Friday, February 28, 2014

My Texas Barbecue Education

A confession:

I was a reluctant Texan. A Brooklyn-raised boy, I wanted no part in my family's move to Texas. My third grade self defiantly told anyone who'd listen that I would never say y'all, and twenty-four years later I still don't. As my thawing to Texas culture was a gradual process, my foray into Texas barbecue took a long and winding path that began with complete indifference and transformed into borderline obsession.

Being raised in an east coast household, barbecue just wasn't a priority. The majority of my childhood barbecue exposure came in two forms: at a friend's backyard cookout or as an afterthought when my mom wasn't in the mood to cook and we'd pick up some completely forgettable barbecue at a local joint. These were my primary experiences until 2011. This was when I made a decision that would lead to a passion I never expected.

In the summer of 2011 my wife and I planned a weekend driving around Austin and the Texas Hill Country to celebrate our first anniversary. I subscribe to Bon Appetit Magazine, and the June 2011 issue proclaimed Franklin Barbecue in Austin as the best in America. Knowing little about the place, it seemed like a fun little food adventure. We spent the first morning of our vacation in the now infamous line (which was nowhere near as absurd as it is these days). The meal I had that morning completely transformed my opinion of what barbecue was and could be. Brisket as moist, tender and flavorful as any piece of beef I'd ever had, ribs with a beautiful bark and perfect bite of black pepper - this was not the barbecue of my youth. Plain and simple, I was hooked. We'd brought leftovers back to our bed and breakfast (where our room thankfully had a refrigerator). I continued to snack on brisket for the rest of the weekend. It made such an impression that I convinced my wife to let me drive the 40 minutes back to Austin on the final day of our vacation for a second round. We ended up being one of the first five people in line this trip, and spent that morning conversing with a group of Australian guys sightseeing around America. This is one of my favorite things about Franklin Barbecue: the people you meet in line. Say what you will about the tourist trap the line is becoming or the commercialization of Franklin Barbecue these days, but the meals I had there in the summer of 2011 were a revelation.

The legendary beef rib at Louie Mueller Barbecue (left), Texas trinity brisket, pork ribs and sausage at La Barbecue (right)

Those who know me best would tell you that when something catches my interest, I immerse myself in the subject until I can quote it chapter and verse. My mind is a vortex of useless information. It came as no surprise to my wife that barbecue became a passion after my Franklin Barbecue experience. I read and learned as much as I could about the history of Texas barbecue, visited/dragged her to countless joints (including a Luling City Market/Smitty's/Kreuz Friday trifecta followed by another Franklin Saturday excursion that she still hasn't forgiven me for), and eventually started trying my own hand at smoking meat.

In the nearly three years since my "barbecue awakening" I have sampled some of the legendary Texas joints like the aforementioned Lockhart and Luling estabishments, Louie Mueller in Taylor and Snow's in Lexington. I've also explored the new breed of barbecue with places like Pecan Lodge in Dallas (where ironically enough I ended up ahead of Aaron Franklin in line) and La Barbecue in Austin, which is run by Franklin's former right hand man, John Lewis. Of course I've run the Houston gauntlet of Gatlin's, Corkscrew, Virgie's, Brook's Place, and the newly opened Killen's Barbecue that's been garnering so much attention. Long considered a wasteland for barbecue, it appears Houston is poised for a breakthrough with these places leading the way and up-and-comers like Patrick Feges, who is going to run the pits at Killen's for a while until he's ready to open his own establishment. Adding to the excitement was the Houston Chronicle report that Wayne Mueller was looking to open an offshoot of Louie Mueller Barbecue near downtown.

Pulled pork, pork ribs, brisket and bacon mac 'n cheese at Pecan Lodge (left), Beef rib, "bacon" rib, brisket, pork rib at Killen's BBQ (right)

I've also recently dipped my toe in the water of competition barbecue. This is an entirely different world from the barbecue I've come to love. Briskets injected with beef broth and ribs caked in a brown sugary sweetness that cakes your tongue are a far cry from the simple salt and coarse black pepper rubs of Central Texas that stole my heart. I've noticed that sadly, if this is the type of barbecue you've grown up with, you may see the style for which I've sung the praises as too rich and fatty. To that I say, buy some roast beef, dunk it in Swanson's, rub it in Lowry's seasoned salt and eat until your heart's content. As for me, I'll stick with well rendered fat, a punch to the tongue of black pepper, and toss in a burnt end for good measure.

In this short amount of time I've gone from someone who barely knew what they were ordering at a barbecue restaurant to someone who can smoke a decent brisket and damn fine ribs (ribs are much easier to get right). There's an allure and culture around barbecue that I find so appealing. Whether you're a born and raised Texan or recent transplant from across the country, I can't recommend exploring the Texas barbecue community enough. If you're in Houston, be sure to check out the 2nd annual Houston BBQ Festival on April 6th. Or simply take a drive early one Saturday morning, make your way up to the small town of Lexington, Texas and try Snow's BBQ for the first time. They open at 8 in the morning, just in time for breakfast. Leave some room though, because Louie Mueller Barbecue, the Saint Patrick's Cathedral of our state's smoked meat tradition, is only a 30 minute drive away. Your lunch there awaits...

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