Monday, 26 August 2013

Texas - A BBQ Pilgrimage Part 1

Part one of a two part series – part two will provide a BBQ tourist’s guide to Texas

Four years of competitive BBQ has changed our approach to BBQ.  It’s been a deep journey through Kansas City style BBQ, which really got going when we visited KC for the Royal back in 2010.  But more than a decade ago, it was pictures of the pits, briskets and ribs in Lockhart, Texas which got me cooking and first inspired my obsession with BBQ.

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So this year, when I was sent to Houston for a conference with work, I took the chance to spend a few days in Austin afterwards, and convinced Cuan to join me out there for a BBQ Fanatics pilgrimage to Texas!

Starting in Austin, we were intending to get to Rudys but Cuan's half hour flight from Dallas was delayed by five hours, which kind of trashed Thursday night.  I headed to Ironworks BBQ which wasn't on our list but seemed well regarded locally.  I had the tasting plate; the ribs were pretty good but the brisket wasn't much to write home about.  I then hung out on 6th street, which is very cool - loads of bars, live music, craft beer.

Next morning we got up good and early and strolled to join the queue at Franklins, the anticipated highlight of our tour and apparently home to the best brisket in Texas (and hence, the world).  Cuan had emailed them weeks before we flew out and was told that so long as we showed up and joined the queue before 8:30am we should have no trouble getting in for lunch.  We were there at 8:30 sharp and joined a queue that was already about 30 deep and only just got to queue in the shade. 

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Queue at 8:30am

For a couple of guys from the UK that was lucky, Austin is extremely hot (we got to 45 degrees at one point).  At 9, this guy showed up hiring chairs and shades for hire:

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Austin is full of very friendly people; it was the first of many times we ended up having a long conversation with whoever we happened to be standing next to.  One of the staff moved down the queue taking people's meat orders just to check when the meat would run out so that those 300 down the line could give up hope and stop standing around in the heat!

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Shots from the “back garden” of Franklin’s BBQ 

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Finally, at 11:30 or so, the doors opened and we moved in.  We spied Aaron Franklin and (having secured our place in the queue with some talkative strangers) walked over to introduce ourselves and he took us on a tour of his smokers.

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Aaron runs five large home made offsets burning wood, all made out of old propane tanks.   Most of them have insulated fireboxes but in the sweltering heat we felt like the food could be cooking without fire.  Large piles of wood were stacked up ready to feed the smokers, and each had its firebox door wide open pumping out more heat. 

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Racks of ribs were sitting at the side of the smokers resting and getting ready for finishing.  He's only limited by the amount of food he can fit in these colossal cookers - he cooks everything he can and sells out daily.

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We finally ordered -  brisket (from the fatty end), pulled pork, sausage, ribs, turkey, slaw.  A huge greasy pile of meat which looked like too much.  The form in Texas is that you order your meat by the pound and get it with either crackers or white sliced bread.  We dispensed with the bread pretty quickly, that pappy rubbish just slows you down.  The crackers are pretty good though, salty as hell but toasty and give you something apart from meat to eat.  But the basic idea is that you buy a load of meat and sit down to eat it - you can have a knife to cut the meat into bits but generally no forks, no sauce, just meat. 

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It didn't last long.  The meats all had the same seasoning - generous salt and cracked black pepper.  All the meats were soft but toothsome, flowing with juice.  The ribs were good, the pork was beautiful - tasting of roast pork with soft, juicy chunks rather than dried strings of pork.  The sausage was amazing too, incredibly juicy, salty and lightly spiced with great snap on the skin.  But the brisket was the star.  It was brought out for slicing wrapped in butcher paper, dripping and translucent from juices and rendered beef fat, and we were given cubes of it to eat while he sliced. The meat was deeply beefy and heavily season, incredibly soft and very juicy without being overcooked and turning to handfuls of strings – like jelly more than roast meat.  We ate it (and everything else) with our hands, in a meat trance.

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We ended up touring around Austin, visiting AHS (Austin Home Brewers) and went out to Rainey Street, which is based in East Austin, a residential neighbourhood converted into a very cool bar scene. The watering hole that captured the imagination was Craft Pride, a craft beer bar with 50+ taps changed monthly demonstrating the explosive Texas home brew scene. (The only place we went back to twice)

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The next day we went to the Salt Lick, scene of many a Brit’s first awareness of Texan BBQ via Man vs. Food.  Interestingly, they also have stand in Austin airport, which is dreadful compared to the restaurant (although there’s only so bad hotlinks in Salt Lick BBQ sauce can be).  The original is very good though – they were actually a bit apologetic when we announced we were on our tour and that we’d come straight from Franklins.  The food was honestly excellent, both Franklins and the Salt Lick were significantly better than anything we’d had in Kansas City.

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On the way down to San Antonio we stopped at Coopers BBQ in New Braufnel's. Supposedly voted as the best ribs in all of the USA. Possibly due to the heat (110F), the hangovers or the Salt Lick experience, it didn't compare.

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Another disappointment involving an 80km round trip was that of Southside Market in Elgin, it came very highly recommended and the only place we actually left food on the table.

Next up was Smitty’s Market in Lockhart. 

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Lockhart, TX is somewhere I’ve been reading about for longer than I can remember, and it was quite odd to actually be there.  Its a tiny, desolate place.  Like many places in America in the middle of the week it feels like a ghost town, nobody walks anywhere, just massive pick ups cruising around slowly, however in Lockhart this is exacerbated by there actually not being many people around.  Smitty’s Market is a deeply old school Texan BBQ restaurant/meat market (I think there was fresh meat for sale but don’t recall).  You queue past the pits, in blistering heat.  Just to remind – it’s hot outside, it’s hardcore standing next to these bad boys for an hour. 

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The walls are caked with decades of soot.  Meat is bought by the pound and you eat it with crackers.  A Weber Smokey Mountain is not  a pit.  It’s a smoker.  These are pits:

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The food was amazing.  Brisket not up to Franklins but overall it was stunning.

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Rows and rows of post oak.

Next on the Lockhart tour was Kreuz, the original poster-boy restaurant for Texan BBQ.

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This place is massive – twice extended and moved and an absolute classic.  I’ve got so many books with this guy in it – why here he is cooking for me!  “Take all the pictures you want”.

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An orchestra of pits

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By this point we were on a daily regime of two BBQ lunches in low and slow cooking temperatures in the sun, sleep, then out partying.  Our standard order included a pork rib, half a pound of brisket, quarter pound of pork and crackers.  Kreuz clocked us immediately: “Are you on a BBQ tour?  Because you guys look like you could eat four times this – each, probably.  I aint one to judge!”.  Rumbled.

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The food was, again, very good.  We’d had a few duff meals by now though, and although this wasn’t one of them we were a bit into endurance mode.  I’m not sure we fully appreciated this meal but it was driving home the Texan BBQ point: forget rubs, forget sauce, its all about the meat.  Not: its all about how well you cook the meat, with the spicing and the sauce – its just about the meat.  Everything we ate was seasoned with salt and pepper, and if anything else was there it was background.  This BBQ scene grew out of butchers who were cooking the meat to sell alongside fresh meat – sold by the pound in grease proof paper.  Not out of restaurants with cutlery and waiters and a drinks menu.  The foundations are completely different.

Finally, we went to Blacks. Not finally for the trip, finally for this post.  We went all over - we went to a shopping mall the size of central London, we took in a vertical of ilegal mezcal in San Antonio, steps away from the Los Alamos (at Esquires Bar):

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We tried to convince a 19 year old Chinese gap year student not to have a tattoo of a rose on her arm at 2am in central Austin (and failed) and we drank an awful lot of craft beer served by 20 somethings sporting very large beards. 

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Massive beards are very hip in Austin

But Blacks BBQ was excellent.

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The smallest set of pits in Lockhart, quite a small restaurant (and not a meat market, but the same pits and set up) but actually one of the best places we went to.

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Beef rib, pork ribs, brisket and sausage at Blacks BBQ

I have to say at the end of the trip, we were wrecked.  We went to Round Rock Donuts (another man v food legacy) on the last morning but couldn’t face any more BBQ – my last lunch in Austin was sushi (although I did have the sausage in the airport Salt Lick, not a good idea). But the trip changed my outlook on BBQ forever.

A trip like this deserves a summing up, and its this:  In the case of BBQ Fanatics vs. Texas, Texas definitely won. 

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