Barbecue is very much a regional cuisine. It looks different from the Texas Hill Country to Memphis to St. Louis to the Carolinas. In Texas, barbecue is less about the sauce and all about the meat. We’re downright crazy about brisket. It’ll take you a full day to drive across the state, yet somehow we’ve managed to concentrate the very best of our barbecue within about 15 miles in the two small towns of Luling and Lockhart.
The Big Guys in the Hill Country turn out unbelievable amounts of unbelievably good barbecue. The brisket is classic and pretty similar across the board: you have your nice layer of char, a pink smoke ring, and it’s cooked slowly enough that it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. It’s smoked in huge brick pits that hold hundreds of pounds of meat at once.
Who are the big guys?
City Market in Luling
Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart
Smitty’s Market in Lockhart
Kreuz Market in Lockhart
And we hit ’em all. We spent several hours in the car and several more eating brisket. And sausage. And ribs. And while everyone else was chowing down on fresh-off-the-pit meats, I was hanging out in the hot, dark, and smokey pit rooms catching a few shots of the guys at work and chatting up the super friendly pit masters. The best part? (Besides the food?) I never even had to ask – I barely had the camera strap around my neck before someone was inviting me to the back for a tour or opening one of the pits to show me what was inside.
Each restaurant was essentially setup the same: There’s a dining area and then a 100+ degree “meat room” where they slice your meats right in front of you, fresh from a “hot box.” And monster brick pits stocked with meat and roaring fires line the walls of the meat rooms and back rooms. Each pit is fitted with a counter balance weight to hold the big metal slab lid open.
City Market (Luling, TX)
Our Tour de Brisket stop in Luling was packed with a couple of bonuses. It’s peach season in the Hill Country! Next to brisket, I most looked forward to getting my grubby little hands on some peaches. I was invited to bite into one of the peaches I purchased at the produce stand so the owner could prove to me just how ripe the peach was. How do you know a peach is ripe? When one bite sends peach juice running down your chin and your forearm. I grabbed two dozen. No one took any home with them. I can’t decide if I’m a little disappointed that I was the only one excited about them… or extremely happy that they’re all mine 🙂
It was also Thump weekend! And we didn’t know it until we got there. As we drove into town, there were tell-tale signs. Like handmade “Vote for Me for Thump Queen!” signs attached to the fences. And a festival banner draped over the street. “I think this might be the weekend for the watermelon festival,” barely escaped my lips as the dates on the banner come into focus: June 24-27. Score. But back to barbecue…
At City Market, there is almost always a line that runs from “the meat room” to the restrooms. With the Thump crowd? The end of the line was out the door and all the way down the block. Luling, Texas, on the last weekend of June is truly an experience – and probably the only place on this earth that you’ll ever see a watermelon auctioned for $20,000.
But besides the bonus watermelon festival, we stood in line for brisket and sausage at City Market. The “meat room” is multi-purpose at City Market: it houses the pits, the hot box (what they called a pit serving as a warmer), sides (pickles, onions, and bread), and a cashier. See that pit full of sausage? They estimated that they’d sell 4,000 of those today.
Outside in a less than 100 degree dining hall, barbecue lovers eat community-style at long tables with fold-out metal chairs. Barbecue is served to-go wrapped in paper bags or cardboard boxes. It’s served for-here on sheets of butcher paper along the pickles-onion-Sunbeam trinity. No plates. It’s messy… and so were we:
Want beans? You’ll be directed to the aptly-named Queen of Beans next to the drink counter. You also need something to wash it all down… Big Red in glass bottles? Pretty darn good on a hot Texas summer day!
The meat: The brisket was fantastic – second best brisket we had all day. The sausage by far beats anything any of us had ever tried.
The staff: Super friendly, incredibly accommodating to the girl fighting with her camera to get decent shots in less than decent lighting.
The crowd: Excellent people watching. They estimated ~40,000 people were in town (normal population is ~5,000)
Black’s Barbecue (Lockhart, TX)
Black’s was the first tour stop in Lockhart. Black’s claims the distinction as the oldest barbecue joint in Texas that has been operated by the same family. They also hold the distinction of serving the very best brisket that I’ve ever eaten in my life. (And it still holds that title at the end of the tour.)
When you walk into Black’s, you’re greeted by a hallway lined with hungry barbecue lovers. At the front of that line is the rest of your meal: banana pudding, blackberry and peach cobblers, cole slaw, pickles, peppers, onions, beans, bread… you name it. Oh, and plates. Food is served on plates at Black’s 🙂
The people behind the counter will take your order and carve your meat on the block behind the cash register. Meat is kept in the warmers, ready to slice. In the back, hard-working Black’s employees like Tom are just waiting to show you around the pits 🙂 It’s dark. It’s smokey. Not the best environment for my photography skillz but it’s the best environment for Black’s brisket skillz.
50 briskets lined the bottom racks of a single brick pit while the top rack held oodles and oodles of pork and beef ribs. And then there was sausage: dozens of single, half-pound links hanging while they smoked. Repeat that setup 3 or 4 times. That’s what goes on behind the “behind the counter” at Black’s. Black’s is always busy. We stopped by there at an odd hour on a Friday afternoon once – there was a line of people even then. On holiday weekends, once the line forms, there will be a line until they cut it off for closing time.
Black’s brisket is dry rubbed and smoked in a similar style brick pit. The outer crust is seasoned, charred, and smokey and the inner brisket is insanely tender. Whatever it is that they do differently than City Market, Smitty’s, and Kreuz, I hope they keep doing it. It was only stop #2 and someone already wanted something other than brisket and sausage. A piece of advice… when you’re only halfway through the Tour de Brisket, don’t order cole slaw and banana pudding. While tasty, it takes up extremely valuable real estate.
Smitty’s Market (Lockhart, TX)
Two blocks from Black’s is Smitty’s Market. Two blocks. Smitty’s was my favorite place to photograph. The building that Smitty’s occupies is over 100 years old and it has housed a barbecue joint since 1900 (Kruez Market occupied the building until 1999). There was a century’s worth of character in the old brick pits and smokey ceiling.
Your third lunch of the day is served on sheets of butcher paper with slices of Sunbeam bread. You can get knives, pickles, onions, and cheese at the dining room counter. But there are no forks or sauce in the building. Both are clearly optional for barbecue consumption.
Smitty’s brisket garnered “favorite brisket” from a few of our crew while the rest sided with Black’s. It’s all very good… I just think that Black’s is that much better 🙂
There is also a Blue Bell Ice Cream cart to serve dessert by the scoop from the little creamery in Brenham. Just what the doctor ordered after spending 20 minutes in the 110 degree pit room.
Kreuz Market (Lockhart, TX)
No. More. Brisket. Full bellies. Full camera. I was the only one who even got out of the car at Kreuz Market. We almost didn’t stop!
Kruez (rhymes with lights) moved from to its current location (where Smitty’s is now) ~10 years ago. It’s now a whopping 1/4 mile from Black’s. It’s the first thing you see if you’re coming into town from Austin, or the last thing you see if your tour started south in Luling.
I walked in, chatted a few minutes, snapped a few photos, and ordered our brisket to go. I’m sure it will be good tomorrow – I imagine that they have figured out how to make brisket still taste great 24 hours later after a century’s worth of experience. After a long day of standing in line for and grazing on brisket and sausage, dragging the hem of my sundress through suit and ash in the pit rooms, and snapping photos, I couldn’t wait to get off my feet for the 2.5 hour drive home.
That’s it! The holiest of barbecue grails. If you ever find yourself in central-ish Texas, you must make the drive over to Luling and Lockhart! And a big “Thank y’all” to Foodbuzz for allowing me to take part in this month’s
For the record, a long dress on a hot day was a poor idea. But walking in flip flops around an ashy pit room was an even poorer idea. But the best idea I’ve ever had? Scramble a couple of eggs and wrap in a warm tortilla with a couple slices of leftover brisket. It’s even better than it sounds!