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Follow the Smoke, Central Texas BBQ

Working barbecue magic in the pits at Huntsville's New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo by John DeMers)

City Market (Luling)

Address: 633 E. Davis Street, Luling
Phone: (830) 875-9019
Established: 1957
Owner: Willie “Buddy” Ellis
Best Bites: beef brisket, pork ribs, sausage, potato salad
Payment: cash

Unlike many Texas barbecue joints with roots as groceries or markets, the overall layout of City Market hasn’t changed much. While clearly functioning as a restaurant to its public, to the Ellis family that started the business down the block in 1957, it’s still a matter of luring each mob of customers through the dining area, where you get drinks and sides, to the wood-and-class-enclosed “holy of holies” in the back. It’s here that you gather around a time-worn, smoke-encrusted counter, look up through the haze at the only menu and finally order your meat.

On the far side of the counter, things seldom slow down. Men in an odd collection of greasy aprons and hard hats move from pit to carving table to counter constantly, barely setting the butcher paper of meat in front of one customer before turning their eyes to the next. The line snaking through City Market’s dining area is clear and orderly. In the pit room, however, it disintegrates into a mob, with only the pit guys to try taking people in some order.

On this particular day, the dining room seems the unchoreographed epitome of Texas barbecue. Some tables are filled with casually dressed Hispanic couples and families, happily chattering in Spanish as they pass around dripping papers of beef brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausage. Other tables, including four pushed together, are packed with African-American families dressed as though for a special occasion.

Meat at City Market is cooked over post oak. “Some people,” offers Joe, “like mesquite, but I say it burns too hot. With post oak, you have more control over your heat.”

There’s a strong grocery store vibe to City Market, one that the Ellis family clearly goes considerable lengths to maintain. Service is friendly, especially when someone is filling your cup from the drink dispenser, but it doesn’t concern itself much with your table.

“My favorite part is watching people eat our barbecue,” Joe says, glancing around at this home-away-from-home. “Every day at least one customer comes in and says this is their first time, and before they leave they tell us how good it was. That tells us we’re still doing a good job.”

Kreuz Market (Lockhart)

Address: 619 N. Colorado Street, Lockhart
Phone: (512) 398-2361
Established: 1900
Owner: Keith Schmidt
Best Bites: smoked sausage, shoulder clod, pork ribs, warm German potato salad,
sauerkraut
Payment: cash, checks, and credit cards

Despite the purist tradition of serving smoked meat all by itself, Kreuz has been compromising a bit. In fact, using chopped-up, near-caramelized scraps from their meats, Rick Schmidt’s son Keith has kicked up both warm German potato salad and sauerkraut that’s better than anybody back in Germany might dream of.

“And people just love our pork ribs,” Keith confesses and brags at the same time. “At the old place, we had such limited pit space. The pork ribs walk out of here on their own.”

Still, for all the pork ribs walking out, most days they can’t keep up with the smoked sausage, all of which is made and hand-tied at Kreuz Market. It comes in two flavors, original and a newfangled variation that’s caught on with customers in the past five years. With a name like “jalapeño cheese,” how could it not?

As elsewhere, barbecue is a 24-hour operation within these walls. Being located in the Barbecue Capital of Texas, Rick and his workers are as likely to look up and see a packed tour bus pull into the parking lot as some little couple driving an Oldsmobile.

“We’ve been in this new building about eight years,” Keith says, “and the big thing is consistency. You want somebody who came to our old location 20 years ago to walk in, taste our food and say, ‘That’s what I remember.’ That’s really what this is about.”

Southside Market & Barbecue (Elgin)

Address: Highway 290 at Highway 95 North, Elgin
Phone: (512) 285-3407
Established: 1882, this location in 1992
Owners: The Bracewell family
Best Bites: Elgin hot sausage, beef brisket, smoked turkey, potato salad, brownies
Payment: credit cards

Bryan Bracewell doesn’t look 125. But as the third-generation pit boss and, more formally, chief executive officer of Southside Market in the tirelessly touted Sausage Capital of Texas, that’s about how old he feels some days.

“This business started in 1882,” he says, “when a man named William J. Moon started selling fresh beef and pork from a wagon door-to-door. The barbecue was kinda born out of necessity. If he didn’t sell it fresh, he cooked it over an open fire and sold it as barbecue. That’s what they did back in those days, when there wasn’t any refrigeration as we know it now: salt it, smoke it, cook it, eat it.”

Over the past 125 years—in fact, within four years of getting started—Moon’s meat operations found a permanent home to replace that old wandering wagon. Yet beneath the somewhat high-tech and definitely high-volume aspect of Southside Market today, you see that “salt it, smoke it, cook it, eat it” is still pretty much the business at hand.

The Bracewell family runs one of the larger barbecue restaurants and markets in the state, along with the connected processing plant that turns out all-beef Elgin Hot Sausage at times, the volume can be staggering: something like 2 million pounds of Elgin hot sausage made and sold fresh or smoked each year by a total of 85 employees. The average busy Saturday night at the restaurant might go through 2,000 pounds. And the busiest single day ever at Southside saw 8,000 pounds of sausage head out the door.

Though the siren song of side dishes was resisted until the Bracewells moved into their current location in 1992, that battle was fought and lost a long time ago. There’s potato salad, coleslaw and beans, all prepared fresh each day.

Desserts are simple, just a few brownies and little pies, but there’s no sense of deprivation—thanks to an entire ice cream bar scooping Blue Bell made in nearby Brenham. “My dad’s sister is head of research and development there,” explains Bryan with a smile, “so in a roundabout way, the Bracewells have a hand in that, too.”

“We’re all about the food,” Bryan says, summarizing his family history to way of what it serves. “The No. 1 thing we can’t let get away from us is the quality and consistency of our product. At Southside Market, we can never have a bad day producing sausage.”

Louie Mueller BBQ (Taylor)

Address: 206 W. 2nd Street, Taylor
Phone: (512) 352-6206
Established: 1949, this location in 1959
Owners: Bobby and Trish Mueller
Best Bites: beef brisket, beef ribs, homemade hot sausage, potato salad, coleslaw
Payment: credit cards

If it weren’t for the free Wi-Fi that’s available to customers bearing laptops, you’d probably swear you were stepping into another time—or at least into another place. Bobby Mueller has invested considerable effort and money in the brick barbecue joint his father founded to make you think he hasn’t invested at all.

“We started off in a little shed somewhere else in 1949, but we’ve been right here since 1959. And we mostly live by word of mouth, since our product is always good.” Sitting in the sifting natural light of Louie Mueller’s with a cool breeze coming in through the doorway, it’s tempting to refill your iced tea from the urn against the wall and refuse to ever leave.

The place is huge, cavernous, as though you could play basketball inside, which is exactly what ladies teams once did in the 1920s. For most of the rest of its history, the building was the single most appropriate precursor for a barbecue joint in central Texas: a grocery store that sold fresh meat.

When Louie Mueller took over the location four years after World War II, he started emphasizing barbecue over other products but did so within the limited range of his German heritage: smoked meat served on butcher paper, with little concern for side dishes, utensils or comfort. When Bobby bought his father out in 1974, he almost immediately added potato salad and coleslaw, made from his mother-in-law’s recipes. A few additional side dishes became part of the menu over the years, along with smoked chicken and turkey.

All smoking of meats, including the beef brisket, the sausage Bobby makes from 100 percent beef and the ribs of either beef or pork, is still done over oak—with no other wood added unless there isn’t enough oak available. To achieve the flavor Bobby is looking for, every bit of heat and smoke comes from wood. As for the side dishes, potatoes are boiled for chopping and cabbage is shredded for coleslaw every single day. No desserts are offered beyond ice cream.

Bobby Mueller is a man of few words, perhaps believing in that Texas adage that a man’s actions speak louder. His actions are quiet, careful and repetitive, those of an old-fashioned Texas pit boss who understands that to lose focus is to risk a customer’s meal. And to risk a customer’s meal, in this worldview, is to risk everything.

Texas Pride Barbecue (Adkins)

Address: 2980 East Loop 1604, Adkins
Phone: (210) 649-3730
Established: 1996
Owner: Tony Talanco
Best Bites: sliced beef brisket, chopped beef sandwich, baby back ribs, smoked sausage, “German potato salad,” coleslaw, peach or pecan cobbler
Payment: credit cards

Long before Tony Talanco moved to this piece of windswept highway where the Hill Country flattens out toward South Texas, he learned how to barbecue from his grandparents and parents.

By the time Tony’s father was growing up, his parents were running a combination filling station, restaurant and tourist court (that precursor to the great American motel) on the banks of Leon Creek in San Antonio.

“I grew up icing down the beer when I was 6 or 7 years old, cleaning tables and sweeping floors,” Tony recalls. “It was an exciting time for me to be a kid. I loved it.”

Over the years, Tony tried a few things on his own. He had a successful go at country cooking—chicken-fried steak and the like—and then, in a different setting, at Mexican food. At some point, though, he remembers having an unforgettable dream of finding an old filling station like the one his grandparents used to run. It was a delicious memory... so delicious that when he couldn’t track down such a place, he decided to spend more than three years building one from the ground up.

Texas Pride has grown into an impressive complex. Outside the antique-filled barbecue restaurant is a huge area with a stage for live music, picnic tables, room for dancing and a playground for the kids. As Tony sees it, people come here once from Austin, San Antonio, or Houston for some special event. They’ll come back again and again for the barbecue.

After years of struggling with a 30-foot brick pit, Tony went over to a Southern Pride smoker. He uses mesquite wood and smokes his dry-rubbed briskets 10 to 13 hours. “I like hickory best in terms of flavor, but there just isn’t a lot of hickory around here,” he points out. Other popular meats include the pork sausage Texas Pride makes in-house and the baby back pork ribs they cook until the meat almost falls off the bone.

Popular side dishes include a strange spin on “German potato salad” (combining bacon and onion with mayonnaise, served cold instead of warm) and the creamy-sweet coleslaw with celery seed and cider vinegar. Peach cobbler is Texas Pride’s best-selling dessert, though pecan cobbler (like pecan pie except looser) is starting to give that barbecue-joint classic a run for its money.

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From the March 2009 issue.

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