The following is a note I originally wrote and posted onto my Facebook page in February. Today for some reason I am waxing nostalgic on the experience; perhaps it remains close to the front of my memory after talking about it a couple of weeks ago with some of my mom's oldest friends, who are practically like parents to me, while we were in L.A. (pre-cruise).
I've lived in Texas since I was a college freshman, and being from California, had no clue what BBQ was all about. My mom always sauced her steaks prior to cooking, so the concept of eating plain meat never appealed. My husband, a Texan through and through, gave up in his efforts years ago of trying to convince me to partake of BBQ at his favorite joints whenever we drove through Central Texas, but when I took our daughter on a college road trip, I decided to give it a try. She loves the stuff, my husband loves the stuff, and as I've since come over to their side re: coffee (coffee flavored coffee) and chocolate (dark), perhaps it was time to give myself over to the meat.
While on our way from Austin to Georgetown late last month, we drove to Taylor and the wholly unprepossessing Mueller's Market, where I'd planned on simply ordering my usual sausage. That was my plan until the woman behind the counter put a morsel of glistening brisket on my tray...and I ate it. OMG, I had a foodgasm right then and there and changed my order. My daughter was so proud of me she announced to everyone that this was my first "real" bite of BBQ.
After calling my husband and yelling at him for simply not stuffing my mouth full of the stuff years ago, I went over the eating experience in my mind. For days. I love caramelized food...from onions and carrots and a nice crust on a medium rare steak to actual caramel. The brisket at Mueller's was simply sublime. Crusty, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth meat.
When I found out last week I wasn't working from Tuesday through Friday, I told my husband and he asked me to drive down to Austin with him for those days. He had some legal CLE and I could have the car during the day to do whatever I wanted. I jumped at the chance - and not only because I suspected we could work in some BBQ - and we had a nice drive down there, stopping, of course, in West at the Czech Stop.
Let me break in at this time to say that it's always baffled me that Texans are so jingoistic about their state. Part of it, I'm convinced, is almost Jungian, though instead of a collective unconscious there is a collective map. It's impossible to drive through West, for instance, without stopping at the Czech Stop...everyone I know who lives in Texas knows the place and can name their favorite kolache.
When Rachael and I drove home from Georgetown to Dallas, we, of course, stopped there, to surprise her dad with his favorite cottage cheese kolaches. We varied from our usual, which is his usual; I got blueberry cream cheese and they were unbelievable when warm. As for the collective mapism, here's mine: I far prefer the market to the bakery, even though the kitchen is shared. I dunno why.
But I digress. This collective map includes BBQ. Texans love their beef. My daughter has always loved both fruit and meat, and my husband first introduced her to BBQ prime rib years ago. Again, I'd demurred. Stoopid, stoopid me.
BBQ in Texas is a lunch-time affair. The best places sell out some time in the afternoon, so unless I drove to Lockhart while my husband was in his classes, we were probably going to have to settle for what some people believe is terrific stuff; BBQ at the Salt Lick, which my husband deems "commercial."
The first thing I noticed? That they ruined the meat, even the end piece in all its crusty glory by glopping sauce all over it. But, as my husband said, if I was going to truly try BBQ, I had to try a variety. Yes, this was better than the stuff you can buy in Dallas, but it was not foodgastic by a long shot.
By the time we'd finished our meal, our plans had changed; instead of his staying in class all day Friday, he'd omit the afternoon session and we'd drive 40 minutes out of our way to Lockhart, and two, or if necessary, three, of the BBQ markets he'd frequented for years that always seem to fall off the lips of Texans when they discuss, nay, argue, BBQ.
Meat-a-pooluza commenced at 12:30 when we hit the road. We drove up to Kreuz's Market shortly after one and ordered brisket - an end cut - and some sausage. Unlike Mueller's which supplies trays, this is totally old school; butcher paper only, and instead of the oven above-ground, a pit of fire that hits you in the face as you walk from the meat room to the "dining" room.
Kreuz butchering order
Kreuz brisket & sausage
I took my first bite of brisket as soon as we sat down and immediately knew this was better than what we'd eaten at Salt Lick, but was disappointed that it didn't live up to Mueller's. Was this yet again a case of First as Favorites, applied to meat rather than authors? After all, Kreuz tends to rank higher up on most lists of BBQ than Mueller's, although, to be fair, it's the latter with a James Beard award.
Regardless, I enjoyed the brisket, but didn't love it. The sausage was very different than any other sausage I'd ever eaten in a BBQ joint; it wasn't smooth on the inside. It was very textured and you could see bits of spice and fat and much darker meat. It was yummy, but it was time to move on.
We then drove for the two minutes it takes to get to Smitty's, where another pit of fire hits you in the face...this time the moment you walk in the door. We order both brisket and prime rib, so much of it that I felt like a glutton. We sat down...I dug in. OMG, the mouthgasm was back with a vengeance.
Smitty's butchering order
Smitty's brisket & prime rib
The brisket was thisclose in goodness to what I remembered at Mueller's, and far better than what we'd had at Kreuz's. It was all in the rub of spices. And then I took a bit of the prime rib, which I still can't quite figure out - how in hell can you smoke meat for hours and have it be medium rare in the middle?
If the brisket wasn't quite, quite, quite as good as Mueller's the fact that Mueller's doesn't serve prime rib put Smitty's over the top in my book. Both briskets were crispy, fatty pieces of deliciousness - but the prime rib was as buttery as prime rib, yet at the same time smokey. My mouth was confused but ultimately very, very happy.
It was not necessary to move on to Black's, which my husband was prepared to do had I not been satisfied with what I'd sampled. We packed up what was left, drove past the cool courthouse (at least we think it was the courthouse), then returned to Austin where we broke our nearly four-year art glass ban at Austin Art Glass, a gallery I'd spied the day before. Here are the pieces we bought as installed on a wall in our home.
As if that weren't enough, my husband decided we should walk across the street to the airstream trailer that had a revolving cupcake atop it and buy a couple of cupcakes for the road. I've never had a designer cupcake, but know that the Central Market vanilla/vanilla buttercreams are damned good, so that's what I went for. The DH chose a red velvet, and we left to come home. Of course, given the cupcakes, there was no reasonable reason to stop at West, but it did occur to me that I now have kind of have an inkling of why Texans are such Texanists.
When I told Rachael about the experience...in particular the prime rib...I got a big, fat, knowing "I told you so."
Earlier this year, but after Meat-a-pooluza (and my note on Facebook), the Travel Channel aired a show called Food Wars, and one of the battles was between Kreuz and Smitty's. They judged on brisket and sausage, and it was tied until the very last judge, who basically flipped a coin. Kreuz won...and I lost interest in Food Wars. Clearly, they got it wrong, and clearly, after an entire adult lifetime lived in Texas, I feel as though I'm (finally) one. Well, except for that whole Rick Perry thing.