Monday, April 20, 2015

10 Texas BBQ Joints in One Day, 500 Miles of Barbecue

Is it possible to visit and eat at ten Texas BBQ Joints in one day?

Not only is it possible, but entirely achievable, and we proved it this past Saturday on a 523-mile round trip, Texas back road BBQ Quest. We actually stopped at 11 places, but one was sold out, so we were just able to sample 10. And we passed many others, so logistically it would have been easy to extend it to as many as 15, maybe more.

To pull this off, @BBQBryan, @HoustonFed and I knew we had to have a system and the discipline to stick to it. It isn't possible to do this if everyone orders individually (or very affordable). Our basic plan was to get no more than a Trinity sample--a couple of slices of brisket, one sausage link, and one sparerib at each location, and split it between the three of us. Remarkably, this turned out to be no more than about $11 at most places we visited. We stuck to the plan for the most part, and at the end of the day, we were still doing (feeling) well, and imagined we could have added two or three more stops.

@HoustonFed has a comprehensive write-up posted at his blog of our trip and things to consider if you are interested in taking on something like this yourselves. Here are a few tips of my own:

  1. Take 3 or 4 people. You need to split your order so you don't take on too much at any one stop, even though they're small. Order extra to-go if you find something you especially like.
  2. Try to stick to water or tea; refrain from the soda or beer, as appealing as it may be. It takes up too much real estate that you'll need if you want a sample at ten (or more) stops. Save your beer for the last stop to celebrate what you've accomplished!
  3. Don't get tempted by the sides--also a space killer. Get some to-go so you can try them later at home. Or at least limit it to just one bite.
  4. Include a couple of segments with a little more distance between them. You'll be glad to have the extra digestion time to help you make it to the end.

City Market, Schulenburg

City Market, Schulenburg. 

We hit our first stop of the day about 8:15 am, just after City Market opened. Sausage was ready, but the day's briskets were not quite done. We did get to try a few early, end-cut brisket samples, which turned out to be pretty tasty. This is a functioning meat market, and they are well-known for their house-made wieners. City Market is worth the detour off of I-10 for their "better-than-highway food" product and hospitality.

Interior at City Market

Wood-fired pits at City Market

Nice looking City Market brisket for our first brisket shot of the day

Prause Meat Market, La Grange

Prause Meat Market in La Grange, on the downtown square. In operation at this location since 1953.

Prause Meat Market is a functioning meat butchering and sales business. The pits are in the smokehouse in the back of the building. Great-grandfather Arnold Prause opened the first Prause Meat Market in 1904. They moved to this current location on the downtown square in 1953, now operated by the fourth generation of Prauses.

We ended up with a sausage sample, which was all that was ready when we arrived. Crispy skin with a good snap, a juicy combination of beef and pork--very good. We will be back another day to try their brisket, ribs and pork roll. Kathy Prause asked us to follow her to the back, where we found Mark Prause busy tending the pits and giving one final mop to their other products. Mark was happy to show us around the smokehouse and share stories about the operation and the historic pits.

Gary Prause at work in the market

Some stories in the pits at Prause, for sure. Mark Prause at the pit.

Sausages on the pit at Prause, ready to turn

Zimmerhanzel's BBQ, Smithville

Zimmerhanzel's BBQ, Smithville

Zimmerhanzel's has a reputation for their sausage, and for selling out on Saturdays, so we planned them as one of our early stops. The brisket, spareribs, and sausage were all very good, with the standout for us being their all-beef sausage. It was still packed with enough fat to stay juicy, and a really good spice balance that paired well with the beef. This was probably the best sausage we had all day. We had to pick up a few extra to take home.

Lining up at Zimmerhanzel's

Sausage and brisket at Zimmerhanzel's; that all-beef sausage was a hit

Some great spareribs at Zimmerhanzel's

Pieous, Austin

Pieous, SW of Austin on 290

Pieous is not a BBQ joint, but we had been hearing of their spectacular house-smoked pastrami for some time. (Pastrami is brisket, right?) It turned out the word on the street was truth--this was a great pastrami, and immediately had us looking forward to our next visit. I can't wait to try it on one of their wood-fired pizzas or sandwiches. The beef is brined pastrami-style, the final seasonings applied, and then smoked, all in-house. It turns out the building was a barbecue restaurant in a previous life, and the smoker was still in place when it was acquired by Pieous. The owner, Josh, decided to put it to good use, and started developing and turning out pastrami. Similar in some ways to peppery Central Texas BBQ brisket, but with a completely different flavor profile. This pastrami is excellent--tender, and almost delicate, and bursting with flavor from the brine and other seasonings. Pass the mustard!

Interior at Pieous

Pieous' wood-fired pizza oven

The house-smoked pastrami from Pieous was truly incredible

Schmidt Family Barbecue, Bee Cave

Schmidt Family Barbecue, Bee Cave

Our stop at Schmidt Family Barbecue happened to coincide with the noon hour, and beer on ice in the waiting line was too tempting to pass up. We were able to try a couple of great beers from local breweries, Twisted X Premium Lager and Infamous Brewing Company's Hijack Cream Ale. We ordered our brisket, sausage and rib, and pronounced each as very good. We were also able to spend some time visiting with their young pitmaster Troy Warlick, who moved into this position from the line inside less than two years ago. You wouldn't know it from the quality of his brisket, which was the standout for us on this visit. This is definitely a place to add to your list if you're headed out Highway 71 west of Austin on the south side of Lake Travis.

Young pitmaster Troy Warlick of Schmidt Family Barbecue

One happy brisket maker

Fantastic brisket at Schmidt Family Barbecue

It's All Good BBQ, Spicewood

It's All Good BBQ, Spicewood

This little place on Highway 71 between Bee Cave and Spicewood is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by mature oaks. Look for the smoke emanating from the pistol-shaped smoker under their sign on the road. This is a nice country joint, with fun, family atmosphere. We limited our selection to brisket and ribs here, since their sausage is sourced from elsewhere. I look forward to our next visit where we can take our time and sit outside and enjoy looking out over the beautiful Central Texas Hill Country.

Interior at It's All Good BBQ

Rib and fatty brisket from It's All Good BBQ

Opie's Barbecue, Spicewood

Opie's Barbecue, Spicewood

This was a great stop, and we knew we would spend some time here, so we built it into our schedule. It's always a pleasure to visit with owner Todd Ashmore; he is absolutely one of the happiest and funniest guys in Texas BBQ. He loves what he does, and he's doing it very well. Here we not only got to sample the Trinity, but also a big beef rib, some baby backs, and a few of their famous sides (tip: don't skip the Tater Tot Casserole). Everything was great; the brisket was tender and moist and full of flavor, and the baby backs brought enough heat in their spice to make them particularly memorable. We knew this was going to be a favorite from past visits, and that was reflected in this being our biggest haul of the day in extra to-go items.

Opie's unique "ordering pit"; pick out what you want and they slice and serve it for you

Counter at Opie's, a few of their awesome rock-n-roll BBQ shirts beyond

Beautiful spread at Opie's, which could have really done us in if we ate it all

Payne's Bar-B-Q Shak, Burnet

Payne's sold out; we'll be back!

Hwy 29 BBQ, Bertram

Hwy 29 BBQ, building constructed in 1882

Hwy 29 BBQ was at the end of their day as we arrived, and we were able to procure some lean brisket, sausage, and a banana pudding for each of us (there's been buzz about this banana pudding!). Even late in the day, this brisket was great; nice bark, good smoke, and tender--brisket we will definitely be back for. And it's a good thing we each got our own banana pudding. You will not want to share! Owner Corey Thibodeaux spent some time showing us their stone pits out back and shared his story of how he got into the BBQ business. He grew up in Port Arthur, and had never really had much good BBQ. It was trip to Smitty's Market in Lockhart, standing in the smokehouse in the midst of Texas BBQ history, when he had his moment of nirvana, and knew this was something special. He's turning out some great product for being in the business for only about 2 years. Take the time to drive out from Austin to Bertram and visit Hwy 29 BBQ; you will not be disappointed.

Hwy 29 BBQ, inside view

Stone pits at Hwy 29 BBQ in Bertram

Even late in the day, this Hwy 29 BBQ brisket was really good

Brown's Bar-B-Que, Austin

Brown's BBQ 

Brown's was an addition to our agenda, since we missed out on one of our originally-intended destinations. A food trailer on south Lamar in Austin, Brown's operates in front of The Corner Bar. The brisket here was recommended by a fellow BBQ chaser, and we picked up some of their jalapeno sausage as well. This was a first visit for each of us. The sausage was fine-textured, but not too tightly-packed, and held its juices well. Deep, smoky brisket, tender, maybe a little too smoky for my taste. Of our two selections, the sausage was our preference on this visit. We look forward to trying Brown's again on a future Austin visit.

Brown's brisket on deck

Nice looking sausage and brisket at Brown's

Terry Black's Barbecue, Austin

Terry Black's Barbecue in Austin on Barton Springs Rd.

Terry Black's is a great all-around barbecue destination that's recently been added to the Austin BBQ scene. This was a good way to end our day. Our order here was just right--one thick slice of peppery, Central Texas-style brisket that Black's is known for, and a great sparerib (maybe the best of our day). If you've been to Black's in Lockhart, you'll have a familiar sense of the pedigree of that brisket.

It was nice to sit outside, relax a bit, and reflect on what we had just accomplished, before hitting the road for home. We arrived at our first stop just after 8:00 am, and finished at our last stop right at 7:00 pm. Eleven stops in 11 hours (eating at ten), plus 2-1/2 hours added on each end for the drive to and from Houston, and we finished with a 16-hour day. We're probably a little crazy, but hey, who isn't. Three guys with similar interests, chasing BBQ, meeting some interesting people, and seeing some great country. At least it keeps us out of trouble.

Great outdoor dining area

Black's slicing table, with brisket, beef ribs, sausage and spareribs

Very good ribs and peppery brisket to end our day at Terry Black's

Mike tending the fire boxes at Terry Black's

The Aftermath (bonus time!)

The Sunday morning perks of a Saturday BBQ run:

Brisket-on-a-biscuit, home-version, made with Opie's brisket

Cheddar and Zimmerhanzel's smoked sausage omelette

We made it. 10 stops. And in the end, unbelievably we felt like we could do more. Is it possible? Sure, it's really just a matter of logistics. With research and a well-timed plan, coupled with the discipline not to overdo it at any one spot, there's enough good Texas BBQ spaced along the road to take on 12, 15--maybe more. Will we be the ones to try it? Will you?

Let us know if you're so inclined. Maybe we'll tag along. :)

- Scott

City Market, 109 Kessler Ave., Schulenburg, TX 78956, (979) 743-3440.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 5:30 pm. Saturday, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Prause Meat Market, 253 West Travis, La Grange, TX 78945, (979) 968-3259.
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 7:00 am to 2:00 pm. Friday, 7:00 am to 5:30 pm. Saturday, 5:30 am to 1:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Zimmerhanzel's BBQ, 307 Royston St., Smithville, TX 78957, (512) 237-4244.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 am to 5:00 pm. Saturday, 8:30 am til sold out. Closed Sunday.

Pieous, 12005 Hwy 290 West, Austin, TX 78737, (512) 394-7041.
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, and 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Saturday 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Sunday 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Closed Monday.

Schmidt Family Barbecue, 12532 FM 2244, Bee Cave, TX 78738, (512) 263-4060.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Sunday 11:00 am to 8:00 pm.

It's All Good BBQ, 22112 HWY 71, Spicewood, TX 78669 (512) 264-1744.
Hours: Wednesday 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Opie's Barbecue, 9504 E Texas Hwy. 71, Spicewood, TX 78669, (830) 693-8660.
Hours: Monday and Tuesday 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. Wednesday and Thursday 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Friday and Saturday, 11:00 am to 8:00 pm. Sunday 11:00 am to 7:00  pm.

Payne's Bar-B-Q Shak, 616 Buchanan Dr., Burnet, TX 78611, (512) 756-8227.
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11:00 am to 2:30 pm. Friday 11:00 am to 7:30 pm. Saturday 11:00 am to 2:30 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Hwy 29 BBQ, 110 W State Hwy 29, Bertram, TX 78605, (512) 277-7020.
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday 11:00 am to 7:30 pm. Sunday 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Brown's Bar-B-Que, 1901 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX 78704, (512) 517-8520.
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:00 am to 7:00 pm. Thursday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Terry Black's Barbecue, 1003 Barton Springs Road, Austin, TX 78704, (512) 394-5899.
Hours: Open daily 11:00 am to 9:00 pm.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Snow's BBQ and Louie Mueller Barbecue - Pit Quest Saturday

Sometimes you need to commit to a early start and a long trip to get a chance at quality BBQ.

My friends @BBQBryan and @HoustonFed had a notion to make a "quick" two-stop run with our families on Easter weekend to hit Snow's BBQ in Lexington, TX, and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, TX, two of the TMBBQ Top 4 spots from the 2012 rankings. I was a bit hesitant at first, given the holiday, figuring many people would have a long weekend and be on the roads looking for bluebonnets, antiquing, and exploring. Eventually those droves would get hungry, and I knew stopping for BBQ would be a popular choice. Deep down, I knew I needed to make this trip, one way or another.

It still took me a few days to convince my family to join in, since we would have to depart at the unheard of hour of 6:30 am on a Saturday (cue the teen grumbling) to have a chance at the first stop of the day, Snow's. The opportunity for all of us to be available to go on a Pit Quest together doesn't come too often, so I was especially pleased for them to be able to join me for this particular Quest. I think the realization they would get a chance to sample quality BBQ from two of the best in the state eventually convinced them it would be worth it.

Snow's BBQ, Lexington, TX

Line at 9:00 am at Snow's BBQ, Lexington, TX

Snow's BBQ opens at 8:00 am, on Saturdays only, and serves until they run out. We arrived about 9:00 am and took our place in line, which moved at a decent pace. With family members in tow to hold our spot, I was able to slip out of the line for a bit to have a look around. Owner Kerry Bexley was working hard to get several to-go orders out for the day, and back and forth between the direct-heat pits was legendary Texas pitmaster, Tootsie Tomanetz, tending to sausage and ribs. Tootsie, always with time for a smile and kind word, spoke with me for a few minutes, fussed at me (in good fun) for wearing another BBQ joint's t-shirt, and even autographed a picture of the two of us taken at last year's Texas Monthly BBQ Festival (which I now treasure). If you don't know much about Tootsie, who turns 80 this month, you would do well to read Daniel Vaughn's interview with her from 2013. A remarkable person, in a position traditionally dominated by men in this state, Tootsie is now in her 49th year of working BBQ pits in the Lexington-Giddings area.

The legendary Tootsie Tomanetz, Pitmaster at Snow's BBQ

Bryan, always after that elusive perfect BBQ picture

There's a pretty shot, steam cascading over brisket with the breeze

On this day we were after the highly-regarded brisket and chicken, as well as sausage and a little turkey. The ribs were gone by the time we reached the ordering counter.  With the first bites of brisket, we knew we were onto something special. Succulent, moist and flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth type brisket. (Order 2 lbs. so you will have one to take home!) Excellent smoked sausage link with a well-balanced peppery spice and coarse texture. The chicken really got my attention. It's easy to overlook BBQ chicken with all the focus on beef in this state, but I had heard rumblings about the chicken from Snow's for a long time. This chicken should not be passed up, especially the dark meat. Flavor penetration was deep, but not too smoky. The crispy skin was unique and especially tasty; the skin on most chicken you get in BBQ joints has been sitting around sweating to the point of disintegration. Some of our dining companions also ordered the pork steak, sliced from thick cuts of smoked bone-in pork, and pronounced it outstanding as well.

Half chicken from Snow's, one of the best you'll find anywhere

It's easy to see how Snow's earned their #1 spot in the 2008 List, and stayed in the Top 4 in the 2012 List. Unfortunately, it's not on the main highways, and their Saturday-only hours limit most people's ability to get there. It's also not a place you're likely to drive past. For BBQ that's off the beaten path, you have to make a plan, and make it a destination event. Snow's BBQ is special, and worthy of this type of effort. This is BBQ that's not to be missed. 

Brisket, sausage link, and chicken from Snow's

Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX

Louie Mueller's, Taylor, TX

Texas BBQ royalty? Louie Mueller Barbecue has spawned more of the current Texas pitmasters, either directly or indirectly, than any other single institution, so this title probably suits them perfectly. Their influence extends far beyond our border as well, like Billy Durney of Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, NY, for instance, who considers Pitmaster Wayne Mueller "like a brother." The Texas BBQ family tree has a significant portion of its roots in Louie Mueller Barbecue.

Louie Mueller Barbecue traces its origins to Louie Mueller's arrival in Taylor in 1936 to operate its first Safeway Grocery Store, and opened its current location on W 2nd St. in Taylor in 1959. Stepping into Louie Mueller Barbecue is like stepping back into Texas history. From the creak of the wood plank floors, to the smoke-stained decorations and wall of business cards people have been leaving for years, upon entering you get the sense you're experiencing something special. We arrived about 11:00 am, and were in line just before the lunch crowd.

Main dining room at Louie Mueller's with pits in back

Screened west dining room

At Louie Mueller's, you order the beef rib. It's what you do. It is the gold standard of the big beef plate ribs that have become so popular in recent years. Why so popular? Visually, they are stunning, with a heavy black peppered bark, and rendered in the slow smoke to the point of release from its structure, the big plate bone. No sauce is necessary; one bite and you'll want the deep, rich flavors of the beef rib to stay true to the end. We also had to pick up just one of the house-made original link sausage, from which we were treated to the familiar snap of natural casing and clear running juices. The rib and the sausage were excellent, and worthy of a visit by themselves. We saved their renowned brisket for another day, giving us one more reason to return (soon).

Louie Mueller big beef rib and sausage link.

The gold standard of Texas beef ribs, up close and personal

We wrapped up our visit with a couple of orders of the homemade peach cobbler and a banana pudding to share. After two stops, it was time for some sweet to offset all that BBQ. The banana pudding here has a whipped texture, and plenty of wafers. The pastry portion of the peach cobbler has a cake-like consistency, and I would venture to guess the peaches were fresh, or at least frozen from last season's fresh peaches, given the depth of their flavor.

Peach cobbler from Louie Mueller's; if you have a Q Card, it's free with BBQ purchase (and topped with Blue Bell ice cream!)

This was a very manageable Quest from the Houston area for a Saturday. If you target a Snow's arrival at 9:00 am, and given it's only 30 minutes from there to Taylor, you can easily make it back to Houston by 3:00 pm. Very doable for the opportunity to hit two of the top BBQ joints in the world, and as a bonus you get to see some beautiful country along the way. 

I highly recommend it.

- Scott

332 miles on this day, round trip

Snow's BBQ, 516 Main St., Lexington, TX 78947, (979) 542-8189.
Hours: Saturday only, 8:00 am til sold out.

Louie Mueller Barbecue, 206 W 2nd St., Taylor, TX 76574, (512) 352-6206.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. Saturday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Sunday.