In my rush to post up part1 while I was on vacation, I failed to include one of the best stops of the day, Pioneer BBQ. My impression is below and has been added into the Part 1 article.
While Pioneer BBQ itself is not new, the ownership changed in 2014. Shawn Collins bought the restaurant via a craigslist ad and moved from Brooklyn with his fiancee Amy Powell down to the small out of the way town of Nixon, Texas. Nixon lies about thirty miles south of Luling and about 50 miles east of San Antonio. In other words, its not really on the way to any place in particular however it would make a nice day trip from San Antonio or a short diversion after visiting City Market in Luling. It isn’t too far out of the way to make it a stop between Houston and San Antonio either, and it is worthy of such a side trip.
You can find a good read from Daniel Vaughn at TMBBQ with a take based on his visit – http://www.tmbbq.com/pioneer-bbq-2015/
When we rolled in around well after lunch time we swung open the front door and walked into a small dining room. We were warmly greeted as we ordered up brisket, sausage, and ribs with a side of their firecracker corn, which is a spicy creamed corn. We grabbed our first slice of brisket and it was on the dry side. We frowned a bit and reached for another. This one was immensely better, our best bite of the trip so far. It appeared that the brisket wasn’t wrapped in between orders, so that edge can dry out a bit. This is one of the problems with little foot traffic, there can be minutes in between customers. Regardless, the rest of the slices were moist and delectable. The brisket had a nice bark with a little more spices than just salt and pepper.
The sausage is pre sliced and both it and the ribs are griddled with a bit of sauce. It reminded me of the way my mom would heat up sausage from the fridge so it brought back memories, but after eating a lot of great sausage that day it didn’t stand out against some of the others. We were prepared for the ribs based on Vaughn’s review but I liked how they were done. There was a bit of crispiness added by their method and they weren’t drenched in sauce.
You may be aware that none of us are sauce heads, but we were asked to sample the scorpion barbecue sauce that is made on site. It was great; a sweet mustard sauce with spice possibly from horseradish, it would go great with pulled pork but it was still very good with ribs and even our brisket.
The firecracker corn was a very solid side and even though it was a good sized serving, we finished it up quickly. I’ve said before that often spicy heat is overused and can overwhelm the other flavors, but in the firecracker corn it was just the right amount to add some zing without burn. Individual servings of smoked peach cobbler were laid out on the ordering counter and we couldn’t resist grabbing one. This was very well done with enough smoke to tweak the flavor but not so much as to be a gimmick.
We took a few moments to add our names to the wall and said our goodbyes for now. Pioneer BBQ is on my list of joints I will return to, and I recommend it to you as well. As with our trip, you can throw in a trip to Shiner and/or Gonzalez to have a nice little day trip south of I-10.
Road Trip Day 2
On day two of our BBQ road trip our itinerary was pretty easy; the big three in Lockhart and some sausage at Southside Market’s Bastrop location.
I love to visit Smitty’s. There is no other joint that I know of where you walk right into and through the history of Texas barbecue than Smitty’s. Originally Kreuz Market before the family had a spat, the building absolutely oozes the essence of Texas barbecue and it all starts the moment you walk into the door, both the front and the back.
You see, the actual front door faces Commerce Street in Lockhart, the same side where the Caldwell county courthouse is located. The back door faces North Colorado street, which is also highway 183, and is the one that most people will enter.
Both doors each open into the distinctly different experiences that founded the basis for what most of us Texans consider a true barbecue joint. I urge any barbecue fan to step outside and then walk back into the opposite door that was entered otherwise you will miss out on barbecue history by only entering from one.
Most will enter the smoke house first, upon which you will nearly trip over the fire burning next to one of the smokers. The feast of the senses begin with that visual of the fire sitting right out on the floor in a slightly sunken space next to the pit. The wisps of smoke filled air begin to fill your lungs as your gaze moves the the round cutting tables. A meat cutter may be wielding one of several large knives to slice an order as you hear the sounds of butcher paper being torn for an order in front of you. Take the time to let your eyes move to the walls of the room where a thick coating of smoke has lined every nook and cranny. A closer inspection will reveal smoke stalactites that have formed from the constant fires that burn here. Place your order and when it’s ready head into the adjoining room. Only meat is served from the smoke room, all sides and drinks are ordered separately in the market and dining room.
Once you’ve got the rest of your order from the market set your food down and step outside for just a moment before entering from the front door on Commerce Street. You see, the original barbecue joints were really just the butcher at your local market and this will help cement the image into your mind. You’ve stepped back over a hundred years in time. You may know, but smoked meats were a way to save unsold cuts of meat from spoilage. The primary business of the early joints were the grocery market itself, and pre-smoked meats were a way to prevent loss. This is why there is the tradition of having loaves of white bread along with pickles and onion out for anyone to grab. In the beginning, folks would buy an entire loaf of bread or other condiment and just leave behind what wasn’t eaten for the next person.
Over time the markets eventually gave way as larger grocery stores with multiple locations become more convenient, and also as the barbecue being served became more popular. There are only a handful of these type of establishments left, and Smitty’s is a great example of this style of joint.
Scott, Andrew, and I spent a lot of time here. We wandered throughout the smoke room and found older smokers that I hadn’t seen before. I watched the action on the cutting table for awhile before Scott and Andrew called me outside to the wood stacks. Lots of wood is needed for these inefficient pits, and like any good barbecue joint it is stacked next to the business. Smitty’s and Kreuz have the largest stacks I can recall and we played around for a bit while watching out for snakes.
Being early in the day, the brisket could have used a little more time in the smoker in our opinion, maybe just letting it rest for an hour would be enough to bring it up a notch in quality. The sausage was good, but we would have also liked a little more juice in the mix. Worth a mention is that the jalapeno sausage option here is just jalapeno rather than jalapeno and cheese which is a bit more common. When finished, we made the few block trek over to Black’s.
Black’s Barbecue has been owned by the same family since opening in 1932, and only in 2014 did the family ever expand beyond the one location. Last year an official satellite location was launched in Austin on Guadalupe Street. The family also opened Kent Black’s in San Marcos. While not associated with the Lockhart location, family members Terry Black and sons also opened a location in Austin.
The original Lockhart location sometimes gets a knock from the barbecue elitists who feel that the cafeteria style serving method doesn’t feel as authentic as the market/smokehouse setups, but that shouldn’t deter one from making a visit. In fact, with four barbecue joints just a couple of miles apart and just a short drive from Austin, Lockhart makes for one of the easiest barbecue runs out there. (This trip we didn’t visit Chisholm Trail.) When you walk into Black’s you’ll walk down a short corridor where you will pick up a tray and order your sides first as you slide it down towards the meat counter. Behind iconic cutting tables lies a brick pit built in 1949 by Edgar Black Jr and used now as a warming pit. The kitchen is small by most means, and sadly on this day our request for a tour of the pits was declined.
Our brisket looked messy and didn’t photo well partly due to the indoor lighting, but it would contain the strongest rub of the Lockhart joints. Many of the old school joints season their brisket very lightly, in stark contrast to most Austin area joints and Louie Mueller Barbecue of Taylor. The rub here had a good hit of flavor but to be clear, the rub would be considered very light for an Austin area joint. Here we encountered a nice flavor in the rub and brisket that was tender and moist. Our jalapeno cheese sausage was excellent with a mild spice and lots of juiciness.
Since we weren’t able to poke around the pits, we didn’t spend much time here and made our way to one of the largest of all joints, new or old.
I always get a bit awestruck when i walk into Kreuz. The building, erected in 1999, is simply huge. The tall ceilings are reminiscent of Louie Mueller but as you walk towards the smoke room its as if the building keeps growing deeper the further you walk. I’ve mentioned before it is almost disney-esque in proportion. A look to the left identifies a large dining area and patio, while to the right is another dining area and the market where you purchase your sides and drinks after visiting the smokehouse. Although it is much newer than Smitty’s, Kreuz still pays tribute to the legacy of separate smokeroom and market. Large signage with the menu is displayed along the walkway and when you open the doors to the smokehouse you are greeted with two cutting areas each with multiple cash registers.
Most smokehouses are quaint and directly descended from an original building built fifty to over a hundred years ago when the crowds were small and a barbecue road trip like ours would have taken weeks to complete rather than hours or days. Kreuz is in contrast to joints like Smitty’s, Black’s, and City Market in Luling. Scanning your eyes from left to right you take in pit after pit after pit in what feels more like a warehouse than a smokehouse. The fires are open like Smitty’s and without a more common firebox but the action is still mesmerizing as logs are piled onto the embers and massive amounts of heat are thrown outward. It seems inefficient but it is how it has been done in this town for generations and is part of the experience.
We indulged here as it would be our last brisket of the trip. In addition to brisket we ordered clod, which is a leaner cut that was common in the early days of commercial barbecue, a pork chop, and both regular and jalapeno cheese sausage.
This was my first time to try clod that I remember, and I feel like brisket is better so why order something that is close but not quite brisket? The sausage and pork chop were very good. We ate heartily and went over the trip in our minds before we headed out the doors to our final stop.
Southside Market (Bastrop)
We made our last stop a sausage stop. Southside Market’s history goes back 133 years, although building and ownership changed multiple times since. They have been located in Elgin for that entirety until 2014 when they opened up a Bastrop location. The sausage is made in Elgin but smoked on site fresh along with a wide array of meats.
Southside cranks out several varieties of sausage but we opted for regular beef and several of the sausage slammers, a cheese stuffed jalapeno, wrapped in pan sausage (think breakfast sausage) and then wrapped in bacon. Both options were excellent and we even purchased a pack of the slammers to go for our friend J.R. Cohen who we had been teasing with pictures throughout the day.
Travis Martin, formerly of Armadillo Willy’s, a Texas inspired barbecue chain in California, gave us a great pit tour. We saw the custom built smokers where the sausage is smoked, as well as some Oylers they have set up very well, with access to the rotisseries from inside the store. He spent a lot of time with us and we thank him for his hospitality.
We said farewell here since I was driving back with my family. We enjoyed most of the 11 stops and still were getting along so I’d call that a success. I do want to say thanks to Andrew for putting together the itinerary, and thanks to Scott as well. Somehow we made all of our stops with time to spare and didn’t feel rushed; it was a ton of fun and we are already discussing the next trip!
Check out Andrew’s blog here and follow @houstonfed on Twitter
Check out Scott’s blog here and follow @TxPitQuest on Twitter