mutton of us desi Indians - it's aged sheep rather than kid goat. With my usual adventurousness, I leaped at that and the mutton rib turned out to be two feet long; rich and fatty and well smoked and wonderfully tender but - and this is a big big but - the stinkiest, gamiest meat I've ever eaten. One bite was all I could stand; the stink that we hate in lamb is overpowering in this grandfather version. Very much, I must say, an acquired taste.
The bottom line; how does this compare to the real sausage capital of the world, AKA Germany (which, incidentally, is about half the size ofTexas). The greatest Texan barbecue is sublime by any standards; the average, however, is distinctly average and much inferior to what a Deutschlander will put up with. Brisket is usually the best part of a Texas BBQ, and is not very common in Germany. As bratwurst-style sausages go, these Texan specimens (specially the ones from Chisholm Trail) are very good indeed, but what an average Texan would need to drive hours for every town and village in Germany makes locally. On top of that, Germany makes maybe a few hundred other kinds of sausage (like my favorite weisswurst or the blood-curdling blutwurst), not to mention better beer.
The other gripe I have with Texas barbecue and one which prevents it from becoming gourmet is that the quality of meat going into a barbecue isn't anything special. Unlike the obsessive Europeans, who spend a lot of time fussing over which breeds and cuts go into their wonderful hams, Texas basically uses run-of-the-mill beef for their barbecue. Of course, it does keep things inexpensive - $6-8 per pound for most kinds of meat - but what I would really like to see is USDA Prime Angus married to the slow, gentle cooking of a Smitty's barbecue. That would be worth a multi-hundred mile drive.
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