Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tips for Texas barbecue road-tripping

This weekend marked another barbecue road trip for Scott, Bryan, and me. We went to Schulenburg City Market, Prause Meat Market, Zimmerhanzel's, Pieous, Schmidt Family Barbecue, It's All Good BBQ, Opie's Barbecue, Highway 29 BBQ, Brown's Bar-B-Que, and Terry Black's Barbecue on a whirlwind ten stop tour. A big thank you to all of these places for their food and hospitality on this crazy trip. I recommend going to Scott and Bryan's sites for more thorough details on all of our stops. I thought for this post I would focus on some suggestions for planning your own road trip. This was our group's third tour together (read about others here and here) so we've started to get a good feel for how to plan trips we all enjoy.

Our final stop, Terry Black's in Austin, provided good barbecue.

1. Know the group

An easy mistake to make when planning a barbecue outing is not knowing one's road trip companions. Are you venturing out with a bunch of like-minded barbecue hounds, a group of novices eager to learn more, or casual eaters just looking for a fun Saturday on Texas roadways? This is key to planning the right day for the group. I once made the mistake of taking my wife, a casual at best barbecue eater, to four joints in 24 hours. To some that is overkill, while for others a good weekend. Taking the appetites of your group into account while planning helps ensure everyone has an enjoyable time.

Schulenburg City Market (left); Prause Meat Market (center); Courthouse in La Grange (right)

2. What type of trip do you want?

Decide what the objective is for the day. If the goal is simply to try the best barbecue in a particular region of Texas, you should plan accordingly. Many of the upper-tier joints in the state come with their own set of challenges. The infamous line at Franklin Barbecue for example, while a unique experience, severely limits a group's ability to sample multiple places.

Does the group want to tour old Texas towns and their barbecue histories? Cities like Lockhart and Luling as well as some of the meat markets in Central Texas provide great opportunities to see some picturesque small towns and meet some of the long-time pitmasters, owners, and employees. These people are walking, talking history lessons on Texas barbecue. On our most recent trip we met a gentleman working at a city meat market who had worked at the legendary Smitty's in Lockhart during the years of the family dispute that created the Smitty's/Kreuz Market split. That is a man with some stories to tell, to be sure.

3. Plan your route

Now that the group has decided what type of trip it will be, the route should be researched and mapped out. Don't limit stops to just the cities you've heard of. There are so many small towns that might be passed along the way, many of which may provide less heralded barbecue options that can fit into the itinerary. Keep an eye on the timing of things as many places sell out by mid-afternoon, and barbecue in general is best sampled within the first few hours of a joint's opening time. Texas Monthly's barbecue website is always a great resource to find good stops all over the state, but simple google searches of the towns along the route can also yield some good results.

From Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave, our standard order plus the tip 4A mistake.

4. Decide on a menu and stick to it!

A mistake our road trip trio made on a previous trip was over-indulgence. It's easy to do when traveling to great barbecue places. The problem with that is halfway through the tour, we all needed a rest. On our most recent ten stop tour, we stuck to a pretty rigid order of a couple of brisket slices, one pork rib which we'd cut three ways, and one sausage link. If a particular joint did not smoke a quality sausage (preferably house-made), we'd skip that to save stomach space. Some exceptions are made if a place is particularly known for a certain protein, side or dessert, but for the most part keeping to a standard order helps prevent over-eating. It's also easier on the wallet to stick to a sampling menu of course, and it's surprising how affordable a venture like this can be. On the majority of our stops, orders averaged less than five dollars per person. Eating small-town barbecue also helps with cost, since their prices tend to be much lower than major cities due to a number of factors.

Bonus Tip 4A: Be careful when ordering. If a place allows customers to order by the slice, find out how large their slices are before placing an order. We recently placed a three slice order that came out to over a pound in total weight! This is where having sandwich bags and a cooler in the car come in handy.

Unique stone pit at Highway 29 BBQ in Bertram.

5. Get to know the pitmasters

Because of the explosion of Texas barbecue the last few years, some people think of pitmasters as celebrities. With the exception of the very rare cases, most of them are just hard working people who care deeply about their craft and do not live any sort of lap of luxury lifestyle. Barbecue is a daily grind for most of the people involved in making it. In my experience, most pitmasters are extremely gracious folks who appreciate when customers take an interest in their work. This is not to say that everyone wants to be giving pit tours to every customer who walks in, but I've found that most are receptive to minor inquiries about their product and smokers. Some will chat your ear off if they have time, while others will give a quick hello. As an avid consumer of barbecue, it helps give a full picture of the meal when I learn some of the story of how it got to the plate. On a recent trip, our group heard stories of how and where some places source their products and learned that one place had to stop using one of their smokers due to north winds creating too much smoke in the dining area. Another place had to dam up an area during heavy rains due to the slope of the floor in their smokehouse causing water to enter the firebox. Glamorous work this is not!

6. Break up the day

One thing that will help from barbecue overload is to find a stop or excursion to break up the trip along the way. We had one non-barbecue stop on our last trip, sampling some great pastrami at Pieous in between barbecue places. We've also talked about a brewery tour during our next trip. Things like this help the group reenergize before taking on more smoked meat.

7. Explore your own area!

While road trips are fun for a multitude of reasons, don't forget to explore your home city too. I've had many great days around Houston just exploring my own food scene, barbecue and otherwise. In most cities the restaurants depend on local traffic for much of their revenue, so supporting them is crucial. If you're a Houstonian like me, you'll know that as spread out as our city and the surrounding areas are, you can make a road trip out of just going around town. Another great option for barbecue lovers in Houston is the upcoming Houston Barbecue Festival on Sunday, April 26th. With over 20 barbecue joints in one place, it's a great way to sample some of the best of what Houston has to offer.

Don't let the sold out sign get you down- add it to the next tour.

8. Have fun

This sounds obvious, but if this starts feeling like a chore, it eliminates the purpose of doing it in the first place. Everyone got in the car for an entertaining day of friendship, food, and leisure. While it is important to have a plan, don't feel like it must be stuck to rigidly. Our group has lingered at places for longer than we planned, so we just tried to adjust accordingly at the next stop. Or, if you reach one of your destinations too late in the day and run into the dreaded "sold out" sign - which has happened to us more than once - it's not the end of the world. There are plenty of plan B stops you can make or just plan to visit that stop on your next trip.

Much like the cooking of barbecue, there's no exact science to a successful road trip. Find out what works for you and what doesn't. As long as you're having fun driving down those beautiful Texas country roads with a group of friends, the aroma of barbecue smoke permeating the vehicle, it's a good day.

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