Searching the Lone Star State for the world’s best brisket
TEXAS — Any trip to the Lone Star State isn't complete without at least one meal of burnt ends, brisket and beans — if you're really a BBQ-aficionado, smoked meats are all you need to justify a trip to Texas. And so I found myself behind the wheel of a $50,000 Chevrolet Silverado High Country on a sweltering Friday afternoon in Houston, invited by Chevy to take a Texas barbecue-themed road trip to Lockhart, the capital of Texas BBQ, and then to Austin — the actual capital.
In the sweltering humidity of Houston, our first stop was the Gator Pit, where Ritch Robin and his team of welders hand-build some of the world's finest custom BBQ pits. Backyard versions start around $2,000 and elaborate, towable catering rigs rise into the dizzying "how-big's-your-wallet?" range.
One of the more popular is Ritch's Edition. It's a $7,383.90 set up that Ritch built for himself and began selling when customers, bewildered by the sheer number of options on his pits, kept asking him "what would you build?" Perhaps the most impactful thing about the Gator Pit is that Robin's "rookie" welder has been with him for nine years. That kind of loyalty, especially in the fabrication and welding industry, is deeply impressive.
Back in the Silverado, with air conditioning running full tilt, I head west towards Austin. After 56 easy highway miles, I reach the town of Brenham, home of Blue Bell Creameries. Blue Bell ice cream, founded in 1907, is a Texas institution that has expanded through much of the South. The banana pudding ice cream is to die for, and for just a dollar per scoop, it's easy to get carried away.
Our overnight halt is in Kyle, where we attend Brisket U, a backyard pitmaster class that educated us on the ins and outs of dry rub, trimming, smoking and slicing. The biggest takeaways? Smoking takes a long time, so bring beer and be patient; and, cook up some sausage so you'll have something to eat while you smoke your brisket. Sage advice.
Though we've spent Friday learning how to smoke our own meats (and trying to figure out how to convince the IRS that my Ritch's Edition smoker is a bona fide deductible business expense), Saturday is all about meat.
My red Silverado is again waiting for me, and with the air conditioning ripping, I head to Black's Barbecue in Lockhart. Skipping the buffet of sides, I order a gigantic beef rib that weighs more than a pound. Nine-inches long, the bone alone would satisfy any dog for quite a while. Fragrant and juicy, the meat literally slides off the bone when I try pick it up. The monstrous rib is the most delicious thing I've tasted in months.
I head across town to Kreuz Market, a traditional German-style meat market with enormous indoor brick pits and a sign on the door to the dining room that says "vegetarians in here, normal people that way" with an arrow pointing towards the meat market. We're deep in the heart of Texas, now. The brisket is top-notch, and so is the sweet tea — but I have one more important stop to make, so I hit the road again with Austin in my sights.
I’ve been to Austin three times in two years. But, somehow, I’ve never made my way to Franklin Barbecue. It’s the Mecca of Texas smoked meat and, according to Texas Monthly, is home to “the best barbecue in the known universe.”
I arrive a bit after 1 p.m., and the wait — a line began at 5 a.m. — is down to a mere hour-and-a-half. Sadly, I don't have time to wait before my flight, so I head inside to buy some souvenirs. T-shirts, Franklin's signature BBQ sauce, and a copy of Aaron's book, "A Meat Smoking Manifesto," and I head to the checkout.
But there's one surprise left in store. A secret of Franklin BBQ is that you can buy an entire precooked, vacuum sealed brisket without waiting in line. Shelling out $120 for a five-pound hunk of meat might seem outrageous, but it works out to a relatively reasonable $24 per pound. At the counter, there is only one left and I have but one word to say: "Sold."
TSA doesn't bat an eye at my brisket carry-on and I happily continue my barbecue road trip all the way back to Boston.