Thursday, September 24, 2009

Texas BBQ

Few things will rile up a group of foodies more than a discussion on barbecue. Specifically a discussion on what type of BBQ is best and who does it better. And Deep In the Heart I can assure you that Texans mightily believe they have the best damned barbecue in the World.

First, you might be wondering what makes Texas barbecue any different from, say, the pit beef and pulled pork sandwiches up in Baltimore. First off, barbecue is a process; it requires meat, or whatever protein, to be cooked at a low temperature for a long time. It is different from grilling, where meat, or veggies, are slapped on a grill until cooked. I know, I know, Northerners use the terms interchangeably, but in fact the two processes are very different in the culinary world.

Texas barbecue differs from that found elsewhere by definition; Texas barbecue is a slab of your meat of choice, usually pork or beef, generously rubbed with a salt and sugar based rub then cooked, usually with smoke, at a low temperature for hours to days. The result, if done well, is fall off the bone goodness that does not require any sort of sauce. And this is key, as barbecue prepared in other parts of the country are typically either mopped or finished with sauce or boiled in some sort of sauce.

And opinions within Texas vary greatly about who makes the best barbecue. I'll just name a few here, but I can assure you from personal experience, that there are many fine places to find barbecue in Texas, from road-side stands to fine dining establishments. I'll start with the local place to go: Rudy's with locations around Texas. It's very casual dining where you eat at very long picnic tables and wash your hands in a communal sink. They have pork, beef, ribs, turkey and sausage available from their smoker. The brisket, a favorite among many of the locals, has an intensely salty, sugary, beefy/pork taste and if you ask for it, they'll include the ends with your order. However, since I grew up sans brisket or ribs, I prefer their somewhat spicy hot sausage that is also cooked in their smoker. Great stuff when served with their green chilli stew. You order what you want to eat by the pound or link and meals usually average around $15 for one light eater and one heavy eater.

Next is Stubb's in Austin, Texas. Located at Red River and 8th Street, Stubb's is in the middle of everything. It's a concert venue, a restaurant and a local landmark. During SXSW Stubb's hosts everyone from Willie Nelson to OK Go to The B52's and everyone in between. However what keeps me going back there time and again is the food. I know that hot wings aren't barbecue, but I could literally take a bath in the sauce used on their hot wings. It is that good. You'll find these little gems on the appetizer menu, along with smoked duck quesadillas and to-die-for fried green tomatoes. If you're new to Southern food and in the Austin neighborhood, Stubb's is a good introduction. Stubb's offers barbecue by the sandwich and dinner plate. If you order a dinner plate, I hope you came hungry, because the portions are enormous and the food is "I don't want to put it down" good. Very moist, flavorful brisket, well-seasoned sausage links and never-boring turkey.

And the last place I'll mention here is town of Lockhart, Texas. I don't know how it happened but Lockhart proudly proclaims itself The BBQ Capital of Texas. And very few people dispute this claim. There are only four barbecue restaurants in Lockhart: Kreuz's, Black's, Smitty's and Chisholm Trail. Each has an international reputation for being the best Texas-style barbecue in the World. Believe it or not, I have only been to one of these. The reason I haven't been to all? Kreuz's is the first one you pass on the way into town and, damn, they're good. As soon as you pull into their parking lot and open the door you can smell the smokers and see the huge pile of wood (hickory?) used in the smokers. This place means business. When you walk in you see a place frozen in time. Long wooden benches on one side and a very informal cash-and-carry on the other. Walking down the hallway you see signs for the rules of the place: No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide), No forks (they're at the end of your arm), No salads (remember no forks), No credit (cards also)(bank doesn't see barbecue), No kidding (see owner's face). I guess it's a good thing they have an ATM at the entrance. At the end of the
hallway you're greeted by a room full of smokers and a couple of people in front of a butcher table. On most days I've been greeted by the same three people: an Elvis impersonator in a butcher's coat, a woman that looks like she's been there since the place opened, preserved by all the rich smoke and another woman that very closely resembles my grandmother. They ask what meat you want and how many pounds or links. A delay in answering is generally met with a bored stare. These people mean business. Upon answer you will see them spring into action and deliver the goods faster than your eye can follow them around the smokers. Next you take the goods into the cash-and-carry area where you have the option of sides. Some of the sides change on a daily basis, but each time I've been there they have had the most amazing German-style potato salad and sauerkraut I've ever sampled. They also have the
typical stuff people eat with barbecue: pickles, onions, etc. Sodas and beers are available in cans and bottles only; no messing with fountain drinks because these people only care about barbecue. When you sit down to eat it, you realize why. Oh. Em. Gee. Before my first taste of their barbecue I didn't know the stuff could taste that good. Without the use of sauce the brisket and ribs literally fall of the bone in moist, flavorful chunks. Every single bite is full of flavor. The sausage is unlike anything I've ever tried with a smokey, savory flavor that is unmistakable. Natives of Lockhart have repeatedly told me that one of the other three barbecue places is their favorite. And one of these days I'll try them all, but only after visiting Kreuz's first.

Is Texas barbecue the best in the world? I don't know if "best" is really the word I would use. Texas style is definitely unique. However the vast majority of the rest of the world has their own variety of barbecue, and I've only sampled a teeny tiny portion of what's out there. For lovers of barbecue, I highly recommend coming to Texas and judging for yourselves. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Note: Before anyone hammers me on this point, no, I haven't been to The Salt Lick or any of the Texas-style barbecue places in the Dallas-Fort Worth area yet. Realize I'm from the Northeast and a drive over 100 miles is still a BFD to me.

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