I’m looking out the window, it’s a drizzly day, the sun is none, and for the first time in a while I’m feeling hungry. Hungry? Hungry?! Oh, I’m back in the UK, and the epic Odyssey of Meat is over. That’s why…
You may have noticed I missed the last two days of our Texas discovery. Put simply I was meat, beer and bourbon whipped to within a pig’s trotter of my life. Had I tried to write the final blog, my fat fingers would have exploded onto the keyboard, and the last week’s excesses gushed out through ten gaping holes onto my shiny Mac. Death by meat. So, here I am in the UK writing the final installment, a steady half a stone heavier in body, and a whole longhorn weightier in knowledge…
As we sped down the interstate we spotted the sign from the road, Rudy’s, along with three huge 4ft chimneys piercing out its roof. Scott had heard about this place from his ex CEO so we slung our RV off the road and jumped in. Rudy’s is a big operation in Texas, and probably closer to Red’s and the style and volumes we do than any place we’ve been so far.
As we queued, we were guided to the kiosks by huge ice filled containers, akin to open pool tables, filled to the brim with chilled soft drinks and bottles and bottles of Shiner Bock, Texas’s perfect BBQ accompaniment beer. Once again you order by the weight of meat. While standing at the kiosk my eyes are drawn into the busy kitchen. At the back lay three easy-access warming smokers allowing the Pitmasters quick access to the meat, and it’s needed, this is a high volume joint. Rows of Pitmasters stand at the central butcher’s table, spinning back and forth on their heels to slice and dice up giant portions.
Brisket, links, turkey breast, beans, slaw, potato salad
Before leaving to feast onboard the RV we took a brief tour backstage. Two huge J&R Oyler Smokers power this ‘cue joint, each with an automated thermostat. I could see a glint in Scott’s eyes and could tell his inner monologue was pondering Del Boy’s famous quote: ’This time next year Rodders’… Next stop, Lil Joe’s BBQ Shack,
Considering the volume this place does, the food was very good. The turkey breast was lightly smoked and juicy, the spare ribs, with a dry rub, had a good bite and flavoursome tang to the bark and brisket was moist, not too fatty, and subtly smoked. While the links were good, the casing was tough which meant it felt like a rubber band in your mouth. All in all, Rudy’s is place to put on your Tom Tom….
This joint epitomised the term ‘shack’. Everything about it was a ramshackle and filthy, but at the same time disarmingly charming. Vincenzo gave us a tour to see the pit, an old barrel smoker with offset firebox which was glued together with tin foil. He used Mesquite, the first time we’d come across this on our trip.
The butcher’s table and sink looked like props from a horror movie, which gave a certain sense of foreboding to our meal, but as we’d come to expect, this was the Lone Star state, so roll with it…
Lil Joe’s Pit
As we made our way back into the restaurant a local rib-eating-cap-wearing-english-lover of a customer, Ronny Fulton gave us a few chants of ‘God Save the Queen’ before informing us he was an English descendant from the 17th Century and then launched into a Beatles track.
Brisket, turkey and links
Unlike Oak, Mesquite can be quite overpowering, often infusing an acrid taste into the meat if over-smoked. However, Vincenzo had managed to mellow this out with careful stewardship of the pit, and while the brisket was a little dry, the flavour was certainly there.
We asked him where he stayed while tending the fire and so he led us to this little chill out blokes den right next door in an adjacent garage. All the essentials right?
We bid a fist-bump farewell, and set a course for the famed Louie Mueller.
Louie Mueller, Taylor, TX
Enter the realm of the barbecue Mafia; the Mueller family. A story steeped in well-documented family feuds and egos. At its head, the now deceased grandfather, Louie Mueller, the man most credit with setting the standard for Texas barbecue back in 1949 when he opened the eponymous ‘cue joint. His son, Bobby took over in 1976 and continued to cement the family’s name in BBQ’s Pit of Fame. Then came along the kids, Wayne, John and Le Anne, each carrying the gene of smokin’ excellence, and so began the battles…
Stepping inside this once old gymnasium with its quadruple height ceiling, you’re instantly hit with a palpable sense of history. Its blackened walls, old signage, retro coca cola dispensing machines and a 12ft board, covered with pinned business cards dating back to when it first opened, remind you this place is a Texas institution. Texas Monthly puts this place in its top 50 Barbecue Joints of all time, so it was time to get our eat on and meet the latest team member looking to learn from the family master and make his own mark.
Pit Manager, Jason Tedford
Jason Tedford is the Pitmaster in training, and when he arrived at our table to talk meat, he looked shot to bits. The man had been up for 36 hours plus, tending the fire, smoking 110 racks of beef ribs for a local beer and wine festival and overseeing the careful baby sitting of its prized briskets, which are shipped across the entire US they’re so loved. The more your delve into Texas barbecue, the more you understand this isn’t a job for people in the game, it’s an all consuming, complete and utter lifestyle, religion and quest for excellence.
Brisket, links, slaw, sweet jalapeño dipping sauce, cayenne and onion gravy
Everything about Louie Mueller is cool, and the meat, sides and dipping sauces are clearly born from BBQ heaven. The brisket was sublime, amazingly fatty and moist, a peppery bark and subtle oak smoked flavour, and the links (original and jalapeño & cheese) which are made on site each day, were some of the best we’d had; good snap, coarse grain and subtly spicy. This man, with only a year’s training had smashed it. If you have a bucket list, change it and add this place to it, you won’t regret it.
Taylor Cafe, Taylor, TX
Imagine walking into a place where as you close the door behind you, the music stops, the balls on the pool table grind to a halt, and the group of hirsute Mexicans sat at the nearby table turn their heads, smile their gold-teethed smile and nod knowingly to each other. Welcome to Taylor Cafe. This joint is run by 91-year-old Vencil Mares, a WWII veteran (his medals adorn the walls) and BBQ don.
Vencil fist-bumping the Pilgrimage 2014 team
He skirts about the floor with the help a metal walker with halved tennis balls on its feet, and still carries off the old school uniform with a deft coolness. This is a man who can’t give up the BBQ game, and why should he, Taylor Cafe is still rated right up there in the best BBQ joints to visit.
The patronage of this legend, two swift Dos Equis and a scoff of the famed sausage and chopped beef sandwich (Daniel’s recommendation – brutally simple, and excellent) gave instant comfort to the surroundings and we were welcomed into Taylor Cafe’s throngs. Job done, time to call it a night, wake up and head to Snow’s, another famous joint to meet a slightly younger Pitmaster, Tootsie (85) and Kerry.
Snow’s, Lexington, TX
Out in the middle of nowhere, Snow’s is a ‘cue joint that only opens on Saturdays and is run by a group of locals who do this for a hobby. A hobby which requires a wake up call at 1am to manage the pit. A hobby that has created such a reputation that Kerry, the other Pitmaster, has had to build a further four huge barrel pits with counter-balanced doors to cater for the descending masses. It’s the perfect setting for a proper summer boozy do. Outside tables sit beneath a beautiful old barn roof, the sounds from a local cattle market waft across the breeze, while a smaller out-house offers cosy inside seating.
This place truly is in the sticks, and if you’re in any doubt, a quick glance at the walls of the inside area reveals photos of local kids clinging desperately to sheep in a bid to be crowned 2007 Champion Mutton Buster.
Having finished an excellent breakfast spread of fatty brisket, links, spare ribs, potato salad and slaw, pit manager Hershey gave us a guided tour. If ever a man has his perfect job, it’s Hershey. He collects the logs (oak logs aged and dried a minimum of two years) and has a beer. Collects more logs and has another beer. Kick starts the pit and has a beer. He then tends the fire throughout the night and has more beer. He then celebrates feeding the masses. You guessed it, with a beer. The Snow’s team is an incredible example of a labour of love.
Each of them have other weekday jobs, but the calling of the pit is just too strong. Even Tootsie, at 85 still gets up at 1am to tend the pit, serves the hungry hoards then heads to the local school to graft out a stint as recreation manager. There’s secret energy in that there Texas brisket I tell you.
Perhaps the unexpected highlight of our trip to Lexington was a visit to the local cattle market, to see first hand the origins of the lovely, wobbly Texas brisket we’ve come to need, not want (you can hear more about this in our forthcoming Podcast)….Next stop, Elgin, home to the famous Hot Guts….
Meyer’s & South Side Market, Elgin, TX
Elgin, famed in Texas for its hot sausage, or if you’re local, Hot Guts; I can’t imagine the Red’s faithful enjoying a name change in the Good Book though, can you?
First Meyer’s. On entering, this place feels like an Americanised and dated Little Chef. Weird pictures of dogs adorn the walls, and a stag’s head frowns down at you while queuing. We were here for the sausage, but as ever a full spread was ordered to test its BBQ mettle, including a triangle of cheese, a tempting impulse purchase at the kiosk.
Spot the cheesy triangle?
Maybe it was the fact we were reaching the end of the trip and had meat juice coursing through our veins, but we were disappointed by the sausage; greasy, lacking any real snap and not coarse enough to give a good bite. The rest of the platter followed suit, the potato salad was so sweet it should be on the dessert menu and the mac-n-cheese tasted like it was processed cheese. Unfortunately only the cheese triangle received a thumbs up, so we did one across the road to South Side Market…
South Side Market. This place was much more visually appealing, the huge corrugated metal fascia and host of liveried delivery vans parked up outside gave a sense that we may be in for something of a step up.
We ordered a platter, which included mutton ribs, brisket and sausage and began. The mutton ribs were fairly dry and had such an overpowering taste, dare I say it, of mutton, that it was not at all to my liking.
Mutton, ribs and links
South Side Market’s sausage was a marginal improvement on Meyer’s with a coarser grain, but again, quite greasy and not much snap. The casing of the links was tough, and meant that you were left chewing and chewing to mush it up. Verdict? The home of hot sausage, unfortunately left us flaccid and droopy. There was only one way to go to improve matters. Franklin’s….
Franklin’s, Austin, TX
Open 11am Tuesday to Sunday, this place on the outskirts of downtown Austin has a consistent two hour queue each day, and only serves till they run out; usually around 1pm to 2pm. Why? Because Franklin’s, run by Aaron and wife Stacy, is considered to be the #1 ‘cue joint in the world. As the next three hours ambled by, we quickly realised that this genius touch of uncontrived marketing (they never set out the create this queue, it’s merely a product of the hype), is in fact all part of the incredible experience.
Cold beers are brought out by the Franklin’s team, branded foam bottle holders are sold, stories are swapped up and down the line between expectant local, national and international punters. Franklin’s creates further fun by affixing a sign to the last person they can guarantee feeding. I spoke to the ‘last woman standing’, a girl from London, who couldn’t believe that people continued to queue behind her, even though they weren’t guaranteed a feed. I couldn’t help but think how this would go down in Leeds and Manchester Red’s…
Luck is a lady
At 1:30pm we finally made the door, buzzing about what was about to happen. The inside is starkly small – probably only 50 covers – given the hype and press coverage this place has garnered in just four years. The decor resembles a beach shack, stripped back and unpretentiousness, with the menu scrawled out on the paper they use to wrap the brisket and stuck to the wall with blue tape. We ordered BIG; brisket, spare ribs, pulled pork, links, slaw, potato salad, slice bread, plus three dessert pies; key lime, bourbon, and blueberry cheesecake.
Brisket, links, pulled pork, spare ribs, potato salad, slaw, pickled jalapeños
Brisket is notoriously hard to cook right, and it’s the consistency that Aaron achieves day in day out that grants him this power status. It wobbles like a kids birthday jelly, the bark is prefectly peppery and salty and the rendered fat just melts in your mouth. When partnered with his incredibly velvety espresso BBQ sauce, it takes it up another level. It doesn’t stop there though: His pulled pork wasn’t like a ‘soupy’ North Carolina style, it was chunkier and avoided bathing in a vinegary gravy, but this didn’t hold it back; it was probably the best that I had tasted on the trip. The links were fantastic; coarse ground, with a lovely peppery flavour and perfect snap. When given a douse with the spicy BBQ sauce, this created such a thrust of flavour, that I ended up eating three entire links all to myself. We cleared our palates with a Shiner Bock, and leapt into the three pies; the best being the bourbon (naturally).
Key lime pie
That’s all y’all
As we left Franklin’s people were still loitering outside in a desperate hope to snaffle some scraps, despite the clear signage that they had sold out yet again. I kicked back in the RV, happily full, contemplating the last seven days and the epic 1,100 mile Pilgrimage across five US southern states. It was a baptism of fire into the awe-inspiring world of American barbecue. While trends come and go, the art of cooking over wood, which is thousands and thousands of years old, still captivates the human race, taking hold of people’s lives, leaving them desperate and hungry to claim once and for all ‘I’ve done it, THIS is perfection and no one else can touch me’….good luck with that journey…..
Thanks y’all, I’m signing off….