Originating in ther early 1950’s, City Market sits on Luling’s main drag opposite the railroad tracks that bisect the town.
By the time Luling was founded in 1874 as a station on the Galveston, Harrison, and San Antonio railroad, it was already one of the wildest towns in the Wild West, frequented by outlaws like Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin, with a red-light district on the edge of the municipality known as Dogtown.
View of Luling. Note the palm trees.
The town was apparently already a hodgepodge of streets and ill-constructed architecture, and one visitor noted the penchant of local businessmen for misspelling signs, including “Squar Meals at Reasonable Figgers.” Apparently, you were never very far from a saloon, either.
A couple of stories circulate as to how Luling was named. One is that it was the name of the wife of J.H. Pierce, the president of the railroad that had just been laid through town. A more colorful story concerns a Chinese railroad worker named Ling Lui, who remained in town to run a Chinese laundry. His long pigtail caused townspeople to make fun of him, and one day he cut it short and changed his name to John Chinamen because people were always asking him if he was a Mexican.
Once oil was struck in 1922 (the event is still commemorated with an oil derrick atop a limestone pillar next to the railroad tracks downtown), the town became known for the stench of sulphur and petroleum chemicals, though agriculture was still one of Luling’s economic mainstays–so much so, in fact, that it became known as the Watermelon Capital of Texas, which is still commemorated to this day with a beauty contest to appoint the town’s “Thump Queen,” referring to the practice of knocking on the melons with your knuckles (“thump ’em”) to see if they’re ripe or not.
Luling usually has two or three barbecues in operation, but one is older and has persisted longer than all the others: City Market. This grocery turned barbecue still retains its stock of groceries in the front of the premises, with a glassed-in area at the rear containing the closed pits. You can see the pitmaster and his minions scrambling around the smoky rear room. As usual, barbecue is cut, placed on butcher paper, and weighed for vending in the rear, and then brought to the grocery counter in front pay for the meat and also buy your sides (dill pickles, jalapenos, cole slaw, potato salad, and pinto beans that are so plain, they barely contain salt).
Brisket, pork ribs, and homemade sausage at City Market with accompaniments. Soda crackers can be substituted for white bread.
The pit crew poses for a photo.
The Luling watermelon-seed spitting contest takes places once a year at this empty lot.
Luckily, the brisket, ribs, and sausage are splendid; the brisket a little leaner than most, the beef sausage perhaps a bit less loose in its casing and tasting of black pepper. By contrast, the pork ribs are often fatty, and many claim they’re the best thing in the place. You don’t need sauce with this kind of long-smoked barbecue, but City Market provides its own sauce in borrowed Tabasco bottles, and I think it’s quite awful: sweet, orange, viscous, and tasting much like the bottled French dressing made by Kraft, and maybe the barbecue sauce was inspired by it.
City Market is generally considered the last stop on an arcing barbecue trail that starts in Taylor and goes southward through Elgin and Lockhart before reaching Luling, all meat markets and groceries that originally sold barbecue as a sideline.. But as we shall see next week, there is one oft-neglected spot even further south, placing it due east of San Antonio.
Other barbecues sporadically open and close in Luling.
Check out the entire series Great Barbecues of Texas