Monday, March 9, 2015

400 Miles of Barbecue: 3 friends, 4 cities, 5 stops

There was a great sense of fulfillment as I pulled into my driveway this past Saturday night. I'd left the house 14 hours earlier to begin a barbecue odyssey with fellow enthusiasts Bryan and Scott. Our journey began in the morning and ended in the late evening at a Target parking lot in Tomball; what took place in between that time is one of the most enjoyable days of barbecue I've had in recent memory.

Trinity plate at Kreuz in Bryan.

Our original plan did not include a breakfast stop, but Bryan had the great idea of kicking things off at the newly opened Kreuz Market in Bryan, Texas. They open at 10:30 which is rare for most joints but great for anyone trying to go on a long barbecue run. This allowed us to have a great first meal and still hit our second destination shortly after the standard 11 o'clock opening.

We were greeted by pitmaster Marco Oglesby and the friendly Kreuz staff. The building is reminiscent of the Lockhart building, but has the right amount of Aggie feel for its location. Our original plan was to only have a small sampling at each stop, but as usual the magical aroma of smoked meats did us in. We had a few slices of both moist and lean brisket, a pork rib, and jalapeño cheese sausage. The brisket had great smoke and was well rendered; even the lean retained a solid amount of moisture. The sausage was the classic, never disappointing standard Kreuz is famous for, but the rib could have used more time on the pit. It's a small and forgivable mistake that we all chalked up to showing up before the doors even opened. Those familiar with the legendary Kreuz in Lockhart can rest assured that the Bryan location is a worthy second outpost.

Left: Brisket and baby back ribs from Blue Moon BBQ; Top Right: Blue Moon storefront; Bottom Right: Bacon brownie.

Sometimes you just have to root for the underdog. This was the thought that came to me as we pulled up to Blue Moon BBQ, and stuck with me the rest of the day. It's a pleasure trying the smaller, less publicized small-town joints that make good, honest barbecue. That is what Blue Moon BBQ is, and even a little more.  As Bryan correctly pointed out, with the popularity of the barbecue scene today and the explosion of social media, the odds of finding "The Next Snow's" are slim-to-none but it's still fun to try. Sandwiched in between I45 and Highway 6 on Old San Antonio Road, Blue Moon is on the way to nowhere. You have to seek out this place. Even with three of us in the car we managed to drive five miles past it before turning around.

The menu at Blue Moon has your barbecue staples of brisket, ribs (baby backs), and sausage (not house made). They also offer turkey, pork loin and pulled pork that we did not sample on this visit. In addition to the meats and standard sides, they offer a few unique options such as Cowboy Cornbread: chopped brisket, tomatoes, chilies and onions stirred into cornbread and skillet cooked. This concoction is then smothered in cheese and served hot. There was no way we were not adding this to our order of fatty brisket and ribs.

After placing our order, we were quickly talked into trying a dessert - this would become a common trend for the rest of the day. Toni, one of the owners who handles the orders, suggested we try the bacon brownie. While we were all skeptical (who isn't throwing bacon into things these days?), the menu prices were so affordable that it wasn't going to break the bank. We were pleasantly surprised to see that fatty end brisket was $13.45 a pound, a great price when you consider the cost of beef these days. A twenty dollar bill took care of our entire order with tax and tip.

We were served quickly and once the required food photo session was complete (FYI, three grown men taking pictures of a plate of food at multiple angles is even more obnoxious than it sounds, but we're able to laugh at ourselves), we dug in. The brisket was cooked extremely well, just on that tightrope of well rendered and overdone. The bark did not have that nice crunch which we suspected was a result of a decent amount of time being foil-wrapped on the pit, but it had a great and unique flavor that none of us could pin down. The baby backs were cooked well and had a nice bark, though I would not have minded a bit more black pepper. We passed on the sausage since it was outsourced, but the cornbread was very interesting. What's not to love about a cheesy, beefy cornbread wedge? If ordering it again, though, I'd probably do a sprinkling of hot sauce to kick things up a bit. We finished off with the bacon brownie, and boy did it exceed expectations. A rich, dense brownie with diced chunks of crisp smoked bacon, this dessert was a hit. It was nice to see bacon as a true salty, flavor adding component rather than the usual gimmicky role it plays. We went back in and each bought one to take home.

As we headed to our next destination, our trio left content. This is the classic mom and pop (and son) barbecue place that has been part of the state's history for decades. Blue Moon has successfully made it in such a remote location for eight years, and I hope they're around for many more.

Top left: Miller's storefront; Top right: Dusty Miller manning the pits; Bottom: Brisket and original sausage from Miller's

We arrived in Belton (north of Austin for those not familiar) just after 2 PM, which is usually off-peak dining time for any restaurant, barbecue or otherwise. This did not seem to be the case at Miller's. There was a quick moving line that reached to the front door even at this late-afternoon hour. We chose to go with fatty brisket, original sausage (house-made; Miller's started as a processing facility only and are sausage making pros), and turkey. Pitmaster Dirk Miller wasn't there when we visited, but his son Dusty was kind enough to chat with us about their history and the pits that are housed on the side of the restaurant. There are nine in all, and they are fired up pretty much round the clock as Miller's cooks in shifts in order to be able to serve barbecue for lunch and dinner services. I wish more places would do this. The brisket on this visit was very good, though it may have been resting a bit longer than would have been ideal. The turkey was moist and a solid alternative to the usual Texas trinity. We enjoyed the original sausage, a mostly pork blend with a garlic presence, but a sample of both the hot links and jalapeño sausage convinced us all that we'd ordered wrong. The latter two were both exemplary sausages that I highly recommend ordering.

Lisa Miller, affectionately referred to as Mama Miller by the Miller's staff, insisted that we should try her fresh baked desserts. As usual, we couldn't say no. The show stopper for us was the hurricane cake, a german chocolate with cream cheese and pecans - it was a fantastic, home-y creation. One great thing about Miller's is they've converted their backspace into a bar with a nice beer selection and one dollar margaritas on Saturday nights. Had we known that we may have re-configured our route to end in Belton!

Left: Trinity plate at Freedmen's; Right: Fatty brisket close-up at Freedmen's

I had been hearing great things about the barbecue at Freedmen's for quite some time. Cooked on two pits parked in the back lot of a hipster Austin bar, this is not where you'd expect to find great smoked meat. You would be wrong. While the prices were more in line with big city barbecue than the small town prices we'd paid earlier in the day, it was worth every penny. Also, being able to get great barbecue at 4:30 PM in Austin on a Saturday is not easy to do. Most of the known heavy-hitters are long sold out by this time and preparing for the next day. That last part was the same for Freedmen's pitmaster Evan LeRoy; he was seasoning and getting tomorrow's lunchtime briskets on the pit when we arrived. Fortunately for us, Freedmen's still had fresh food available for us. We decided to split the $19.00 trinity plate which came with brisket, pork ribs and house-made sausage. As Freedmen's Bar is not your traditional place and LeRoy not your typical pitmaster, the plate did not simply come with your normal pickles and onions. Red onions and jalapeños are pickled in-house, and there was a homemade pickle spear thrown in for good measure. Scratch made focaccia and barbecue sauce came with the plate, too.
As soon as our meal arrived at the table, I knew we were in for a treat. Though we had not been served a bad brisket at any of our previous stops, the slices we had at Freedmen's were stunning. Impeccably rendered fatty slices with the aggressive black pepper seasoning I love, this brisket belongs in the big leagues with the heavy hitters of today's barbecue scene. The pork rib also impressed; cooked well, with a slight glaze and heavy black pepper rub that pulled no punches, it was the best pork rib I'd had in awhile. While I appreciated the care and texture of the sausage, it didn't pack as much flavor as I'd hoped and paled in comparison to the other two meats. The red onions were a nice touch and gave us all a break from the meat when we needed it, and the focaccia was great. The meat definitely didn't need the sauce that came with the plate, but it was a very good sauce. 
We decided to split the smoked banana pudding that we saw on the menu because, well, it was smoked banana pudding and we like to punish ourselves. Unfortunately, the dessert missed the mark. None of us tasted much smoke, and it did not wow anyone at the table. It was not a bad dessert, but the meat plate had set such a high standard. All in all, we walked away extremely content with this stop. LeRoy is a very talented pitmaster, and Freedmen's is lucky to have him. I'd love to see what he could do with a more controlled cooking environment.

Left: Stiles Switch storefront; Right: Fatty brisket and turkey (apologies on the lighting)

We had one more stop to make before we headed home, to one of the few reputable places around Austin serving dinner barbecue. We pulled into Stiles Switch already full and still buzzing from our Freedmen's meal. We decided to only order fatty brisket and turkey for this visit. Well, that and a round of beers of course, since it is BBQ and Brew. Unfortunately the brisket slices we ordered were uneven. I think this could have been from too much fat trimming on one side of the brisket. The fattier side of the slice was decently moist while the other side was dry to the point of crumbling. It was also fairly lacking in flavor. While I would like to forgive this as a "late in the day" mistake, I feel if you're going to be open for a dinner service you then have an obligation to your patrons to serve the same quality in your menu at 6 PM as you would at 11 AM. The turkey was a bit better than the brisket, decently moist with a nice rub. Stiles Switch has a good reputation from a number of credible sources, and I hope this was just a bad day. I think we'll all be back eventually to try again.

All-in-all, this was a very successful barbecue trip. Whether you're a barbecue hound like we are, have a genuine interest, or just want a fun food adventure, I highly recommend planning your own tour. Sure, standing in line at a Franklin or Killen's or Corkscrew is great, but hitting some of the less celebrated, less crowded places can lead to some wonderful discoveries. There's not a better way to spend a Saturday in Texas than with great food and conversation with good people . A huge thank you to Bryan and Scott for letting me talk them into such a long and winding trek through the backroads of the Lone Star State. I can't wait to do it again!


Stiles Switch BBQ said...

Ahh the last stop on a 400 mile bbq tour is always a great place to land. After busting our ass to serve over 1000 customers, it is great to have three guys who our so full come in at 8:30 to be our final judge. Even though our manager came to your table and your response was we love this place, the "I hope this was a bad day" comment makes it all better.

PS, I tell my wife I am glad I met her on the third round of speed dating versus the fifth. Thank goodness I was less celebrated or she might have never been so lucky

Shane Stiles

Shane Stiles said...

" are so full"

Houston Fed said...

You may be confusing us with another group. We were in around 6-6:30, not 8:30 and we definitely did not tell anyone that "we loved this place." Just offering my honest opinion of the food we were served. Definitely possible we got served a few slices that weren't as good as your normal offerings.

Truman Jensen said...

Stiles I wouldn't worry too much, they are from Houston, you can't really take anything they write about bbq as serious...

Keep up the good work. Notorious R.I.B for the win.

Houston Fed said...

First, I have eaten BBQ all over the state, not just Houston. Second, there is some excellent barbecue in and around Houston. I highly recommend you try it sometime, though judging by your BBQ Blog it may not be your cup of tea. Most Houston joints don't inject.

DoRag said...

Great article about your experiences! We are planning a Texas Tour in January 2016. Just did a Memphis BBQ Crawl back in February. We hit 7 in 40 hours. Lots of fun with our group as small as 5 & as large as 20! Only 3 made all 7 stops.

Houston Fed said...

Wow, sounds like your group knows how to do it right! If you need any Texas touring tips or recommendations I'll be happy to help.

Anonymous said...

My personal opinion is that if a restaurant is to stay open as late as 8:30 pm or whenever they choose to close, they should be able to stand behind the quality of their fare until the last plate is served, regardless of how many customers they "busted their ass" serving. After all, operation hours are a business owner's perogative. Also, deriding a client and telling them what they should have thought of a certain product is something I would personally never do as a business owner, no matter the size and throughput of my operation.

Houston Fed said...

I whole-heartedly agree with you that food quality should be consistent for a business' entire hours of operation. Shane did not tell me what I should have thought of his product, but clearly felt my opinion of his food was unfair. If/when I return to Stiles Switch, I'll be sure to make it one of my first stops. As I told Shane, he may have confused us for another group that came in as the conversation he's recalling us having with a manager never happened.