Texas Hill Country - Smoke, Salt & Iron

Three Days Exploring Texas Hill Country Barbecue

Founded in '57 as an elitist supper club, the Continental Club's velvet curtains and painted tin ceiling have morphed from 1950s swank to rockabilly dank. Fellow moto-journalist Billy Bartels and I were pulling back Shiner Bocks at this gritty Austin music club, eyeballing the crowd of trucker-capped blue collars, polyester blue hairs, and hipster hillbillies in ragged-brimmed straw cowboy hats and aviator sunglasses. I spotted a hand-scrawled cardboard sign in the back of the club that read, "BBQ Sandwiches."

About two hours before, Billy and I had consumed enough smoked pork and beef to incite a PETA riot. No matter-we were on a Mission. A beer and a half later, I pushed my way through the horde to the other side of the club, intent on injecting more beef into my overtaxed system. "Not here," the tank-topped and twangy 20-something manning the t-shirt booth said, jerking her thumb toward the back door. "The food is out back."

The door led into a smoky, beef-scented alley. Two timelessly worn men sat behind a card table topped with a Sterno-fired warmer and a bag of buns. I ordered a sandwich. One of the men covered the bun with thick strips of brisket and a spoonful of thin red sauce. I paid my three bucks and went inside to gorge.

I have lived in Austin for more than a year, and I've come to learn that fantastic barbecue experiences in Central Texas are as common as pickup trucks and NRA stickers. You can buy quality ribs and brisket at gas stations, trailers and shotgun shacks. Like Longhorn football, Willie Nelson, and Shiner Bock beer, barbecue permeates the Hill Country.

So when Billy and I lucked into several free days and a pair of Victory Cross bikes, the only logical thing to do was explore barbecue joints in the Hill Country.

We had our work cut out for us. In Central Texas, a region that includes anything within 60 miles of Austin, there are more than 50 well-known barbecue joints. Texas Monthly magazine chooses the best barbecue places in Texas each year, and in 2008, 15 of the top 50 were in Central Texas. And all of the top five selections were in this region.

Our first stop was perhaps the most popular of all-The Salt Lick. We took a 40-minute ride on the gently curving FM 1826 from Austin out to the picturesque stone complex. The place is huge, and feeds as many as 6,000 souls in a weekend. As is true with most visits to the Salt Lick, we waited for an hour or so for a table. The wait is part of the fun, as you can sit on picnic tables scattered beneath the spacious yard's live oaks and listen to live music.

Once our name was called, we stepped back in time when we entered the gorgeous old stone building. The fire pit alone is worth the trip, and the barbecue is tender and delicious. The slab-sided tables, tasty homemade sides, and pecan pie cap off the experience.

Back in Austin the next day, we made a lunch stop at Iron Works Barbecue. The converted iron smithing shop features some of Austin's best barbecue, and is a favorite with celebrities, politicians and musicians.

The next stop on the barbecue tour featured some of the trip's worst roads and best barbecue. We took back roads from Austin to Taylor, and still found the 40-mile rip on FM 973 flat and uninspiring. Happily, the food is worth the drone.

Our destination was one of the rock stars of Central Texas meateries, Louie Mueller Barbecue. Founded in 1949 to feed the town's seasonable flood of migrant workers, the restaurant started to draw national press in the 1980s. The current proprietor, Wayne Mueller, started working in the restaurant when he was nine years old.

We walked into the restaurant intending to fly low on the radar, but a woman sussed us out when she spotted cameras and notebooks. "Y'all are doing a story, right?" she said. When we nodded, she loaded us up with fourteen-page press kits and an impromptu history lesson. Shortly after our food arrived, the restaurant owner came over to greet us. Despite having been cooking meat since 4 a.m., Wayne Mueller spent three hours showing us around his restaurant and explaining how he was drawn to come back to the family business.

The food is heavily smoked and spiced with a wonderful dry rub that lived up to the place's award-winning history. We rode home stuffed.

The next morning, we rode north to Elgin's Southside Market & Barbeque. Housed in a warehouse, the place is enormous. And, we discovered, open at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Southside has the most dead animals of any barbecue joint we visited, with mounted heads rimming the butcher shop and another large dining area. The big tin shed feel is factory-like. But the sausage is good and the baby back ribs are great. Ambience aside, Southside is worth a stop.

Our next stop was in Luling, home to the City Market, one of the most highly-awarded BBQ joints in Texas. They were closed on Sunday, so we walked about a block down the street to the Luling B-B-Q, a squat red brick building painted in five-foot-high letters that read, "B-B-Q."

We were immediately assaulted by a pack of Brits. They eyed the bikes dubiously, skeptical of another American motorcycle manufacturer, and one of the men informed me that the best barbecue in the world could be found at City Market next door. He went into a lengthy (and incorrect) explanation of the process used to cook the meat, and sniffed disdainfully at the Luling joint's inferior wares.

We decided to find out for ourselves, and went inside. The Luling B-B-Q interior is starkly Spartan, a diner with no frills. While waiting in line to order at the counter, the man in front of me ordered a half-chicken as his side order. A serious eater's establishment.

The food was greasy, smoky enough, and tasty. The brisket was on the fatty side and the sausages were wonderful. The food is affordable, authentic and tasty. And-true confession time-I loved the gooey macaroni and cheese.

Powered by two barbecue meals before noon, we headed south to the infamous town of Lockhart, which was proclaimed the BBQ Capital of Texas by the state legislature in 2003. Lockhart is a celebrity small town, with a film credit list longer than most B-movie stars. The oldest continuously family-owned barbecue restaurant in Texas is the infamous Black's Barbecue, a place that had vittles flown to D.C. to feed the President in the 1960s.

Two other joints are both highly-rated and contain more lore and drama than several decades of Days of Our Lives. Kreuz Market was founded in 1900 and is a meat-only place-no sides, no plates, no forks, and no sauce. Just meat. When the founder, Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt, passed away in 1990 he left behind a messy settlement that eventually led to a hate-mail-generating legal battle that ended when some of his descendants stayed on to run Kreuz Market while others founded Smitty's Market.

The battle was so widely-publicized it prompted Black's Barbecue to promote themselves with billboard signs reading, "No Feud Here!" The end result is that Lockhart has four world-class barbecue joints.

Black's Barbecue was packed to the rafters when we arrived. Billy and I passed, and headed over to sample Chisholm Trail B-B-Q. Founded by a guy who sold his bass boat in the 1980s to raise start-up funds, the place is a Horatio Alger story in a town populated by the Rockefellers of barbecue.

Chisholm Trail's atmosphere can kindly be described as 1970s funk, an expansive space slathered in cheap paneling and steel diner tables. The décor was nearly as worn-down as my intestinal system, which was laboring from the strain of seven BBQ meals in three days.

During my meat-saturated weekend, I came to believe barbecue is a drug. When the smoke and spice assault my senses, the urge to eat overwhelms me. And not just to delicately sample a morsel; I get the urge to rabidly chow until pork and beef run out of my ears.

Whether this is triggered by a deep primordial drive or simply the result of my gluttonous nature is a mystery to me. Whatever the source, the urge kicked into high gear when Billy brought a big plate of sausage, ribs, and brisket to the table.

The sensation was accentuated by the intense flavor and odor of the Chisholm Trail food. The smoke and salt on the meat hits you like a hammer. I felt like standing up and saluting. Billy could hardly talk-he was too busy shoving meat into his face.

As we basked in a meat-induced afterglow, a man sitting in an adjacent table leaned over.

"I hate to intrude," he said. "But you have to try the pork chop. It's not on the menu, but if you go to the counter, they'll get you one. They are about two-and-a-half inches thick-the best in Texas."

Billy and I exchanged glances. I headed to the counter and returned with a pound-and-a-half slab of chop. We finished every scrap of smoky, salty-tender goodness.

My three-day descent into meat overload sent me home with a deep appreciation for Texas-style barbecue, as well as five new pounds of flesh on my bones. After a few days of recovery time, my lust for pit-smoked beef and pork continues unabated. Just a few nights ago, I was told about the Taylor Café, a falling-down smoke-filled shack that hasn't changed much since the 1950s and has the "best brisket in Texas." The beast in my belly rumbled. Time to gas up my bike, hide the scale and hit the road.

Smoke, Salt & Iron