State Fare: A Weekend of Hill Country BBQ
As fast as restaurants come and go, and as quickly as our city dining landscapes change, the more I treasure those food entities that we know will be around until the end of time.
When I need that kind of reassurance, I head to the hallowed halls of barbecue – and the tiny smoke shacks – that dot the countryside eastward from Austin. There await places that speak of a timeless flavor and century-old tradition.
Just recently, we took one of our Texas Toast Culinary Tours roadtrips to the Austin area for this very purpose. In two days, we ate extraordinarily good food that was blessedly unfussy. Here are two favorites among those joyous stops.
Snow’s BBQ: Roughly an hour east of Austin, rather toward Aggieland, the town of Lexington was on almost nobody’s radar before Texas Monthly changed everything. Two years ago, Pat Sharpe’s crack team of barbecue researchers discovered the brisket at a teensy smokehouse called Snow’s. Out of nowhere, this little barbecue place came to be the most famous in Texas, when TM’s 2008 story named this the best in Texas.
We arrived on a recent, gorgeous Saturday morning at about 10:30 a.m. The line was a bit long and would grow longer, as this is the only day Snow’s is open each week. We talked to some regulars, who say the line dwindles down after the peak lunch hour, but you run the risk of Snow’s having run out of something. And you don’t want that to happen.
Getting a combination plate with pork ribs, sausage and brisket, along with potato salad, pinto beans and pickles, we headed to the picnic tables on the open-air patio. Nobody’s talking much out there, because the food’s so dang good you just want to eat in reverent silence.
The brisket was indeed heavenly, but the pintos – wow. They’re just perfection. When I spotted pitmaster Tootsie Tomantez spooning up those beans from a massive pot on the outdoor stove, I had to tell her how much I love her work. She was as friendly and gracious as you could possible hope. We chatted with lots of folk who made the trip special, just like us; many of them made it their big Harley excursion for the day.
Louie Mueller: Not quite an hour northeast of Austin, Taylor is home to one of the most loved barbecue joints in state history. Louie Mueller was initially a grocer in this town, but he became a barbecue vendor in 1949 – and never looked back. His son, Bobby Mueller, ran the business admirably until his untimely death last year, and Louie’s grandson and Bobby’s son, Wayne, is carrying on the family traditions.
For an experience that combines good, smoked food, ice-cold Shiner Bock and small-town comfort, you can’t beat Louie Mueller. Most visits I’ve made were early in the day, when lines streamed out the door and down the sidewalk. But my recent visit brought me inside the double doors and along the smoke-stained walls and right to the counter at 4 p.m., with no wait whatsoever.
We piled our tray, lined with butcher paper, of course, with baby back ribs, brisket and jalapeno sausage, and a Mason jar full of cold, amber brew. We sat in the middle of the dining room, with a lovely breeze coming from the south, through the screened-in porch, and chatted with Wayne while we ate the vittles, deeply smoked over post oak logs.
Wayne’s been busy carrying Louie Mueller’s good grub to events on the East Coast, where folks love sampling Texas ‘cue. Wayne will be front and center, like a lot of famous barbecue joints, at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, coming up in Austin in September.
We’ll be back to visit Snow’s and Louie Mueller and plenty of others in August, too. Texas Toast Culinary Tours will be leading another barbecue tour down that way August 6-7. You can join us, of course.