Earlier this month, we traveled to Texas. We flew into San Antonio, rented a car and drove up to Lockhart, The Barbecue Capital of Texas, before staying in Austin for the night. Lockhart is 25 miles southeast of Austin, it may be a small town of 12,000 but it's also where it's good to be carnivore. Central Texas was settled by German and Czech settlers in the mid 19th century, and they brought with them European-style meat markets. While the European settlers did not think of this meat as barbecue, the name stuck since it's what local farmers called it. BBQ here is rubbed with spices and smoked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood. The heavenly scent of the meats smoking permeates the entire city of Lockhart. It is amazing!
Our first stop was Blacks Barbeque it's open 8 days a week and it was established in 1932. It is one of the oldest barbecue restaurants in Texas that has been continuously owned and operated by the same family. In past years, it's been named one of Texas' 50 best barbecue restaurants by Texas Monthly. When you walk inside you grab a plate and load up on sides from the steam table, then you approach the butcher. You name your meat and how much you want. Meats are sold by pound.
Oak is used here to indirectly smoke the meat, which is seasoned only with salt and pepper. Brisket made it's debut at Black's and it is excellent. We liked it best, along with the homemade jalapeno cheddar sausage. We sampled ribs which were delicious, but we later found we liked them better elsewhere. We sampled sides of potato salad, beans and deviled egg. Black's has homemade sauce to accompany the meat since the masses asked for it, but it's better without it. I found it a bit too acidic loaded with vinegar and lemon, maybe a hint of cumin.
The dining room is rustic as you might imagine. Though, dining here is somewhat fancy, with styrofoam plates, plasticware and paper towels on the table. Yes, I said fancy. I'll explain more later.
We also sampled the pecan cobbler with a side of blue bell ice cream. Blue Bell is sold in 22 states, mostly in the south, I never had it before. It is a delicious Texas treat. It's perfectly sweet and insanely creamy. After one bite is easy to understand why Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla is the best selling single flavor in the US. This stuff was made for cobbler too. It melts well and cuts the richness of the gooey sweet mess that pecan cobbler. After filling up on the salty meats, the sweetness is welcomed and much appreciated. It's the perfect end to a stellar BBQ meal.
Our next stop was Smitty's Market. The history here isn't quite clear, my understanding is that Smitty's and nearby Kreuz Market are all part of the same extended BBQ family. Although, Edgar A. "Smitty" Schmidt purchased the Kreuz Market from the Kreuz family in 1948; Smitty's Market opened it's doors in 1999 in the former Kruez Market location. Confused? Yeah, me too. Its past is local legend and from what I've gathered it sounds like some sort of family feud fueled the split. Whatever the case, meat lovers rejoice. Both are fine barbeque establishments. Smitty's has recently fallen off Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list, but had been named year after year.
Smitty's daughter and her family run Smitty's Market today. Her son is now pit master. Walking into Smitty's is life changing. Yes, I said it. Life changing. At least it was for this midwestern-turned-desert girl. Before we even approached Smitty's doors the scent of robust meats smoking filled the air. Walking through the doors, your eyes burn a little from the smoke. You wipe them and you notice the soot that has gathered on the walls from nearly 90 years of smoking meat to perfection - it's been a barbeque restaurant since it was built in 1924. As you walk back toward the pits, you feel the warmth of the open flames burning oak. Pits line the walls in this dark room, three employees stand at the center. The butcher cuts your meat at the greasy cutting block and two cashiers are available to weigh the meat and ring you up. Cash only. In exchange for cash you're handed your hefty meat butcher paper-wrapped package. They point you toward the dining room and you're on your own. Don't ask for a fork, they don't have 'em. Grab a handful of napkins and sit down. You're given a couple knives and you dig in with your hands. Soda and limited extras and a side of beans are available for sale. Blue Bell ice cream is also sold. Even without the cobbler it hits the spot.
On our first visit to Smitty's we had the trifecta of brisket, sausage and ribs. They gave us beef ribs and they were so insanely mouthwatering; we got four more. We stuffed ourselves silly on those ribs. The smoke was perfection, there was a caramelized glazed on top and the fat renders so beautifully when you bite into the flesh it juices like a peach. I've never experienced anything like it. We were high on BBQ and it was glorious. You can get bbq sauce from the counter and theirs is better than Black's. It's the same red-orange color but it has more spice and less acidity. You really don't need it, though. This meat is wondrous on its own. We returned the next day for more ribs, this time we had the pork. They too were out of this world delicious. They hold the smoke so well. They weren't nearly as juicy as the beef, but yet equally tender. Life changing, I tell you.
Our final stop on our Lockhart BBQ tour was Kreuz Market (pronounced 'Krites') is more popular with tourists because you can see the large barn from the highway. Kreuz Market got its start in 1900 as a meat market and grocery store. Charles Kreuz Sr. started smoking meats out of necessity because refrigeration was no good and he did not want to dispose of quality cuts that had not sold. Remaining lesser cuts were used to make sausage. Customers would buy their barbecue and sausage (which was wrapped in butcher paper) and they would eat it on the spot with their hands and a pocket knife. Sauce was never used. This tradition continues at Kreuz today. Edgar Schmidt, who had worked there since 1936, later purchased the market. He then sold it to his sons, Rick and Don Schmidt, in 1984. Fifteen years later, after Don retired, Rick was forced to move into a newer and bigger space a quarter mile north of the old location. Rick has since retired and his son Keith bought out the business. Kreuz Market just recently graced Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list.
The brisket here is a real winner. It is succulent and simply wonderful. We gobbled it up in a hurry. Outside of Lockhart, the ribs and sausage would be stellar. But we had dined at the three most popular BBQ restaurants and we had chosen our favorites. The winner is? All three. Because each one specializes in a slab of meat that puts them above the rest. At Kreuz its the brisket, it's leaner and more moist that Black's. Black's sausage is killer though. It has the best texture and flavor, and just the right amount of kick. And Smitty's Market has the ribs... Oh, those ribs.