Monday, June 16, 2008

Hill County, Day One

As I discovered over a two-day tour of Texas’s Hill Country, one of the larger frauds perpetrated on the American culinary scene is the existence of a debate about which region has the best barbeque. The loudest, if not all or even the best, claimants would be Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina (though the state is itself divided on methodology), and the towns circumscribing Austin, Texas. I’ve had the good fortune to visit Kansas City and Memphis on a few occasions, and Gregg, the true barbeque aficionado and a practitioner in his own right, has spent considerable time in the self-anointed barbeque meccas. In the final analysis, Texas smokehouses are peerless for the quality of their barbeque and—to choose a despicably and unacceptably heinous term that I just cannot resist—their overall mise en scène.

We began Gregg’s carefully plotted barbeque tour in Taylor at Louie Mueller Barbeque in a setting that is as rustically American as Chez L’Ami Louis is Gallic, if not more so. Since 1959, Mueller’s has been housed in a cavernous edifice that lays deceptively within the shops on Taylor’s main drag. The engulfing scent of the smokehouse sets the scene and radiates throughout Taylor's small downtown. On the morning we visited, an American flag and a Harley Davidson were planted in front of the restaurant and provided the heartiest of welcomes. Taylor, however, is hardly a nativist’s utopia, as a mom-and-pop across the street was selling piñatas to the growing Latino population.

We entered the dim, large hall which houses the main dining room, service counter, and various smokers and pits. (It was once a ladies’ gymnasium.) The paint on the walls is so dark from smoke and rust that it is impossible to ascertain the original color. The only sources of light are the handful of half-open window panes at the nexus of the high ceilings and front walls. But the ceiling's dark wood cannot refract the meager quantities of rust-tinged sunshine that penetrate the panes; it's just as well because our gustatory and olfactory senses were all that we needed.

Gregg ordered beef and pork ribs, sausage, and of course brisket at every establishment we visited -- and as is the custom, he ordered by the pound. (We supplemented this basic menu at Mueller’s with a bone-in rib eye.) We quickly learned that silverware, plates, sauces, and side dishes were all extraneous on this BBQ tour. The only necessities? Butcher paper, fingers and thumbs, and the occasional raw onion and sliced pickle to cut the palate when the meat flavor became excessive.

Mueller applies a rub to its meat that consists exclusively of salt and pepper. All of the various meats thus have a peppery taste, and virtually of all of them are delicious. (I thought the pepper inundated the nevertheless overcooked steak.) As it turned out, Mueller’s meaty and succulent beef ribs, a carnivore’s fantasy, and the well-done, peppery pork sausage were probably the best of the weekend for their respective genera. In fact, the sausage proved to be the only edible version as every other establishment, including the several self-proclaimed specialists in sausage, sold coils of encased grease, surpassing the beleaguered Dodger Dog as the zenith of treyf cuisine.

After a freight train temporarily blocked our way out of Taylor and forced us to have a decent enough intermezzo of brisket at the ancient, but not yet dilapidated Taylor Café, we hurried to Elgin for two more lunches.

Elgin is privileged to be the home of Southside Market and Meyer’s Smokehouse. Southside is a barbeque and butcher shop that dates to 1882, though it moved to a large sterile facility on the edge of town some 16 years ago. Southside is notable in that it uses no discernible rubs on any of its meats, which allows for a much more natural flavor than at Louie Mueller’s. Southside’s brisket is deliciously tender and better than Mueller’s in my book, as it lacks the taste of strong black pepper. The baby back ribs are unique in that Southside emphasizes their essential porkiness; in fact, they taste almost like ham. I enjoyed them, though I would not be surprised if others did not. Southside wishes to be judged on its “Original Elgin Hot Sausage” but it is overwhelmingly greasy and foul tasting. I could not ingest more than a few bites before experiencing revulsion. Nevertheless, the natives love it, a mystery as perplexing as their habit of eating hunks of incandescent orange cheese with their barbeque.

The day’s penultimate lunch was Meyers’ Elgin Smokehouse, which similarly has a smokehouse and market, and touts its beef sausage. Potential patrons followed the Soup Nazi methodology of customer service. We were stationed in the adjacent room behind a line that was some 15 feet from the counter. Once summoned, we ordered, paid, and received our lunch. The next customer was not summoned until we exited the counter area.

Running out of intestinal capacity, we only tried the brisket, the sausage of which Meyers is so proud, creamed corn, and a pit-smoked baked potato. Once again, the brisket was outstanding and had a nice smoke ring. Meyers uses a spicy and smoky rub that is not as strong as Mueller’s, though much more pronounced than Southside’s elusive rub. The creamed corn is sweet and tasty and, though we had high aspirations for the pit-smoked potato, it tasted like an ordinary baked potato. Once again, we were not charmed by the sausage’s fat and grease.

Meyers was to be the final lunch of the afternoon. But on our drive back to Austin, we drove through Bastrop where Gregg spotted a trailer on the side of the road with a pit beside it. Actually, his nose detected a great smoky scent permeating the air, and he demanded that we stop. We found an aging King of the Hill inside waiting for customers for his barbeque “made the old fashion way!” Open only Friday through Sunday, we figured one more pound of brisket and a seat at a filthy picnic table wouldn’t hurt anybody. This gentleman’s brisket was just as good as his more famous competitors who are open more than his allotted 18 hours per week. This was straightforward brisket with no concealing rubs or spices.

While we waited for our food, Gregg snapped a few photos of the trailer for posterity in plain view of the nervous proprietor. When I returned for some napkins, the owner raised the issue of the photos and asked, “Are y’all a part of some kind of con-cern?” I assured him that our intentions were entirely benevolent.

As great as the barbeque is, the local cuisine is otherwise mediocre at best, and often inedible. Contrivances like Frito Pie and hunks of what could be government cheese simply do not pass muster. On Day One, at least, supposedly urbane Austin’s attempts to sophisticate local Texan cuisine were embarrassing and literally forgettable.

Louie Mueller Barbeque
206 West 2nd Street
(512) 352-6206

Southside Market & Barbeque
1212 Hwy 290
(512) 285-3407

Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse
188 Hwy 290
(512) 281-3331

Lost Pines Bar-B-Que
1106 Chestnut St.
(512) 321-8551