Lockhart reigns as the state’s mecca of smoked meats

Posted Sunday, Mar. 09, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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There are plenty of cities across Texas known for one thing.

If you’re heading to Shiner, chances are you’re taking a brewery tour, and why bother going to Amarillo unless you’re going to try the Big Texan 72-ounce steak?

Off to Lockhart? Is there any other reason to go unless you’re eating barbecue?

Interactive: Built on Brisket

The 13,000 people living there may argue the point, but Lockhart is known for one thing, and that’s barbecue. The Chamber of Commerce touts the town as the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” and for good reason.

Sure, there are trendier barbecue places across the state. Franklin in Austin and Pecan Lodge in Dallas come to mind. But Lockhart is arguably the birthplace of smoked meats for many Texans. Plus, you don’t have to look far for the char. If you’re heading in from nearby Austin, Kreuz Market is on your right as you drive down Colorado Street. Less than a mile from that is Black’s Barbecue, and just down the street is Smitty’s Market.

A fourth restaurant, Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Que, is on the south end of town about two miles from the heart of smoke.

“We’ve got four barbecue joints in town,” says Eric Lenderman, manager of Black’s. “With that many people and it was the Jack in the Box in town that went out of business. We can support four barbecue restaurants but we can’t support a Jack in the Box.”

So how do you choose where to eat if you’re making an excursion to Lockhart?

You don’t. You try them all. At least that’s what a lot of people do.

So that’s what I decided to do on a recent Thursday lunchtime excursion. Accompanied by Jeff Wilson, a fellow carnivore and sports writer with the Star-Telegram, I was ready to try them all. Or, almost. We eliminated Chisholm Trail from our list of must-dos for the following reasons: Chisholm Trail has a salad bar and it sells fajitas. Have you ever eaten fajitas at a barbecue joint? In addition, it sells catfish — a departure from the main barbecue food groups, those being cows, pigs and turkeys.

Even having nixed Chisholm Trail, we still had a full plate in store with a food orgy that would include Kreuz Market, Black’s and Smitty’s.

Stop No. 1: Kreuz Market

619 N. Colorado St., 512-398-2361, www.kreuzmarket.com

Kreuz was the first stop because it was the first place we saw as we entered town. It’s hard to miss. Kreuz is pretty much 23,000 square feet of massive. There are dance halls in Texas that are smaller. It’s newer than the others, built in 1999, and still has that new-smoke smell.

Kreuz’s origins lie with a feud in the Schmidt family. Long story short, a family squabble over land at the old Kreuz Market led to a split. While tiffs like that may be hard for the families involved, this one was great for fans of the char because it expanded our options.

Kreuz’s building may be newer, but its recipes date to 1900, when the original Kreuz Market opened.

Consistency and simplicity are the key ingredients in what goes on at Kreuz, says Keith Schmidt, whose grandfather bought the market from the Kreuz family in 1948. “We’re very slow to change,” he says. “… Being over 113 years old, we have generations of customers, and it’s the best when you hear that it’s just as good as it was 10, 20, 30-plus years ago.”

It was good on our Thursday visit, too. The plan for eating at all three places was simple: Order basically the same thing. At Kreuz, that meant a half-pound of moist (fatty) brisket, a sausage link, four pieces of white bread and a cup of sweet tea (of course). The bill came to $9.80.

You pick up your ’cue in one room and can get sides and drinks in the massive dining room. One thing you can’t get is barbecue sauce. You can look for it, but it’s not there. That’s by design. Like the sign says when you enter the place: No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide).

And at Kreuz, the barbecue stands on its own. Our brisket was moist and the sausage had a great flavor, just the way it’s always been, according to Schmidt. He says there’s a 96-year-old customer who comes into the restaurant every day and orders the same thing. Why fix what ain’t broken.

“We’ve kept the same feel and look as the old location,” he adds, noting that his grandfather had worked for Kreuz for years before buying the place. “When Grandpa talks about what the sausage tasted like in the ’60s and ’70s when he was here, that’s what we want when you come here now. We constantly get plenty of people who tell us what we’re doing wrong and what we should be doing. My father’s response was, ‘There’s an empty lot next door. Why don’t you go open your own business.’ 

Stop No. 2: Black’s Barbecue

215 N. Main St., 512-398-2712, www.blacksbbq.com

While Kreuz Market’s name has been in business longer in Lockhart, no place can boast what Black’s can. It’s the oldest same-family barbecue shop in town. Black’s has been on Main Street since 1932, and Eric Lenderman’s grandparents were the original owners.

When you enter the dining room, it’s a step back in time. There are pictures on the walls, country music playing and Christmas lights strung across. It’s a cozy, old-fashioned place, just the way Lenderman wants it.

Black’s is also different than the other two spots because you actually get a plate instead of a knife and butcher paper. You also go through a cafeteria-style line to order barbecue and sides.

Feeling a little full from our previous stop, Wilson and I cut our orders to a quarter-pound of lean brisket, another sausage, some black-eyed peas and, of course, the requisite sweet tea. The total for this lunch, delivered 40 minutes after the first one, was $9.63.

The brisket was wonderful, and for those who like burnt ends, it had that kind of flavor. It probably had the same taste when President Lyndon B. Johnson had Black’s ordered for him while he was in the White House.

That, too, is by design.

“This is old-school Texas barbecue,” Lenderman says. “We’ve been here for 82 years now. Not a lot has changed. We’re kind of taking what our grandparents [Norma and Edgar Black] have taught us and trying not to screw it up.”

Everything about Black’s is original. The reason it has sauce is because “Yankees” would come to the restaurant and ask for it. It took Norma Black a year to come up with a recipe she liked, and it’s still the one served. Black’s has added to its menu over the years. It now sells beef ribs — the average rib weighs between 1 1/2 and 2 pounds.

Lenderman, who grew up in Lockhart and has seen the population grow from 8,000 when he was in high school, knows that plenty of people visit just for the barbecue. And he’s ready for them.

“I’ll put our brisket up against anybody’s right now,” he says. “ Texas Monthly does its top 50 every five years and after being off the list the last time, we were back in. We’ve really gained some momentum here the past five years.”

Stop No. 3 Smitty’s Market

208 S. Commerce St., 512-398-9344, www.smittysmarket.com

While Black’s has been around since 1932, the building is young compared with Smitty’s.

The barbecue pits here have been doing their job for 75 years. The building dates to 1900, and not much has changed. A new dining room has been added, but there are outhouses in the back.

The old Kreuz Market that sold groceries remains and you can still buy meat. But if you want barbecue, head across the old hallway.

That’s what we did, and soon we’d ordered another quarter-pound of lean brisket, a sausage link, four pieces of white bread and another cup of sweet tea — all of which set me back $7.24. There’s no sauce served here either, but if you ask nicely, servers will share a hidden stash.

It’s been that way since Nina Schmidt Sells’ father, Edgar, purchased the old Kreuz Market from the Kreuz family in 1948. While the Smitty’s Market name has only been around since 1999, Sells knows what goes into her barbecue and will put it up against anything else the town has, including her nephew Keith’s place down the street.

“Barbecue is good for business,” she says. “We have a lot of out-of-town folks who come into town just to eat at all the places. Enough people want good barbecue. We try to maintain the quality of what we have so people keep coming back.”

If you’re going to Smitty’s, odds are you’re going for the sausage, and you’d be going for the right reason. While Smitty’s has the other standard barbecue fare, it’s the sausage that stands out. It’s juicy and flavorful, and just like Sells’ father used to make it — and how her grandson makes it now.

Sells says she eats barbecue every day.

“This is what I grew up with,” she says. “I know how we make our meats here and what we put into this. Our family has been at this a long time. Barbecue has been a part of me and my family for all of my life. That’s what makes this special.”

So, who gets the vote?

Everyone has different tastes in barbecue. Some like moist brisket (fat) and others like lean, which is not as tender. I was just trying to judge the brisket and the sausage. Wilson also sampled pork ribs, something I don’t like.

Our ratings:

Brisket: Black’s got my vote as the best brisket, with Kreuz taking second. Wilson, whose tastes aren’t as refined as mine, ranked Kreuz as first, Black’s second. We both ranked Smitty’s third.

Sausage: We reached a consensus here. Smitty’s took top honors, followed by Kreuz, then Black’s.

Ribs: As with the brisket, Wilson ranked the rib offerings best at Kreuz, followed by Black’s, then Smitty’s.

Tips for the hungry

If you’re willing to try the Lockhart coronary triangle, eat a light breakfast and don’t plan on dinner. It’s OK to mix in a side to break up the protein poundage.

It’s also an easy day trip from DFW to Lockhart. We made it in less than four hours by taking the tollway around Austin. The speed limit reaches 85 as you get close to Lockhart. Avoid spending too much time at one place. It took us more than two hours to get to all three, but that was because it was for a story. By the time we hit our third stop, our intentions were good but our stomachs were heavy.

When you leave town with around 1 1/2 pounds of brisket, nearly three sausages, about four pieces of bread, some black-eyed peas and three glasses of sweet tea in your stomach, the ride home can be a long one.

The good news was that we managed to make a stop at Dairy Queen in Temple for a Blizzard to cap off what turned out to be a memorable, meat-sweat and coma-inducing day.

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