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Sep 3, 2013 01:59 PM

Only got time for 1 BBQ spot in San Antonio / Austin area - Which one should it be?

My wife and I are travelling through the area and we're trying to figure out what BBQ spot is going to be lucky enough to get our hard-earned money. We're coming from one BBQ Mecca (Kansas City) and visiting yours ... so, we want to make sure we get your best shot.

Salt Lick?

Being from KC, I understand that BBQ is possibly the most subjective, divisive subject one can ask a group of people. We've got 5 or 6 places in KC that can make a legitimate claim on the #1 spot, and I know how had it would be to pick one (let alone recommend just one).

But time constraints are limiting us to one, so here's my question:

If you had to pick one spot that is the most consistent, most representative of Texas BBQ, which one would it be?

Thanks in advance for all your opinions on this!!!!

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  1. Can't go wrong with Smitty's or Kreuz'. We love Smitty's and go out of our way to go there any chance we get. You do know that Smitty's is the original location of Kreuz'? Before the family split up

    1. Dear Mr. JayHok (Rock Chalk!)

      Many folks say that Franklin's in Austin holds the current title for best barbecue in the state. But, if you opt for that, the line might well take you a couple of hours. In that time, you could be down to Lockhart, go to Smitty's and Black's. And Kreuz (although I've found it to be extremely inconsistent recently and it's in a soulless new building that isn't worth seeing so I would strike that off of your proposed list). (And even on down to Lockhart to go to City Market, too, for that matter. You could easily hit all three of those - Smitty's, Black's, Luling's City Market - in one morning, out of Austin.)

      Much of what makes Central Texas barbecue so wonderful is the history of the old German smoked-meat markets. Franklin's in Austin has no such history. If you're really interested in getting some sort of idea as to what Central Texas barbecue is all about, you definitely need to see some of the history involved in its evolution. So I'd probably recommend that you save Franklin's for another time.

      Not sure your route, but if you're going to be driving between San Antonio and Austin, I'd definitely recommend that you skip your idea of only hitting one BBQ joint. I've spent some time in Kansas City and it's been my experience that in KC, one does indeed pick one BBQ place, go there and have a meal, complete with sides (love LC's beans, by the way). Even though Kansas City's barbecue tradition got started by a Texas boy, Arthur Bryant, the typical Central Texas BBQ market isn't so much a restaurant as what you find in Kansas City. These old Texas meat markets still operate much like you might think of as a butcher shop or meat market, even today. So you order your meat by the pound, just as you would at a butcher counter. Most of us rarely (and I'd even say, never) get a bunch of sides and sit down to have a meal.

      So what I'd recommend you do (depending upon your route) is to plan to hit Smitty's & Black's in Lockhart, and City Market in Luling, during your travels between San Antonio and Austin. Depending upon how many folks are in your party, get just a sample of fatty brisket (and that's what you call "burnt ends" in KC, by the way) - not more than a couple of slices, so that everybody gets only a few bites just to try it. Also get at least a half of a "hot link" sausage to share. You can get one pork rib per person, too, if you want but, in my view, ribs are not why you came. Get over any misguided notion right now that you might harbor of trying our pulled pork; it's nonexistent. You'll get your meat on a piece of butcher block paper. Then go sit down and eat that. Skip any sides, unless, in your view, a slice of raw onion and a couple of pickles and perhaps a jalapeno pepper constitute a "side." Depending upon how many people are in line ahead of you, this could easily take you no more than 15-20 minutes, and you'll be back out on the road again.

      If you're going to be anywhere near Taylor, Louie Mueller's is a wonderful BBQ destination as well - full of tradition, along with the deliciousness, and it would be a good choice. But it is a bit off of the beaten track, again, depending upon your route. If you're traveling by car from Dallas, Louie Mueller's would be a fine stop. I might even say that if you're determined to only hit one joint, I'd definitely recommend that Louie Mueller's in Taylor should be it.

      But, assuming this is your first foray into Texas barbecue, a few differences of which you should be aware:

      In Kansas City, folks love their "burnt ends." What that is is the deckle, or fat cap, or point, of the brisket. After the whole, untrimmed brisket is smoked, KC pitmasters remove the deckle and chop it. Some of them then put it back into the smoker for a few more minutes. In Texas, nobody offers "burnt ends." Most Texans don't really even know what that is. I've seen a few Texas pitmasters take the name, "burnt ends," literally and try to chop up actual burnt ends from the whole brisket. The reason why you don't see "burnt ends" on Texas BBQ menus is because our pitmasters slice the whole brisket, including that deckle, and serve it as sliced brisket. So if you like the fatty part of the brisket, in Texas, when you order your sliced brisket, you will order fatty (as opposed to lean, your other choice). You can call it moist, or wet, or fatty, or off the point, or off the high side. It's the exact same thing as your burnt ends, but it's sliced, not chopped.

      Another difference. In KC, there is much ado made about the sauce. Many of the most iconic Texas smoked-meat markets don't even offer sauce. Nowhere will you see that sort of sweet, syrupy sauce that some KCers seem to really love. If you encounter sauce at all, it might be a thin, vinegary sauce, more like Tabasco. Or a peppery tomato-based sauce, thicker than Tabasco, but still nothing like those sweet thick sauces you find elsewhere. The focus down here is definitely on the exquisite perfection of the smoked meat. Not on some heavy, strongly-flavored, sweet sauce that completely overpowers and masks it.

      As these places are not so much restaurants as meat markets, few of them will give you a plate, knife, fork, etc. You get your meat on a piece of butcher block paper. You'll probably get a couple of slices of white bread. You are expected to eat this with your fingers, just as you would if you were a field hand back around the turn of the last century and at lunchtime you had gone into a local meat market, picked up some smoked meat, and then had gone back outside to eat your smoked meat and sausage, perhaps with some free saltines you got from a basket by the cash register, under a tree somewhere before you head back out to work the fields until sunset. The only sauce you have for your meat is a sprinkle of fiery hot sauce, likely Valentina, shaken from the bottle that you carry in your pocket.

      Speaking of the history of these old German smoked-meat markets, it's on full view at Smitty's in Lockhart so, if you go, be absolutely certain to tour the whole building. It is the historic and holy temple of Texas smoked-meat markets. You would be well-advised to read up a bit about its history before you go there. But know that when you are walking though that old building, with its smoke-stained walls, you are walking on hallowed ground, friend.

      Yes, some of these places offer nominal sides. Few of them are worth having. We love our soupy, cowboy-style pinto beans served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon down here, but if you're accustomed to thick, sweet baked beans that you eat with a fork, you undoubtedly will not. Potato salad is usually bought pre-made from someplace like Sysco. Same for coleslaw. Skip them. Think of yourself as doing what you are doing - sampling a bit of smoked meat from several meat markets. Not going into a barbecue restaurant and sitting down and having a meal. (Black's does have a small buffet-type display as you head toward the smoked meat butchers. The only thing this is really good for, and worth mentioning, is that if you are traveling with small children that don't want to just eat meat, Black's does have some stuff that kids like - mac&cheese, etc. When I'm doing the "BBQ tour" with my kids and grandkids, this is where the kids fill up. Or did, anyway. Now they're old enough that they're not interested in this stuff, and all they want is the 'cue, just like the grownups.)

      Most of these places start smoking the meat the night before. They open in the morning and serve until the meat is all gone. Don't plan to get to any of the legendary, iconic Central Texas meat markets much after about 1pm or so, or they might well be completely out of what you want.

      You mentioned the Salt Lick. That is the exception. It definitely is a restaurant. You go in, order your meats and sides and sit there all evening, until your peach cobbler arrives and you polish that off and waddle out the door.

      The Salt Lick has a great ranch ambiance and it can be fun for a group. But if you start asking serious barbecue aficionados about it, they all will tell you that the meat itself is definitely no longer top tier. Or even second tier. And if you want to sample some of the best smoked meats that Texas has to offer, skip it.

      12 Replies
      1. re: Jaymes

        Hi resurrecting this thread. LA hound on my virgin trip to hill country for Texas BBQ. Hit City Market in Luling this morning, great breakfast and I love the sauce.

        Need to plan 1 meal for my Lockhart stopover next week enroute to Austin. Unfortunately won't have a chance to hit all 3 big boys, just 1.

        So what should it be - Smitty's, Kreuz or Black's????

        Please help me make my stopover memorable.

        1. re: Sgee

          Definitely Black's. Take a quick walk thru Smitty's to take in the atmosphere and see their smokers, but definitely get your brisgut on at Black's.

          1. re: stevelenard


            Although I absolutely think, and am pretty dang certain, that you've got time for a slice o' brisket and a bite o' sausage at both Smitty's and Black's, if you're determined not to do that, then my advice would be the same as Stevelenard - walk through Smitty's, just to see it - something you'll remember forever. And you easily can get them to wrap up a piece of brisket & a half-link to go, which you can take to Black's.

            Where you can sit down and eat your Smitty's and Black's brisket side by side. Don't feel "weird." Everybody does it.

            1. re: Jaymes

              +1 on Black's- it being our favorite of the Lockhart trio a few weeks ago. Unless you're hitting it on a weekened with the attending crowds, you should have plenty of time to hit 2 or 3 easily; we did 1/2 lb brisket, 1/2 lb ribs at all three (3 adults) without a problem-no sides might've been the key to making this manageable.

              1. re: Sam Spade

                Thanks stevelenard, Jaymes & Sam for your replies.

                Ended up picking up a link and brisket from Smitty's to go and dined at Black's. Loved the atmosphere at Smitty's! I thought Black's felt overly commercialized but they were the most accommodative. Overall I felt Smitty's had the stronger rub but black's brisket was wonderfully moist and tender. Manage to sneak a picture of kreuz on my way to Austin. Great little stopover!

                Austin though was a bust, Franklin was sold out and pretty much all the other top spots were closed today. Ended up picking up some brisket from Valentina Tex-Mex for my plane ride back. Did not realize how big BBQ is in Austin prior to my trip. I'll be better prepared next time....

                Terrific concentration of BBQ joints in the Austin - San Antonio corridor!

                1. re: Sgee

                  Thank you so much for letting us know how it all turned out. I'm sure that wherever you live, people come to CH to ask advice and you join in the effort to help. And of course wonder how it went. So thank you for being gracious enough to tell us.

                  1. re: Sgee

                    Sounds like you did it right, Sgee -- and I completely agree with your assessment of the Smitty's atmosphere vs. Black's. I always thought Black's felt like Disney Frontierland or something. But their brisket is still in my top 3.

                    Interesting what you write about Austin too. I lived there over 10 years ago, and we had Ironworks and Sam's and you could even get solid brisket at Stubb's, but you really had to drive to Taylor, Lockhart or Llano to get what I considered to be top tier brisket. I was last in Austin 2 years ago, and I knew about Franklin's but wasn't going to wait in that line, but apparently now there's a whole lot more than just Franklin's . If you haven't already read this, check out Texas Monthly's latest rankings:

                    I really need to get back to Austin soon.

                    Anyway, thanks for sharing your story. I'm hungry.

                    1. re: stevelenard

                      I'll be in San Antone for a conference late this month (April, 2014) and will be driving to Austin and surrounds for brisket and guts.

                      A couple of years ago my buddy and I did a major BBQ tour through central TX and we thought Louie Mueller's was the best of the best. We loved Sam's too and many others. At the time, Franklin's was still in a trailer and there was an enormous line. I understand it's even longer now. I just won't stand in a line like that, period.

                      1. re: EarlyBird

                        I get a lawn chair. I don't mean to be flip but a chair, a hat and a good book. Can't think of a better way to spend a day off than that- and get Franklin's bbq as a reward. And City Market and Smittys- yes. Kreutz and Blacks no. That being said, either is better than what most other places have to offer.

                        1. re: carfreeinla

                          I just got back from the conference. Time and stomach space limited me to only two BBQ meals, City Market in Luling and Smitty's (again) in Lockhart.

                          Smitty's was a lot better this time than when I went a couple of years ago. But City Market really hit it out of the park, and I think it's second only to Louie Mueller's from all the great Central Texas BBQ I've had.

          2. Excellent commentary by Jaymes. That post should be pinned to the top of this forum. I will only take exception to the point about ribs (pork) - to me, TX bbq is about the trinity of brisket, sausage and pork ribs.

            TX Monthly just recently released it's latest Top 50 list; there's a thread on it on this board but without many posts

            # 1 in the state is Franklin's, Austin, with 5 out of 5 for a score. The next three are Pecan Lodge, Dallas, Snow's Lexington and Louis Mueller, Taylor, all with 4.75 ratings. You should know that in addition to the long wait that Franklin's is known for, both that place and Snow's commonly sell out early and Snow's is only open on Saturday mornings.

            Black's and Kreuz in Lockhart got 4.25, City Market in Luling got 4.0, neither Smitty's nor Salt Lick made the list; don't ask me why on Smitty's - like Jaymes I would skip Salt Lick.

            There are also several other places in Austin proper that got good scores but I appreciate Jaymes' comments about history and they're all quite new.

            My long time favorites have been City Mkt, Luling, Black's, and Louis Mueller.

            4 Replies
            1. re: brucesw

              So, Bruce, if you could only recommend one, would it be Louie Mueller's? I think mine would.

              Whose ribs do you like the best? I get them often but haven't really found any that I love enough to let them take away my stomach room from my beloved brisket & sausage.

              And, I've had lots of delicious pork ribs, actually all over the country. Good pork ribs seem very easy to smoke and are readily available elsewhere, including Kansas City. Even amateurs can and do smoke up racks of tasty ribs in their backyards.

              But properly smoking brisket is the most difficult thing to do. It requires the touch of a skilled pitmaster.

              And nobody, absolutely nobody, does brisket and sausage as well as us Texicans.

              And that's a damn-straight incontrovertible fact.

              1. re: Jaymes

                Mueller's if you could only go to one.

                And Black's over Smitty's and Kreuz. But hit all 3, if you have time for the trifecta.

                Southside Market in Elgin for sausage.

                And probably somewhere outside of TX for ribs. Memphis?

                1. re: Jaymes

                  I've always found it very hard to pick just one. Best sausage I've ever had was Mueller's but brisket and ribs are good too. Best brisket I've ever had was Black's. i like the links but many people don't because they're very simple. Ribs are forgettable at Black's. Best all around - for all three - City Mkt, Luling.

                  I have a friend who works on ribs who might disagree with you about how easy they are but I'm not an expert so I can't present the case.

                  My ribs favs have included the defunct Williams Smokehouse and what Dozier's used to produce -ribs with a crispy finish. The ribs I had at Killen's in Pearland were very promising, best thing I've had there so far but I've only had them once and won't be going back until they get into their permanent facility.

                  I hadn't realized you liked sausage, I thought it was all about brisket and nothing else for you. What are you picks?

                  1. re: brucesw

                    I do like Mueller's, sausage, of course. But also really, really love City Market in Luling. And Black's.

                    Sadly, I'm like that fellow that says you should love the one you're with. Whichever one I'm eating at the time, is sorta my favorite.

              2. I'm really surprised to see Salt Lick BBQ on most everyone's "skip" list. Yelp reviews post it higher than the Lockhart spots and I know Adam Richman's visit during an episode of Man Vs. Food sure did a good job of selling it.

                But it looks like I'm really being pulled to Mueller's, Black's, or Kreuz's. And I'm totally cool with that!!

                We're spending the day (Saturday) at Schlitterbahn and then heading out for BBQ later. Mueller's may be a little of reach, so we may just hit the big 3 in Lockhart and see what it's all about.

                Thanks for the great info Jaymes. Being a burnt end aficionado (and maker myself) I appreciate the tip on how to order them down in the Republic.

                1. Louie Mueller's. Especially if you go early enough that they have sausages. And when they ask if you want the lean or fatty end of the brisket, just say, "Fatty, of course!"