Big Bend is Better Than Ever
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Laurence Parent
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here’s the latest scoop on how to drive the back roads, run the Rio Grande, and discover secret hikes you won’t find on the map, plus other ways to get the most out of your trip to Texas’ greatest treasure.
DEEP IN A FAR SOUTHWESTERN corner of Texas, where the wild things outnumber the people and the Rio Grande makes a grand detour around exquisitely rugged terrain, lies Big Bend National Park. Encompassing more than 800,000 acres–1,250 square miles–of desert and mountains, the spread is so remote, surreal, and sprawling that the eye loses perspective: Is that mountain in front of you two miles away or twenty? Established in 1944 by Congress, the park may appear to be a vast wasteland to a first-time visitor. But more life flourishes here than you can imagine: 75 species of mammals, including black bear, 67 species of amphibians and reptiles, more than 450 species of birds, and at least 1,200 identified species of plants, a list that is still being expanded. And just about every one of these living things can either stick, sting, or bite you.
Isolation is one of Big Bend’s greatest appeals. Leave your cell phone behind; it won’t work here unless you climb to the top of Emory Peak, elevation 7,825 feet–and the last 25 involve scrambling up an extremely steep slope. Walk into the desert a few hundred feet and you will find yourself wrapped in solitude and silence. Big Bend is still the Wild West, the place where you will discover just how big Texas can be.
Big Bend is our park. About two thirds of the 330,000 visitors each year are Texans. The number ought to be higher: Every Texan should go to Big Bend at least once as an essential step to achieving total Texanhood. The park is so big, however, that–whether you are a newcomer or a veteran–you will have a lot of questions about what to see and do. Fortunately, I know the answers.
How does Big Bend compare with the best national parks? It ranks alongside Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon as one of this nation’s great wildernesses, with scenery that no other national park can match-a vast swath of Chihuahuan Desert; its own mountain range, the Chisos; forests of pine, oak, maple, and fir; a river that has carved out three sheer canyons more than a thousand feet deep; colorful badlands; an even more colorful history, featuring banditos, murders, military maneuvers, ranching, and mining; and in international border that you can cross without going through checkpoints.
I’ve never been to Big Bend. What can I see in a weekend? A long weekend, I hope. You can get a feel for the place in two days. Just stick to the pavement and a couple of improved dirt roads. Plan to spend one day on the east side of the park and the other on the west side. Paved roads lead from the park headquarters at Panther Junction around the Chisos and down to the Rio Grande on both sides of the park. Of the two routes into the park, one from the north via Persimmon Gap and the other from the west via the settlement of Study (pronounced “Stoo-dee”) Butte, the northern route is shorter and better, with good roadside interpretive exhibits about the desert.
The tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks at Ernst Tinaja. Photograph by Laurence Parent
Begin your exploration of the park by taking the Dagger Flat Auto Trail, a seven-mile drive over a dirt road that is suitable for a sedan. Pick up a pamphlet for 50 cents from a metal stand on the side of the road and watch for the nineteen numbered signs that explain the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert–ubiquitous creosote bushes, ground-hugging lechuguilla, and as the elevation gradually increases, sharp-toothed sotol. As you approach the mountains, the road swings northward behind a ridgeline, and you enter a forest of giant dagger yuccas, many of which stand seven to eight feet tall.
The visitors center at Panther Junction is situated against the north face of the Chisos. Inside, a giant relief map of the park will give you a sense of the topography and the road network. Outside, a short walking path identifies a number of desert plants.
Continue down the east side of the park until you reach the spur to Dugout Wells, once the site of the schoolhouse for the ranching families who lived here. An easy high-desert hike, about half a mile round-trip, winds through desert scrub to an oasis. As you resume your drive, the elevation drops on the way to the Rio Grande, and the desert loses its lushness. The ruins of Hot Springs Resort, built by a dreamer named J. 0. Langford in 1910, are at the end of a two-mile dirt road, and a quarter-mile hike leads to the springs themselves. Sit on the foundation of the bathhouse and enjoy the healing waters. Pictographs painted in red on the low-hanging rock along the path are testament to previous Indian occupation of the springs.
Past Rio Grande Village, a popular campground with a store where you can get snacks, prefab sandwiches, and drinks, the road ends at a parking area for Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande. Here you can hike into the canyon along a trail about three quarters of a mile long that climbs and descends a hill. Now it’s time to retrace your route to Panther Junction and head west to the Chisos Basin. The turnoff, three miles west of the park headquarters, heads U I) Green Gulch through open Chihuahuan Desert to an elevation of 5,679 feet before dropping a couple of hundred feet into the basin. This sheltered area is the most scenic spot in the park that is reachable byroad, an elevated grassland plain ringed by the peaks of the Chisos on all sides, rising 2,000 feet above the basin. To the west opens a giant V-shaped gash in the mountains called the Window, a drainage for storm runoff from the basin.
Take the Window View Trail, which is level, paved, and short (one third of a mile) to appreciate the grandeur surrounding you. The most noticeable features are flat-topped Casa Grande, elevation 7,325 feet, and the rock spires of Pulliam Ridge. These are remnants of magma that penetrated through volcanic strata eons ago. When the less resistant rock eroded, the spires were left. The basin has the only lodging and restaurant facilities in the park-both at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, a no-frills motel. Next to the lodge is a well-stocked store, a good place to get groceries, film, flashlights, and first-aid sundries. The lodge is usually booked well in advance for the spring but is available in summer and after New Year’s.
For day two, head west on the main park road to Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, a thirty-mile paved road that winds down to Santa Elena Canyon. Unlike the east side of the park, where the formations are largely limestone, the west side of the park is wilder and strewn with surprises-reflective of volcanic activity that tossed around rocks and boulders millions of years ago. The road climbs and drops as it passes by strange formations like Mule Ears Peak and butte-topped Cerro Castellan. Highlights worth pulling over for include the ruins of the Sam Nail Ranch, once the home of an exceptionally wise steward who eked out a decent living off the land without ruining it; Tuff Canyon, where white globules of extruded lava compose one bizarre scenario; and Castolon, in the shadows of the Sierra Ponce in Mexico, where a former military barracks has been refashioned into a convenience store.
The Chisos Mountains, viewed from Lost Mine Trail at first light. Photograph by Laurence Parent
From here the road parallels the river upstream for eight miles to Santa Elena Canyon. Don’t miss the three-quarters-of-a-mile-long trail into the canyon; if you take only one hike in Big Bend, this is it. You will have to cross Terlingua Creek, which could be dry, sandy, muddy, or wet, so come prepared with old walking shoes. The stunning beauty of sheer 1,500-foot walls hovering above the Rio Grande is as dramatic and ,grandiose a vista as you’ll encounter at close range in the American West. Head out of Santa Elena on Old Maverick Road, a thirteen-mile improved dirt route through eroded badlands that is a shortcut to the park’s western entrance and Study Butte. Ordinary passenger cars should have no difficulty here. Hightail it to the Terlingua ghost town, seven miles west of Study Butte, and participate in one of the Big Bend’s great social events-sitting on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, shooting the breeze, and sipping a cool one while watching the setting sun bathe the Chisos Mountains in ever-changing shades of golden light.
If I want to see the backcountry, do I need an SW with four-wheel drive? Most of the 157 miles of unpaved roads inside the park can be driven in a high-clearance vehicle without four-wheel drive. Some back roads are suitable for a carefully driven passenger car. Four-wheel drive is likely to be necessary only after a major rain. Road conditions are posted at the park visitors centers; it pays to read them before heading off the pavement. If you have any doubt, ask a ranger. And make sure you’re carrying plenty of water and a fully inflated spare tire. Just remember, if anything goes wrong, you will be marooned in the desert, separated from the nearest heavily traveled road by miles of unfamiliar and dangerous terrain, and your cell phone is useless.
The three most popular back roads in the park are the Glenn Spring and Old Ore roads, on the east side of the park, and River Road, on the south side. River Road is the longest, most remote drive in the park, stretching east to west for 51 miles, from near Hot Springs to near Castolon. This all-day drive is filled with side routes and historic sites such as the works of the former Mariscal mercury mine. A little bit of everything passes for a roadbed–fine sand, rough gravel, packed dirt, hardened mud, pure bedrock–but despite several bumpy stretches, I never had to engage the four-wheel drive on my last trip. River Road is best enjoyed driving west to east to catch the play of sunlight on the banded limestone face of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico in the afternoon and soak your feet in the Hot Springs at the end of a long day’s journey.
Glenn Spring Road is much shorter (around ten miles) and easier than River Road. It leaves the pavement on the eastern side of the Chisos and heads west and south to the site of a candelilla wax factory and settlement that was raided by Mexican banditos in 1916, leaving four Americans dead. A scattering of lumber from an old corral is about all that’s left of Glenn Spring. The other attraction of Glenn Spring Road is the Pine Canyon spur, a six-mile route out of the desert into the more thickly vegetated lower slopes of the Chisos. Look back and see just how high you’ve climbed. Then you can hike the steep two-mile trail up the canyon, where you will find Arizona pine and bigtooth maple before ending at the bottom of a seasonal waterfall that is one of the more sublime places in the park.
Old Ore Road, a historic route once used to haul quicksilver from the river to Marathon, stretches for 26 miles on the eastern side of the park between the Dagger Flat road and Rio Grande Village. The northern part of the loose-gravel track is flatter and straighter, the southern half considerably rougher with more climbs, drops, twists, and turns. If you’re going to attempt to drive the entire road, budget at least four hours, including stops. Or you can enter from the south and drive five miles to the campsite number one spur road leading to Ernst Tinaja, one of the most photographed sites in Big Bend. A tilted, scalloped swirl of rocks carved out of a canyon by periodic flooding, with a water hole at the bottom, the tinaja is a half-mile walk from the parking area along a dry wash.
Can I get on the Rio Grande? There’s no better way to appreciate Big Bend than to traverse its three great canyons. Unfortunately, the Rio Grande is suffering from a 25-year decline because of demand for its water upstream in Texas, so it’s adios to those fancy guided raft trips with gourmet chefs and string quartets. Accomplished paddlers can still do the canyons in canoes or kayaks. The current is so close to nonexistent that outfitters are recommending that paddlers start at the east end of Santa Elena Canyon and go upstream three miles to Fern Canyon before turning back, a trip that can still take a good half a day or longer, with some dragging required in shallow spots. But by hooking up with Jack Kinslow–like me, an advanced paddler, who I met in Terlingua–I was able to do the entire nineteen-mile run through Santa Elena Canyon over the course of a long day. Despite encountering a few stretches where we had to drag our canoe, the most stunning, jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever laid eyes on in Texas made it worthwhile. Next time, I’ll paddle the first ten miles from the put-in at Lajitas to the canyon entrance, then camp overnight before finishing the rest of the trip. You haven’t seen Big Bend until you’ve paddled Santa Elena.
Seldom-seen Cattail Falls, near Oak Creek Springs.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
It’s a shorter ten-mile paddle through Mariscal, the least visited of the park’s three canyons. But the logistics are considerably trickier, since the put-in at the Talley campground and the take-out at the Solis campground are two hours or more from the nearest pavement via River Road. I managed to run Mariscal in a single day by hiring a shuttle and a guide, but the wiser (though more expensive) approach is to camp out at Talley overnight. The guide tipped me onto the Hippie Hermit Cave at the end of Tight Squeeze rapid, a point of interest marked by a peace sign etched into a boulder on the Mexican side. We hiked up the canyon slope, rummaged around, and found a rock shelter that had once been occupied by “Yogan from Broken Knife, Texas.” Boquillas Canyon has enough water to float, its flow recharged by the hot springs around the Mexican village of Boquillas. But even strong paddlers will have a tough time doing the winding 33-mile course in two full days.
How do I get to Mexico, and what can I do there? Two villages are across from main areas of the park–Boquillas del Carmen, on the east side, and Santa Elena, on the west side. To go to Boquillas del Carmen, look for the turnoff after the tunnel on the paved road to Boquillas Canyon, park your car, walk a hundred yards down a path to the river, and pay the man in the battered little aluminum rowboat $2 a person for a roundtrip ferry ride to another country. It’s about a mile walk into the village of 125 inhabitants, though for a few dollars more, you can ride a burro or hitch a ride in the back of a pickup into town. The only cafe is Falcon’s, where a buck buys either three bean burritos or three cheese taquitos, which you can wash down with cold soda or beer. A curio shop is next door, a cantina a little farther down the dusty path, and the Buzzard’s Roost bed-and-breakfast, celebrated in Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon,” at the end of the road. Boquillas has no electricity or phone service, but it does have the quaintness of a spaghetti western movie set. A hot springs is on the Mexico side less than a mile upstream from the crossing. Boquillas is the only restaurant option on the east side of the park. Otherwise, order box lunches at the Chisos Mountains Lodge restaurant the previous night or see what’s available at the convenience store at Rio Grande Village.
West of Castolon, a sign on the road to Santa Elena Canyon marks the turnoff to the Mexican village of Santa Elena. Once again, park your car and look for a man in a battered boat. He will row you across for $2 a person round-trip. The community of 250 on the opposite bank lacks the quaintness of Boquillas but compensates with amenities such as electricity, a paved sidewalk on one side of the main dirt road, a small museum inside the local primary school, and a concrete plaza of which Soviet architects would have been proud. You have your choice of three cafes, each with a more extensive menu than was offered in Boquillas, with entrees priced around $5 a plate. The green-chile enchiladas at El Ca–on were as good as it gets on either side of the river. The fare at Maria Elena’s, down the street, has more fire because she uses jalape–os instead of the milder chiles verdes. Horses on the Mexican side can be rented at the river crossing for $5 to $30 an hour, depending on what the market will bear. Like Boquillas, Santa Elena lacks telephones, medical facilities, and a border checkpoint.
I’ve driven all over the park on my previous trips, and I’ve done all the short walks. What are the best hikes for someone who doesn’t jog or work out at the gym every day? If you’re unsure of your capability, start in the Chisos Basin. It’s cooler because of the higher elevation and the trails are relatively flat. Two good trails are the 1.6-mile Basin Loop, which climbs around 350 feet-enough for a splendid view through the Window to the desert far below-before returning to the basin, or the 5.2-mile Window Trail. This is a great sunset hike, and you can shave off more than a mile of the distance and around half of the eight-hundred-foot drop in elevation by starting at the campground rather than by the lodge.
For a more substantial test, try the popular Lost Mine Trail, which begins at mile mark 5 on the basin road at 5,679 feet. Chances are you won’t find the legendary silver mine that gives the trail its name, but if you do the two-mile roundtrip up to the first saddle, you will discover the most accessible high-country vista in Big Bend. If you’re up for more, continue for 1.4 more miles along a ridgeline passing by Texas madrone, gnarly oaks, and pi–on pines en route to a promontory at 6,850 feet. From trail’s end you can see Pine Canyon, Juniper Canyon, and the East Rim of the Chisos. (Warning: The eastern side of the upper Chisos complex, including Casa Grande, the upper part of the Lost Mine Trail, and the Southeast Rim, is now closed and will not reopen to hikers until mid-July, after the nesting season for the rare peregrine falcons who reside here in summer months.)
Chisos Mountains on the western edge of the basin.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
The desert offers two easy walking hikes. One is a mile round-trip through flat, brushy terrain from a parking area to the Burro Mesa Pouroff This is a good introduction to how empty and isolated the desert is. Another is the Grapevine Hills trail, reachable by the unpaved Grapevine Hills Road. The 2.2-mile walk through a valley full of granite boulders follows a sandy wash, then climbs slightly to a pass. The payoff, about a hunched yards ahead, is a balanced-rock formation that seems to defy the laws of physics.
Hiking is the ideal way to see Big Bend, but it is also the best way to understand how dangerous Big Bend can be. People die here. Always carry plenty of water and wear hats and clothing that offer protection from the sun, especially when hiking on the desert. Hiking in the high country carries its own set of risks. Signs warning about black bears and mountain lions, both of which occupy the high country, should be taken seriously. Three years ago a woman and her three young girls were stalked by a mountain lion for about fifteen minutes near the waterfall in Pine Canyon. Talk to a ranger before attempting a hike that you think may test your capabilities or your knowledge of how to deal with life-threatening situations.
I’ve been to Big Bend many times, and I’ve already done everything you have suggested. Isn’t there something more? The South Rim of the Chisos, at the lip of a 2,500-foot drop to the desert floor, has the best view in Texas: a panorama of the entire Big Bend where the eye can easily follow the Rio Grande emerging from Santa Elena Canyon, going through Mariscal Canyon, and on to Boquillas Canyon, where it disappears. This strenuous day hike is at least thirteen miles byway of Laguna Meadow, longer if you choose to return byway of other high Chisos trails, such as Boot Canyon and Pinnacles.
You say you’ve done that too? Okay, try the Mariscal Canyon Rim hike. It’s 6.6 miles round-trip from the road to the Talley campsites, with a steep last mile or so before you reach the overlooks for the canyon. This hike is closed during peregrine falcon nesting season and inadvisable for the rest of the summer because there is no shade. Watch out for crumbling rock near the rim.
A little-known trek to Mesa de Anguila, in the westernmost corner of the park near Lajitas, will reward you with a view into the start of Santa Elena Canyon. This vaguely marked fourteen-mile round-trip hike passes through rough open country with a network of trails and is not for inexperienced hikers. Check in at the front desk of the Lajitas resort for a free shuttle through the golf course to the trailhead-and make sure you’re packing plenty of water.
Any hike in the Dead Horse Mountains will put you to the test. All are far from roads and without water. Park literature warns that you need a good working knowledge of a map and a compass and that trails “disappear, reappear, cross other trails, and wind along washes and through mazes of thick, thorny growth.” The Strawhouse Trail leaves the Boquillas Canyon road and follows a drainage basin for fourteen miles before joining the trail to Telephone Canyon, named for a telephone line built by Army engineers during the Mexican Revolution because of the threat of raids by Pancho Villa.
I haven’t attempted to explore the Dead Horse Mountains, nor have I tried Mesa de Anguila, but I am inspired by the route designed by Craig Pedersen, the executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, who has walked across the entire park. The 95-mile stroll from Adams Ranch, just east of the park, through Telephone Canyon and the Dead Horse Mountains, all the way to Lajitas, took five and a half days and required carrying a seventy-pound backpack and fourteen topographic maps. Food and water supplies had to be stashed in advance in three locations. Still, Pedersen calls it “the best walk of my life.”
Another ambition of mine is to float all three canyons inside the park in a single trip-which can be done in about a week-though the flat stretches between the canyons offer no respite from the sun or the heat during warmer months. Every winter, a handful of advanced river runners attempt the two-hundred-plus miles from Colorado Canyon, west of the park, to the take-out on the Lower Canyons run well east of the park near Dryden. It’s one of the longest, least encumbered-by-civilization river trips in the entire United States.
I’m also looking forward to attempting the big three-day, two-night Three-In-One adventure that Desert Sports concocted for some clients, beginning by hiking from the basin up to the South Rim to camp out the first night, then down to the desert via Juniper Canyon on the second day, where a “sag wagon” awaits with mountain bikes. We will ride down Glenn Spring, Black Gap, and River roads to camp by the river at Talley before paddling canoes through Mariscal Canyon.
The Giant yuccas at Dagger Flat.
Photograph by Laurence Parent
Black Gap Road itself is an adventure that few attempt. It connects Glenn Spring to River Road over an ill-defined, rocky eight-and-a-half-mile track that is the only official back road in the park that is not maintained. Another lightly traveled back road is the forty-mile drive at the north end of the park near Persimmon Gap that winds west along the base of the Rosillos Mountains into Terlingua Ranch and, eventually, Texas Highway 118 north of Study Butte.
I’ve heard that there are secret places that park personnel don’t want you to know about. Is it true?
It’s true. They’re off the map because they’re so fragile that too many visitors would ruin them. Ask around. Locals and parkies (park employees) know many prime spots not mentioned in the guidebooks (did someone say Cattail Falls?) but generally don’t spill to outsiders. A parkie told me about Indian Head Springs, a little-hyped destination reached by taking the dirt road behind the Big Bend Motor Inn in Study Butte for a couple of miles to a parking area that is outside the park boundary. A trail leads past the boundary fence to a field of boulders strewn about the base of a mountain that have more Indian pictographs than any other site in the park. One veteran allowed that one of his favorite hikes is from the basin to the Window, then down a winding, precarious one-thousand-foot vertical descent to Oak Creek Springs and back up again. An easier way to get to see the springs is to take the unmarked dirt road opposite the turnoff to Sam Nail Ranch on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, then hike a level mile to the springs. Step gingerly, though. This is an extremely sensitive ecosystem.
You could also study topo maps and et your own course. Wherever there are springs, something interesting will be nearby. Big Bend is all about discovery. It took me more trips than I could count before I finally “got” Elephant Tusk, understood why the Rosillos are called the Rosillos, and located the landmark known informally as the Tired Backpacker. I’ve been coming to Big Bend ever since I was a kid, and every single trip I learn something new. There are not too many places left in this world where you can do that.
- Texas Mountains
University of Texas Press
In this book, Laurence Parent and Joe Nick Patoski join forces to offer breathtaking views of the Texas mountains. With magnificent images and words, they take us on a journey not only through the familiar Guadalupe, Davis, and Chisos mountains, but also through lesser-known ranges with evocative names such as Sierra Diablo, Eagle, Chinati, Beach, and Christmas. Buy Now from UT PRESS
FROM TOP: A custom pair made by Rocketbuster Boots in El Paso; a bootmaker works on a top at Arditti Footwear; a vamp is fitted around a last at Arditti. Photography by Wyatt McSpadden.
25 Top Custom Bootmakers
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
James Leddy Boots
1602 N. Treadaway Boulevard
The nephew of boot king M. L. Leddy is now royalty himself, and he runs a real family business: He does the cutting, his wife and daughter do the stitching, his son-in-law does bottoms, and his former daughter-in-law creates the prettiest inlays anywhere. Specializes in: Flowery tops, old-fashioned crimped vamps, zipper tops, sharp pointed toes. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singers Buck Owens, George Jones, and Johnny Bush; U.S. representative Charles Stenholm.
Bell Custom Boots
2118 N. Treadaway Boulevard
The gregarious Alan Bell understudied with Tex Robin in Coleman (see below) before going solo. Twenty-five years later, his is one of the state’s busiest husband-and-wife operations (Pauline Bell does the top stitching). Specializes in: Versatility (his leather ranges from tough and rugged to soft and supple) and signature stitching outside and inside the vamp. Prices start at: $625. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Race car driver Kyle Petty; cowboys from the 6666, the Pitchfork, and other mega-ranches.
Western Leather Craft Boot
1950 Civic Circle
Four generations of the Ross family have been making fine working and dress boots since 1914. Specializes in: Work boots, art boots, wing tips, and flower inlays. Prices start at: $575. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Singing cowboy Gene Autry.
2222 College Avenue
Lee Miller apprenticed under the late, great Charlie Dunn and took over the business when Dunn retired. Specializes in: Flashy designs, such as wild flames decorating the tops and trademark Charlie Dunn pinched rose overlays. Prices start at: $1,000. Turnaround time: Three years for new customers (they’re not taking any right now), thirteen months for old ones. Has made boots for: Country singer Lyle Lovett, rock singer Sting, actor Slim Pickens, golfer Arnold Palmer.
Tex Robin Custom Handmade Boots
115 W. Eighth
Robin’s father, also called Tex, opened his doors in 1944 and passed his talent and commitment to high quality on to his son, who has now run the one-man shop for thirty years. Specializes in: Artistic tops with eclectic stitching (e.g., prickly pear cactus spines), brilliant coloring, and trademark butterflies and eagles. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: One year. Has made boots for: Governor Rick Perry, gambler Benny Binion.
2080 County Road 304
Since learning the trade from the late Dan Trujillio, another Comanche legend, Eddie Kimmel has built up one of the most productive small shops in Texas. Specializes in: Old-style boots that are a little stouter and have a heavier inner sole, which means they last longer. Prices start at: $550. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Actresses Sandra Bullock and Priscilla Presley; movie producer Lynda Obst.
115 S. Anthony
Their boot designs are part flash and part kitsch, so it’s no surprise that the showroom in which Nevena Christi and Marty Snortum greet their customersby appointment onlyresembles Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Specializes in: The wildest tops in the business, from Hot Rod Devil and Custom Car Angel logos to fiery chiles and the Virgin of the Guadalupe. Prices start at: $750 (take $40 off any order if you trade a childhood cowboy photo). Turnaround time: Twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Actors Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, and Bruce Willis; actress Sharon Stone; director Steven Spielberg; talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
421 S. Cotton
Co-owners Scott Emmerich and Jerry black (the third outlaw "we hung," says Emmerich) supply boots to high-end retailers, including Emmerich’s Falconhead in the tony Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Specializes in: Elaborate designs, exotic leathers, handstitching as wide as 25 rows, braided kangaroo-skin piping, and silver inlays built into the boot. Prices start at: $595. Turnaround Time: Four to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Actresses Brooke Shields, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Renee Zellweger; rock singer Sheryl Crow; uberagent Mike Ovitz.
The Stallion Boot and Belt Company
100 N. Cotton
Longtime boot collector Pedro Mu–oz, Jr., made a killing off of the Urban Cowboy craze. Twenty years later, he still designs boots for sale via trunk shows and couture retailers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Christian Dior. Specializes in: Replicas of classic boots emphasizing starbursts and flame stitching, as well as buck stitching and lacing. Claims to be the only bootmaker using fossilized walrus and woolly mammoth ivory. Prices start at: $500. Turnaround time: Six to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rock singers Madonna, Robert Plant, and Bob Dylan; actress Ashley Judd; actor Tom Cruise.
Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footware
910 Texas Avenue
A twelve-year veteran of the leather biz at age 31, Thomas Yves Arditti produces high-end designs for boots made of alligator and other exotic leathers. Specializes in: High-quality leather inside and outside the boot and signature sterling-silver logo built into the heel. PRICES START T: $550. Turnaround time: One to two months. Has made boots for: Actor Jack Nicholson, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
8616 Quebec Drive 817-367-7976 Formerly a bull rider, Allen designed chaps before shifting his focus to boots. Specializes in: Detailed tooling and a trademark lightning bolt. Prices start at: $650. Turnaround time: Eight to ten months. Has made boots for: The cutting-horse crowd.
Wheeler Boot Company
Dave Wheeler has been working at his father’s shop since he was twelve; forty years later he continues the family tradition by working alongside his wife and his mother. Specializes in: Colorful, elaborately designed boots-as-art Prices start at: $825. Turnaround time: Eleven months. Has made boots for: Vice President Dick Cheney, actor Robert Duvall, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin.
Maida’s Blackjack Boot Company
3948 Westheimer Boulevard
First-generation Italian bootmaker Sal Maida, Sr., served Houstonians for years; since 1977 that task has fallen to his son, Sal Junior, and bootmaker Richard Salazar. Specializes in: Upscale boots suitable for cowboy balls. Prices start at: $695. Turnaround time: Ten to twelve weeks. Has made boots for: Rockers ZZ Top, actor Ben Johnson.
R.J.’S Boot Company
3321 Ella Boulevard
A bootmaker to the power elite, Rocky Carroll is a worthy successor to his dad, who started the business in 1938. He is backed by independent contractors, including 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, maybe the state’s finest craftsman, who works semi-exclusively for him out of a garage in Mercedes. Specializes in: Conservative, upscale boots with artistic tops, such as corporate logos, and lots of gold and silver. Prices start at: $295. Turnaround time: Two weeks. Has made boots for: Both President Bushes, Governor Rick Perry, country singer Dolly Parton.
Jazz Boot Shop
803 E. Avenue G
Pablo Jass worked for twelve years alongside the late Ray Jones, also of Lampasas. He still turns out tougher-than-hell real cowboy boots made for working on the range. Specializes in: Jones’s box toe, white piping, and stiff tops, and electric topstitching done by his wife, Juanita. Prices start at: $600. Turnaround time: Six months to one year. Has made boots for: Author and boot aficionado Tyler Beard.
Cavazos Boot Factory
Vicente Cavazos, an unsung elder of the bootmaking biz, does the whole boot himself, from fit to finish, excelling in artistic stitching, inlays, and overlays. Specializes in: Imaginative top designs, including roses and a Corpus Christi cityscape, and stylish ostrich wing tips. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Four to five weeks. Has made boots for: Former president Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, actor Tommy Lee Jones.
Camargo’s Handmade Boots
710 U.S. 83
Henry Camargo considers himself an artist and lets his imagination fly, producing an assortment of unconventional designs on exotic skins with free-form stitching. Specializes in: Tops with 55 Chevy convertibles, ’66 Corvettes, Harleys, Ford pickups, speedboats, Dallas Cowboys helmets, and Lone Star beer logos. Prices start at: $225. Turnaround time: Three to five weeks. Has made boots for: Country singer Willie Nelson, actor Patrick Duffy.
Stephanie Ferguson Custom Boots
2112 Poe Prairie
The Ohio native-the only female bootmaker in Texas going it alone-understudied at Jack Reed’s place in Burnet, where she developed a flair for flamboyant colors and overlays. Specializes in: Tops with three-dimensional hummingbirds, coconuts, flamingos, parrots, and morning glories. Prices start at: $850. Turnaround time: Six to eight months. Has made boots for: Country singer David Allan Coe.
El Vaquero Boots
722 E. Norman
Ignaclo "Nacho” Martinez, another unsung elder, was part of the team that built boots for President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the dedication ceremony for Falcon Dam, in 1954. After spending most of his career at Raymondville’s now-defunct Rios Boots, he currently works out of his garage with his son, Joe. Specializes in: Flaming-red rose inlays, intricate braided-lace piping, and lizard scallops. Prices start at: $300. Turnaround time: Six to eight weeks. Has made boots for: Armstrongs, Klebergs, Yturrias, and other ranching elites.
Armando’s Boot Company
169 N. Seventh
Abraham Rios once had Raymondville’s biggest shop, serving area ranches like the King Ranch. Today his nephew Armando Duarte Rios puts his 45 years of experience into each and every boot. Specializes in: Fancy inlays and nimble stitching up to ten rows wide. Prices start at: $420. Turnaround time: Eight to ten weeks. Has made boots for: Former governor Mark White; former Speaker of the House Gib Lewis; actors Sean Penn and Peter Coyote; country singer Willie Nelson.
Torres Brothers Boot Company
246 S. Seventh
In 1997 Raul and Frank Torres reopened the longtime business run by their father, Leopoldo Torres, who still consults for his sons on a regular basis. Specializes in: Butterfly stitching and white-alligator boots. Prices start at: $200. Turnaround time: Six to seven weeks. Has made boots for: King Ranch cowboys, Texas Rangers, border patrolmen.
J. L. Mercer and Son Custom Boots
224 S. Chadbourne
J. L. Mercer began working in his daddy’s shop at age eleven. Seventy years later, he sells boots out of a rickety storefront and at rodeos, cutting-horse competitions, and the State Fair. Specializes in: Basic work boots, roper boots, and crepe soles, Prices start at: $450. Turnaround time: Three months. Has made boots for: Lyndon B. Johnson; former governor Mark White; actors Barry Corbin and Tom Wopat; country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
Rusty Franklin Handmade Boots
15 E. Avenue D
Franklin split off from his venerated grandfather, M. L. Leddy, sixteen years ago and recruited master bootmaker Eugene Lopez from the late Charlie Garrison’s operation in Llano. Specializes in: Stiff tops, school logos, and Texas icons such as the Capitol, the Alamo, mockingbirds, oil derricks, yellow roses, and bluebonnets. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Five to six months. Has made boots for: Actor Tommy Lee Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
M. L. Leddy Boots
2200 W. Beauregard
One of the oldest and largest custombootmaking operations in the state. Specializes in: Old-fashioned high-heel range riders, nuevo-retro cockroach stompers, tool tops, and lace-ups. Prices start at: $495. Turnaround time: Three to four months. Has made boots for: Country singer Trisha Yearwood, basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor Paul Newman.
110 Division Avenue
What Lucchese Boots once was to San Antonio, Little’s Boots-established in 1915-is today. Little’s sets the standard for fancy custom boots, which are on display at the state’s best showroom. Specializes in: Expensive, unembellished exotic leathers and intricately detailed art boots, including three-dimensional pinched roses and unique wildflower and leaf patterns. Prices start at: $750. Turnaround time: Three and a half months. Has made boots for: Country singer Reba McEntire, actor Tommy Lee Jones, author Alex Haley.
This boot is one of the most popular styles made by Lee Miller of Texas Traditions in Austin.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
The top, also known as the shaft, is the artist’s canvas: Here is where the most detail work is done (although, ironically, if you’re a man, the top stays hidden under your pants legs unless you’re riding or at a cowboy ball). Standard tops are twelve inches high, though custom boots that replicate vintage models of fifty years ago or olderespecially old-timey cowgirl boots called peeweessometimes have tops that are shorter. Luccheses have always had thirteen-inch tops. Yahoos and Buffalo Bill wannabes go for even higher tops, despite their propensity to cause the feet to sweat more in the summer.
When it comes to skins and leathers, the skyand your walletis the limit; the rarer the species, the costlier the material. Calfskin is the basic starter, followed in no particular order by goat, lizard, anteater, shark, kangaroo, quill ostrich, stingray, buffalo, bullfrog, snake (not very durable), bullhide (very durable), elephant (the most durable), and alligator (the most expensive).
The stitching of custom boots is done by hand. Think decorative, not practical: Once upon a time, stitching held the layers of leather together, but today glue mostly does the trick. The more rows of stitching, the finer (and more expensive) the boot. Two rows are standard. Ten rows are awesome.
The vamp is the lower part of the boot, and ideally it’s cut from a single piece of leather. It comes together in a series of steps. First the medallionor bug and wrinkle, so named because it looks like, well, a bug and a wrinkleis stitched onto it. Then it’s sewn to the top, wetted, and stretched over the last. Next, it’s pulled back so the toe box can be inserted. Finally, it’s sculpted and dried.
Pulls, or ear pulls, are the loops sewn into the side of your boots at the top to help you get them on. Over-the-top pulls are standard. Mule ears, which are five to seven inches long, and flush pulls, which sit inside the boot, are fancier. Some boot buyers prefer holes in the top to slip their fingers into.
Inlays are sewn into the top or, less frequently, the vamp. This is the delicate part of the artistic process, sometimes involving microscopic strands and pieces of leather. The more detailed the inlay, the harder the joband the longer it takes. (Overlays, or foxings, are pieces of leather attached to the outside of the top or the vamp; they’re the bootmaking equivalent of hair extensions. They perform the same decorative function as inlays, but they’re susceptible to scuffing or being torn off.)
Piping covers the vertical seam where the tops are stitched together. Typically it’s a single strand, but sometimes it involves more-elaborate braiding.
Your choice of toe reveals what kind of person you are. Rock stars and fashionmongers gravitate to pointy toes, also known as pin box toes, roach stompers, and fence climbers. Yes, they’re trendy, but they’re actually the kind grandpa used to wear when he rode horses (the pointy toe makes it easier to stick the boot into the stirrup). The box toealso called the five-eighth toe, since the boxed front is five-eighths of an inch acrossis the most popular version of the pointy toe. (The boot pictured has a three-fourths-inch toe.) Round toes, reflecting more conservative tastes, are preferred by modern ranch folks and professionals who want something to wear with a business suit. The number one round is a modified pointy toe. The number three, also known as a J toe, is the most common of the round-toe styles and is preferred by the button-down crowd. The number four is so round that it can pass for a shoe.
The bottom consists of the insole, the outsole, and the shank cover. The insole is nailed to the bottom of the last before the vamp is stretched. After the vamp is dry, it is stitched to the insole by hand, creating the welt. The nails are pulled from the insole, and the last is removed. Then the outsole is stitched to the welt.
The heel determines height and function. Higher heels make it easier to stay in a stirrup while on horseback, but they’re hard if not hell to walk in (getting around on a two-and-a-half-inch “undershot high narrow rounding heel” is like wobbling on Manolo Blahnik spikes). Most boot wearers prefer a lower, flatter heel, like a one-and-five-eighth-inch “walking wide heel” or a one-and-three-fourth-inch “short contest heel.”
Bootmaker Enrique "Kiki" Velasquez of Arditti Alligator Accoutrements and Handcrafted Footwear in El Paso. Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden.
Alive and Kicking
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
As apparel goes, handmade cowboy boots are one of the last remaining links to our pastand they look sweet on your feet. Here’s where you can find a pair that fits your personal taste, plus everything you ever wanted to know about vamps, stitching, and more.
LIKE SO MUCH ELSE IN Texas these days, apparelthe kind that proudly proclaims our Western heritageain’t what it used to be. Jeans were co-opted 25 years ago, when Gloria Vanderbilt designer-labeled them, and all hope of taking them back is lost now that Wranglers and Levi’s, those icons of the cowboy way, are made out of the country by workers who wouldn’t know a Santa Gertrudis from a milk cow. Cowboy hats? Gimme caps supplanted Stetsons and Hi-Rollers long before Bum Phillips coached the Oilers. Spurs and chaps? Appropriated by the alternative-lifestyle crowd (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Shirts with pearl snaps? Hell, folks are more likely to wear running shorts with the Texas flag on the backside.
Cowboy boots, on the other hand, are inviolable. They’ve been with us forever and still look damn sweet on a pair of feet today. And they don’t have to be Texas feet; anyone who dons a pair (well, the right pair) can pass for a native. Boots directly connect us to our storied pastthey were the footwear favored by the Spanish conquistadores who brought the horse to North America, although there’s still some dispute as to whether the first cowboy boots arrived in Texas from Kansas via the cattle drovers or from northern Mexico by way of the vaqueros. Their shining moment came in the early eighties, when the Urban Cowboy craze transformed them into a pop culture artifact embraced around the world. But by the early nineties, sales were back down and the industry began to consolidate. More recently, venerable Texas bootmakers like Tony Lama and Lucchese have followed jeans makers in shipping some of their manufacturing operations across the border and overseas. Several lines of Justins, once the pride of my hometown of Fort Worth, are today made in Mexico.
This, I would argue, is not necessarily a bad thing. With the decline of the big boys, the small bootmakersthe ones who custom-make them by handare on the rise. Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and even the occasional Mexican wrestler, along with regular folks all across the state, regard made-to-measure boots as one of the last remaining status symbols connected to the Western myth. Mind you, they’re expensive, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand for a single pair, and assuming you can find someone willing to take you on as a customer, it can be weeks or months before they’re ready to wear. But price and patience have their rewards, because custom boots are more comfortable than a pair of slippers and last for a minimum of ten years. The way I figure it, they’re a far better value than the new pair of $200 Air Jordans you have to buy every yearplus they look cooler and are versatile enough to be worn in the saddle or propped up on your desk.
The place to buy custom boots is Texas, which is home to more than one hundred of the best bootmakers on earththough you’d never know it; most custom bootmakers don’t advertise, as word of mouth brings in all the business they can handle. Aesthetically speaking, their shops are like barbecue joints: The funkier the place, the better the product. Some have a fancy showroom out front, but the actual work is done in environments charitably described as messy, dank, and musty, and the air is redolent with the sweet, mellow aroma of tanned hides. Piles of leather scraps are scattered in every nook and cranny, as are such tools of the trade as awls, hammers, and ancient sewing machines (the model 3115 Singer is particularly revered).
Yes, bootmaking is an art formliterally. Over the past twelve years, custom boots have been the subject of three coffee-table books100 Years of Western Wear, The Cowboy Boot Book, and Art of the Bootby Tyler Beard, a writer and collector of Western memorabilia living in Lampasas, and Jim Arndt, a photographer from that upper Midwestern hub of bootmania, Minneapolis (Arndt also publishes boot calendars). At the moment there are two major boot-themed exhibits in Texas: “These Boots Are Made for Gawking,” at the Grace Museum in Abilene, which features the works of Texas’ best modern bootmakers, and “Heels and Toes and Everything Goes: Cowboy Boots As Art,” at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, including boots worn by Lyndon B. Johnson, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.
With an eye to all this, I spent a few weeks traveling around the state this spring, visiting some of the state’s best bootmakers. I was sorry to be reminded that so many of the veterans are no longer with us: Charlie Dunn, of Austin, Ray Jones, of Lampasas, Charlie Garrison, of Llano, Dan Trujillio, of Comanche, Willie Lusk (the only African American to distinguish himself in the trade), of Lubbock, and Genaro Hector Uribe, of San Antonio, the last in a family line that stretched back 150 years to bootmakers who shod soldiers in Emperor Maximilian’s army. Yet I discovered some old masters still at it, such as 76-year-old Antonio Sanchez, of Mercedes, 73-year-old Ignacio Martinez, of Raymondville, and 65-year-old James Leddy, of Abilene.
From these and other Michelangelos of leather, I learned that getting the new generation to follow in their bootsteps is no easy task. “I’ve got two sons and a daughter who didn’t go into the boot business but live in nice houses with all the finer things in life,” says seventy-year-old Dave Little, whose family’s boots, hecho en San Antonio since 1915, favorably compare with ones the Luccheses once made in the Alamo City. Thankfully, another of Little’s daughters is getting ready to take over the business. An additional problem is finding good craftsmenthe only dependable talents are Mexican nationals, the occasional Mexican American kid from the border region, and the handful of graduates (never enough) from the bootmaking school at the technical branch of Oklahoma State University, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
Custom bootmakers, I was told, are divided into two camps. Solo operators insist that you can’t turn out really great handmade boots if even two people are involved in the process. Ideally, the person who does the measuring should be the person who makes the last, cuts the patterns, and cuts the leather. “Those four steps are so critical that you’re asking for trouble if more than one person does it,” says Houston bootmaker Dave Wheeler. Shops with two or more bootmakers hoot at Wheeler’s premise, pointing out that specialists who focus on stitching, stretching vamps, or putting together boot bottoms make for a better overall boot. Besides, going it alone is akin to taking a vow of poverty, says Little, who makes the sale, does the measuring, and collaborates on the design but leaves the actual assembly to six workers in the shop out back. “The fellow who makes boots one at a time, from fit to finish, can’t make any money,” he says.
There are regional differences in Texas as well. Small bootmakers who make real cowboy boots for real cowboysdurable footwear that’s nothing fancyare easily found wherever big ranches are nearby, with two significant clusters around Abilene and San Angelo. Custom bootmakers in El Paso, the undisputed Cowboy Boot Capital of the World, tend to be larger operations and focus on sales not to individuals as much as to retailers in Texas and elsewhere, who measure their customers and then send for the boots to be made. Not surprisingly, boots tend to cost more the farther you travel from the border. The least expensive boots are made in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley towns of Mercedes and Raymondville, where many makers were trained in the Mercedes factory of revered bootmaker Zeferino Rios, whose family was in the business for nearly 150 years.
Whatever you pay for them, wherever you get them, get them. This is an industry worth supporting. “It’s not going to die,” insists Lee Miller, of Austin, one of the nation’s finest young bootmakers. (Miller is doing his part: He was taught by Charlie Dunn and eventually took over Dunn’s business, and he is now teaching a Japanese man named Atsuki Sumi, who aims to open up the second custom-made-boot shop in his home country.) “The boot boom may have ended in 1983,” says Scott Emmerich, who co-owns Tres Outlaws bootmakers in El Paso, “but the serious boot buyer has never gone away. It always has been and always will be, because Texas is Texas and Texas is boots.”
A Time to Drill?
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here’s what to expect in the next few rounds.
So who threw the first punch in this fight? The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U. S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.
Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island? Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.
Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this? By playing every green group’s favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.
How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club’s concerns? BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.
So how does all of this affect Texans? First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP’s operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there’s a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP’s proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas’ Permanent School Fund. And considering the state’s $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.
What happens next? Don’t expect the feds to purchase Padre Island’s oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb’s 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there’s an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn’t typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.
Judith Zaffirini Pom-pom and Circumstance
BY JUDITH ZAFFIRINI
AS TOLD TO JOE NICK PATOSKI
Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar. What did I learn from cheerleading? How to lead and how to foller.
I FIRST REALIZED HOW BEING a cheerleader could help you in politics when I became a candidate for the state Senate in 1986. I remember going to a high school out of town, not in Laredo, during the campaign. They invited me to go to a pep rally right before the football game. I had already checked out the football schedule. Every time I went to a high school, I knew the mascot, I knew the colors, I knew their scores, I knew the record for their football team. I knew the details, just like I know about the rainfall when I visit another county, because farmers and other people in agriculture will ask questions such as “How much has it rained in Laredo?” I always have the answer.
During the pep rally, someone turned and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I walked the entire length of the gym to get to the microphone, and Dennis Longoria, a family friend and volunteer who was traveling with me, wanted to die. He said, “Oh, no!” All he could think of was that the cheerleaders had just had the pep contest between the classes to see who could yell the loudest, then had formed a human pyramid with layers of people standing on each other’s shoulders, and now I was going to talk about economic development and tort reform and all those issues I’d been talking about, and they were going to boo me. Dennis said that was the longest walk he ever saw me take. And I walked up to the microphone and said, “Are we going to beat the Bulldogs?”
I really helped rev up the audience. They were stunned. They didn’t expect that from me. To this day, when I visit high schools, if I’m invited to a pep rally, I know what to do: ask questions, involve the audience. And don’t get up and talk about yourself and get serious. Be able to go with the flow. Create an appropriate atmosphere. Focus not so much on myself and what I want to say and do but on them and what they need to hear. That’s what cheerleading teaches you.
George W. Bush, Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchisonthey were all cheerleaders, and they are all very effective with an audience. As cheerleaders, they learned how to work with a crowd. It’s important to bond with an audience and to help the audience come together as a unit. At this point in their careers, they don’t need to rev up a crowd too often. Cheerleading is particularly an asset for first-time candidates. It gives you the ability to understand audience psychology and know how to respond to an audience yet help unite them. I wish Tony Sanchez had been a cheerleader in high school. He would have known how to rev up the troops from the beginning. Instead, he had to master that art along the way.
Part of leadership is knowing when to lead and knowing when to follow, and cheerleading teaches you that. The best leaders have that skill. I saw it in George Bush. After Bush’s election in 1994, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock asked me to talk to the governor about welfare reform. I said to Bush, “I’m the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. I have passed welfare legislation and have a bill for this session, but Bullock asked me to meet with you and to ask you what your bill does and who will carry it for you.”
Bush looked at me and said, “Senator, your bill is my bill.”
I smiled. “Governor, we’re going to get along just fine.”
The image of cheerleaders as shallow couldn’t be further from the truth. So many leadership skills are involved: not only bringing the audience together but also sharing enthusiasm with them and motivating them to be enthusiastic too. I really believe cheerleading develops leadership and develops understanding of other people. It builds character in so many ways. One of the opportunities cheerleading offers is learning to handle victory and defeat with grace and dignity. That’s important in politics too. I vividly remember using that lesson the night of the runoff in my first race for the Senate. I was at my headquarters telling everyone, before the election results came in, that whether we won or we lost, we would act the same way. That if we won, we would not gloat, and if we lost, we would not cry, and we would handle itusing those words”with the same grace and dignity.” And then someone said that my opponent was on the phone to concede, and everybody went, “Yaaaay!” and started just being very ugly. I tried to calm everyone down and said, “I’m not going to pick up the receiver until everybody is totally quiet. Let’s thank him, and let’s be very dignified about it.”
In 1959 I went to Ursuline Academy, an all-girls school, and tried out to be a freshman cheerleader for St. Joseph’s Academy, the all-boys school. The cheerleaders were selected after tryouts and elections. Whoever went to the tryouts got to vote. Since we were freshmen, it wasn’t exactly a popularity contest, because no one was known. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors certainly didn’t know the incoming freshmen. The election was held during the summer before the academic year, so we hadn’t met anybody. I can tell you the exact cheer:
Chickalacka chickalacka, chow chow chow
Boomalacka boomalacka, bow wow wow
Chickalacka boomalacka, who are we?
St. Joe’s Antlers, yessiree!
My sister Celita was already a sophomore cheerleader at Ursuline. After my election, one girl who was a sophomore yelled, “Ya llegaron Las Papitas“”The Little Potatoes have arrived.” Our maiden name was Pappas. It’s a Greek name. In Laredo many people think it’s PapasSpanish for “potatoes.” So we were called Las Papitas in high school, “the Little Potatoes.” My sister was and is very popular. Certainly that helped me. I wanted to be very much like her. She was a role model. I learned to read at the age of three because she knew how to read. She was five. That’s my first memory of childhood: learning to read.
We had friends who were cheerleaders at other high schools. They were our role models too. A dear friend of mine who died recently, Nora Montemayor, was a cheerleader at Martin High School, the only public high school in town. (Now we have seven.) She was a friend of my oldest sister. Nora and her twin, Dora, were just darling, very energetic and popular. Certainly they impacted us.
We didn’t have women role models. I never thought of going to college until I was a senior in high school. I don’t recall anyone urging me to go to college. My mother encouraged all four of her daughters to be prepared to fight our own battles. She encouraged us to be well mannered, to be bilingual, to speak English with an American accent and Spanish with a Mexican accent, and not to be pochoyou know, Tex-Mexand she encouraged all of us to learn how to type. So I type very, very well, very quickly. She wanted us to be prepared. If we married and our husbands got sick or died, we would be prepared to work. She wanted us to be prepared to be secretaries, as she was a secretary. She wanted us to be prepared to cope.
When I was in high school, from 1959 to 1963, cheerleading was the closest thing to sports for a girl. At Ursuline Academy, we didn’t even have intramural activities, only P.E. classes. Many years later, I was the director of communications and Title IX coordinator at Laredo Junior College, and I wondered how many cheerleaders from my era would have been athletes if we had had the opportunities girls have today.
Today, cheerleading is a sport that requires athletic prowess. They’re gymnasts. When I was a cheerleader, it was different. We practicedwe had so many practices. We had to learn cheers, timing, and how to synchronize our moves. We learned self-sufficiency, discipline, teamwork, and leadership. We didn’t have advisers. We didn’t go to cheerleader school. We did it ourselves.
Judith Zaffirini, 57, has served in the Texas Senate since 1987. She lives in Laredo.
by Paul Burka, Jane Dure, Michael Hall, Christopher Keyes, John Morthland, Joe Nick Patoski, Eileen Schwartz, Patricia Sharpe and John Spong
(alphabetical, by city)
Unless otherwise noted, all places take credit cards.
ABILENE: Harold’s Pit Bar-B-Q We didn’t catch pitmaster Harold Christian singing gospel songs to his customers, but we’re told that isn’t an unusual occurrence. This cozy little room, packed with nine picnic tables, seven booths, and a congregation of athletic trophies, is where Abilene gets its primo meat, smoked for twelve to fourteen hours over oak in a fifty-year-old box pit: brisket, pork ribs, chicken (on Fridays), turkey breast, German pork-and-beef sausage, and ham. A thin, spicy sauce is poured over the meat, which we usually don’t like, but it just lightly seasons the brisket, which was all fall-apart tender. Specialties include hot-water jalapeño cornbread and blackberry cobbler that made us weak in the knees. Brisket plate $5.95. Rating: 4.5. 1305 Walnut, 915-672-4451. Open Mon, Tue, Thur & Fri 11-6:30, Wed till 2, Sat till 5. by Katy Vine
AMARILLO: Beans N Things The plastic cow still stands guard on the roof of Shirley and Lawrence Bagley’s order-at-the-counter restaurant, with its knotty pine walls and lunchroom tables. At three-thirty in the afternoon, the hickory-smoked brisket and mesquite-smoked ribs had gotten a little dry and “shreddy” but were redeemed by honest flavor. The sausage was commercial, but the same was not true of the puckery-sweet coleslaw with a hint of tarragon vinegar or the eight-hour-cooked pinto beans. Take your pick of mild or spicy sauce, both opaque and on the thick side. Besides barbecue, the kitchen turns out a range of homey dishes, including breakfast burritos, fajitas, and Frito pie. Brisket plate $5.99. Beer. Rating: 3.5. 1700 Amarillo Boulevard East, 806-373-7383. Open Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat 8:30-6:30. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: BBQ World Headquarters Why this place hasn’t developed a huge following is a mystery, because in its six years of existence, it has quickly worked its way up the barbecue ladder in Austin. One reason is the quality of the brisket: Certified Angus beef. It’s slightly fattier than some but marvelously tasty and tender. The pork roast is not just picnic-quality but good enough for Sunday dinner. Pork ribs, baby back ribs, chicken, and (unfortunately salty) pork sausage from Mike’s Barnyard in Liberty Hill round out the meat menu, and everything is smoked over oak. The borracho beans bristle with bits of pork and sausage; the creamy coleslaw has character and crunch. You can eat inside the little corrugated-metal-and-cinder-block building, with its cheery red and blue vinyl tablecloths, or sit at a picnic table outside on the asphalt. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.6701 Burnet Road, 512-323-9112. Open Mon-Sat 11-4. by Patricia Sharpe
AUSTIN: John Mueller’s BBQ In 2001 John Mueller left the family business in Taylorthe famed Louie Mueller Barbecue, which was started by his grandfatherto open up his own place in East Austin, where he has quickly risen to the top of the local ‘cue heap. The bare-bones cinder-block building with a frame-house annex out back radiates blue-collar, duct-tape funk despite the parade of athletes (Ben Crenshaw, Major Applewhite), legislators (Mueller did a catering gig for Speaker Tom Craddick this spring), and other celebs coming through the screen door. And the oak-smoked meat tastes right. Mueller is usually at the counter, ready to slice it to order and serve it on a butcher-paper-lined tray. Just be sure to stipulate lean or fatty on the brisket (we’re fools for the latter). The pork ribs, pork chops, smoked T-bones, and prime rib rock too. The all-beef sausage, made according to John’s own recipe, comes from the Taylor Meat Company. Choose from two sauces at the condiment tablethe runny, peppery kind that Louie Mueller’s is famous for or a thick, sweet one that will appeal to the Salt Lick and County Line crowd. Brisket plate $7.95. Beer. Rating: 4.5. 1917 Manor Road, 512-236-0283. Open Mon-Fri 10-8, Sat till 6. by Joe Nick Patoski
BELTON: Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que There’s something about a pit. At Schoepf’s, the cooking pits (where they smoke the brisket over mesquite coals for half a day) are out back and the serving pit is on the patio; you go there first and pick out your ribs, chicken, brisket, oryumpork chops, then take them inside to get your sides. The meat is sold by the pound and is so moist and smoky you don’t need sauce, though it’s dished out on the sidevinegar based and pepperyif you want it for occasional dipping. Afterward, Schoepf’s is a fine place to linger, sitting at your picnic table and watching the locals doing the same thing. Brisket plate $6.95. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 702 E. Central Avenue, 254-939-1151. Open Mon- Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 9, Sun 11-3. by Michael Hall
BRADY: Lone Star Bar-B-Q Spare but spacious, with basic Hill Country hunters’ decor, Lone Star offers exemplary brisket and thick, flavorful pork chops with a light salt-and-pepper rub, cooked Llano-style over mesquite. The pork ribs are fatty but tasty; the sausage is so-so. The tart, pale-red vinegar sauce far surpasses its sticky-sweet companion. Good sides. Brisket plate $6. BYOB. Rating: 4. 2010 S. Bridge, 915-597-1936. Open daily 11-9. by John Morthland
BURNET: Burnet County Barbeque The counter sits at one end of this stone roadhouse and the smallish dining area at the other, with a wood-burning stove for wintertime warmth. Mesquite-cooked brisket (up to eighteen hours in a pig-iron pit) and substantial pork ribs exude smokiness and powerful flavor, as does beef sausage from Elgin; the thick tomatoey sauce does the meat justice. The fruity, almost nutty slaw has a hint of celery seed, the beans are fortified with jalapeños, and the potato salad is mustardy and quite chunky. Several kinds of scrumptious pies (dense pecan, puddinglike chocolate, and more) are baked by a local woman. Brisket plate $6.75. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 616 Buchanan Drive (Texas Highway 29), 512-756-6468. Open Sun & Wed-Thur 11-6, Fri & Sat till 7. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by John Morthland
CANADIAN: Cattle Exchange Patrons who come for ‘cue benefit from this Panhandle restaurant’s dual status as a steakhouse. The 1910 building has been beautifully restored, and the amenities include, believe it or not, cloth napkins. Smoked over mesquite, the brisket is tender and reasonably moist, the sausage full of flavor, the ham better than most. Two saucesthe spicy, snappy “original” and a milder “sweet”allow for custom seasoning. Although the potato salad is a tad timid and mayonnaisey, the beans, cooked with tomato, green chile, onion, and bacon, would be hard to improve upon. The whiskey-sauce-drenched sourdough-bread pudding may make you woozy. Brisket plate $8.99. Rating: 4. Second and Main, 806-323-6755. Open Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri & Sat till 10. by Patricia Sharpe
CONROE: McKenzie’s Barbeque The strip-mall location didn’t bode well, but once we got a whiff of the oak burning in the pit, we knew this place was serious about its barbecue. The brisket is well executed, and the meaty pork ribs kept us gnawing and licking our chops long after we should have stopped. The only thing we weren’t crazy about was the thick, A-1-ish saucethe excellent meat can stand on its own. The McKenzies are yet another Texas family with barbecue in their DNA: Darin McKenzie runs things in Conroe; his brother, Kevin, runs the original McKenzie’s, in Huntsville; and their sister, Shannon, owns a Bodacious outpost in Longview. Brisket plate $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 4. 1501 N. Frazier, 936-539-4300. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-8. by Eileen Schwartz
CORPUS CHRISTI: Bar-B-Q Man Restaurant What is success? Not having to work on the weekend. So don’t expect to find Malcolm DeShields here on Saturday or Sunday (the original Bar-B-Q Man, DeShields’ father, M.O., kept the same sweet hours). The place does plenty of business during the week with refinery workers and white-collar types. They come for DeShields’ huge portions of mesquite-smoked Certified Angus brisket and spare ribs and a bronze-hued house sauce that bites back. An off-putting chain-link fence surrounds the property, but inside it you’ll find the Bar-B-Q Man’s spacious dining rooms and a patio with pool tables, a dance floor, and a bar. Service is cafeteria-style. Brisket plate $8.95. Beer and wine. Rating: 4. 4931 I-37 South, 361-888-4248 or 888-4296. Open Mon-Fri 11-8. by Joe Nick Patoski
DALLAS: Baker’s Ribs A sweet, spicy, gooey glaze puts the finishing touch on melt-in-your-mouth hickory-smoked pork ribs, and the lean, thick-cut brisket (cooked for twelve to fifteen hours) and zingy beef sausage are almost addictive. The pork loin is more flavorful than most, and the chicken breast has a smoky surface and a juicy white interior, but the ham, turkey, and sauces are humdrum. Standout sides include potato salad heavy on the dill, creamy slaw with celery seeds, brisk marinated-tomato salad, and jalapeño-spiked black-bean-and-corn relish. Though larger than Baker’s Commerce Street flagship, this outlet is just as good. Brisket plate $7.25. Beer. Rating: 4. 4844 Greenville Avenue, 214-373-0082. Open Mon-Sat 10:30-9, Sun 11-8. by John Morthland
DALLAS: Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Now the flagship of a chain that gets justifiably mixed reviews, the original Sonny B’s can itself be erratic. But when the ancient, custom-built pit (stoked with hickory) is producing up to snuff, the burnt-crust brisket is almost, but not quite, falling-apart tender, and the pork ribs are almost, but not quite, falling-off-the-bone tender; the former dazzles on sandwiches. Ignore the other meats and the sides, except for the whopping golden-brown onion rings. The thick, sweet sauce is marginal. Customers still eat at one of about twenty cramped school desks or outside in (and on) their cars. Brisket plate $6.99. Beer. Rating: 4. 2202 Inwood Road, 214-357-7120 (other Metroplex locations). Open Sun-Fri 10-4, Sat till 3. by John Morthland
EAGLE LAKE: Austin’s BBQ and Catering You have to fight for one of the two picnic tables out front or sit on your car hood if you want to eat at Ron and Denice Janow’s converted gas station, where the old garage bays are filled with smoke from two portable cast-iron pits. Meat is serious business here in hunting country, and this is some of the most serious barbecued meat in Texasoutstanding brisket meant to be eaten with your fingers, five-star boneless pork, and pork ribs with a tantalizing pecan flavor and a peppery kick. Save room for the buttered potatoes and the usual sides, as well as banana pudding, coconut pie, and 7-UP cake. This place is definitely worth the thirteen-mile detour off Interstate 10. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 4.5. 507 E. Main, 979-234-5250 or 800-256-0166. Open Thur-Sat 8-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
EAST BERNARD: Vincek’s Smokehouse The tan brick exterior is plain and institutional, but inside, Vincek’s exudes a sense of place, from the “Jak Se Más ” (“How Are You?”) Czech welcome on the menu board at the end of the long meat counter and the homemade bread, kolaches, and tea rings in the bakery case to the local polka CDs for sale and the posters advertising the Triumphs playing Riverside Hall. Even the sweet abuela who cut our order spoke with a slight Czech accent. The pecan-smoked brisket was first-rate, with a salty bite and the obligatory red ring, and the ribs were exceptionally meaty, but it was the spicy, coarsely ground sausage that hit the spot. Choose between the too-sweet house sauce and a runny, vinegar-based type. Sides include Spanish rice and coleslaw with a pucker-inducing tang. Brisket plate $5.75. Beer. Rating: 4. Texas Highway 60 and U.S. 90A, 979-335-7921 or 800-844-MEAT. Open Tue-Sat 7-6, Sun 8-3. by Joe Nick Patoski
ELGIN: Crosstown B-B-Q This unassuming little operation, with its bare plywood walls and minimal decor, was packed with folks when we visited, including what must have been the entire Elgin High School baseball team. We liked its lean, subtly spiced sausage more than any other local links we sampled. The oak-smoked brisket and chicken were moist, and the peppery ribs meaty and tender. Standard sides. Brisket plate $5.50. BYOB. Rating: 3.5. 202 S. Avenue C, 512-281-5594. Open Sun-Thur 10-8, Fri & Sat till 10. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Eileen Schwartz
EL PASO: Chris’s the Brisket BBQ The beef rib is still king in El Paso, but unlike other ‘cue joints way out west, where the ribs come like snow cones (they taste like whatever syrup is poured on top), these ribs have no marinade. Instead, a simple salt-cayenne-and-black-pepper rub allows the ribs to taste like ribs: tender, rich, never stringy. Pit boss Chris Ivey treats the rest of his meat with the same care, producing a shiny black crust over a thin red ribbon on the brisket and a crunchy black skin on the sausage, all smoked over pecan. Ivey says his secret is never to leave the meat and the fire unattended, and he gets to his pits each morning at three o’clock. The early start allows him to make potato salad, chili beans, and coleslaw fresh each day and also whip up several cakes for dessert. His sauce is intentionally bland, and so is the restaurant’s interior. The only decoration was a tableful of slow-pitch-softball trophies and a Christmas tree, which was still up in April, festooned with yellow ribbons in support of the troops. Brisket plate $6.50. Rating: 4. 11420 Rojas, 915-595-0114. Open Mon-Fri 11-3. by John Spong
[please visit Texas Monthly for the remaining fifty]
The Best of the Best
by Paul Burka, Michael Hall and Joe Nick Patoski
(in no particular order)
Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q
The name “Cooper’s” has long been synonymous with Llano, but now the Mason operation of the same name has overtaken its distant cousin. Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q was opened in Mason in 1953 by the late George Cooper, whose son Tommy (also deceased) cloned it a decade later in Llano. Today the two are entirely separate, though both continue to follow the founding father’s formula: Let customers select their own meat straight from the outdoor pit and then take it inside to be weighed, sliced, and priced. And quite a selection it is too, covering the whole barnyard: beef, pork, chicken, goat, andoh, happy moment of discoverylamb ribs, the very thought of which sets the mouth to watering all these weeks later. On weekends, the mesquite-smoked fare expands to include T-bone and sirloin steaks and pork loin. The brisket is without flaw in taste or texture, sweet and juicy; it may be the best in Texas. The beef sausage is prepared in Austin following an old Cooper’s recipe, according to owner Duard Dockal, who took over from George Cooper twenty years ago. The flavor is on the mild side, a condition that can quickly be rectified by an application of Dockal’s homemade sauce, a piquant concoction whose distinctive orange color announces the ample presence of mustard. You can’t go wrong here; even the sides are homemade. The only drawback is that the cinder-block dining room has just four rectangular bench-style tables, with one more outdoors. For a nice alternative, order your food to go and dine at Fort Mason Park, about three quarters of a mile south of the pit on U.S. 87. Brisket plate about $6.50. BYOB. Rating: 5. S. U.S. 87, 915-347-6897 or 800-513-6963. Open daily 10:30-5:30. by Paul Burka
It’s been three years since Kreuz Market was forced to vacate its storied, century-old premises and relocate down the road, a move that remains a topic of conversation among conspiracy theorists. Owner Rick Schmidt’s sister and landlord, Nina Sells, wanted to double his rent and make him pay for improvements. Rick refused to pony up. But despite any lingering bad blood, Texas Barbecue Nation is better for the family feud. Kreuz’s huge new location accommodates three times as many diners, in two giant dining rooms and a long, breezy porch. Shiny and crisp at first, the interior of the metal-roofed building is slowly getting a satisfying smoke patina. The woodpile around back covers almost an entire city block and may be the largest in the free world. Traditions from the old site remain: The only utensils provided for the meat are plastic knives, a symbolic nod to the days when diners sitting at Kreuz’s counters had to use knives chained to the wall. And the optional sides avocados, yellow cheese, and onion slicesare as quirky as ever. As before, potato salad and coleslaw are not sold, though in a bow to popular demand, pinto beans have been added to the menu (to tell the truth, they were pretty boring the last time we tried them). Though the first year was shaky, the post oak-fired pits are now turning out some of the best, if not the best, meat anywhere on earth, notably the amazing brisket (a caveatit can be too salty), the spicy, garlicky coarse-ground sausage, a smoked pork chop that trumps any rib, and boneless prime rib for the discerning barbecue fan. No sauce. No need. Brisket plate (with beans only) about $5.45. Beer. Rating: 5. U.S. 183, just north of town; 512-398-2361. Open Mon-Fri 9-6, Sat till 6:30. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
Louie Mueller Barbecue
Going to Louie Mueller Barbecue is like going to barbecue church: You open the screen door and walk into an expansive room with a high ceiling and ancient walls. To your right are images of Texas music icons, people like Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And then there’s the air, rarefied andsmoky. It’s the smoke that sanctifies Louie Mueller’s, from the food to the people who eat there religiously. Mueller’s has been open since 1949, and it’s been in its current location, a former basketball court, since 1959. Founder Louie’s son, Bobby, took over in 1976 and has kept up the quality for more than a quarter of a century. And that means doing things the way they always have: simply, using a basic salt-and-pepper rub on the meat and cooking it using post-oak coals for about six hours. The brisket issurprisesmoky, the smoke somehow penetrating every molecule of the meat. Mueller’s beef sausage has the consistency of meat that was put into the casing manually, not by machine (check out the understated jalapeño links; you can taste the pepper as well as its heat), and the pork ribs are juicy. The sauce is dispensed, as it should be, in a little cup for dipping. No need to cover anything up. The sides are homemade; try the spicy pinto beans. In 1974 the Muellers put up a bulletin board that customers could attach their business cards to, and in a matter of months, the white cards were beige. You can peek under the top layer for a glimpse of past customers or add your own card. Soon, it too will be covered in smoke, the badge of honor. Brisket plate about $6.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 206 W. Second, 512-352-6206. Open Mon-Sat 10-6. by Michael Hall
While vast amounts of ink have been lavished on the changes in the Central Texas barbecue mecca of Lockhart, fifteen miles to the north, nothing much at all has changed at City Marketwhich is a real good thing. With roots going back 45 years, City Market has all but perfected the arcane art of smoking meat. You become a patron of this art when you walk into the main dining room and proceed to the primitive-looking pit room at the back. You can’t miss it; just look for the line of fellow museumgoers and the posted warning “Please don’t hold door open.” Breathe deep when you walk inside: barbecue heaven. Now squint through the air, dense with smoke. The pit crew, led by manager Joe Capello, Sr., himself, is most likely the same bunch that was stoking the pits, taking your order, and slicing the meat the last time you visited, no matter how long ago that was. After you gather up your butcher paper full of post oak-smoked meat, head back through the main room to the center counter for beans, potato salad, thick slices of yellow cheese, beer, Big Red, and IBC Root Beer. On weekdays, locals outnumber tourists jamming the long tables in the two wood- paneled dining rooms, where almost equal numbers of Anglos, Hispanics, and African Americans gnaw in harmony on out-of-this-world beef brisket, celestial pork ribs coated with a mysterious bronze glaze, and juicy, coarse-ground homemade beef sausage. If you must, you can slather on some sauce; it’s thin, mustardy, and loaded with pepperlike everything else, Central Texas style at its best. Brisket plate about $5.25. Beer. Rating: 5. 633 Davis, 830-875-9019. Open Mon- Sat 7-6. by Joe Nick Patoski
Out-of-towners who crunch their way across the gravel parking lot, past the post oak-stoked fire at the back of the redbrick building, and into the big old bare-bones dining room might not realize that anything has changed here if they failed to notice that the name on the building is now Smitty’s Market and not Kreuz Market. That’s because the brisket at this Lockhart destination is still primo, the coarsely ground handmade sausage is sublime, and the pork chops are thick, sweet, and delicately smoky. Those in the know spring for the succulent, juicy boneless prime rib; since it’s cooked to be perfectly medium-rare right when lunch begins, it’s more subtly flavored than Smitty’s longer-smoked brisket. Just as in the old days, all the meats are sold by the pound and slapped onto butcher paper. Now three years old, Smitty’s is named for Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells. Although the restaurant’s first few months were up and down, it seems to have hit its stride under manager and pitmaster John A. Fullilove, Sells’ son. Yes, sometimes the brisket can be a tad dry and the rub too salty or not salty enough, but there are times when Smitty’s is even better than its predecessorand that’s saying a lot. In a concession to modernity, the dining room now offers potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. Likewise, diners are grudgingly provided with plastic spoons and knives but not forks, a reminder that in the old days, folks weren’t too proud to eat with their hands. And as always, there’s no sauce anywhere on the premises. Brisket plate about $5.50. Beer. Rating: 5. 208 S. Commerce (though most everyone uses the rear entrance fronting U.S. 183), 512-398-9344. Open Mon-Fri 7-6, Sat 7-6:30, Sun 9-3. Checks accepted, no credit cards. by Joe Nick Patoski
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Barbecue is nothing less than the national food of Texas, and from a mom-and-pop joint in Eagle Lake to a temple of brisket in Taylorwe’ve searched out the best. On your mark, get set, dig in!
THIS SMOKIN’ THING IS GETTING out of hand. The custom of cooking meats over wood fires has been going on since before there was a place called Texas, but in recent years the concept has gotten so refined and peculiar thataside from the basic truth that Texas barbecue is superior to every other regional stylenobody here can agree with anybody else about anything.
We learned this the hard way six years ago, when Texas Monthly first weighed in with our picks of the state’s top fifty barbecue joints. We thought we’d covered the territory and then some, but we should have known better. The insults started coming fast and furious, via letters, telephone calls, and e-mails, the general drift being, “How on earth could you have missed [fill in the blank]?” Frankly, we’re still stinging from the critic who called us a bunch of “city boys.”
This time around, we doubled the size of our barbecue SWAT team to ten intrepid souls, who risked indigestion and clogged arteries chasing chimney smoke around the corner and into the next county, drove more than 21,000 miles to visit 360 places, got three speeding tickets, and gained more than thirty collective pounds in search of today’s best barbecue. Our new, revised top fifty includes 18 places from the old honor roll. Leading the pack are the five that we’ve anointed the new best of the best: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart, and Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor (which were in our top three six years ago), City Market in Luling, Smitty’s Market, in Lockhart, and Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason.
Clearly, Texas Barbecue Nation is in a state of flux. Witness what has happened in the intervening years to our holy trinity of 1997: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller’s, and Cooper’s in Llano. In Lockhart, the small farming community that many consider the capital of Texas barbecue, a business disagreement between Rick Schmidt and his sister, Nina Sells, led to Schmidt’s relocating Kreuz Market down the road. Sells moved into the old location and dubbed it Smitty’s. Over in Taylor, Louie Mueller’s head honcho, Bobby Mueller, and his son John had words, leading John to leave the hallowed, soot-encrusted family business started by his grandfather to open his own place in Austin. Meanwhile, devotees seeking out Cooper’s in Llano, the personal favorite of the president of the United States, have been complaining about inconsistent quality, escalating prices, and crowds that never seem to thin out. Cooper’s didn’t make it into our top five this time, and after a particularly unhappy visit, we almost kicked it out of the top fifty. But at the last minute, we relentedbecause when Cooper’s is on, it’s on.
The changes that have affected the biggies are mirrored across the barbecue spectrum: The Gonzales Food Market dropped its prized beef ribs from the menu recently when the wholesale price got too expensive. Billy Pfeffer, the longtime pit boss at Dozier’s, in Fulshear, died a couple of years ago. Tough brisket ruined a SWAT team member’s otherwise perfect atmospheric experience at Novosad’s, in Hallettsville, this winter. The independent culinary entrepreneurs, who still dominate the ‘cue realm, are getting squeezed by chains that are beating the old-timers at their own game.
But perhaps it’s only natural for the barbecue world to be in constant turmoil, since the very origins of the craft are in dispute. Did barbecue start with the Czech-German meat markets of Central Texas that cooked up their unsold meat every Saturday in the days before refrigeration? Should African Americans get the credit, for having brought the tradition over from the Deep South? Or should we tip our hats to the early Anglo cowboys and Mexican vaqueros who dug deep pits, covered the meat with wet cloth or leaves, and slow-cooked it over coals for hours, following in the foodways of nomadic peoples in the Big Bend who cooked edible plants in pits 10,000 years ago?
Then there is the great dry-wet divide. Dry refers to two related methods of barbecuing meat: the modern-day cowboy-vaquero style (directly over burning coals, popular in South Texas) and the Czech-German technique (more slowly and over indirect heat, typical of Central Texas). These methods produce a nice crust on the outside and meat that is tender but firm. Dry barbecue is eaten with the sauce on the side, if at all, and said sauce tends to be runny and spicy. Wet is all about African American and Southern styles that emphasize even slower cooking (up to 24 hours) and yield moist and tender brisket and ribs that fall off the bone. Wet also refers to the fact that, as often as not, the meat is automatically drenched in sauce, which is typically sweet and thick.
Beyond cooking styles, what meats qualify as “real” barbecue? In Texas, brisket, ribs, and sausage are the bedrock. Big-tenters also embrace chicken, pork loin, pork chops, fajitas, ribeyes, prime rib, and sirloins as long as they’re slow-cooked with smoke. (Here, I have to weigh in with my own opinion: Prefab turkey breasts and ham don’t count. They’re usually just one step up from deli loaves and thus doomed from the start. And don’t get me started on barbecued crab, barbacoa, or anything grilled over flames or cooked in an oven. They may be delicious, but they’re not the real deal.) It goes without saying that within this carne-copia, folks have strong individual preferences. For some, brisket is the standard. Others are true to ribsno bones, go homebut they divide into two camps, beef and pork. Sausage purists split over beef, pork, or beef-and-pork and can argue the merits of the hot links common in East Texas but appreciated statewide (fat, stubby, and finely ground, in a tight red casing) versus the coarsely ground Central or South Texas blends (more loosely packed in crinkly casings).
Wood too is a burning question. Name your smoke and you define your ‘cue: oak and pecan, found mostly in the central and north-central parts of the state, give a strong, aromatic flavor; mesquite, abundant in South and West Texas, imparts a distinctive sharp taste that turns bitter if the meat is cooked too long. Hickory, native to East Texas, lends a classic, mellow smoked flavor and is common throughout the South, although it is often shipped as far away as the Panhandle and El Paso (where any kind of wood is hard to come by). A footnote: Although I know some places use gas in addition to wood to speed the process, to purists, gas equals sissy ‘cue.
The appropriate sides set off a whole other firestorm. Are beans, potato salad, and coleslaw the perfect complement for meat, or does more exotic faresay, green beans, baked potatoes, rice and its variations (Mexican, Cajun, rice salad), or macaroni and cheesestrike the right balance? Are sides even necessary when just a piece of white bread, a slice of onion, and a pickle or a jalapeño will do? Finally, what is the best drink to wash it all down: iced tea (sweet or unsweetened?), beer, or Big Red?
But all this controversy is just part of the fun. So in that spirit, let’s stir the pot with our choices for the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas today. In a state that’s got around a couple thousandfrom shacks where you eat the meat off of butcher paper with your fingers to places with waiters, silverware, and cloth napkinswe had to make some hard choices. We know you may not agree with all of them, but, heyeverybody’s entitled to his or her opinion. We’re ready for your outraged cards and e-mails asking how we could have missed (fill in the blank). Just don’t go calling us city boys.