Opie’s Barbecue

I don’t frequently eat BBQ that really impresses me. When it does happen, however, I get excited. I’m going to break format here and tell you right now that Opie’s has some of the best baby back ribs I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

Initially I wondered if I had experienced a fluke. A freak accident of meat and smoke that turned into the perfect marriage of the two. Then I went outside to the pits where Marco, the pit boss, was removing 8 slabs of gorgeous, mouth watering baby backs. Clearly, this was not a fluke. I was experiencing the winning end of a consistent, near perfect product.

But what about the brisket? How does it compare to other joints?

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John Mueller Meat Co

John Mueller is like a character out of a movie. Surly, scruffy, always dressed in black and wearing sun glasses. Focused in his preparations. Personable after you get to know him…of course, that takes about a year or two.

Mueller is the lovable BBQ grump of Austin. An old sumbish you just can’t help but like, even when he’s telling you to move your ass along.

I could tell you the same stories you’ve heard about how Mueller split from the old joint in a firestorm of controversy. And that’s all interesting, but it just doesn’t matter. There’s only one thing I care about: meat.

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It’s All Good Bar-B-Q Trailer

When new barbecue joints open down the street from my house, you know I’m going to be there. A couple of days ago I drove by the food trailers parked at the southwest corner of Live Oak and South 1st (in Austin, of course) and noticed a new truck: It’s All Good Bar-B-Q.

It’s All Good Bar-B-Q has a brick and mortar in Spicewood, TX that’s been open about 8 months. Frankie Hoch, one of the managing partners, was on site today overseeing the new operation and told me they were doing so well in Spicewood they thought they’d try and expand. Apparently, they just had a trailer sitting around, so naturally they brought it to Austin.

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Gonzalez Food Market

Gonzalez, TX feels like a step back in time. Not too far in the past, but definitely not in the present. This is not a bad thing.

The residents of Gonzalez filled Gonzalez Food Market for lunch on the Monday I arrived. Each person plotting their order and conferring with their friends and family.

Something about Gonzalez the city and Gonzalez the BBQ joint felt so welcoming. Maybe it was the smoke in the air or the smiling faces standing in line with me. Either way, it was uplifting.

As I approached the cutting station Rene, the man in charge, greeted me with a smiling face and asked for my order. Of course, I got the usual lean and moist brisket, pork rib and sausage. But, I noticed something on the menu I had never seen anywhere else: lamb ribs. Ok, that was definitely happening.

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City Market, Schulenburg

Every small Central Texas town has a “City Market” of some sort. On I-10, about half way between Houston and San Antonio, is another reincarnation of the the small town BBQ joint.

I’ve heard varying accounts of this particular joint; some favorable, some not so favorable. Obviously, it was time for me to schlep it out there and be the judge.

When I walked in I was promptly greeted by Roy Smrkovsky, the proprietor. I explained I was on a multi-joint BBQ trip as I ordered. Unfortunately, they were out of pork ribs that day so I had to settle for brisket and sausage.

The seating is basically one strip of booths along the side of the restaurant, so any place I sat was within eyeshot of Roy and the counter. When I pulled out my scale and my notepad, I could tell I had his attention.

The lean brisket was dense and had a thin, sweet layer of fat across the top. The density of the meat was not my favorite, but the flavor was not bad.

Brisket and sausage. They were out of pork ribs 🙁
Brick pits built in 1975. Not actually used to cook the meat.
Sausage room (left side).
Sausage room (right side).

The moist was much better and had a soft layer of fat around it that exploded with flavor. Beneath the fatty top portion was meat that was kind of tough, but still flavorful.

Something I really did appreciate about both cuts was that there was an excellent layer of black pepper that actually left my mouth with just a tinge of heat. I really love when brisket does that.

City Market is most known for their sausage(s). They produce a few different varieties and Roy claims that they were one of the very first to do a jalapeno sausage. I’m not 100% sure I buy that, but their jalapeno sausage does go back about 30 years. Maybe there’s something to that claim.

I had the regular sausage served sliced. The casing was a bit more chewy than I prefer, but definitely within the acceptable zone. Overall, the sausage had an nice smooth texture and an excellent, peppery burn. Man, do I love that black pepper.

The sauce was tomato based and, while too sweet for my taste buds, had a great spice and complimented the sausage really well.

After I ate I asked to look around a bit and Roy allowed it.

There are a couple of brick pits just behind the dining area that were being cleaned out. I asked Roy where the meat was cooked. His slightly crooked grin gave way to a nearly inaudible admission that he uses gas.

I shrugged. There’s no shame in using gas pits as long as you accept the ‘cue will never be as good as what comes off the real deal.

The pits, however, were built in 1975 and on the weekends basically provide a staging area for the meat. Otherwise, they remain unused. That’s a travesty to me, but c’est la vie.

If you’re out on the BBQ trail I suggest that you make a stop by City Market Schulenburg. Honestly, its close proximity to the interstate makes it convenient to swing by.

I wish so badly that Roy would fire up those beautiful brick pits and turn off that gas smoker in the back. However, BBQ is a business not a fantasy land. And sometimes practicality rules.

Jerry Mikeska’s Bar-B-Que

It was a Monday morning and I rolled in to Jerry Mikeska’s in Columbus, TX at 10:15am, about 15 minutes before they opened. As I stepped out to stretch a huge pickup pulled up. An older gentlemen stepped out, nodded and asked me how I was doing. I explained I was on a BBQ road trip and had just come from Houston. He motioned me to come in.

The man I was talking to was none other than Jerry Mikeska himself (or Mr Jerry as the employees called him). Mr Jerry and I had a nice conversation and he told the guys to go ahead and serve me early.

I have to mention that the interior of this building is…interesting. The walls are covered with the heads and bodies of various game. I honestly can’t decide if it’s creepy or awesome. Both? Likely.

Nevertheless, I hopped in line and placed my standard order of lean and moist brisket, a pork rib and sausage. The cutter pulled out a small, but nice and jiggly brisket and began to cut. I could tell by the way he started to position the knife that he was going to cut off the bark. I accidentally shouted “NO!” and I think startled him a bit 🙂 Never cut the fat off my brisket.

Pork ribs, sausage and brisket. The pork rib was tasty.

Chicken cooking on the massive gas smoker. This thing is cavernous.

I took my meat and sat down. I was the only patron in the restaurant and I could takes notes and weight out food without people asking me what the hell I was doing. It was nice.

As always, the brisket came first. It was smokey, but definitely not cooked with oak. It had a decent smoke ring and a soft texture. The bark was very thin but the fat was sweet. This was pretty decent brisket. I was not unhappy.

The sausage was a tad dry but had an excellent flavor and a rich, black pepper burn. The casing was an acceptable thickness and had a nice snap, but could have definitely used more smoke.

The pork rib had a really nice smoke ring, sweet, glorious fat and a soft layer of meat. The meat was firm but easily came off the bone. It could have definitely used more pepper, but this was a good, Texas style pork rib.

I rarely ever taste the sauce. I decided to sample some here and I was surprised. It was tomato based but not too sweet and actually paired very well with the sausage.

When I finished my meat I hunted down the pit boss and requested a tour. David, the full time pit boss for over 20 years, took me to the building in the rear. This is where all the sausage was made and the meat smoked.

The facility was less of a kitchen and more of a BBQ factory. There were huge industrial grinders with large hoppers and all kinds stations for various BBQ related tasks.

One side of the building housed the gas smokers (there were three, I believe). These units were gigantic and obviously capable of producing more BBQ than pretty much any other place I’ve ever been.

David told me that on a typical weekend they run through:

  • 500lb of brisket
  • 200lb of chicken
  • 270lb of pork ribs
  • 200lb of sausage

The wood of choice here is pecan. I think it works really well and honestly I’d like to see some craft joints experiment with it. Not that oak is getting old, but I always like something new and unexpected.

David also told me that they fulfill huge orders from time-to-time so I just had to ask. A few weekends prior to my visit they cooked 615 briskets (in addition to what was needed in their joint) for a customer.

Folks, as I said before. This place is less of a “joint” and more of a BBQ factory. And I don’t mean factory in a negative way. If this is mass produced BBQ, then my faith in humanity is restored.

City Meat Market, Giddings

I pulled in to Giddings just after noon on a rainy Saturday. It was only seconds after exiting the car that the distinctive post oak smell hit my nose. I was close to barbecue and I knew it.

The interior of City Meat Market was classic Texas. It was a long, narrow shop with a small meat market (think meat you cook at home) in the front, seating for maybe 50 people in the middle and pits/ordering area in the back.

The post oak hung very heavy in the air because the pit is right inside displayed in full glory. That’s one thing you’ll just never get in a city like Austin. All the pits here are outside and as far as I know there are zero brick pits.

Lean and moist brisket, sausage and pork rib.
Sausage being put on the pole, then headed to the smoker.
Pit area. The smoke was thick in this room. I loved it.

My standard order, for those of you who don’t know, is a slice of lean, a slice of moist, a pork rib and sausage. Many times they want you to order at least 1/4lb of each and frequently I have to order a whole link of sausage. But, that’s fine. I’m happy to support Texas ‘cue.

I started with the lean brisket. It had been cooked to a state similar to jerky. Honestly, and I really do sincerely mean this, if I were in the mood for jerky I would have loved it. It had a ton of pepper but was just far too dry.

The moist was really smokey but just not tender and lacked that beefy, umami flavor I so desperately want in brisket.

I moved on to the pork rib and was pleasantly surprised. It was tender and smokey with a subtle, yet peppery bark. It was a very nice, classic Texas pork rib. Definitely a welcome change from the brisket.

They have a very interesting take on sausage at City Market. I would describe it as light, at least in terms of density. An almost 6 inch piece of sausage barely weighed 111g (3.9oz). It was an 80/20 beef/pork mix and an excellent amount of smoke and great flavor. I love black pepper and this sausage had a fair amount of it. In fact, it left me with a nice little burn.

My suggestion to anyone visiting City Meat Market in Giddings would be to stick with the pork ribs and sausage. Definitely take a peak at the brisket because I get the impression that it has some up days. If it looks great, has that nice jiggle and the lean doesn’t look too dry I’d definitely get a slice. Otherwise, let it be.

Prause Meat Market

The second stop on my trip to the Houston BBQ Festival was at Prause Meat Market. This joint lives in the small town of La Grange, TX. La Grange was hoppin’ when I was there; flower market, traffic, tons of small town commerce. It was pretty neat.

Prause was also pretty busy. I waited in line about 20 minutes along with quite a few other people. I later came to find out that there were two funerals and whenever there are funerals, Prause gets busy.

Moist and lean brisket, sausage and country style pork rib.
Sausages cooking in the pit. This room smelled heavenly.
Brick pits built in 1953.
Cutters working hard. There was a decent sized line during my visit.

Actually, I had the chance to spend a minute with the owner and found out some interesting stories. Apparently his grandfather started another BBQ joint and during the depression ran it on credit. That business eventually failed. Then in 1953 his father and uncle, who had just returned from the war, started Prause Meat Market at the current location. They’ve been using the same sausage recipe for generations, but the exact style originates from 1953.

While in line, I got to snoop on the folks in front of me to see what they were ordering. Most people were ordering sausage. Once again, a gentlemen in front of me had a huge sausage order. I believe his was 25 links and 3lbs of brisket.

When it was my turn, I got the standard 1 slice of lean, 1 slice of moist, and 1 sausage. Prause doesn’t cook pork ribs, but they do make country style ribs so I ordered them, too.

The first bite I had was the lean brisket.  It was really dry, so I had to put it down. A smart pit boss once told me that you always cook brisket for the lean.

Next up was the moist brisket. The moist had great flavor and lots of smoke, but the texture just wasn’t there for me. Also, the fat needed a bit more rendering. With a few tweaks this brisket could be really great. Unfortunately, it just didn’t do it for me.

I knew that I had to have that sausage. Folks, the half pork, half beef sausage was great. Excellent smoke flavor, perfect amount of juice explosion when you bite into it. What caught my attention was the casing. I kid you not, it was the best casing of any sausage ever. When it popped it made this glorious sound and had the perfect texture. I loved it.

The only thing I really wanted to see more of was black pepper. That would have added a depth to the flavor and instantly positioned this sausage among my favorites.

The country style pork rib was not my cup of tea. It was tough and generally flavorless. Honestly, I think they should just ditch them and focus more on the brisket or consider adding in pork ribs.

I definitely think Prause Meat Market should be on every BBQ aficionado’s list. My recommendation would be to go light on the brisket and focus on the sausage. In fact, you may just want to order all sausage because of how great it is.