A Hill Country Tour
For our first ride out to the Fredericksburg/Kerrville area we had lined up a fully loaded itinerary. Originally this same weekend was scheduled for a ride to New Mexico to participate in a BMW rally and to hit up Big Boy’s BBQ on the way but my work schedule put a damper on the plans. Since we were already off Thursday we decided to do a short but action packed trip to San Antonio and northwest. We would ride Wednesday after work to San Antonio, then up Cranky Frank’s and Buzzie’s BBQ while also making stops at Garrison Brother’s Distillery, LBJ Ranch, Luckenbach Texas, and a visit to Stonehenge II. On Friday our day would be occupied by a trip to Sea World and a penguin encounter followed by the long ride back to Tomball. I would leave for India on Saturday so we wanted to make sure to get home with enough buffer for any unexpected events.
On Wednesday I got home from work, pulled the bike out of the garage and began prepping it. I could see rain off to the northeast, moving towards the house but the previous night it never came close enough to get anything wet. By the time Leslye made it home though the skies opened up with a heavy downpour. Looking at the weather radar online, there was a storm basically right on top of us and it looked like it would move directly along our planned route outbound.
We waited a bit and pondered taking the Jeep instead of the motorcycle but I really wanted to get some hill country riding in before my business trip. I kept watching the storm track and figured there might be a small window of opportunity. Another storm cell had already broken out to the northeast but the one that was currently overhead might give a small chance to sort of outrun it. It was now crossing over highway 290 and would be in between 290 and I-10 as it moved towards San Antonio or Austin. If we rode behind it, by the time we got to 290 we could turn due south following FM359 and ride past one side of the storm. Then, if we were lucky, we could pass the storm while on I-10 and make it to San Antonio before it hit.
We left just after the rain stopped at 6:30 pm. The roads were still wet but we couldn’t afford too much delay in order to beat the storm. The roads began to dry as we rode down FM359 and by the time I turned onto FM1458 in Pattison, Texas we were on roads untouched by the storm. We followed FM1458 which winds nicely into San Felipe and then jumped onto I-10. Our first gas stop in Columbus was brief and we were quickly back on the highway.
Normally I try to ride just about any road other than an interstate highway, but we were riding at night so scenery wouldn’t matter and we wanted to get to our hotel on the Northwest side of San Antonio as quickly as possible. Although I was bored I did marvel at the interstate highway system. With a posted speed limit of 75 and reaching legal speeds of 85 mph in some parts of the state, one can make amazingly good time. The road was smooth and the limited on ramps help facilitate consistently fast speeds
In Weimar I caught a glimpse of a small herd of deer and reminded myself that we would be in the will country where they can be a true safety hazard. I haven’t forgotten the Goldwing that came into Union Cycle Salvage when I worked there; the rider had died, the bike was a mess, and there where traces of deer fur in between the cracked plastic in numerous places. While still dangerous to a car, a deer collision on a motorcycle is catastrophic. I’ve seen them many times when riding my bicycle on long distance events and they can act inconsistent at times. One shouldn’t be lured into complacency just because they seem to be peacefully standing on the side of the road.
Riding the Lightning
About thirty minutes later we could see the light show from the thunderstorm. Lightning would flash every second and it sometimes looked like it was a war zone. This continued for the next hour as we rode alongside but far enough south of the storm as to not get wet. We saw mostly cloud to cloud or obscured lightning until finally cresting a hill and then the light show really was fantastic. About that same time Led Zeppelin’s song “when the levee breaks” came on my playlist. There are times during a ride when the synchronization of music and environment are stunning, and this was one. It was hard to focus on the road ahead but I caught as much visual as I could.
By Seguin we were ahead of the storm enough that the lightning was behind my shoulder. We both breathed a sigh of relief and thought we were beyond its reach for the night. We came up to our turn on the edge of San Antonio at Loop 1604 and headed northward. Just as we straightened up from the turn there were a couple of vivid flashes off in the distance directly ahead. We thought we might head into the rain but luckily it was farther off than it seemed and we made a westerly turn as we followed Loop 1604 on the north end. We arrived at the hotel at Loop 1604 and Texas 281 without a drop of rain hitting us.
Garrison Brothers Distillery
Thursday morning we headed out northward on Texas 281. I crested a hill as we escaped the grasp of the suburbs of San Antonio when a tune by Stevie Ray Vaughan began to play. The combination of Texas music with the Texas hill country is nothing short of magic. I gassed up in Blanco with Garrison Brothers Distillery as our scheduled first long stop. However rather than turn in Blanco and follow the original planned route I mistakenly continued northward. As we rolled closer to Johnson City and didn’t see the road we were supposed to turn on I began to realize my error. Unfortunately our timeframe was too tight and I couldn’t afford to turn around; the tour time we were working toward was at 10am and we didn’t have time in our schedule to make the next one at noon. I began to do the math in my head to try and calculate the speed required to make our tour while nervously dialing up the speed as we neared Johnson City. Passing through the town it wasn’t long before the turnoff for the distillery, but at this point we had mere minutes before the tour was to start. I cruised down the road on the far side of safe riding and we pulled onto the gravel driveway with only a couple of minutes to spare.
Once at our destination though time seemed to slow to a true Texas hill country pace. I’ve had this feeling before, most recently at Cooper’s BBQ in Llano. The forced mechanical structure of the big city quickly melts away as the pace slows down. Our hosts were cordial and we were carted with a group of others to the main buildings on the site.
We learned about bourbon and about the short history of Garrison Brothers. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but in order for a spirit to be labeled bourbon it must adhere to a strict set of rules. One of the clinchers is limestone filtered water. Those native to Texas may know that limestone is abundant in the hill country, and this is one of the reasons why bourbon can be produced in Texas. One of the other requirements is that the charred-wood barrels that the bourbon is aged in must be virgin. After a single use they must be sold or otherwise disposed of. No artificial colors or flavoring can be added either; the caramel color comes purely from aging in the charred barrels. This makes bourbon a more expensive endeavor than whiskey or a blended spirit.
The tour of the small facility includes tasting opportunities throughout the process, from the mash to moonshine to the final product. We were in for a treat on our visit as they were bottling a batch. Each batch is bottled when it’s ready, which is determined by tasting. If a batch isn’t ready they let it age longer. With a small crew of volunteers the final product is hand bottled and inspected. Every bottle is then hand dipped in sealing wax and Dan Garrison hand signs every individual bottle.
The attention to detail and honor to the tradition shows in the final product. Recent changes to liquor laws in Texas now allow them to sell the bottles at their gift shop, but arcane rules require them to not undercut the retail price significantly. This means little to no discount off of the retail price which was running $75 at Spec’s when I checked. However, if you are a bourbon or whiskey connoisseur I highly recommend trying it.
We left the distillery and made the short ride over to the LBJ Ranch. My parents used to take me there when I was younger but it had been a number of years since my last visit. The tram ride and low bridge crossing are no longer part of the tour. I already recalled hearing LBJ’s favorite song on the tram ride; “Raindrops keep falling on your head.” I know it’s sappy, but it reminds me of my time with parents and a number of emotions flow through my body. We stopped at the one room schoolhouse and later saw the amphibious car that he would surprise guests who were not told of its amphibious capability by claiming the brakes had failed on the car before plunging into the Pedernales River. A new item had been introduced since my last visit, a small plane that would land at the very short airstrip and ferried the president back and forth between the white house and his ranch.
We followed Ranch Road 1 along the Pedernales and then continued on Hwy 290 toward Fredericksburg. This area is filled with small wineries and there are stretches where they are lined up one after the other. I made a mental note to consider doing a winery focused trip in the future as we rolled through the city.
We came upon Cranky Frank’s after almost riding past and cautiously parked in the gravel lot. I caught a glimpse of the smokers working in a building off to the side as we entered the main dining room. The line was pretty short even though it was only a little after 1pm. It wasn’t too disconcerting though as this was Thursday in a town where the visiting traffic is primarily only on the weekend. The lack of a crush of tourists throughout this area during the weekday is nice though, and I recommend trying to plan a trip during the workweek if you like short lines and less traffic.
The dining options here differ from most. While they offer the traditional meat by the pound, their combo plates include unlimited sides. However due the unlimited nature they forbid sharing a plate between two people, which is our normal choice. Since I liked the idea of trying multiple sides I decided to get a combo plate while Leslye ordered a sausage sandwich. There was one additional thing that was odd; they do not offer two or three meat combo plates. This was fine since Leslye was getting the sandwich so I opted for brisket.
Our Qcard got us a free drink which we certainly needed as the temperature was climbing quickly. After getting our order we headed to the side bar which is buffet style. We chose potato salad, pinto beans, and green beans.
The biggest failure with BBQ joints is undercooked brisket. This leaves the fat chewy and without rendering down the fat does not self-baste the meat. While it may seem counterintuitive, leaving the brisket in the heat long enough for the fat to begin to melt down can make for a final product that is moister than one that is pulled off an hour or so earlier. If the brisket is left on too long then the fat renders out and it begins to dry up.
Cranky Frank’s brisket was well rendered, to the point that it was slightly overcooked, but I will take that over undercooked. The bark provided very little flavor from the rub and the smoke flavor didn’t permeate deeply into the meat, but it was good. The sausage tasted commercial and had a fine grind typical of being processed off-site, but had flakes of pepper visible. It’s possible this was a custom grind, but the casing had a plain snap.
Cranky Frank’s offers two types of sauce. The sweet sauce was pretty standard but I did enjoy their German style. It tasted of hints of mustard and I liked it.
The pinto beans were plain and soupy. The potato salad was tangy with pimento and mayonnaise flavor. The potatoes were sliced rather then cut, almost like thick potato chips, but they were well done. I kind of liked the way they were sliced as it added a bit of a different texture than normal. Both Leslye and I really liked the green beans and opted for a second helping. The only desserts we saw were pudding and passed on the option.
From Cranky Frank’s we backtracked a little and it was a short ride over to Luckenbach, Texas. This tiny little town was immortalized in song and is a great way to kill time in the hill country. In the daytime a visit entails checking out the general store and possible picking up souvenirs or oddities, then grabbing a beer on the way out the back to sit amongst the shade trees and listen to a guitar “picker”. The party really cranks up on the weekends with larger bands and touring acts. A dance hall and large outdoor areas host crowds while multiple outdoor beer stands satisfy thirsty tourists. Camping is offered nearby and is a popular option for two and three wheeled riders.
When we picked out our souvenirs a Texas sized caricature of a man who was either truly unique or trying hard to play the part “deputized” Leslye with a sticker and didn’t charge us for her candy cane. I grabbed a Lone Star beer from the bar and we sat under the shade while listening to the acoustic guitar player. A few chickens walked around minding their own business as he played and once again that slow Texas pace warmed us over. I could have stayed here all afternoon but we still had a lot to accomplish this day so we saddled up and headed towards Kerrville.
Rather than the most direct route, I chose some of the best roads in Texas, including another T1 stretch as defined by Butler Maps. We first followed FM1376 south to FM473. FM473 took us to Comfort, Texas where we hopped on I10 for a few miles. We then dropped onto FM1341 for some great riding into Kerrville. I rode right past Buzzie’s BBQ even though Leslye had tried to get my attention, and rode for a couple of miles before turning around. Buzzie’s is located about five blocks off of Texas 16 in Kerrville and is very easy to pass by.
We walked into Buzzie’s ready for cool drinks and hot BBQ at about 4pm in the afternoon. The newer and very clean building was impressive even though it was a little deserted in between the lunch and dinner rushes.
At Buzzie’s they offer their combo plates in small and large sizes. The small had plenty of food for us to share and potato salad and beans completed our brisket and sausage order. Go for the large plate if you’re really hungry, but the small was still a good value. We also got a couple of the largest lemonades they had. Leslye noted to me that the gentlemen in front of us was paying for his $1,300 catering order so I felt a little embarrassed with our small shared plate, but we still were to have one more BBQ meal after this one. Buzzie’s also provides a discount when a Qcard is presented.
The brisket had well rendered fat and the smoke flavor carried deeper into the meat than our previous stop, but it was a little more dried out than Cranky Frank’s. It was 4 pm though so I’ll probably let the dryness slide until I get a chance to come back and check them out again. I preferred Cranky Frank’s moister brisket to Buzzie’s but Leslye gave the edge to Buzzie’s based on the smokiness.
The sausage was a full link, sliced into pieces about 4/5 of the way through the sausage, leaving it just barely intact. While I prefer mine unsliced in order to get the maximum effect of the snap of the casing, I like this style better than fully sliced, though. The sausage here was good. The casing seemed commercial but the filling looked to have a complex list of ingredients and I believe it was a custom grind. Both Leslye and I preferred the sausage at Buzzie’s.
The beans here had more of a sauce than a soupy base, and we wolfed them down. They were some of the better ranch style beans we’ve had in a while. The potato salad was mustard based but neither of us cared much for it. The potatoes were a little raw as well, something I see far too often.
We had spent more time than expected, and there was a line of rain that had formed covering part of our planned route so we re-planned while cooling off at Buzzie’s. After checking out Stonehenge II, we would take TX 27 back through Comfort, Texas and then I-10 down to “Scenic Loop” which sounded scenic and at least got us off I-10.
The Original Rudy’s BBQ Location
As we neared our onramp I realized we would need to make a fuel stop relatively soon. I remembered that the original Rudy’s BBQ was located not far from us so I pulled off and checked the location on my phone. After squaring up our directions we jumped back on the freeway. The traffic began to build as we neared San Antonio with the fuel level dropping to the point of concern. We made it to Rudy’s with the tank pretty low but with the fuel light not yet on.
The original pit master and co-founder Mack “Doc” Holiday passed away in 2007 but the Rudy’s chain continues to grow. BBQ was added to the original gas station and general store in 1989 when it was called “Rudolph’s” and they have held fast to 100% wood fueled BBQ ever since. It is rare to find a chain of any size using 100% wood, as the difficulty of providing high quality smoked meats with the finicky fuel usually has the chains resorting to cookers that are primarily gas fired with wood added only as a flavor enhancer. The gas cookers feature electronically controlled temperature and are basically set-and-forget appliances.
I was a bit surprised with the small size of the original location. Rudy’s has grown into a large chain with 35 locations featuring large dining halls and a line winding back and forth like a theme park. In a nod to the original location the sites include a gas station. The original location was very simple although not as small as some of the BBQ shacks I’ve been to. Two fuel pumps in front of a small store, with a dining room inside the convenience store. An extension added a second connected dining room and additional seating was outside. The smokehouse was in its own partition.
Sides and meat are ordered in the smokehouse along with bottled drinks. Fountain drinks and additional standard convenience store drink options are inside the store. When going through the line we got samples of the creamed corn, which I liked, and of the sausage, which was also good although more of a commercial style than a house made. We didn’t have room for much food though so we just ordered up a quarter pound of fatty brisket. When I placed my order I was first met with an inquisitive look by the heavy set lady at the counter. I request fatty brisket although many BBQ joints refer to it as “moist” due to the word insinuating it is a poor or unhealthy cut of meat. However this time my enthusiasm for spouting off the word and the particular person on the receiving end may have not gone over well. I think I need to just start saying “moist” as I believe the lady at the counter thought I had barked out a request for “a quarter pound of brisket, fatty.” She was not amused.
Back at the table we examined the brisket. The brisket had well rendered fat, but was light on smoke flavor. I’ve had some surprisingly good brisket at The Woodlands location, and much worse experience at some others. However, this is 100% wood fueled BBQ and I’d still recommend it over a number of other joints I’ve visited. Rudy’s gets knocked around a lot in the BBQ review scene and I’m sure there are locations or times where it is well deserved but I’ve had some solid BBQ there as well. On this day this was middle of the road BBQ; not bad at all but not exceptional enough to go out of the way to eat.
Our hotel for the second evening was closer to Sea World, and as we rode down Loop 1604 I saw that the clouds that had been holding back rain all day had finally begun to let loose. Overall we really had been pretty lucky with the weather and here again we dodged the downpour and only had to deal with wet roads. For Friday we would take a shuttle from the hotel to Sea World and head home as soon as our day was done there.
Sea World Penguin Tour
We watched a few shows at Sea World and rode a couple of rides during our visit, but our main reason for spending the day was the “Penguin Tour”. Leslye is a big fan of penguins and this add-on includes a behind the scenes tour of the penguin habitat and a personal encounter with a live penguin. This option was $40 a person in addition to the general admission ticket and was half the price of another penguin option that included actually entering in the snow packed exhibit. The tour was very cool and the Magellanic penguin that we got to hang out with made for a great experience. I did catch a glimpse of “Shamu’s Smokehouse” while we were at the park, including their displays of wood out front but we stuck with basic theme-park food.
The Slog back home down I-10
When our day at the park ended we took the shuttle back to the hotel and the motorcycle. I was a bit nervous about traffic during rush hour but we made it down to Hwy 90 and then onto I10 without significant delay. We did get into a bit of a backup around Seguin when we came upon a semi-trailer truck that had flipped onto its side. The wreck was in the other direction so although our side was stop and go for a bit it picked back up to normal speed before we melted in the heat. I watched the stopped traffic as we motored along and counted about three and a half miles of stopped vehicles; I was glad we were moving along.
We stopped at the large Buc-ee’s station near Luling, Texas and spent a few minutes trying to cool down. That was our last stop as we followed I-10 into Brookshire, headed north on FM362 to Hwy 290, and finally turned onto FM2920 for the ride back into Tomball. The ride home is always a time of remembrance and the trip flashed through my mind as we rode into the night. I can’t wait to get back out to the hill country again. I feel like it flows through me; that it is both part of me and I am part of it. There are still BBQ joints out there to see, events to attend, and roads to ride. I hope to be back there soon.