Friday, September 2, 2011

The Brisket Bender, or Too Much of a Well-Smoked Thing

My love affair with barbecue started late. I grew up in Michigan, not exactly the land of smoked meats, and spent seven of my formative years as a vegetarian.

It will seem blasphemous to residents of Texas, Memphis, and North Carolina to read what I am about to write, but it is true: I first gained a taste for barbecue in New York City. It may not be the birthplace of barbecue, sure, but New Yorkers have the will and the resources to bring pretty much anything worth eating—and the chefs who make it—to their metropolis. (And it doesn't stop at food either. I learned to surf in New York City. Yes, really surf. And I'm sure you could learn to tango from an actual Argentinian, and how to sumo wrestle from a master if you wished.)

I first tasted BBQ at a place where one of my publishing colleagues worked part time. (It's debatable which job paid better.) They served all the guilt-inducing sides, from cornbread to fried green tomatoes, and the meat was unlike anything I'd tasted. They smoked it overnight, and when it ran out, it ran out. Brisket was the first to go—which was okay, because I didn't know what brisket was anyway. (I hadn't been exposed to Jewish cuisine either; my family pronounced the “r” and "l" in yarmulke.) That first trip I probably had chicken, maybe some pork—we all shared. I came home raving about the food, wanting to taste it again soon. There was something in that smoky flavor, like a drug, that kept me wanting more.

 A few short years later I met some meat-loving friends who introduced me to a BBQ place in Williamsburg. In the land of skinny jeans was an unapologetic shrine to all things meat—the fattier, the better. At this establishment, pork belly was considered the crown jewel, though I've never actually acquired a taste for it. Raised on tofu and rice, there is still something too fatty, too animalistic about its name, its taste. My tastes run to pulled pork, turkey, and brisket—which I finally had and now know intimately. (Just don't ask me to locate where it comes from on the cow. The front half, I'm pretty sure.)

At this restaurant, after an hour's wait, you'd sidle up to the counter and order your meat by the pound. A bespectacled, mustachioed 20-something would weigh it out for you on butcher paper. This was incredibly quirky to me, something new, especially in New York, the land of fine dining. Little did I know this was how barbecue had been done forever.  My barbecue education had yet to commence.

Once we arrived in Texas this summer, N and I were rubbing our hands together (figuratively, in that cartoonish way) anticipating all of the delicious, authentic barbecue we'd be eating this summer. Being the meat-and-more-meat American male he is, N was probably more excited than I was, though I was extremely excited to be dining somewhere that wasn't Pittsburgh.*

I can't recall our first official barbecue meal. We actually did buy some from Whole Foods** one of those first days, and ate it at home. Again, sorry to the barbecue purists out there, but it was pretty good, considering Whole Foods is so concerned (or so they say) with the integrity of their meats.


Our first real BBQ adventure was a trip to Rudy's. I have to say it's a pretty great place; we've been there three times. There are a few Rudy's locations and they are all attached to gas stations. This, my friends, is fine dining. The brisket at Rudy's is quite good, as is the turkey, and the service is as friendly as can be. On our first trip, after we told them we were newbies, they offered us samples of their top sellers. I got a free dessert (a banana pudding, complete with Nilla wafers and served in a Styrofoam cup) for filling out a survey. As we sat out at the picnic table on the covered porch, enjoying the highway views while we ate our brisket, turkey, and sausage, it was hard not to be happy and content. And the prices definitely hit the spot too: our mounds of meat, plus drinks and a few sides, came out to less than $30.


After Rudy's came a trip to Stubb's which is probably better known for its awesome music venue (we saw Cage the Elephant and Matt & Kim there) rather than its food, but the BBQ wasn't too bad. It was there I first had chopped beef, which I was a bit scared of but ended up liking tremendously. When it comes to my carnivorous habits, I'm still tentative, and therefore prefer things that I can easily eat with a fork rather than having to separate it from the bone (such as ribs and whole chicken). Chopped beef fits the bill—and it doesn't hurt that it is mixed with the delicious BBQ sauce.

Going back to Rudy's after the jaunt to Stubb’s, we discovered something on their menu we hadn't noticed before, mysteriously called, "Spicy Chopped." The helpful (as always) cashier told us they couldn't technically call it chopped beef—though it was mostly brisket—because they mixed bits of pork and turkey in there too. Basically, it is a mixture of all the odds and ends they have left after carving, mixed in with sauce, and it is phenomenal. Its existence completely deifies the term leftovers.


Actually, now that I think of it, our BBQ journey did begin on a low note, with a place called County Line on the Lake. The water view in question, though not actually a lake, is gorgeous. The building is made—or has the appearance of being made—of large logs, and has its own dock, so boaters can pull in, park their boats, and have dinner. It actually reminded me of being in Northern Michigan, on Houghton Lake, and the paintings of wildlife that hung inside helped further that illusion. I think this atmosphere was a huge draw, because on the night we went it was packed. The wait was long, which was fine, because you could sit on the dock with a drink and enjoy the views. When we did sit, the fourteen-year-old waitress seemed a bit flustered.  The meat was okay, and you couldn't choose your sides, which was also a minus. 

Although the reality is, even when you get to choose your own sides, they are almost always lackluster.  I've tasted (note I don't say “eaten”) so many bland beans here it's incredible.  The only notable side I've had has been at Stubb's, an order of serrano cheese spinach, though it was so full of heat I couldn't finish it.


When N's family visited, we took barbecue upscale, dining at Lambert's.  It's a phenomenal place, with a sophisticated feel that would fit right in in New York City.  The portions are also NYC-esque, or what Texans and Midwesterners would call "tiny."  I would agree that one of our sides was doll-sized, though in the meat department, I had no complaints.  I opted for steak instead of barbecue, which turned out to be the best order of the night.  The brisket, while good, loses something when it gets fancified.  It's the kind of meat that's meant to be messy, served on wax paper—not elegantly presented and served next to an artisanal mojito.


To get back to the essence of barbecue, we made a trip out to Salt Lick in Driftwood.  Driftwood, and the neighboring town of Dripping Springs, are located in Texas Hill Country—an area so beautiful I'd almost consider settling down there forever and registering for my Republican Party ID.  Almost.  Also, there is the fact that Driftwood is located in a dry county, a caveat that only increases the festive atmosphere at Salt Lick.  How?  Well, you may not be able to order booze off the menu, but you sure as shootin' can bring your own cooler, and drink all during the wait for the table (usually 1 to 2 hours) while a band plays, and during dinner as well.  Hell, you could continue the party in the parking lot, looking out over Salt Lick's own—wait for it—vineyard.  But back to the food, though the atmosphere is a huge component of what's to love about Salt Lick.  The food was pretty phenomenal, particularly the brisket.  It had the fattiness, the perfect crust.  There were also ribs, and turkey, and sausage—why drive all that way if not to order the whole menu?—were each delicious in their own right.


Somewhere in this barbecue adventure, I also took my family to Iron Works, which had a really great atmosphere, and decent food.  N and I also went to Ruby's (not to be confused with Rudy's), which I liked and he was lukewarm about.  This was a UT-area place, a kind of "hipsters do BBQ," which is probably why I liked it—it reminded me of those early days in Brooklyn.

But then, last weekend was a watershed moment.  We hit the proverbial barbecue wall.  It was essentially our last full weekend here in Austin, and it seemed necessary that we make the trip out to Lockhart, the cradle of Texas 'cue.  There are three major places: Black's, Kreuz Market, and Smitty's.  Kreuz Market and Smitty's, the story goes, used to be one place owned by one family.  But then there was a feud, and the BBQ dynasty became a house divided.  A settlement was reached: Kreuz got to keep the original name, and Smitty's got to keep the original location.  We decided Smitty's would be our destination.

Entering Smitty's was not unlike descending into the pits of hell.  It looks unremarkable on the outside, one storefront in a row of storefronts—though Lockhart does have an eerie, ghost town vibe.  I was expecting a tumbleweed to roll through the street at any moment.  But back to hell.  Picture it.  It's Texas in July, which means it's 100 degrees and sunny out.  But when you open the door to Smitty's, you're plunged into darkness.  There's a long hallway you must traverse, and at the end of it is a heat that's hotter than what you just experienced outside.  You realize the walls are blackened with soot, and that a pile of logs is burning, unguarded, in the middle of the floor.  To place your order, you must stand in line next to said fire.  It's hot, incredibly hot; you're only six inches from a bonfire.  And you marvel at the people who actually work here: the men in jeans who pull your meat from the smokers with hooks, the women who stand behind the register, calmly taking your money while the fires of Hades burn behind them.

I cut out of this scene early, staking out our spot (and ordering cold drinks—good Lord, did I mention the heat?) in the next room, which resembled an old-style market, with long benches where patrons could sit and eat.  The sides here were the most bizarre I'd seen: you'd ask for pickles, chunks of onion, a whole avocado, a whole tomato.  There were also bricks of cheese, which they'd cut into large strips for you, if you asked.  While N braved the fires to order our meat, I picked up a few of these odds and ends, not immediately noticing a key item that was missing: a fork.

This was not an error.  There are no plates at Smitty's, nor are there forks.  I looked around; most people were piling their meats onto the off-brand Wonder Bread ubiquitous at barbecue joints.  (Rudy's is notorious for giving about half a loaf with every order.)  N and I mostly shun the bread.  He because he doesn't see the point, and me because I am afraid it will make me fat.  (Most of you are probably shaking your heads at this—“This girls shoves fatty meats down like nothing, but fears simple carbohydrates?”  Yes, that is exactly right; my paleo friends understand.)

And so with no forks and no inclination to make sandwiches, we tore into our meat with our hands.  There were some beef ribs, and a lot of brisket.  It was so fatty and smoky and meaty that it was almost vulgar.  I looked around.  Our fellow patrons were nearly all of considerable girth.  I could suddenly feel the fat sliding down into my stomach, see it on my fingers.  I felt sad all of sudden.  I felt regret.  I felt like an addict.

To extend the drug metaphor: up until that point, we had been recreational users.  We were like the people who smoked other people's pot on weekends, smiling and having a good time.  But now, we'd stumbled into the hard stuff.  Started shooting up, hanging with real users.  Smitty's was like a crack den, a flophouse for heavy users.  Of barbecue.

In the car on the way home, I had my epiphanic moment.  "I'm done," I told N, clutching my stomach, "No more barbecue.  I'm off it."  He had to agree this last trip was a bit much.  The next night, we ate salmon.

But then N consulted with another BBQ fanatic at work.  She had been to Black's; said it was good.  "Maybe we should have gone to Black's," he said.  I nodded.  Maybe we should have snorted the heroin instead of injecting it.
            "She said she hadn't been to Franklin yet..." he said, trailing off.  He looked at me.
            Franklin BBQ is just a truck, but it has the reputation of being the best in the city.  People start queuing up for it at ten in the morning, because supplies run out quickly.
            He continued, "Maybe Saturday, after our run, we can..."
            Suddenly, it starts to seem like a good idea.  Chances are, on our last day in Austin before we head back North, we'll be lining up for one last hit.***

*I know I pick on Pittsburgh a lot, but their dining scene is pretty abysmal. At a "real" Italian restaurant I was served a clam sauce made with--shudder--canned clams. French fries are considered an acceptable salad topping. I could go on, but I'll spare you. Okay, one more. At their "finest" (only?) Spanish restaurant, the first main course listed is ravioli.

**Fact: Whole Foods began in Austin, and is based here still.

***This post was written before we left Austin.  Unfortunately—or fortunately?—when we got to Franklin Barbecue on that day, they had just run out of meat.

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