Tuesday, July 24, 2007

This morning we slept in (anticipating forthcoming early morning travel days) before heading south to Lockhart. For seven years we'd held this town in special esteem since meeting Don Elkins, proprietor of Central Texas BBQ in Castroville, California, our current favorite place for beef on the West Coast. We chanced upon that restaurant during 2000 Texas Road Trip, figuring any place called "Central Texas" must be inspired. After sharing our itinerary with him, Don described his early days learning the art of transforming mere beef and pork into gastronomic art at Black's Barbecue in Lockhart. We knew even then that our schedule would not allow a detour to this meaty mecca, and we departed Don's restaurant with a guilty feeling. We promised ourselves, though, that we would eventually follow his advice. Today we finally did. Lockhart is the real deal. While locals may debate our choices, we decided to visit three downtown places: Kreuz Market, Blacks Barbecue, and Smitty's Market.

Kreuz Market is an industrial sized complex designed to accommodate buses and church groups. But when we arrived at eleven on a weekday morning only a few other auto tourists had already queued up to survey the price per pound. At many of these places, you can't buy with credit, only with cash or checks. Naturally we stood behind some folks who actually still carry checkbooks. But that gave us time to study the menu and plan our attack. Since we organized Lockwood around three essential BBQ stops, we knew we had to eat relatively "light" at each one. Here, we started with lean beef brisket and fatty beef shoulder loaded up on greasy butcher paper, which needed no sauce (or even forks, apparently, because they didn't give them to us). We passed up the German-style side dishes and stuck with a half-dozen slices of white bread. Adding a couple bags of pickles and onions, we knew that we'd already gotten more than enough for lunch. Any sense of dread faded with that first bite, a sliver of cracklin serving as entr´┐Że to a warm explosion of salty flavor.

We then headed for Black's, a much smaller, less assuming place that Kreuz. In some ways you could look at this second stop as a buffer between two sides of the same warring family. We learned that Kreuz and Smitty's belong to descendants of the same BBQ patriarch. Kreuz is a new location forged by the son who chose not to work the family business with his sister, who refashioned the original downtown Kreuz location into Smitty's. Stopping into Blacks we escaped, at least for a few moments, that familial tension. Here, we ordered brisket, pork loin, and sausage. While Jenny didn't care for the loin, we all agreed that the brisket was probably the best we'd tasted on this trip: juicy, smoky, and reminiscent of our California inspiration. Most definitely the tender and chewy sausage stood supreme among the others we'd tried. We also loved the sauce, a tomato base sparked with chili powder. Finally, while breads are a sucker's bet at a BBQ restaurant, we're glad we grabbed a sweet dinner roll to augment our meal. Only the runny and overly sweet coleslaw detracted from an otherwise top-notch stop.

We concluded our Lockhart mobile feast at Smitty's, stepping in through the backdoor. Here, the entrance yields a dark pit area with flames licking at your feet. As with Krauz, the pit boss is all business, ladling brisket, ribs, and sausage onto your paper and adding bread or crackers if you need them. This time we asked for some Saltines and received a half-pack; then we headed to our seats. Since the bright, airy, and cool dining room is such a dramatic contrast from the pit passage-way, our eyes took a while to adjust. But we quickly found some seats and settled into our meal. While Jenny found the brisket to be somewhat dry, I noticed how waves of flavor intensified with time. We also loved the pork ribs, dipping them into a sweet but peppery sauce. Only the sausage got pushed aside; it was more clumpy and fatty than we prefer. We garnished our meal with more onions and pickles, and concluded lunch with a shared serving of Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Before departing Lockhart, we wandered its downtown, surveying the town's recently refurbished courthouse. Topping with mansard roofs and painted in yellows, tans, and browns, the courthouse towers above the square. Walking inside, we found typical small town accoutrements: a clerk's office, a bulletin board with dozens of thumbtacked notices, and almost-chocolate-colored wooden floors. One could easily imagine slipping back in time a hundred years or so. Returning to the afternoon heat, we struggled to avoid stepping on the countless crickets that hopped about. Many, many of them were dying, though the locals didn't seem fazed. Eventually we had to get back on the road, so we returned to our car and headed for Luling.

Though we'd heard good things about the town's City Market, we'd planned to bypass the place on our way to our evening accommodations in Wharton. But a friendly storefront and our sense of adventure brought us inside. Once we smelled that tangy, hearty aroma, we knew we had to try a taste. We went with our favorite, brisket, and were delighted at the soft, warm, tasty meat. We added some sweet onions and pickle to the meal, topping bites occasionally with the Market's mustard-based sauce. I can offer only one warning about this place. Avoid the sweet tea. The drink I ordered was ruined with fake sweetener and unnecessary lemon. Grab a Big Red instead. Before leaving town we took an impromptu tour of the Rock-a-Bye Motel, a stone-cottage type with room-adjacent garages. This site has become a relic, though some websites still promise great rates. We took a few pictures and then headed on our way.

We stopped that evening in Wharton, aiming to stay a night in one of the handful of teepee-themed motels still in existence. We'd stayed at the three Wigwam Villages in Cave City, Kentucky; Holbrook, Arizona; and Rialto, California. But the Teepee Motel in Wharton had long been closed and, as far as I'd imagined, become a ghost like the Rock-a-Bye. But new owners have refurbished this place, offering swell accommodations for folks seeking that vernacular tourist experience. While taking pictures, a car pulled up and two girls snapped photos on their mobile phones. One asked me with some amazement, "How much room is in there?" For some reason, most folks assume that teepee-shaped rooms must be confining, but the people who designed them originally must have known something about the efficient use of space. Ours was comfy but never cramped. That evening we split our dining efforts. I grabbed a tiny piece of brisket at very fine Hinze Bar-B-Q on Highway 59, Vienna got a much more healthy sandwich at the local Subway, and Jenny directed us to the Sonic Drive-In for a meal that no sane person would eat after a day of such excess. We concluded with shakes and ice cream and returned to our teepee for the night.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood