The Great Texas BBQ Road Trip 2018 (Part One)

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A brisket smile at Salt Lick

Two of the things in life that make me the happiest are: travel and food.  So, a road trip during a holiday in Austin sounded like a great idea.  The inclusion of stops at four barbecue joints from the 2017 Texas Monthly List of Top 50 BBQ Places, sounded like a awesome idea.  If you’re going to be almost anywhere in Texas, I highly recommend checking out the list here and picking several places (like, as many as you possibly can) to indulge.

While researching for my most recent trip to Austin, to visit my sister, I stumbled upon a food festival in Houston that happened to be on a weeknight during my visit (finding events to attend during a weekday visit is hard).  Given that Houston is about two hours from Austin it seemed like a perfect day trip…with a few pit-stops along the way.

My trip to Austin in 2017 introduced me to the Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ List (“The List”).  It’s a magical list of some of the yummiest places to eat brisket, ribs, pulled pork and smoked poultry around.  While you might not agree with all of their rankings and might have your own favourites (my personal favourite is a mere honourable mention on the most recent List), the joints listed on the List are guaranteed to please.  If you manage to hit a place from the top 10…smoky eating ecstasy is a very probable outcome.

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The revered Top 50 BBQ List

After some debate with my sister (who would be my partner in crime…and the driver) we settled on the Southern Route down the Interstate 35 to Hays County Barbeque Restaurant in San Marcos then Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in New Braunfels.  We would then head further South to the Interstate 10, and East towards Houston.  A short side-trip to the town of Luling and City Market would break the one hundred (or so) miles on I-10 before we would hit the suburbs of Houston.  A turn North on Highway 99 (a.k.a. the First Ring of Houston Highway Hell) to Tomball and a stop at the Texas Chocolate Craftory, which, despite it’s confection-based name, is ranked number 6 on the Texas Monthly List. After finishing there, we were headed to another food event in downtown Houston; a tale for another time.

Route selected, stomachs reasonably empty (our plan was to share a half pound of meat and only minimal sides at each stop), and the gas tank full, we were ready to take off on our day of adventure.  The sky was clear, the music was blaring and the top was down.  It was so very Thelma and Louise, minus the the sexy Brad Pitt and the cliff at the end.

Our first leg would take us in the direction of San Antonio.  I just had to say this as I find San Antonio one of the funniest place names in Texas…solely due to the ridiculous Pace Picante sauce commercial of my youth.  Every time I think of San Antonio, I hear a bad “cowboy” accent exclaim “this salsa’s made in New York City…New York City…get a rope”. I had no idea that San Antonio was where proper cowboy salsa came from until that commercial edified me, nor that New Yorker’s had no idea how to properly make it (yes, there is sarcasm in my voice).

Back to our trip…in the direction of the picante sauce capital of the world…it wasn’t long until we spotted our first pit-stop, Hay’s County Barbeque Restaurant in the town of San Marcos.  When we pulled into the parking lot we noticed a large number of police, fire and marshall service cars, and they weren’t there attending to an emergency.  Clearly, this was a lunch spot of choice for the local services…a good sign.

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When we walked through the front doors at 11:25am, the first thing that I noticed was the smell of the smokers.  Normally, smoke in a restaurant would be a warning sign, but in a barbeque joint it is a very good thing (unless it’s a nasty “oops I set the kitchen on fire” smoke smell).  Hays County smells like what I think Texas barbeque should taste like. The interior has a cozy industrial feel with lots of steel and exposed pipes brightened up with all kinds of neon and commercial signage.  Tables abound, all with their required grouping of napkins, barbeque and hot sauces.

The first cashier station we came upon was assisting people with purchasing all manner of swag.  We skipped this and headed past the cold sides cooler (picking up some coleslaw on the way) to the meat ordering station.  There were a number of young and friendly staff behind the counter, taking orders, cutting and weighing the precious meats and serving up hot sides.  I ordered a half-pound of pork ribs (my personal favourite barbeque meat) and a hatch chilli macaroni and cheese.  I prefer pork ribs for my barbeque though most would argue the true test of a barbeque joint is it’s brisket.  I say, get what you like, barbeque snobs be damned.

Two, large pork ribs were loaded onto the paper on our tray and the two half cup styrofoam bowls with our sides were places alongside.  I passed on the white bread but agreed to some pickles and raw, white onion.  Seated by the windows onto the parking lot, it was time to start our barbeque adventure for real.

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Half pound of ribs, well seasoned, with coleslaw and hatch chilli mac & cheese

The first bite of the ribs made it obvious why Hays County was on the List.  The rib meat was juicy with a salty kick and just enough heat from the pepper.  The fat had been rendered leaving just enough to help the rib meat fall off the bone and melt in my mouth.  The ribs were warm, not hot, and had a good meat to bone ratio.

After a few bites of rib, my sister and I prepared to try the sides.  During a previous trip to Austin, I have had the good fortune to eat at most of the List’s top 10 barbeque joints in the state.  The one thing that is almost universal has been the disappointing quality of the side dishes.

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Hatch chilli macaroni & cheese and coleslaw at Hay’s County Barbeque Restaurant

Traditionally, barbeque joints in Texas serve some sort of bean dish (refried black beans or pinto beans in sauce – a la Libby’s), German potato salad and coleslaw.  Some have collard greens or corn-on-the-cob (resting in a tub of liquid butter).  Traditionally, these sides are extremely underwhelming and, in many places, taste like they were scooped directly from large plastic buckets delivered daily by Sysco (the world’s largest food wholesaler).  The abysmal state of affairs with regards to side dishes seems to be at odds with the care and attention that goes into the meat.  This has led to the creation of “Merv’s Law of BBQ Sides” which posits that the quality of the barbeque is inversely proportional to the quality of the side dishes.  Good meat, bad sides.  Good sides, mediocre meat.  I am hoping to find an exception.

A first bite of the coleslaw seemed to support the aforementioned “Law”.  While it was fresh and crunchy and appeared to be made on site, it was lacking in flavour.  Such an easy thing to add to coleslaw (just ask White Spot – who have some of the best coleslaw ever).  A quick flash of regret passed before my eyes, as I had hoped that Hays would prove the exception to the Sides Law.  Fortunately, the hatch chilli macaroni and cheese swooped in to save the day.  The pasta was nicely cooked and there were ample chopped hatch chillies mixed throughout.  A lightly toasted breadcrumb topping added a bit of crunchy texture.

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Finishing off the ribs and macaroni, a quick trip to the extremely clean and well kept restrooms to wash the remnants from our hands and we were on our way.  One down, three more to go.

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An old beater classic outside Hay’s County Barbeque

Back to the car, top down and off we go.  Not too far to the next stop, especially when you drive at Texas highway speed (and I’m talking the posted speed, not the people who go way over). Our destination: Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in New Braunfels.

After a short drive along the I-35, the turn off to New Braunfels fast approached and we headed off to our next “pit” stop.  This location has a large parking lot with ample spots for the oversized pick-up trucks that populate the Texas roads.  Parking our lowered sports car between two raised and tricked out pick ups provided a brief glimpse into the perspective I imagine Tom Thumb experienced.

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Walking in to Cooper’s did not illicit the same mouth-watering reaction I experienced in the initial seconds at Hays.  The smell of smoke was faint, though assuredly present.  We had arrived at lunchtime and there was a lineup of about a dozen people along the short wall that separated the smokers from the public areas.  At one end of the wall was a gentleman taking meat orders and doling out laughs.  It was our turn after a short wait and “David” did not disappoint.  Everyone in the line was chuckling by the time we placed our order of smoked corn-on-the-cob and a half pound of ribs.

The line snaked past a deli-style counter where employees were weighing the day’s special meat and dishing up any sides requested.  A quick perusal didn’t result in anything that caught my eye, until I saw the pecan pie cobbler.  One thing that I cannot resist in Texas is pecan pie; possibly due to the pecan orchards dotting the surrounding area pretty much guaranteeing fresh and flavourful pecans.  One order of pecan pie cobbler…please.  Once we had our cobbler, the simple act of payment completed our pre-meal activities.

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Pork ribs, smoked corn and pecan pie cobbler

The interior of the dining area had much the same cozy industrial feel that seems to be fairly typical in barbeque joints.  Presumably the steel is a bit easier to keep clean and doesn’t absorb the smoke into the walls (if you have been to Louie Mueller Barbeque in Taylor, you will know what I mean).  The neon signs that dot the walls light the place with a colourful glow that adds cheer and bit of chaos, just in case the kids eating here aren’t enough. We find another table by the windows and sit down to try barbeque number two.

 

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The interior of Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Que

The ribs we received at Coopers were shorter than at Hays (possibly from their position on the ribcage) and were hot to the touch.  The meat, with a visible smoke ring, was juicy and fell from the bone with no effort.  The rub was your standard salt and pepper mix, though this time the emphasis was on the saltier end of the spectrum, which was pleasing to my palate.  The only real downside was the nubby ends of the ribs that contain small bones and cartilage, making them hard to clean of meat, and the lack of a more significant smoke flavour.  I feel that when you spend hours smoking a piece of meat, over carefully selected wood, the flavour profile of that smoke should feature prominently in the end product.

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Pork ribs with their Texas rub (salt and pepper)

The corn was a bit of a conundrum.  It was wrapped in foil and cooked in the smoker.  As such, it had a wonderful smoky flavour which complemented the sweetness of the corn.  On the other hand, when corn is cooked and left to sit, it becomes a but less snappy and a bit more chewy.  The smoked corn had an umami quality to it, but I was left wondering what it would have been like had I tasted it fresh from the pit.

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Innovation at Cooper’s

If there is one thing that barbeque joints do not spend money on is paper plates.  Plastic cutlery, napkins (or rolls of paper towels) and styrofoam containers abound, but plates are non-existent.  Your “plate” consists of either the butcher paper your meat is wrapped in or a thick piece of white paper.  Eating barbeque is a messy affair.  No one eats it with a knife and fork (except perhaps pulled pork) and in the end your hands will be a sticky, greasy mess with only a flimsy paper towel to clean up with.  On my last visit to Texas, I lamented that barbeque joints seem to have missed the memo on moist towelettes.  Where I come from, any time you are served anything remotely messy, you are provided with either a finger bowl (chicken wings) or moist towelettes (fried chicken).  I pondered going into the moist towelette business, travelling between barbeque joints selling my prized wet napkins.  Well, it seems that I was not the only one with these thoughts.  Low and behold, at the cutlery station, there was a container of these little nuggets of hand wiping glory.  Seems that someone finally got the memo, though it has been limited in its distribution.

After eating our meat and veggies and cleaning the sticky juices from our hands, it was time to dare the dessert.  Pecan pie and cobbler (of any kind) are two of my favourite desserts.  Combined together in their tiny styrofoam bowl, I knew I would be in trouble.  Trying to be good and stick (somewhat) to my diet (I can already hear you laughing) I took a tiny bite.  Wow!  I shall just say that the second and third and every subsequent bite after had no thoughts of guilt attached.  “Cobbler” was a bit of a misnomer.  This dessert was basically pecan pie that had been smashed up and pressed into a serving tray, crust and all.  By no means was is bad, just not really as advertised.

Satisfied and full, we disposed of our “plates” and headed back to our car, finding it amongst a sea of pick-ups.  We’d have a bit of a drive to our next stop, time to digest and prepare for our third pit stop.

To be continued…