Some of the best barbecue in the world can be found in small central Texas towns like Lockhart and Luling. When barbecue shrines matter of factly serve unpretentiously great food wrapped plainly in butcher paper, the effect is unsettling to someone used to eating mediocre barbecue at inflated, big city prices.
The one slice of brisket I ordered at Kreuz Market (photo below) cost me a paltry 96 cents. You might ask how a restaurant would be willing to sell just one measly slice of brisket, and the answer lies at its humble beginnings.
These joints started life as meat markets and groceries which sold lunch to cattlehands and cotton pickers at the turn of the previous century. These working stiffs may have been too poor to eat in restaurants, but they could afford cheap cuts of smoked meats. The butchers would sell it by the pound, along with pickles, saltines, and “rat cheese,” which were the only side dishes available in those days. Since every grown man carried a pocket knife, no utensils were provided. Communal knives were chained to the wall at Kreuz Market for any hapless schmuck who forgot his.
The tiny town of Luling has two top notch BBQ joints
Brisket and links served with no plates or utensils. City Market Luling, Texas
Skip forward to 2006, and barbecue isn’t cheap any more. Finding skilled pitmasters to babysit a cooker for 18 hours isn’t as easy as hiring a high school kid to flip burgers, and retail prices reflect that expense. All the same, prices here seem low compared to restaurants paying rent in West Los Angeles.
The style of barbecue in Central Texas is austere: a monastic incantation of meat, salt, pepper, smoke. It might be the purest expression of barbecue I’ve found. Dry rub still hasn’t encroached on a minimalist style that predates the Depression, but barbecue sauce is available (on the side) at the places which have caved in to modern times.
The wee town of Luling has two renowned barbecue joints (City Market and Luling Bar-B-Q), but its larger neighbor Lockhart has no less than four (Black’s, Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market and Chisholm Trail). I only had time to visit City Market, Black’s and Kreuz Market in a progressive dinner blitzkrieg.
Black’s Barbecue has continuously operated in this location by the same family since 1932. It looks exactly as you’d expect an old time barbecue joint to look. Its woodpaneled walls and timeworn cafeteria tables might have been last updated during LBJ’s administration. Like the other shops I visited, you order at the back of the restaurant, where the BBQ pits are walled off in a room designed to keep smoke from infusing the whole building.
Black’s Barbecue. Lockhart, Texas
Slicing a rack of ribs at Black’s. Note the brick BBQ pits.
Brisket, pork rib, and sausage at Black’s.
Kreuz Market dates back to 1900, but a recent famly spat forced the current owner to move the business into a larger building down the street from its original location. His father willed the original building to his daugher Nina, and the business to his son Rick. The children don’t get along, yet both of them wanted to continue in the barbecue business. So Rick built a big new building and took the Kreuz name with him, while his sister renamed the old place Smitty’s, after their father “Smitty” Schmidt.
Kreuz cooks shoulder clod, an unusual beef cut that’s leaner than brisket. I was stuffed by this point so I didn’t try the shoulder clod, the pork chops or any of their famous sausages. Rick Schmidt’s method of cooking shoulder clod is in Peace, Love, & Barbecue. I plan to cook it at home to see what this Texas specialty is all about.
The pits at this new location are designed exactly like the pits from the original Kreuz store. Post oak logs fire the brick pits, rather than mesquite, which is more commonly employed in Texas. Heat and smoke are drawn across the long brick pit and up the chimney at the far end of this photo. This is only one of the ten or twelve such pits I saw that supply their 23,000 square foot restaurant.
Note the open firebox and the blazing flames. Kreuz Market cooks hotter and faster than most places (400 degrees F versus the usual 200-250, so the pitmasters must be attentive to avoid burned meat.
96 cents worth of Lone Star brisket. No BBQ sauce, no utensils!
Every little town in this part of Texas seems to have a smokehouse or a hole in the wall with a barrel smoker out back. Most aren’t as nationally famous as the three places I’ve mentioned here. Unlike other barbecue restaurants across America, these can trace a direct lineage to their 19th century German immigrant ancestors who settled this region. Outsiders gradually brought influences like barbecue sauce and side dishes, but the core Texas values remain stubbornly intact at these old school joints: meat seasoned only with salt, pepper and smoke, and served without plates or utensils. Eating cottonpicker style is a proud anthropological legacy from families who’ve been keeping their food real for over 100 years.
633 E. Davis St.
Luling, TX 78648
215 N. Main St.
Lockhart, TX 78644
619 N. Colorado St.
Lockhart, TX 78644-2110