The following five barbecue spots, among others profiled in Robb's book, represent a range of barbecue styles across the state.
East Texas Barbecue
Ruthie's Pit Bar-B-Q
905 W. Washington (Texas 105 West), Navasota, 936/825-2700
Louis Charles Henley is the jocular pit boss at this ramshackle East Texas-style joint. (Ruthie is his mom.) Louis' ribs are excellent, his Elgin sausage is smoked for several hours until it gets really dense, and his pork shoulder is sublime. The restaurant is an old house–you can pick a magazine from the rack to read while you wait for your meal. Mutton ribs are served on Saturday afternoon, but you'll be lucky to get any–there's a waiting list for them.
Ruthie's Pork Shoulder
You start with a pork shoulder, what's known in the grocery store as a Boston butt," says Louis. "Season it up, and put it on the pit. It's done enough to eat when this bone sticks out," he says, pointing to a Y-shaped bone protruding from the meat. "But there's no big rush. I put this one on at ten o'clock last night. And what is it now, four in the afternoon?" (Recipe follows.)
1 (4-5 lbs.) pork shoulder roast (Boston butt)
3 T. Louis Charles Henley's All-Purpose Rub (mixture of 1/4 c. Lawry's Seasoning Salt, 1 T. finely ground black pepper, 2 tsp. garlic powder, and 1 tsp. chili powder)
Season the meat with the rub, rubbing it in well.
Set up your smoker for indirect heat with a water pan. Use wood chips, chunks, or logs, and keep up a good level of smoke. Maintain a temperature between 225°F and 250°F.
Smoke the roast for 4-5 hours, turning it every half hour or so to ensure even cooking. The meat is done when it pulls easily away from the bone, but don't worry about overcooking it; it will just keep getting better. An internal temperature of around 170°F is perfect. (This is also the USDA-recommended temperature.)
Slice with an electric knife, and serve on sandwiches with your favorite barbecue sauce, pickle slices, and sliced onions.
Serves 4 to 6
Central Texas Barbecue
101 N. Main Street, Taylor, 512/352-2828
The Taylor Cafe is a tiny beer joint with two bars–a leftover from the days of segregation. It sits on an all-but-abandoned block of Main Street that is now shadowed by a highway overpass. In the 1950s, Taylor Cafe was a rough-and-tumble honky-tonk that catered to itinerant agricultural workers and cotton pickers. There was a fight almost every night, remembers owner Vencil Mares. The cotton pickers are gone now, and there aren't so many fights anymore, but otherwise the Taylor Cafe hasn't changed an iota in 50 years.
The dean of Central Texas pit bosses, Vencil began his barbecue career at the original location of the South Side Market in downtown Elgin, where he learned to make Elgin sausage. He opened the Taylor Cafe in 1948.
Vencil's Slow Beans
Don't be in a rush to cook beans, Vencil advises. They taste best when they are cooked very slowly. A Crockpot is really the perfect cooking vessel for home-cooked pintos.
2 c. dried pinto beans
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 T. chili powder
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 c. finely chopped bacon
1 tsp. salt, or more to taste
Sort the beans to remove any stones or grit. Rinse in a colander, and place the beans in a Crockpot with 6 cups of water. Add the onion, chili powder, pepper, bacon, and salt. Cook on high for 2 hours. Turn to low, and allow to simmer for 8 hours or overnight. Add more water as needed.
Makes about 6 cups.
Variation: Beans and Sausage. At the Taylor Cafe, Vencil serves a bowl of these beans topped with sliced Bohunk sausage and a little chopped onion. You can spike the beans with hot sauce if you like. Serve the dish with lots of saltines.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q
604 W. Young (Texas 29), Llano, 915/247-5713
No Hill Country tour is complete without a stop in Llano at Cooper's, George W. Bush's favorite barbecue joint. They cook cowboy-style over mesquite coals, and you order your meat straight from the pit and then take it inside to pay for it. The sirloin and pork chops are awesome if you get them at the perfect time (see Lorenzo Vences' Sirloin below). The brisket is also excellent. The barbecue sauce here is bolstered with brisket juices and is truly outstanding.
"Mesquite coals give the meat a lot of flavor without over-smoking it," says Lorenzo Vences, pit boss at Cooper's in Llano since 1986. "This is the best barbecue in Texas."
Lorenzo Vences' Sirloin
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q's in Llano and Mason have preserved the "cowboy barbecue" style. At Cooper's, mesquite wood is burned down to coals in a fireplace, and the coals are shoveled into enclosed pits. The meat is cooked by direct heat about 28 to 30 inches above the coals with the lid closed. When the meat is done to 140°F, it is moved to a holding pit, where it continues to cook slowly until it is sold. Lorenzo Vences estimates the heat in his pit at 350°F to 400°
Cowboy barbecue is a cross between grilling and smoking. You start the meat over the coals and move it when the color is right–then finish cooking it with indirect heat. (Recipe follows.)
1 USDA Choice beef sirloin steak, 2 to 21/2 lbs. and 13/4 inches thick (branded beef such as Black Angus or Certified Hereford preferred) or 1 USDA Choice beef sirloin tip roast, 2 to 21/2 lbs.
salt and coarsely ground black pepper to taste
Allow the meat to come to room temperature, and season it with salt and pepper. Light the mesquite chunks in a starter chimney. Pour the hot coals into your firebox. Light another batch of mesquite chunks a few minutes later. Maintain a temperature between 350°F and 400°F, and place the meat at least 18 inches above the coals until it's well browned, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 120°F. Add more coals as needed. Douse flare-ups with water from a squirt bottle.
When the meat is well charred, move it to a cooler part of the pit where it can cook indirectly until it reaches the desired temperature. Remove it from the smoker when it is firm to the touch, between 135°F and 140°F. The meat will continue to cook after it is removed, so allow it to rest before carving. At 140°F, the meat will be medium-rare. (Cooper's won't serve any meat that hasn't reached 140°F.) Remove the meat at 145°F for medium and 155°F for medium-well.
Serves 4 to 6.
Black Urban Barbecue
2020 Dowling Street, Houston, 713/752-0008
The old barbecue pit on Dowling in Houston that is now called Drexler's has a remarkable pedigree. The pit was built by Harry Green in 1952. Green sold the place to one of his cooks, an old-timer named Tom Prevost. Prevost passed it on to his nephew, James Drexler (brother of former college and professional basketball star Clyde Drexler). Don't miss the falling-off-the-bone East Texas ribs.
Pit boss James Drexler suggests that after you trim your pork ribs, you cook the trimmings separately. First of all, it would be a crime to throw away all that meat, and second, it's an old East Texas tradition. The breast bone, back flap, and bottom pieces are cooked by themselves and set aside at Drexler's. These odd scraps of cooked meat are called "regulars." (The word is probably a corruption of "irregulars.")
"In the old days, people who didn't have enough money to buy barbecue would come to the back door, and we'd sell them all the little burnt ends and scraps of meat we had left over," James remembers. "They called them the `regulars.' We still have customers who ask for them today, not because they're poor, but because they taste so good. Only people who have been eating barbecue for a long time know to ask for `regulars.'"
When you barbecue ribs at home, make yourself a special "cook's treat." Trim the ribs, season the scraps with rib rub, and smoke them along with the ribs. The "regulars" will be done much quicker than the rest of the rack, so you'll have something to munch on while you're cooking.
James has been smoking ribs on the old pit on Dowling Street now for 27 years. Here's his recipe for smoking pork ribs at home.
1 rack pork spareribs (under 31/2 lbs.)
1/4 c. paprika
2 T. salt
2 T. sugar
1 T. garlic powder
1 T. onion powder
Rinse the ribs, then dry them. Sprinkle the seasonings on both sides, and rub them in.
Set up your smoker for indirect heat with a water pan. Use wood chips, chunks, or logs, and keep up a good level of smoke. Maintain a temperature between 250°F and 300°F. Place the ribs on the smoker, bone side down, as far away from the fire as possible. Cook for 3 to 31/2 hours, or until a toothpick goes through easily when inserted between the bones.
Sit back, drink a beer, and don't be in a rush. They'll get very tender if you give them enough time.
Serves 2 to 4.
Czech Meat Market Barbecue
Novosad's BBQ and Sausage Market
105 La Grange Street, Hallettsville, 361/798-2770
This is one of the old Czech barbecue joints where cold canned peaches are a favorite side dish. The menu has been updated by third-generation owners Nathan and Laura Novosad. Unusual cuts like lamb ribs and pork steaks are popular here. They've also brought house-made beans, cole slaw, cucumber salad, fresh-baked bread, and other pleasant (though untraditional) touches to the old meat market.
"My granddad started barbecuing in Taylor. He sold his place there to Rudy Mikeska and moved here in 1959," Nathan Novosad says from behind the counter. Novosad is a Czech name, and Hallettsville is a Czech town. "My dad served barbecue on butcher paper without any sides, but when my wife, Laura, got into the business, we started making beans and slaw."
In the old days, the back of the meat market was a place where farmworkers and oil-field roughnecks could eat in their dirty coveralls. They didn't have to get cleaned up as they would at a restaurant. The men were surprised when Laura showed up.
"I freaked people out when I first started working here," she giggles. "First a woman, and then side dishes." Cold canned peaches were the only side dish served with smoked meat before Laura took over. "It's a tradition around here to eat cold canned peaches with barbecue in the summer. I tried to switch from peaches in heavy syrup to fancy homemade ones, but everybody got upset," she remembers.
"Some things you just can't change."
Novosad's Pork Steaks
Pork steaks are actually slices of pork shoulder (Boston butt), but don't buy a bone-in Boston butt roast thinking you're going to slice it at home–you'd need a band saw to get through the bone. Ask the butcher to slice it for you.
1 T. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground sage
1/2 tsp. ground bay leaf
2 lbs. pork steak
Combine the seasonings, and sprinkle on the pork steaks, rubbing them into the meat well.
Set up your smoker for indirect heat with a water pan. Use wood chips, chunks, or logs, and keep up a good level of smoke. Maintain a temperature between 225°F and 275°F.
Place the pork in the smoker. Cooking should take 4 to 5 hours. The meat is done when it pulls easily away from the bone, but don't worry about overcooking it. It will just keep getting better. An internal temperature of around 170°F is perfect. (This is also the USDA-recommended temperature.)
Laura Novosad's Confetti Slaw
"I can't stand sweet cole slaw," says Laura Novosad, "so I came up with this recipe. It looks real pretty with all the colors. Beans and cole slaw have gone over pretty well here."
1 head green cabbage
1/2 head red cabbage
3 large carrots
1/2 bottle Wishbone Italian dressing (or the Italian dressing of your choice)
Shred the cabbage and carrots, and combine in a large bowl with the Italian dressing. Allow to marinate for 1 hour before serving. Serve with any kind of barbecue, along with cold canned peaches.
Makes 8 cups.
From the June 2002 issue.