Central Texas BBQ
I originally intended this to be a brief post, but once I started writing, I couldn’t shut myself up. So, sorry for the length.
Over the summer I made a few trips out to some of the BBQ establishments of central Texas, which was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. Since I first heard about these places on the chowhound forums, I figured I would throw in my two cents, and hopefully spread the good word of BBQ.
I began my journeys by going to City Market Luling. At the time I considered myself primarily a fan of brisket, and so ordered a large amount of brisket with smaller portions of ribs and sausage as well. Oh how quickly my eyes would be opened to the transcendent pleasures of pork ribs and sausage! I first sampled the brisket, taking what looked like the thickest, juiciest slice, and ripping into it with the primal fury of a starved cave-man ravaging a fresh-cooked beast. Unfortunately, I found it disappointing. It was by no means bad, being relatively tender, juicy, and having a nice beef flavor, but given my expectations, I couldn't help but feel unsatisfied. So, I continued on to the sausage. The casing was perfectly smoked, and perfectly filled, resulting in the intense pop that defines a good sausage. However, where the best sausage that I had previously eaten left off, the City Market sausage just began. The pop combined with the instant explosion of juice, spice, and ground meat into my mouth simulated what I imagine shock therapy must feel like. Each bite had the effect of completely wiping out all mental processes, and leaving me peacefully satiated. I intended to only sample a small portion of sausage, and then move onto the pork ribs, but found myself unable to pull away from the link until it had been properly devoured. Once I bit into the pork ribs, I contemplated suicide, instantly realizing that up until that point my life had been a complete waste, and that a life spent not constantly consuming such glorious meat was hardly a life worth living. However, the same pork rib that sent me spiraling into madness was also the same rib which inspired me to persevere with life. The outside of the rib had a deliciously sweet, sticky coating, almost reminiscent of some Asian style ribs that I’ve had, but inside the coating was the most tender meat imaginable, full of smokiness and pork essence. I suspect that the outside coat perhaps has the property of sealing in the porky goodness of the ribs, as they slowly soaks up the redolent smoke while cooking in the pit. Needless to say, I didn’t even bother with the brisket, but rather went back and ordered another half pound of ribs and two sausage links. After the meal I literally couldn’t move, and forced my companions, who were equally impressed by the sausage and ribs, to sit in the restaurant for another twenty minutes or so. Once I finally conceded to leaving, we stopped off at the fake grill store across the street (called Iced-Out Grillz), and had a jolly good laugh at their various wares. Overall, my first visit to City Market may be the greatest eating experience of my life.
Next, I convinced a friend to drive to Taylor. First we ate at Louie Mueller’s. The building had a splendid BBQ ambience, and seeing old-man Mueller still behind the counter gave me a thrill. After ordering our meat, he gave us each a small sampling of his tasty brisket. I also appreciated the mason jar full of Shiner Bock. We took a seat in the back room, next to a fan, and dug in. The brisket was superior to City Market, and, at that point in time, was the best brisket I had ever experienced (a little foreshadowing?). The slices were beautiful, thick, glistening chunks of meat. They tore apart easily, and tasted delicious. The sausage was good, but not spectacular. They were well cooked, had a nice pop to them, but I didn’t particularly love the flavor, and was simply not wowed by them. I’m nearly positive that we also ordered pork ribs, but frankly I have no recollection of eating them, so they must not have been very good. I loaded up pretty well on meat, but did not let that deter me from assaying the other BBQ joints in Taylor. I walked into Mikeska’s across the street, but didn’t even bother ordering any food from them. I had read fairly unenthusiastic reviews about the place, but figured I would check it out nonetheless. When I went in, the interior reminded me exactly of a Bill Miller’s, with its cafeteria-style setup. There was no great smoky atmosphere or anything, and the people behind the counter did not radiate a passion for the art of ‘que, so I simply turned around and walked out. I felt rather sorry for the people running the joint, but could hardly bring myself to eat out of pity. We traveled down a couple of blocks to Vencil’s Taylor Café, which has to be the coolest location and establishment in Central Texas. Surrounding Vencil’s are nothing but empty buildings that probably haven’t been inhabited since the 50’s or 60’s, a rail-track, and a highway. The restaurant’s patrons seemed to consist entirely of locals sitting around, listening to tejano, and getting drunk in the middle of the afternoon. The 80-something year old Vencil sat at the bar hunched over, with a glazed look on his face, staring at nothing, and giving off the impression that his delicious meat was the only thing keeping him going. I had a particular craving for pork ribs, having not been satisfied with Louie Mueller’s, and had read that Vencil’s best meat was pork rib. So, I ordered nothing but ribs, with every intention of returning another time for the brisket and sausage. The pork ribs were remarkable; different then City Market, not as a unique approach to ribs (with the coating, etc.), but remarkable nonetheless. They emanated pure porkiness, and were beautifully pink from smoke. The meat was very tender, but not quite as tender as City Market’s. If forced to do so, I suppose I would rank City Market’s slightly superior, but, for all intensive purposes, I would describe Vencil’s ribs as ‘separate but equal’ (with an ironic reference to their storied history of segregation). By the bye, nearly everyone in the place was a minority, as was the lady behind the counter, and there really didn’t seem to be any racial tension. On our way back to Austin, we stopped of at Round Rock donuts, but sadly found that it closes at 3. However, for anyone looking for a donut, they have the best around. Indeed, I did return about a month later to sample Vencil’s brisket and sausage. I attempted to order ribs, but it was fairly late in the day (Vencil’s is open 7 days a week from 9am –11pm), and they were out, so, I recommend getting there earlier than dinner time. The brisket had a nice flavor, and was fairly tender, but the cut of meat was blatantly inglorious. It looked no different than the brisket that one gets at most places, and I ended up resorting to making sandwiches out of it with pickles, onions, and sauce- I liked their hot sauce. I ordered pork sausage only, even though they offer turkey. It had a great flavor, the spice didn’t dominate the flavor of the meat, but it wasn’t particularly well made. The links were over-filled, and the casing was too thin, which made any possibility of a mind-blowing pop non-existent. Still though, I enjoyed the sausage, and to a lesser extent the brisket sandwiches. This time my partners and I ordered several rounds of beer, and watched a football game on their TV, which gave us a chance to enjoy the one-of-a-kind atmosphere, which, next to the pork ribs, is the best thing about Vencil’s.
Though Lockhart is generally considered the epicenter of Texas BBQ, I went there third. We ordered food to go from the Big Three- Kreuz, Smitty’s, and Black’s- and ate them all on a well-shaded bench near the picturesque courthouse. From Kreuz we ordered brisket, beef shoulder, and sausage; from Smitty’s we ordered the same; and from Black’s we ordered brisket, pork ribs, and sausage. We also picked up some beans at Kreuz, and some sauce from Smitty’s and Black’s, as Kreuz only had salsa. First we opened Black’s: Let me say that watching the brisket being cut at Black’s, assuming it’s a fairly freshly picked brisket, is an amazing experience in and of itself. The man manning the knife cuts through the thickly sliced meat with one swift slice, and as he does so, a beef-tinted water/juice literally pours from without the meat, exciting the viewer with the prospects of his soon to be meal. There being a just and graceful God, the brisket lived up to the promise. Describing the rich flavor and superlative texture would be rather difficult, so, I will suffice to say that since eating Black’s brisket, I haven’t so much as contemplated going back for Louis Mueller’s. Two people I know have complained that they found Black’s brisket too fatty, but there will always be some fat on a tender, juicy piece of brisket, and I certainly don’t believe there is too much on Black’s. The pork ribs sucked. As for the sausage, each time I have eaten there, I’ve had a different sausage experience. The first time, the sausage was a weird pink color, like a rib, and it had a strange aftertaste. Other times it’s been over-cooked, and tuff, and only once did I think that it was very well made. Generally it’s tasty, but inconsistent, and I didn’t care for the jalapeno sausage much at all. The brisket though is truly incredible. Second we opened up the Kreuz meats: They were all very sub-par. I liked the building, and the side-burned meat-cutter was entertaining, but the meat was worthless. The sausage was so chewy it was impossible to eat, not to mention it tasted old and flavorless, the shoulder was completely dry and incredibly salty, and the brisket was tuff and dry. However, the jalapeno soaked beans were delicious, and worth trying if you’re in the area. Lastly, we tried Smitty’s: The building had a great look and smell, and when they pulled out the shoulder, it truly looked delicious, with a glistening, glazed outside. The sausage was good-- tasty, well prepared, but not in the same league as City Market. I’ve had the sausage one other time, and it was still pretty good, so I would say that Smitty’s, in my experience, has better sausage than Black’s. The brisket was tasty and tender, but far too fatty, and not as flavorful and generally miraculous as Black’s. The shoulder did end up being very tasty, though slightly dry, which I suppose is to be expected when compared with brisket. If you like a leaner cut of meat than brisket, I would recommend Smitty’s shoulder. They were, relative to standard BBQ places, very good, but given that such great brisket is just a couple of blocks away, and that mind-blowing ribs and sausage are only 15 miles South, I don’t foresee myself frequenting Smitty’s all that often. I have yet to try Chisolm Trail because something about it just doesn’t attract me; it seems more like a restaurant than a pure BBQ house.
The only other remote location that I’ve been to is Gonzalez Food Market. I went to Ruby’s in Austin, which was supposed to be good, but didn’t care for it much at all. In the past I’ve also been to places like Rudy’s, Stubb’s, etc., but I’m not blown away by any of them. I never made it to Elgin, so I can’t comment, nor have I been to Cooper’s. Regarding Gonzalez Food Market, I would argue that it is by far the most underrated BBQ joint in Central Texas, and in some ways the best overall place for meats of all type. The brisket was very tender and juicy, not quite to Black’s level, nor quite as flavorful, but a good second. The pork ribs were very tender, though without the wow factor of City Market, nor the terrific pork flavor of Vencil’s. I believe the sausage was pork (I prefer at least partially beef ones), but extremely well flavoured, and well made—though slightly too stubby from an aesthetic perspective. I also had some lamb ribs which would have been truly remarkable if not for how fatty they were. They were far more tender than the pork ribs, and had a delicious gamy flavour, but the copious amount of fat was quite bothersome.
As far as getting all the meats in one place, I would rank Gonzalez highest, which might surprise some people. There is certainly a great benefit to being able to sit down at one time and completely stuff oneself on a smorgasbord of four different meats, but, as far as I’m concerned, nothing can compare to the ribs and sausage at Luling, and the brisket at Black’s. Vencil’s is also definitely a worthwhile and unique experience, and if you haven’t been, go soon while Vencil is still around.
A few miscellaneous points: I’m not a great lover of sauces, but I did sample the various ones. Kreuz doesn’t really have its own; Smitty’s is too sweet; Black’s is pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary, likewise for Vencil’s (though I did like the hot sauce); Louie Mueller’s just has some sort of meat-juice it seemed, which added a little bit of extra flavour; City Market has a mustard based sauce which is very good, but fairly unnecessary given the great flavour of the meat (it might be good on the brisket if you care to try it); and, I didn’t sample Gonzalez’. Also, Luling, Louie Mueller’s, and Kreuz are not open on Sundays, but I think the rest are.
If you happen to have read this whole thing, I hope you found it useful.
This should be pinned to the top. Now if we could only get a review of the Llano/Mason area joints on here we would have it covered. Thanks for the write up. I'm definitely heading to Taylor to try Vencil's.
Thanks for your lengthy reply, the best I've read on C-Texas bbq in some time. My first experience at City Market in Luling parallels yours except that the brisket I had was spectacular, too, making that probably the best overall bbq meal I've ever had. I've experienced inconsistency at Kreutz, unfortunately, but still give it a shot every now and then. The best single sausage I've ever had was at Louie Mueller's but mostly I've been unimpressed; that's a relative assessment, of course, considering what I'm comparing it to. It's hard to choose between Black's and Luling's sausage for me. Never yet been to Smitty's, Vencil's or Gonzalez, but I'll be looking forward to them.
Thanks ever so much for the reviews.Due to the price of gas I don't go driving around to those places anymore.Since Luling isn't that far from Seguin,I'll have to take a drive there,maybe in the springtime when the wildflowers are blooming and check out City Market.Also you don't hear much about Gonzales Market.By the way,where in town is it located at? When we would go for drives,we would often stop at the Dairy Queen for something to eat,which isn't too far from H.E.B.Grocery Store.
IIRC, City Market is very easy to get to. From I-10, take the Luling exit into town, and pay attention as you reach the railroad tracks. City Market is 1/2 block form the highway in the business strip fronting the railroad tracks.
Also, there is a place in Lockhart called Chisholm Trail BBQ, on the south end of town as opposed to the 'big three'. Their brisket isn't bad, and I haven't tried their ribs, but their sausage is to me like the City Market sausage was to jogo5. The flavor is excellent, and it explodes in your mouth. They also have some excellent creamed corn.
Excelent review. I've never been to Vencil's, but, having made many drives from Austin to Gonzales, have hit every spot on the way. Other than not liking Black's as much as you (except for the fact that Black's is open later than the other joints), I agree with your insightful analysis. I'm glad you liked the Gonzales place. Next time you're in Big G, check out the Cow Palace -- the diner attached to the cattle auction barn just off 183 -- as they make a fine burger and top-notch onion rings.