Friday, March 4, 2016

Familiar Standbys and Joints You Haven't Tried Should Both Be Part of a Texas BBQ Road Trip

When we start thinking about a BBQ road trip, the logistics of trip planning go beyond just picking places on a particular route. We spend time reading reports and reviews by others, checking opening and typical sellout times, and asking questions of those who may live nearby or who have been there before us. We also strive to mix in new places with some that we've been to before, especially if we've had some memorable bites at those prior visits.

Surprisingly, we often find the best BBQ on these trips doesn't always come from the places that are popular or get the most press. Nothing is more rewarding than discovering a hidden gem along the way, with a particular cut of beef or pork that is so well-executed that we can't wait to tell others about it (cue the real-time social media blasts). Sometimes it's a new place, just starting out, but just as often it's an older established business that maybe isn't that well-known.

On this particular run we set out to hit 8 to 10 places, with some options to add, time permitting. We check media feeds along the way to see if any of our planned stops sell out so we can adjust our itinerary accordingly. Joining HoustonFed, BBQBryan and I on the trip this time was Greg Mueller, Midwest Southern Region Sales Rep for World Casing Corporation, worldwide supplier of natural sausage casings. Greg had just been on a BBQ run the day before with a certain other reputable Texas BBQ dignitary, so we were a little suspicious of his ability to keep up for his second meat feast in as many days! We shouldn't have worried; he was right in-step with us the whole day.

Our first target of the day was in Gonzales, Baker Boys BBQ, who we just visited a couple of months ago. We definitely needed to get confirmation that our first experience was as good as we thought it was.

Baker Boys BBQ - Gonzales, TX

Baker Boys BBQ has been open in Gonzales for just 6 months, but owner and pitmaster Wayne Baker is already delivering BBQ that demands attention. Well-seasoned brisket, house-made beef and pork sausage, and pork spareribs are worthy of making this a destination. A unique item here is the jalapeno-stuffed boneless chicken leg, lightly seasoned and smoked, and just $2. Baker Boys is a tremendous value as well--brisket price here is only $13/lb, other meats $12/lb or less, and sausage at $2.50 per link.

This was our second trip to Baker Boys in two months, and we wanted to give them a confirmation visit before we broadcast our admiration publicly. At our first visit, we knew we had stumbled onto something special, though we picked up on an overly-liberal use of table salt in the seasoning. It was still there in this recent visit, but used much more sparingly allowing the pepper and other seasonings to come through. If they can get the salt level dialed in, Baker Boys has the capability to be a solid TMBBQ Top 50 contender for years to come.

Brisket and ribs on the cutting board at Baker Boys BBQ

Brisket, ribs, sausage and stuffed chicken leg

Kolacny Bar-B-Q & Catering - Halletsville, TX

Kolacny Bar-B-Q and Catering got a lot of attention after Daniel Vaughn's TMBBQ review in September 2015. We had driven through Halletsville before, and even stopped for BBQ there, but were generally unaware of Kolcany prior to the buzz generated by TMBBQ. Ervin Kolacny and his wife Carolyn serve from 11:00 am til sold out on Saturdays and Sundays only, so plan your trip accordingly.

Daniel Vaughn raved about the pork steak here in his review, so this was our main target. We were too early for brisket, but picked up pork spareribs, a half chicken and sausage as well. All the meats here are cooked on their big direct heat pits, and mopped with a traditional Texas stock and vinegar mop sauce. The pork steak was delicious, lightly-seasoned with salt and pepper, and just a hint of smoke from its short time on the pit. The direct heat pits allow for a quick sear on the outisde over oak coals, and space to finish slowly using an indirect method, which locks in the juices for maximum flavor. Chicken was done in much the same way, and was by far one of the juiciest chicken examples we've encountered on any of our trips. Sausage is a typical pork blend, slightly coarse grind, and seasoned according to a family recipe.

Its not surprising that Kolacny's has escaped notice for as long as it has, given that its located several blocks south of the 4th Street in Halletsville in a residential neighborhood. Despite the challenges of its location, a visit to Kolacny's should be placed high on your priority list. It's hard to find product of this quality and value still being delivered using the traditional direct heat method.

Coal bed pit, sheet of tin siding for a screen, fire stoked with a box fan #oldschool

Ervin Kolacny checks on his ribs and chicken

Pork steak, ribs and sausage

Smithville Pit BBQ - Smithville, TX

Smithville Pit BBQ recently opened in the building formerly occupied by one of our favorites, Zimmerhanzel's, which closed at the end of last year after more than 35 years in business. The new owner is their former neighbor, Cliff Burns, owner of Smithville Food Lockers. We were anxious to see what changes might have been made to the meat selections. We were also hopeful that the incredible sausage recipe carried over, since it was reported in a February Austin American-Statesman article that the former owners had use of Smithville Food Lockers to make sausage and process meats.

New walk-up, take-out window at Smithville Pit BBQ (formerly Zimmerhanzel's)

The all-beef sausage at Zimmerhanzel's had been one of our best all-around BBQ bites of 2015. Our first crack into the Smithville Pit BBQ version gave us pause. The clear-running juice and moisture content just wasn't there this time. The blend seemed to match the previous version in texture and spices, so there's hope for improvement if that moisture level can be brought back up to where it used to be. Pork ribs were good, and definitely had a different rub that what we experienced before. The brisket was well-seasoned but needed some more time on the pit and a rest.

The parking lot was full of cars at mid-day on a Saturday, and the new walk-up window had a brisk business. Cliff Burns said in his interview with the Statesman it wouldn't be the same, but they "hope to offer something just as good if not better." It was good, but they've only been open a couple of weeks. Maybe it's not better just yet, but it was good enough to keep Smithville Pit BBQ on our list for future visits to see how they develop.

A little brisket, pork spareribs, and sausage at Smithville Pit BBQ

Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ - Austin, TX

We had not been to Valentina's before, but it was high on our agenda of places to try this year. We were able to meet our friend Jimmy Ho and his wife Amber here. At Valentina's you place your order at the trailer window, take a number, and claim your territory at one of many picnic tables while you wait. It didn't hurt that they're located in the parking lot of a convenience store, so there are plenty of options for ice-cold beverages right there. 

Plenty of outside seating at Valentina's

Jimmy has been here many times, so he provided some guidance on what to order. We settled on brisket tacos, a sausage link and a couple of pork spareribs. They jalapeno-cheese sausage they brought was okay, but not particularly remarkable. The ribs were seasoned and cooked well, but once we saw the brisket tacos, we knew we were onto something special. Served on their own homemade tortillas, with guacamole, salsa and a wedge of lime to squeeze, these were a highlight of the day. My only regret is that we didn't order them with sliced brisket so we could have had a better feel for the overall quality of the beef product, but the chopped was excellent anyway. We will definitely be including Valentina's on future BBQ runs in the Austin area based on these tacos alone!

Brisket tacos, pork spareribs, and jalapeno cheese sausage

The brisket tacos are served on homemade tortillas, with fresh guacamole and salsa

La Barbecue - Austin, TX

The queue for La Barbecue at 4:00 pm
We had been to La Barbecue in the past, but all independently. Given the recent departure of pitmaster Esaul Ramos, and the elevation of Dylan Taylor as the new pitmaster, we wanted to see how the transition is working out. At this point in our trip, we were way behind our planned schedule, having lingered a little to long at some of the previous stops. So it was after 4:00 pm before we made it to the line, and noticed several items already sold out.

Brisket was still available, and knowing that La Barbecue delivers some of the best in Texas, it was an easy choice for us. With a little potato salad and homemade pickles on the side, we settled comfortably into a feast of this sublime brisket. Every bite was memorable and spectacular, and even more so given that this was 4:00 pm brisket! If you've never been to La Barbecue, you're missing out on some of the Top 10 BBQ in the state in my opinion. And generally speaking, the lines are never terribly long, so you're assured of getting quality product.

The relocation last September to the Aztec Food Park at 1906 E. Cesar Chavez seems like a good fit. The vibe is great, and we had a good time visiting with several local regulars. And with the barely-21-year-old pitmaster Dylan Taylor at the helm, it was comforting to see they remain in good hands and the quality hasn't declined one bit.

Ready for your close-up, beautiful?

Moist brisket, potato salad, and homemade pickles

Freedmen's - Austin, TX

Smoked jalapeno pimento cheese spread, house-made focaccia

It's almost impossible for us to make a trip to Austin without including a stop at Freedmen's Bar. Our last trip in August just confirmed what we had already come to believe--Freedmen's is destination BBQ, and not to be missed. With Evan LeRoy at the pit, they deliver the best brisket in Austin on a consistent basis. As a testament to their pit management skills, we arrived this time after 6:30 pm, and the brisket we received with the thick, flavor-filled bark matched the high quality we've previously had on mid-day visits.

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hit them up for a tray of their smoked jalapeno pimento cheese and homemade focaccia either. After an all-meat day, it's a fantastic change of pace in both flavor and texture. But beware, if you're a guest of mine, you might need to order your own. It's so good, I'm not that inclined to share!

Moist brisket and sausage sampler, nighttime BBQ in Austin

I hope the recollection of our trips via this blog inspires you to get out and embark on a Texas BBQ adventure of your own. I'll continue to try to provide useful and comprehensive information to help you decide on where to go. If you have any questions or need more details, you can always contact me via the multiple options I've provided on the right sidebar of this page. As always, I welcome your comments, and suggestions on places we still need to try!

Fill your gas tanks, check your oil and tires, and hit the road.

- Scott

A 14-hour day this time (we lingered longer than we typically do at several places),
and traveled just about 500 miles total round trip.

All photos © Scott Sandlin, Texas Pit Quest, unless noted otherwise. All rights reserved.

Baker Boys BBQ, 1404 Sarah DeWitt Dr., Gonzales, TX 78629, (830) 519-4400.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Saturday 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed Sunday.

Kolacny Bar-B-Q & Catering, 100 S. Russell St., Halletsville, TX 77964, (361) 798-4400. 
Hours: Saturday and Sunday only, 11:00 am until sold out.

Smithville Pit BBQ, 307 Royston St., Smithville, TX 78745, (512) 237-4244.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Sunday.
Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ, 7612 Brodie Ln., Austin, TX 76574, (512) 221-4248.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 8:00 am to 10:00 pm (or sold out). Monday, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm (or sold out).

La Barbecue, 1906 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin, TX 78702, (512) 605-9696.
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11:00 am to 6:00 pm (or sold out).

Freedmen's, 2402 San Gabriel St., Austin, TX 78705, (512) 220-0953.
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Thursday through Saturday, 11:00 am to 12:00 am. Sunday, 11:00 am to 10:00 pm. Closed Mondays.