Texas BBQ Road Trip Masters
Scott of Texas Pit Quest and Andrew of Houston Fed along with myself began planning our third road trip as soon as we had completed the second. Our first trip took us to Kreuz Market in Bryan, Blue Moon BBQ near Hearne, Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton, and then to Freedmen’s Bar and Stiles Switch in Austin before making the run back to Houston. We only stopped at barbecue joints during this inaugural trip.
Our second trip was much more ambitious, with 10 stops and over 500 miles in a day, including City Market in Schulenberg, Prause Meat Market in LaGrange, Zimmerhansel’s in Smithville, Pieous in Dripping Springs, Schmidt Family in Bee Cave, It’s all good and Opie’s in Spicewood, Highway 29 BBQ in Bertram, and then Brown’s Bar-B-Que and Terry Black’s in Austin before our run back to Houston. Pieous’ specialty is pizza but they offer a smoked pastrami that we found excellent. Watch for a post on that trip soon. You can read Andrew’s take on road trips in his post and Scott’s trip report at his site. By the way, you can catch Scott on twitter @txpitquest and Andrew @houstonfed.
We decided to plan for something a little bit between the longer distance and few stops of the first run and the hectic pace of the second. We also wanted to add in a little variety with a brewery stop during the day. We would make a run south of I-10 and headed west, through what we nicknamed the “sausage corridor” where Czech style sausage was the specialty. We would also be able to squeeze in a mid day visit to the Spoetzl brewery for samples of Shiner’s finest and visit Pioneer BBQ which has had some good buzz recently. I also convinced them to do an overnight stay with dinner, live music, and more brew at Hays County Barbeque in San Marcos. The short drive to Lockhart from there would allow us to visit the ‘big three’ and since we would also drive through Bastrop on the way back, we would stop in at Southside Market for a bite of sausage and try their sausage slammers again. Those start with a cheese stuffed jalapeno, which is wrapped in pan sausage (think breakfast sausage) and then wrapped in bacon. We had them at the Houston BBQ Festival and they were still dancing around in our heads. This would put the total stops at eleven, but spread over two days.
Once again though we would need to temper our desire to try everything and eat small samples at each stop, or at least we kept telling ourselves that was the plan. With the second trip we were limited to sausage only due to early arrival and other meats that were not ready. We would find ourselves ordering more than we probably should on this trip. We were helped in the consumption this time with Scott’s son Joey, who hung with us like a pro.
As we’ve each mentioned before, it is difficult to find compatible folks on road trips, especially ones with the pacing that we set. Somehow we enjoy each other’s company and while we often find our conversation veering away from barbecue we haven’t seemed to hit that dead point where someone decides to crank up the music and kill the discussion. Well, at least they seem to tolerate myself and each other for the duration of the trip. None of us smoke, so there isn’t that downtime while waiting for someone to rush themselves through a cigarette. We also enjoy a moderate amount of adult beverages. Even something as seemingly simple as having more than a few throughout the day can cause additional stops that burn up the daylight and can throw a trip off schedule.
As our trip date neared the rains in Texas continued to fall. Wimberley, not far from San Marcos, and San Marcos were hit hard and flood decimated many homes along the Blanco river which runs through Wimberley. This destruction made us reconsider our trip. While the rivers were still running heavy the roads were still passable along our route. At the same time though, the loss of life and property is much more significant than a few guys running around Texas eating food. We decided to stay with our original date, but I would recommend readers to consider a donation to your local charity, United Way, or Operation Barbecue Relief which is a national non profit that provides disaster relief and were dispatched to the Wimberley area.
May 2015 BBQ Road Trip Itinerary:
(* = Current TMBBQ Top 50, # = Previous TMBBQ Top 50)
#Vincek’s Smokehouse, East Bernard
* Austin’s BBQ, Eagle Lake
#Novasad’s BBQ and meat market, Hallettsville
Gonzales Food Market, Gonzales
Pioneer BBQ, Nixon
*City Market, Luling
*Hays County Barbeque, San Marcos
#Smitty’s Market, Lockhart
*Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart
*Kreuz Market, Lockhart
#Southside Market, Bastrop
A mixed bag
With almost all of the joints having appeared on the vaunted TMBBQ top 50 lists at least once, we had very high expectations for this trip. We met up at 7am as has been protocol with Andrew volunteering to drive for the second time and we quickly jumped on beltway 8 to make our way southwest.
We arrived at Vincek’s Smokehouse early enough that initially they told us only sausage was ready, but either our size, hunger, or goofy looks made them reconsider and by the time we were handed our plates we had an order of brisket, sausage, pork ribs, and chicken. This was a much larger order that we had planned but with four of us we downed it quickly.
Vincek’s is old enough that it’s a true meat market with fresh meats available for customers to take home and prepare themselves, dried meats available to go, and freshly smoked meats ready to eat. The staff seemed a little unsure of us at first, but warmed up to us as we chatted. They explained the brisket goes on at around 2:30pm the previous day using mostly pecan wood, and is finished up in the morning directly over oak coals. The rub was good, lighter than what is more common these days in central Texas, but stronger than, say, some of the real old school joints that use very little rub at all. The sausage had good spice but seemed to have a high ratio of pork, which is not my personal preference. The pork ribs were really good and as you brought them close to your mouth the smoky smell would fill your nostrils.
Our second stop was Austin’s BBQ and Catering, a joint that has been on every Texas Monthly Top 50 since 1997. This joint is in an old gas station, but don’t confuse the setup for something like Rudy’s. Think of those old gas stations before they had convenience stores. There were no soda fountains, hot dogs, slurpees, or rows of groceries. Maybe there was a stack of oil cans out front. One of the two non-digital fuel pumps were manned by someone who would provide full service and check your oil and tire pressure with a fill up. The tiny storefront had a small upright cooler with sodas and a small assortment of candy bars. There was also that ubiquitous bell that would ding loudly when you drove across the cord that stretched across the pavement. Austin’s barbecue is in one of those buildings. That was actually kind of cool and as you can read, it brought back some memories.
The barbecue pits sit in the old car repair bays and you enter the building where there is just enough room for you to move along the counter. After paying you exit the building and the small patio offers some shade from the day’s sun. On our visit a young man was being guided as he cut our small order of brisket and sausage. We watched as the slice of brisket fell solidly onto the cutting board. It wasn’t the consistency of jello and that was a bad sign. When we sat down we chewed on some brisket that disappointed us. The sausage was better, much more so, and we enjoyed the fat content of the moderately finely ground meat. Based on their consistent listings in the TMBBQ top 50 I will chalk this up to a bad day.
Our third stop was Novasad’s in Hallettsville. Although no longer in the TMBBQ top 50, they still tout their previous achievement in large letters on the side of the building. I’m not sure of the semantics, but I figure if you ever were on the Top 50, you could still state it, although it is a bit misleading. The lettering of the sign was weathered and faded, but as we walked in our anticipation increased. This was another real meat market, and the well worn cutting table proved that barbecue has been served here for some time. The brisket looked good as it was cut, although my ¼ pound request was received as a 1 pound one. Since it was already sliced I didn’t refuse the order; once brisket is sliced it begins to dry out and there wasn’t much of a line. We included our normal request of sausage, and opted for some pork steak as it looked really good. Here again I am guessing our sizes didn’t match our small order quantity and I had to repeat more than once that we were only wanting a ¼ pound. This time we were able to catch them before slicing and we took our order back to the table.
We weren’t fans of the brisket, and while the sausage had good filling the casing was soft yet resistant to our bite. However the pork steak here won us over. It was flavorful, tender, and moist. It was good enough that it would be worth the stop just for the pork steak.
Gonzales Food Market
When we rolled into Gonzales we were ready to order a little larger than our previous stops. One of the guys had recommended the lamb ribs and while we were checking out their meats at the counter we saw that they had beef ribs that had been sliced crossways into small bite sized pieces, bone and all. This seemed to be a great idea, whereby you could order a single one to go with your meal without having to pay for an entire rib, where even the smaller chuck ribs can cost $10 the largest plate ribs can exceed $30.
Gonzales Food Market exceeded our expectations. While I will not compare them to a top ten or even top 20 joint in 2015, I will say that we had a good meal. The lamb ribs were an excellent option; very moist and rich with enough fat to limit the “gamey” taste that can often come with lamb. The brisket was smoked well but had little to no rub and our group likes a heavier rub. The sausage was nice and beefy which we also liked.
The smaller pieces of beef rib was a great idea, and while I don’t want to demean the efforts at Gonzales, I’d like to see these and lamb ribs in the hands of a top 10 barbecue joint. The pieces of beef ribs would be seasoned on all sides and carry a punch, and the lamb ribs could be done up with some fancy fruit based sauce to add another dimension to the flavor.
We also took a few block detour in town. Gonzales is the host to the “come and take it” cannon, popular on Texas t-shirts and bumper stickers and used in the battle of Gonzales. While the cannon was small and originally never intended to actually fire cannon balls (the touch hole was spiked) it was to be used to scare away Indians. Subsequently modified the history gets a little cloudy but a visit to the Gonzales Memorial Museum is one of those things a true Texan should do when they get the chance. Combine that with a trip just around the block to Gonzales Food Market and it’s a nice little road trip.
Shiner beer at the Spoetzl brewery
We made our way to Shiner, Texas, after first passing entirely through town while engrossed in some discussion or other. Shiner is home to the Spoetzl brewery where every single bottle of the Shiner range of beers is brewed. While there are no tours on Saturday we were treated to free samples of their beers while browsing the gift shop.
Pioneer BBQ, Nixon
[Note] I managed to omit my comments and photos of Pioneer BBQ when I first published this post. It was an error on my part that I take responsibility for. I apologize to owners Shawn and Amy and will do my best to get in a return visit before too long!
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.com 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 before serving. 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. For myself it was a nice take on ribs and I’ll have them again upon a return visit.
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 a serving before we left. This was very well done with enough smoke to tweak the flavor but not so much as to be a gimmick, and ended our visit with a nice finish.
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.
City Market, Luling
Down the road a bit and across I-10 we rolled into Luling, Texas. We were a bit surprised that there was still a healthy line after 2pm but it wouldn’t take long before we were in the smoke room. (Ok, call it a smoke house, but it’s so small and the way it is designed I prefer to call it a smoke room). At $13 a pound their brisket is crazy cheap, but what’s really impressive is their hand tied sausages, priced at only $2.30 for an entire c-ring. We found the brisket lacking, but enjoyed the simple beefy taste of the sausage.
For the entire day we had sunny blue skies with few clouds but that turned as we exited Luling city limits. The sky turned a nasty dark shade and the rains came. Then the hail came and we began to get concerned. We weren’t far from the Blanco river, and would cross directly over it on Texas 80 before entering San Marcos. Our phone’s GPS also wanted to divert us to small roads to avoid a backup just before San Marcos, which would have surprisingly put us directly in danger. We stayed on Texas 80. Once the hail died down the skies lightened although not completely clearing. We were saddened and amazed as we saw fields alongside the road with cars that had been flooded and water lines that told of the power of the historic flood.
Hays County Barbeque
We met up at Hays County Barbeque and were joined by friends Robert Sierra, Jimmy Ho, John Brotherton, my sister Cheryl Gregg, as well as their spouses and significant others. Scott’s wife and younger kid showed and my wife Leslye and our youngest, Wyatt drove up from Houston for the night. I even had a friend and his wife meet me there who I have not seen over 25 years.
John Brotherton, wife Brenda, Jimmy Ho, and his wife Amanda had spent the day with Operation BBQ Relief feeding folks in Wimberley. Michael Hernandez of Hays County had spent much of the day serving barbecue to flood survivors, and Robert Sierra had also cooked for the victims through another organization. Much credit to those folks who spent their time and money to help out those in need.
Hays County Barbeque brings in bands on the weekend, serving hot food until 9pm and cold beers much later into the night. The band that night, Hell Camino, pumped out classic rock to much applause. It was a great night and I can’t wait to get back out there on another weekend night.
In part 2 I’ll cover our second day; the big three in Lockhart and a quick stop at the new Southside Market location in Bastrop.