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.
I got my meat and couldn’t help but laugh at the bewildered face of the cashier, who asked me if I wanted any sides, as I told her I was on meat only. It seemed like she took that as a mortal BBQ sin. Obviously, in the nicest way possible (as is small town tradition).
I started with the brisket, as I always do. Both the moist and the lean were a bit dry and lacked the density of smoke flavor and black pepper I prefer. The flavor wasn’t bad, I just wasn’t a huge fan of it.
The pork rib, on the other hand, had some incredible bites around the bone. The tip was a tad too firm for my preferences, but the bark was excellent the rib as a whole had a very robust flavor.
Gonzalez Food Market is known for their sausage and I found out why: it has an incredible casing and very enjoyable flavor. It lacked the massive amount of black pepper that many Central Texas sausages have, and was perhaps a little more juicy than I prefer, but overall it was very tasty. A little hot sauce really set it off.
The lamb rib was the last thing I ate and I really enjoyed it. Lamb takes on a very gamey flavor when it is slow cooked on a grill (at least in my experiences). Typically, leg of lamb is braised and the flavors penetrate it and mask or eliminate the gaminess. In the case of the lamb ribs, the grassy flavor was heightened.
So, I’m reviewing the lamb ribs with the upfront confession that I love that grassy, barnyard flavor.
My first bite was just awesome: a big juicy piece of meat, nice crisp bark and and explosion of lamb. I even jotted down in my notes that I was “shocked” by how much I loved it. That particular line is covered in lamb grease
After I ate, I jumped back in line and asked Rene if I could look around the store and see how they do things. Rene, ever the gentlemen, summoned another cutter and escorted me around showing off all the old school methods they use to prepare their meats.
We walked into the first pit room and I was immediately hit with post oak. God, it was intoxicating.
The cavernous brick pit concealed link after link of sausage. The aroma of that room is branded in my mind forever. Rene informed me that the pits have to be torn down and rebuilt every 10-15 years. I had not heard that from any other joint. Then again, not every joint churns out as much food as Gonzalez.
Next, we walked out to the rib pits. Basically, the ribs are grilled over oak coals. I’ve not seen many joints employ this technique, but it seems to work fairly well. The fire is started in a huge cauldron using paper drenched in fat and other combustible refuse.
The next area was the wood storage shed. I found that they use a combination of oak and mesquite. Based on the stacks it seemed like they were doing about 3:1, oak to mesquite.
After the wood room was the sausage making area. I was fortunate to come at a time when sausage was being produced. Rene walked me through every sacred step and they guys working back there were kind enough to go slow so I could grasp what was happening. The sausage is primarily beef (90-95%) and only really contains pork when they have scraps from trimming to add.
We entered another room that I initially mistook as the first pit room. Nope. It was…another pit with a few briskets in it. I was told that the brisket cooks for 12-18 hours. I think that’s probably a bit too long and probably contributes to the suboptimal texture.
Looking back on the experience, I couldn’t believe how expansive this facility was. It is both amazing and inspiring that Texas supports institutions such as Gonzalez Food Market.
For all my fellow BBQ trail ladies and gents, I feel like Gonzalez is a must. I’d stick with the sausage, pork ribs and, if lamb is your thing, the lamb ribs.