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
see also Pit Stops; Top Fifty
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.
see also The Best of the Best; Top Fifty