The Texas BBQ Trail. Part One: Snow’s BBQ. Louie Mueller’s Barbecue.
As I sat on the plane, I couldn’t help but feel anxious and excited about our weekend trip to Austin. Jeni had purchased some tickets as a birthday gift and a quick getaway. It was my first time going to the South and I could feel a different vibe with the people around me – a good vibe. The accents, clothing and the conversations were all very different. Most people looked like they were on their way home. Not too many business people and definitely no screaming kids. Two and a half hours later, we landed at Austin-Bergstrom airport, grabbed our luggage and stopped over at the car rental agency.
Clerk: “Good evening.”
Clerk: “Y’all first time in Austin?”
Me: “Yeah, we’re stoked.”
Clerk: “What brings you out to Austin?”
Jeni and I both formed a slight smile.
Me: “We’re here to eat BBQ.”
Clerk: “How fun. Y’all come to the right place. Enjoy your eating.”
Yes! Another trip motivated by a culture’s culinary pride and joy. In Mexico City, we chased real al pastor tacos. In Portland, we experienced some of the Pacific Northwest’s best oysters. In Saigon, we scooted around looking for the perfect piping hot bowl of soup noodles. And now, we were in Austin to find the true meaning of Texas’s pride and passion: BBQ. Before this meat fest, my experience was limited to a few places in South LA. And quite frankly, due to its heaviness, it wasn’t always on the top of my list – no matter how fall-off-the-bone tender it was. But as you’ll see and learn in this posting through my many conversations with BBQ pit masters and employees, the city of Austin and the neighboring BBQ cities of Central Texas are serious about their BBQ. It is what Texans love and are 100% proud of .
We checked into Hotel San Jose late on Friday night and quickly had a few drinks at the hotel bar before midnight, when alcohol stops being served state-wide. We went to sleep as early as possible because to chase some of the BBQ spots in Central Texas, it required getting up as early as 6 am and driving 45 miles before the food ran out. When I heard that, it just made our trip that much more exciting, as I knew for sure, that BBQ was a serious thing here in Texas. As the famous Texan anti-littering campaign goes, “Don’t Mess with Texas”, this slogan can also be applied to the mastery of Texas-style BBQ.
Eatdrinknbmerry.com’s Beginner’s Guide to BBQ
To make it easier for my readers and for the fact that I can’t give everyone a group hug for your solid readership, I made a map of all the main BBQ joints in Central Texas so you could enjoy Texas the way we did. As you can see, Austin is the star on the map and the mileage number under each city is the distance from Austin. I wouldn’t be intimidated by the distances because the driving was super easy. Smooth roads, cow-counting and good music only makes the drive that much easier. There are people that have done ALL the BBQ spots in one day, which I think is ludicrous. And those people are probably dead by now. After much research, friends recommendations and talks with a few BBQ pit masters, we decided to pursue a total of five BBQ joints due to our limited number of days in Austin and we split them over the course of two days. Here are a few, not all, of the notable places in each of the cities mentioned on the map. I also referenced Texas Monthly’s amazing 2008 breakdown of the state’s best BBQ.
Austin, Texas – Franklin BBQ.
Driftwood, Texas – Salt Lick BBQ.
Elgin, Texas – Meyer’s. Southside Market.
Giddings, Texas – City Meat Market.
Lexington, Texas – Snow’s BBQ.
Lockhart, Texas – Black’s BBQ. Chisholm Trail BBQ. Kreuz BBQ. Smitty’s Market.
Luling, Texas – City Market.
Taylor, Texas – Louie Mueller’s BBQ.
*Note: We decided not to try the highly-recommended Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas because (a) it is all-you-can-eat for $20 and (b) we had read that it’s better with a group of friends and a beer cooler. We are saving this for the next time around in Austin with friends. Also, Kreuz Market was not an option because it closes on Sunday’s. Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market are run by siblings that are purportedly feuding.
I was actually surprised there were really no more than four popular meaty offerings you could order. You could order the BBQ straight up, in a combo plate with sides or in a sandwich. Some places did offer BBQ chicken and pork chops but that’s not what Texas BBQ is really about – it’s the brisket, ribs and sausage! To maximize our BBQ consumption, we nixed the fillers such as the pillowy, white bread and sides like beans, cole slaw and potato/macaroni salad. I didn’t come here to eat mayonnaise and flavored ketchup after all.
This is the lower breast of the cow which needs to be cooked, braised or smoked for numerous hours to break down the connective tissue. It is usually the most prized piece of BBQ and an indication of a pit master’s skills. Not smoked properly can result in dryness and toughness, which results in the forfeiting of your Texas citizenship.
We’ve all had short ribs grilled the Korean way or braised in red wine, but having this large meaty rib smoked is an entirely different thing. The bones are simply massive and you get the feeling of being a Flintstone.
In addition to brisket, this is another highly sough after piece of meat, especially if they are baby back ribs. Smoky, moist, tender and with just the right amount of fat make this one thing you MUST order.
I may be used to European and Japanese berkshire pork (kurobuta) sausages, but the Texas-style sausage is completely different. Versus having a smooth texture with maximum snap, the textures are way more coarse, less in fat and flavored heavily with large granules of black pepper. Almost like eating ground beef. The reward of having large granules of black pepper stuck in your teeth is fantastic, but I think it’s just missing the fat content and snap. A lot of the sausages were made from beef or a mixture of beef and pork.
BBQ Etiquette, Facts & Advice
Let me preface this by saying that after 60 hours in Austin, I am nowhere near even possessing the title of being a BBQ novice – I’m just a fan from California. But I spoke to the owners and pit masters of all the places we ate at and digested an amazing amount of information. Here’s what I learned and what I’m sharing with y’all. I said “y’all” again.
Know Before You Go
There is nothing more disappointing than driving an hour somewhere, only to find its closed. That’s why you pick up the phone and call before hand. A lot of these BBQ joints are mom and pop-shops and are limited by the amount of smokers they have. Some only have two smokers, some have a huge warehouse of smokers. I made a list of all the BBQ joints with their business hours and estimation of when they would run out. I’ve provided their hours and “run-out-times” (ROT). Call anyway to double check.
Type of Wood
Versus using mesquite, Texas-style BBQ employs wood from White Oak trees, also known as post oak. According to one pit master, the mesquite is best used for pork and post oak for brisket. For me, the post oak had a more well-rounded smokiness versus the bold, charcoal taste of mesquite that I’m accustomed to.
On & Off Days
Unless you’re eating in Tokyo where precision is a religion, you’ll have your on and off days. Some of the places were okay despite people’s ravings and I’m about giving things another chance.
There is No Wrong Way to Eat BBQ.
Use a fork and knife or use your 10-digit Swiss Army knife. Get in there and know your food – bring some nail clippers too. There’s nothing more fun than getting your hands all oily as you gently pull the meat apart and take a bite. Some places will have Styrofoam plates and some plates will have “plates”, which are sheets of dark-brown, butcher paper that your BBQ is placed on upon being weighed. Grab all four corners, a wad of napkins and go to town.
Sauce vs. No Sauce
There are purists of food in every culture. For me, when eating a bowl of Vietnamese beef noodle soup (pho), I refuse to taint my holy broth with Sriracha or hoisin sauce. It’s a sin unless the soup is lacking. The same goes here with BBQ sauces. We rarely used sauce unless we had to. A lot of pit masters in Texas say that sauce hides the lack of flavor and the motto over at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas is “we’ve got nothing to hide”. I suggest trying the BBQ first and adding salt if its lacking. Then as a last resort, call 911 for the emergency sauce.
In addition to BBQ sauce and side dishes, there are two very important condiments offered in Texas BBQ. After you’ve eaten a few pieces of BBQ, your palate is blown to oblivion and that’s why they offer sliced white onions and jarred pickle chips as a palate cleanser. It goes with sushi and pickled ginger.
Choose Your Cuts
What I noticed with all of the BBQ joints is the customer service, which is always on point and almost motherly – Southern hospitality if you will. After they ask you what kind of meat you’d like, they ask you for your preference in cut. Some places advertised both a “lean” and “fatty” brisket with no price difference. In the image of the brisket above, you can see how the meat tapers down in size from right to left. Obviously, the fat cap on the right will be thicker than that of the leaner side. I suggest, at all times, that you pick the fattiest part of the brisket because it will be the moistest piece. You can gladly discard the fat as you eat the super moist and tender brisket meat. End-cuts I usually love when grilled or pan-seared, but when it comes to smoked BBQ, they turn out pretty dry and crusty.
The Smoke Ring
You may hear this term while eating or reading about BBQ and it’s something I learned after talking to some other customers. This term refers to a 1/8″ to 1/4″ pink ring that appears between the black salt & pepper crust and core brisket meat. Some say it’s a true sign of a pit master’s smoking skills but on the other hand science says it’s a reaction between heat and water in the brisket. If the brisket is not left to rest to room temperature and smoked immediately, it will cause a thicker smoke ring. Some people have gone as far as cheating in BBQ competitions by painting it with red food coloring or using a tenderizer by Morton called “Tender Quick”. Judges in BBQ competitions, for those reasons, now disregard the smoke ring phenomenon.
How Much to Order
If you’re going through the Texas BBQ trail, I don’t recommend putting all of your eggs in a basket. Because we knew we would be eating five places we decided to only order one of each main item: brisket, pork rib and sausage. But the people at the BBQ joints knew we were out of town and kept throwing in way too many extras out of generosity and Southern hospitality. I can assure you that one of each is good enough for TWO PEOPLE that only want a taste test. Also, BBQ will obviously hold longer in the fridge since its smoked so be prepared to take your food back home.
Tip the Meat Man
Running a restaurant is a commitment, but running a BBQ restaurant is potentially a 12-14 hour affair especially if you’re the pit master. If a restaurant is open at 10 am, the pit master will be up around 2 am lighting up the wood and smoking at least 500-600 lbs. of food. Tip the good man.
Ask for a BBQ Tour
There is nothing that makes a pit master more happy than you asking him for a personal tour. All the pit masters were super generous and lifted up all the pit covers to show off their prized meats. We actually got a ton of free samples – enough to make it a meal in it self.
I hope you digested all of that. Now, y’all ready for your visual meal?
516 Main Street
Lexington, TX 78947
Owner: Kerry Bexley
Pit Master: Tootsie Tomanetz
Hours: Saturdays 8 am – 12 pm
ROT: 10 am
Distance: 53 miles east of Austin
Texas Monthly: “Regions were assigned and score sheets handed out. In urban areas the danger was overeating—the record number of stops in one day was nine, in Central Texas. In West Texas, the eater risked starvation just driving between lunch one and lunch two. By the time it was all over, we had racked up 14,773 collective miles by car and plane and visited 341 places (the most by one person was 56).”
Thank you Texas Monthly for taking one for the team – of America. In addition to Texas Monthly, I was generously tipped off by the humble owner of Austin’s Franklin BBQ, Aaron Franklin. When I called him for his hours and “run-out” time, he politely digressed and asked how much time we had in Austin. Instead of criticizing competitors, this gentleman told me where I had to eat and if I had the time and appetite after all of that, to come see him. Good man.
With only 4 hours of sleep, Jeni and I were out the door towards Snow’s BBQ at about 7 am. It was cold, windy and clear that it was going to rain hard. An hour later, we arrived in the town of Lexington. We looked left and right to find Snow’s BBQ and couldn’t really see since most of the buildings were spread apart from each other. Then we saw a group of eight people crossing the street towards the only building awake at this time – Snow’s BBQ. We walked in and saw about 35 people in the building, which was basically a converted house. There were people chowing down, people in line and people getting their condiments. Life was happening in this town of 1100 because of this little shop that won the hearts and stomachs of Texas Monthly’s judges. It was only 8 am.
We were both Texas BBQ virgins so it took a few seconds to really digest what was going on. There was an insane amount of meat around us. Most of the food behind the counter were wrapped in foil. We looked at the menu but instead asked the ladies what they recommended. Brisket, ribs and sausage it is. If you look at the photo above, this is where we made our first rookie mistake. We should have let her know which part we wanted. Using an electric carver, she cut off brisket slices from the smaller, leaner end. The meat was flavorful but we wished we had a bit more fat to really seal the deal. Overall, the brisket was real nice with the simple salt & pepper rub but we wish we had a better cut. The pork ribs had a nice flavor but a little tough. The sausages as stated in the facts above is typical Texas style – made of beef and coarse. Some fat would really make the flavors work together.
The best part of Snow’s BBQ happened after we finished our “breakfast”. It was here that we saw the dedication these Texans put into their BBQ and heard about their story from being an overnight success because of an article. We headed out to the back to meet the chef/owner, Kerry Bexley. Previously working jobs as a rodeo clown, in a power plant and as a prison guard, Bexley found his calling and it only took him 5 years to be recognized as one of the state’s best. Bexley was super nice and even offered to help me out in shooting photos. Bexley comes every Friday night around 11:30 pm to light up the wood.
But Bexley couldn’t have done this all by himself. In 2002, he approached a woman named Tootsie Tomanetz who ran the pits at the City Meat Market in Giddings, Texas. During the week, she works as a custodian in the local school district and shows up at 3 am on Saturday mornings to start the smoking. And did I mention that she is also 76 years old, with nearly 45 years of experience under her belt. Bexley hired her to work for him and design the pits. She’s been doing BBQ way before most of us were even born. The photo above of Tootsie is probably one of my favorite photos I took on this trip. I see pride, strife, age, dedication, diligence and pure love. Before taking the photo of her, I asked her if she was indeed THE Tootsie. I told her I had read about her on the internet. She smiled and thanked me. Read more about Tootsie Tomanetz on NPR. We said goodbye to Kerry and the amazing 76-year old pit master, Tootsie, and headed off to our next and last BBQ joint for the day, Louie Mueller’s.
Left to Right: One of two smokers and pits that Bexley owns. Tootsie Tomanetz’s son.
Left to Right: Butcher paper and “plates”. Temperature gauge – think this one was cooling down after earlier usage.
Mop sauce for pork ribs and chicken.
Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W. 2nd Street
Taylor, TX 76574
Owner: Tricia Mueller (mother); Wayne Mueller (son)
Pit Master: Wayne Mueller. Tony White.
Hours: Mon – Sat 10 am – 7:30 pm
ROT: 5 pm (call)
Distance: 37 miles Northeast of Austin
We drove about 30 miles from Snow’s BBQ to yet another tiny town called Taylor, Texas. This place was in fact more of a “city” yet it still felt pretty empty. A train ran through the middle of town and a look down each street had a non-obstructed view of the hills and blue skies. Most of the buildings were made of brick and eroding. With exception to a few “modern” cars, I would have believed that I had time traveled back into time if you told me so. And entering the giant barbecue pit known as Louie Mueller was akin to walking into an old, sacred temple. We walked past a creaky screen door that commanded us to “Close the door behind you” and saw the effects of running an internal BBQ smoker and pit for nearly 50 years.
Louie Mueller opened as a BBQ joint in 1949 and passed on his trade to his son, Bobby Mueller. Bobby passed away in 2008 and the fire is being kept alive by his wife Tricia and son, Wayne. Tricia’s daughter, Leann Mueller, is also a well-known Texan photographer that contributes heavily to Texas Monthly and other national publications. Her work is amazing and one of the reasons why I wanted to check out her grandfather’s pride and joy so badly. This place is a photographer’s dream with its beautiful textures and colors caused by the 50 years of smoke-curing going on. So thank you to Leann Mueller for the inspiration.
Left to Right: Smoked business cards. Smoked Texas flag.
Left to Right: Louie Mueller’s extensive menu. Dishing out orders.
Left to Right: Louie Mueller’s sauce seems to be a mix of hot/barbecue sauce. Join the Texas BBQ Posse.
We had the brisket, pork ribs and sausage. If you’re into black pepper, I recommend the brisket. It was super moist and beautifully smoked but needed a little help with salt. The pork ribs were pretty tasty even though it was a bit tough. But the real winner for me was the sausage. It was exactly what I was looking for… smoky, snappy and spicy. They are known for this and the jalapeno sausage. The sauce was a bit different than my notion of BBQ “sauce”. At Louie Mueller’s, they offer almost a broth-like BBQ sauce that is watery but tasty. If you’re not into it , you’ve got hot other sauces on the table. As I was eating my rib, I looked up and I saw the bench on the right. It was beautiful. A perfect photo moment. A beam of light shining through the windows right over the sauce. It was like Louie and Bobby politely said from the heavens, “our stuff isn’t dry. use the sauce asshole”. So I did, and I was happy.
Left to Right: Jar o’ beer. Beautifully smoked brisket.
It was now about 11 am and Jeni and I stopped eating so that we wouldn’t fall asleep on the drive back to Austin. We were content but not overstuffed. As I finished off my beer, I really took in everything. I realized that Louie Mueller’s wasn’t just a BBQ joint, but a monument for a family’s successful dynasty in Texas’s republic of BBQ. They kept a lot of the artifacts that were there since the very beginning. Jukeboxes, fans and various wall adornments – you could only imagine what it looked like when the place first opened. The smoky Texas flag was probably the most iconic and memorable and also the same spot where Leann Mueller beautifully photographed her father before his passing. We may not be into visiting museums or historical sites, but seeing Louie Mueller’s this day was in fact what I consider sight-seeing. Thanks for reading.
Favorite Brisket: Franklin BBQ. Black’s BBQ. Snow’s BBQ.
Favorite Pork Ribs: Franklin BBQ. Smitty’s Market.
Favorite Beef Ribs: Black’s BBQ.
Favorite Sausage: Louie Mueller’s. Franklin BBQ.
Best Experience: Franklin BBQ. Louie Mueller’s. Smitty’s Market.
Next up: Part Two of the Texas BBQ Trail – Smitty’s Market, Black’s BBQ and Franklin BBQ.