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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bryan, Texas is a long way to drive for BBQ. However, my commitment to finding the best is unyielding. That’s exactly why, at the suggestion of the popular Daniel Vaughn, I decided to take the drive to Fargo’s. Vaughn rated Fargo’s as “6 stars”, a rating reserved for the likes of Franklin Barbecue and Louie Mueller. Will Fargo’s stack up to the hype?
It’s no secret that the Houston Barbecue Festival was a smashing success. I was fortunate enough to attend the festival and was rewarded with great ‘cue, beer and the opportunity to meet some new friends.
While I was there, I happen to snap a few pictures of the barbecue I was eating, along with a few other cool shots. Here are the fruits of my labor 🙂
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.
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.
At 10:50am, I had just pulled in to the Bayou City Events Center in Houston. My grandfather always said 10 minutes early is an hour late. I figured an hour and ten minutes early was right on time.
As I stepped out of the car I was hit by an Arctic blast of death: 30mph wind gusts and 55º temperatures. That’s similar to below freezing in other parts of the country.
Nevertheless, I was ready to eat barbecue come hell or high water.
First, let me tell you the bad news. There were two places I did not try: Pizzitola’s and Gatlin’s. Many of you may wonder why I missed Gatlin’s. Well, I’ve been there before AND the line was sickeningly long. Gatlin’s had a grease fire earlier in the morning and didn’t open up until the general ticket holders came in. Let me tell you: fighting with 1200 people over barbecue is not my style. I’d rather eat grass than stand in a long line for ‘cue I’ve already sampled.
Pizzitola’s just didn’t make it in my mouth. Maybe I peaked. Maybe it was the beer. Maybe it was the sun. Whatever the case I didn’t get to taste it. C’est la vie.
Folks, every joint that participated did a stand up job. Trust me, most parts of the country would be overwhelmed by the quality of barbecue found at HouBBQ. But this isn’t most parts of the country. This is Texas. You’ve got to bring it here.
Brisket: Brisket is what I almost always eat first, no matter where I go. HouBBQ is no exception. For me there was a hands down winner: The Brisket House. I got served a slice of moist that just absolutely slayed. It had a good amount of smoke, a nice bark and a ton of flavor. They use a mix of pecan and oak and that seems to work. I’ll definitely need to visit them to make sure they are putting out brisket of the same quality on a daily basis.
Pork rib: Houston is really competitive when it comes to pork ribs. When I look for the best I want meat that separates but doesn’t slide off the bone under its own weight. I want a black pepper face punch. And I want smoke. Lots of smoke. Virgie’s was the clear winner here. I loved that rib so much, the first words I wrote in my notes were “mouth sex”. I’ve had the ribs at Gatlin’s (ok, I ate the hell out of them) and really liked them a lot. But I think Virgie’s was slightly better. I can’t wait to pay them a visit.
Pulled pork: Pork butt is, in my opinion, one of the more forgiving meats to cook. For that reason, my criterion for awesome is fairly strict. You cannot make a mistake. I want smoke. I want moisture but I don’t want it dripping on me. When I get a bark/fat piece I want sweet smoke candy flavor. There were a few joints with pulled pork that was awesome, but Fainmous BBQ did it for me. My notes say “soft and supple” and it was that times 1000. I had a bark/fat piece that was sublime. I hope they serve that level of pork every day. I’ll find out soon enough.
Sausage: This was by far the most difficult category for me. I didn’t feel like there was a clear winner here. I liked a couple of the sausages but since I had basically peaked on sausage at Zimmerhanzel’s the day before it was just difficult for me to make a choice here. I thought Blake’s BBQ and Burgers, Ronnie Killen and The Brisket House were all great. I want to see more focus on casing with everyone at the festival. Sure, I’m being super nitpicky, but at this level of barbecue that’s all there is.
There were two things I ate at HouBBQ that really left an impression on me.
The ribs from Virgie’s.
The beef rib from Ronnie Killen.
Beef rib, ftw
Killen was one of two people who cooked all their barbecue on site. Yes, that’s right. He cooked it all ON SITE. Under harsh conditions no less. With 30mph+ gusts of wind and temperatures that dipped into the 30’s. And Killen came out with a beef rib that was great. I can’t imagine what he’ll be able to do in a highly controlled environment. My prediction is that Killen is going to take Texas BBQ by storm when he opens a barbecue joint.
For those of you unfamiliar with Killen, he has a steakhouse in Pearland, TX that consistently ends up on top 10 steakhouse lists across the country. I got to chat with him for a while today and the dude knows so much about food it blew my mind. He was telling me about how he sources beef and that alone could take up a whole book.
I don’t want to rant too much about Killen but I just knew when I was talking to him that he is committed to perfection and will give 110% on the barbecue he makes. Restaurant know how, commitment to perfection and encyclopedic knowledge of food and cooking can only lead to success.
HouBBQ was a ravishing success. It seemed like the organizers had done this 100 times before. From my perspective every detail had been worked out and all the barbecue joints representin’ Houston were ready to go with the right amount of ‘cue. I was really impressed.
I was also massively humbled when a few people told me they read my blog. I hope I can provide a fresh perspective on Texas barbecue as I mature on this site. I have a lot of really awesome stuff planned and soon you’re all going to know just how much I geek out on ‘cue.