A Valentine’s barbecue road trip
It had been awhile since Leslye and I had been on a real barbecue road trip so I drew up some plans for a quick ride out west over Valentine ’s Day. The trip centered on seeing the band Asleep at the Wheel perform at Luckenbach Dance Hall, a combination of great Texas music at an iconic dance hall. I believe that every Texan should visit Luckenbach at least once a year. I’ve been out there in the middle of a random weekend day, listening to “pickers” playing tunes on an acoustic guitar while chickens roamed the place. That may not sound like much, but combined with its scenic location in the hill country, it send a great vibe of what Texas is to me.
Since we’d be headed out IH-10 it was a great opportunity to hit up City Market in Luling on the way out. We would be staying the night in Kerrville so Buzzie’s BBQ was also on the itinerary. On the ride back home Sunday we would head back via 290 so I checked into which Austin joints I could visit that I had not yet been to and which would be open. I was thinking of Nutter Buster and Smokey Denmark but had to narrow that down to one. As luck would have it, Smokey Denmark was to set up at the Twisted X Brewery so I was able to add in a brewery stop without increasing the time factor.
I squeezed in one more item on the itinerary, a stop at Snake Farm in New Braunfels. My last visit was probably 35 years ago with my parents and I remembered that back then the “zoo” was comprised of snakes in a series of cages with some prairie dogs out back. There was perhaps some alligators too but my memories are pretty foggy. The Groupon I purchased proudly showed Lion cubs and through a little internet research it seemed they indeed had a pair of cubs at some point. Since Leslye is a big cat fan this was at least some consolation to her for including the barbecue stops.
Leaving Houston at a little after 9am we were only a few minutes behind schedule. Rather than rush out onto the road as we often do, I wanted to kick the frenzy down a little and relax. The barbecue mobile was Leslye’s Miata which was infinitely more comfortable than my racetrack refugee and still generated the best fuel mileage of the other options. Included in the trip would be a couple of nice driving roads including a “T1” road. Butler Motorcycle Maps categorizes roads and “T1” is the highest designation. A Miata is not a motorcycle but it is about as close to one as you can get with four wheels. Driving these windy and scenic roads with the top down is great fun.
City Market Luling
Luling was the location of our first meal of the day and we arrived just after noon. Many other people had the same idea as us, though, and the line at City Market snaked through the store and tables over to the door. What I had planned as a 30 minute stop grew quickly to over an hour. While waiting I thought back to my last trip here which was on the motorcycle and in the rain. I rarely get the chance to stop here though so we stuck it out. At least the weather was nice. The smoke room is separated from the restaurant by doors that are kept closed as much as possible. This adds to the experience when you finally get to swing open the old door and step directly into the smoke room. Flat top brick-lined pits are similar to the Lockhart establishments as are the hand tied sausage links. After purchasing your meat in the smoke room drinks and sides are purchased separately in the general store area. They only accept cash so be prepared or be willing to pay the ATM fee.
Our order was a half pound of fatty brisket and a sausage link, just enough to hold us off for a while. At $13.00 a pound for brisket and only $2.30 for a ring of sausage our total was under $9, pretty amazing pricing these days and I believe the $13.00 is the cheapest of any Texas Monthly top 50 joint.
Finding a place to sit was the least enjoyable part of our visit. Not only where the tables almost completely occupied but all of the folks standing in line added to the uncomfortable eating scenario, so we ate outside the restaurant on a bench. The brisket looked good, its juicy goodness oozing onto the butcher paper. The high expectations were dashed a bit with the first bite, though. While the exterior fat was rendered well, the interior was a little chewy. The interior bites were not tender and had less smoke flavor than I like. The rub was salt-heavy but it may have just been the pieces I was served as I don’t recall it being like that previously.
The lighter smoke flavor is likely the effect from the Southern Pride smoker they use for some of the cooking time. Daniel Vaughn interviewed pit master Joe Capello who admits they use the gas powered smoker on the busier times. According to the interview they don’t cook it the full time in the gas, but transfer over to finish on the brick pits. It still makes me want to try and visit them on a slow day to see if I can tell the difference. I’ve only been twice though and will eat at least one more time before ranking them.
The sausage was a different story. Overly juicy, it spewed out when breaking it in half. Some may find that excessive but it’s what I like. The coarse filling tasted of either all beef or a heavy biased beef blend which is also my preference. The taste profile was mild but with enough flavor to satisfy. The snap was a little soft but overall I liked it.
It was now past 1pm so we headed off, stopping for a drink at a nearby gas station. I noticed my phone was blinking and saw that Jimmy Ho was there and had spotted me. Unfortunately we were already down the road but I would have liked to get his opinion at the same time. He did a review and had a little different experience and opinion. That’s also why it’s a good idea to visit a joint multiple times before forming a solid opinion. That was one of the pieces of advice Daniel Vaughn gave me early on and I try to stick to it. Of course many people’s opinions can differ, but not only did Jimmy and myself get different cuts, we also got cuts from different briskets so it’s entirely feasible we did have different experiences. I think the sausage was probably very similar but we have differing tastes there.
Lions were next on our itinerary. The familiar sign above the entrance to the Snake Farm reminded me of those days in my youth spent with my parents on road trips. It was a little hard to put it in place though because of how much the area has been built up over the years. I remember there used to be a little courthouse in the speed trap city of Selma but now the area is overrun with strip malls that all look the same regardless of where you are. The gravel parking lot at the Snake Farm though tried to bring me back in time as we walked up to the entrance. The cashier shrewdly asked “how many bags of animal feed” we would want in a classic selling motion, rather than asking us if we wanted to purchase any. We bought one bag anyway.
The main building is indeed full of snakes. However, snakes sitting in cages really doesn’t interest me much. They do have a black mamba and a giant python among a number of other poisonous or dangerous breeds. After a quick walk through we headed out to the zoo area. It was nicer than I expected with a decent range of animals. Otters, giant tortoises, several breeds of monkeys, and many more made for a short but entertaining visit. Leslye enjoyed feeding the animals in the petting zoo. We did see two lions but they were much bigger than the cubs pictured. I realize that they grow very fast, but I also feel the Groupon advertisement was a little misrepresentative of the actual animals. Regardless I felt like the pricing wasn’t out of order with the discount.
We skirted around San Antonio as we made our way towards Kerrville. I realized we would be driving past the location of the original Rudy’s BBQ. We’d been there before but we decided to make a quick stop and check it out again. Unlike the larger Rudy’s locations, the original is more modest, based out of a more standard sized gas station with a couple of pumps out front and a convenience store interior. The BBQ joint was tacked on but you can eat inside and purchase drinks from the convenience store side if you like. I was going to order some creamed corn but it was $2.99 for a single serving so I took a pass this time, ordering only a 1/3 pound of fatty brisket so as not to spoil our dinner. I was impressed at how well it was cooked, very tender with enough moisture to have excellent texture but it was lacking in flavor. I’m saying that if I closed my eyes it was like my taste buds had taken a vacation. Maybe they wrap in aluminum and let them steam-wash too long, I don’t know but there was a lot of wasted potential in those slices.
We didn’t dally and got back on the road quickly as we were burning daylight. We ran with the top down and took exit 520 for FM1431. This road is marked as a “T1” by Butler Maps, the highest level for enjoyable riding. The Miata wanted to go faster but we kept it close to legal speeds as we drove the winding road into Kerrville.
We waffled between eating at a steakhouse or BBQ joint but after reading some pretty varied reviews I convinced Leslye to stick with BBQ, promising her a steak night when we were back in Houston. We hit up Buzzie’s BBQ for dinner around 6pm. They don’t have a 3 meat plate so we ordered up a two meat with brisket and turkey plus a quarter pound of ham and a quarter pound of chicken for a little different meal than normal.
The brisket was good, and although a little light on smokiness it was the best of the day. We almost never order ham so I have little reference but it was very tasty; moist and flavorful. The turkey had a bit of a spicy rub which Leslye felt was too much but I liked it. The chicken was also good. The only problem was we had over ordered this time so we wound up taking some back to the hotel. Even though I ordered a “small” two meat plate there was a bountiful pile of meat, a good value.
Luckenbach and Asleep at the Wheel
Saturday night was upon us and we headed out to Luckenbach. I took a wrong turn on the way and after consulting my phone map, we took some dicey back roads to the concert. They would have been great bicycling roads except for the multiple cattle-crossing gates.
Luckenbach is a very unique Texas city with an odd history. The general store, still standing from 1886, and a dance hall make up pretty much the entire town. There are campgrounds, a small auxiliary stage, and beer stands for when the crowds come but in the daytime it can feel deserted. But there is something special when the wind rushes through the old oak trees, carrying the sounds of a guitar picker through the area. Without the electric hum, the noise, and the rush of the big city you quickly fall into a relaxed state. That is the Luckenbach state of mind.
There is nothing quite like to dancing and listening to Texas country music in a wood structure dance hall in the Texas Hill Country. No air conditioning, no fancy lighting, just musicians in their element cranking out Texas tunes. Saturday night was about as perfect as it could be. Leslye and I swayed to the sounds of Asleep at the Wheel while I could feel the hill country run through my body. Early in the set they played “Miles and Miles of Texas” before breaking into Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills is still the king.” Much of the night was dedicated to playing tracks from their new Bob Wills tribute album which I highly recommend. We were able to inch up to where there was only one row of people in front of us and stayed there for most of the night. Eventually we needed a break so while the band began playing “Hot Rod Lincoln” we headed outside to the cool air to enjoy the last few songs before heading back to Kerrville. One thing about driving the hill country at night; look out for deer. I spotted a few groups as we made our way back but easily avoided them.
Twisted X Brewery
With our short trip already nearing its end we drove into Dripping Springs to Twisted X brewery on Sunday. I messaged Danny from Texas Brew and BBQ and he agreed to meet us there for a few drinks and some barbecue served up by Smokey Denmark’s. Misty rain was falling when we arrived and it was a little chilly which added to the feelings of a day that would end too soon.
Lager, I have found, is one of my favored types of beer. At Twisted X brewery they specialize in “Tex-Mex beer”, brewing beers similar in flavor to Corona and Negro Modelo. I enjoyed their namesake lager which was easy to drink. They also brew a pilsner with jalapeno flavor that I found interesting, but the beer of the day for me was Senior Viejo. This 8.2% alcohol imperial black lager is aged in oak barrels. Not just any oak barrels, mind you, but barrels originally used first to age Garrison Brothers and then to age Dulce Vida organic tequila before finally being employed to age the beer. This was a sipping beer that had a complex mix of flavors that brought it to a level above most beers. In my opinion it was similar to St Arnold’s Devine Reserve but not quite so strong.
Our options for barbecue from Smokey Denmark’s truck was limited due to the menu that day. I picked the chopped brisket sliders and on Bill Dumas’ suggestion also selected the beer brat. There was no sliced brisket available. The brat was made with beer from Live Oak brewing and then steeped in Senior Viejo from Twisted X. Red onions were glazed using Big Red soda and the mustard was homemade. This preparation made for an outstanding brat. The chopped brisket was good but it’s hard to judge the quality of brisket from a chopped beef sandwich so I’ll make sure to get back to Smokey Denmark’s soon. The food truck is new but Smokey Denmark’s has been around for fifty years and supplies sausage to a number of barbecue joints.
Danny and I chatted with Bill for a while about barbecue, beer, and old school Austin. Bill showed off his knives. The vintage blades were used at the old Armour meatpacking plant and as I held them I thought back to how much expert use they have had over the years. I finished the last of the Twisted X beer and noticed that Leslye was not around. She had gone back to the car to stay warm so that was also my signal that it was time to hit the road to Houston. We made one more stop at Berdoll Pecans on our way back home and spent far too much money on some tasty pecans. It was a great, but too quick road trip.