Letter From Lockhart
I'm pretty sure I'm not the first person to have pigged out at three barbecues in Lockhart in the space of one hour. This central Texas town trails along Highway 183, culminating in one of the prettiest Victorian courthouse squares in the state. According to one local guide, it was the site of more Wild West shoot-outs than any other town in Texas. It's also the epicenter of Lone Star barbecue, the place where its ancient principles are most clearly and forthrightly espoused. Thus the 'cue is heavily smoked over post oak (and traditionally also mesquite) for about five to 14 hours, and delivered in Spartan fashion on brown butcher paper. Unadorned by sauce, the sole seasoning is a rub of coarse salt and crushed black peppercorns, applied before the meat is plunged into waist-high brick pits. Sold by the pound ($7.90 to $9.90), the 'cue is accompanied by your choice of soda crackers or sliced supermarket white bread. A separate concession in the dining room offers nutty extras, including kosher dill pickles, raw onions, blocks of cheddar, pickled jalapeños, and ripe avocados. Do with them what you will.
Though you can also get pork ribs and pork chops, the emphasis is on beef, most especially brisket ("fat beef") and shoulder ("lean beef"). Also known as "clod," the latter resembles a clod of earth from the surrounding cotton fields in its humpy blackness, and tastes something like smoked roast beef. Another specialty is sausage, in spicy or mild rings (usually $1.75 each). The sausage is grainy, beefy, and so loosely packed that the stuffing sometimes slides out as you cut into it. One of the Lockhart barbecues, Black's, is comparatively new. Dating to 1932, it caters to townies, who love the wood-paneled dining room for its football team photos, hunting trophies (including a rare stuffed jackalope), and long buffet, stocked with mayo-drenched salads, several types of Jell-O, and plastic-wrapped slices of pie. In spite of the wimpy '50s sides, Black's barbecue is formidable, especially the pink smoky pork ribs and the tender brisket. Note that the two older establishmentsSmitty's and Kreuz Marketeschew such culinary fripperies as Jell-O and vegetables.
I'd gone to Lockhart in the middle of the mild Texas winterwhen the cedar trees are thickly coated with red pollen, leading to a local allergic malady called cedar feverto assay the progress of the older establishments, which date to 1900. Six years ago they were a single entity, a barbecue named Kreuz Market attached to a butcher shop of the same name in an old brick building just off the square. In 1999 an internecine squabble between an inheriting brother and sisterthe gal was bequeathed the real estate and the guy the barbecue trademarkled Kreuz to relocate to a hulking new premises on the highway, with a parking lot boasting a special section for tour buses and campers. The old space, renamed Smitty's, forged onward as a separate entity.
Smitty's looks nearly the same as when it was Kreuz, except it's been denuded of the few decorative curiosities I remember when I first ate there as a University of Texas student, including a map of Texas made of rattlesnake rattles, and a rattlesnake skin that measures nine feet. Under the snake was a sign noting that two kittens were found inside when the creature was cut open. "And no," the caption wryly observed, "they weren't still alive." A walk down a hallway smoked the color of tobacco leads to a counter where the 'cue is sold. Four pits line up behind the counter in an L shape, with open fires blazing at both ends. In a marvel of 19th-century engineering, a draft draws the smoke through the pits by a cunning series of flues.
In spite of its modern architecture, Kreuz smokes meat in the age-old fashion. And in the last six years, the building has become almost venerable. It has long been the habit of barbecue aficionados, when approaching an unfamiliar establishment, to go around the back and examine the woodpile. If the pile is small or nonexistent, it suggests that an electric or gas cooker is being used. That means go on to the next joint. You don't even need to go around back at Kreuz, since it flaunts an adjacent woodlot that looks to be about an acre in size, with stacks of hardwood teetering to the horizon. Inside there's an intimate dining room with about 20 tables, used by folks eating barbecue on weekdays, when Kreuz closes at 6 p.m. Wrapping around is a much bigger and less inviting room, which entertains the crowds who drive from Houston or Dallas on weekends to sample the barbecue. At the end of the smaller dining room, the rattlesnake artifacts have been carefully reinstalled.
In the space of a weekwith a visit to a ranch near Junction, Texas, in betweenI ate twice each at Kreuz Market and Smitty's. As a general observation, I'd say that the clod at both places is less fatty than it was a decade ago, and needs to be eaten right out of the pit so as not to seem dry. The brisket, however, is still gloriously greasy. It was slightly better and smokier at Smitty's, where, as 'cue hit paper, a penumbra of beef fat began to creep outward. I thought the sausage was better at Kreuz Market, and so were the pork ribs.
Still, just to be sure, the next time your route takes you through Lockhart, you'd better try both. And don't miss Black's, either.
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