Travel

Smoke Signals

Calling all meat lovers: Heaven awaits in the tiny Texas town of Lockhart
Photo: Courtesy of Kreuz Market
Kreuz Market

In 2007 on a barren strip of West 26th Street in Manhattan, I opened Hill Country Barbecue Market, an ode to Central Texas barbecue and a love letter to my Texas family roots. Since then, we've opened four more restaurants and have witnessed a renaissance of barbecue in Texas, New York, and beyond. Last month my wife, Kristen, and I took some new members of our team down to Texas for a 24-hour Hill Country immersion experience. The goal was to give them an up-close-and-personal perspective on where exactly the inspiration for Hill Country Barbecue Market comes from. It comes from here.

Lockhart: The Heart of Texas BBQ

We arrive at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. There's something reassuring about arriving in an airport that smells like barbecue (thanks to no fewer than three barbecue restaurants in the terminal). It makes you feel like you're in the right place, and you know your visit is off to a good to a good start.

But don't get distracted! Get your rental car, get on Highway 183, and head south to Lockhart. It's mostly a straight shot of highway except where the tangle of new interstate loops around and momentarily makes you concentrate on taking the right exit. Vast expanses of flat countryside roll by—cotton fields on the left, cow pastures on the right, and the faint perfume of oil fields wafts from somewhere nearby. Crossing the border from Travis Country to Caldwell Country, a roadside marker indicating that Lockhart is just a few short miles away beckons us onward.

A trip to Lockhart is always packed with family nostalgia for me. I've driven this stretch of road countless times, dating back to my frequent childhood trips to my dad's hometown for holidays, vacations, and family reunions. My grandfather, Sam, was the mayor of Lockhart for ten years during the 1950s and '60s, and he and my grandmother (Mama Els) had five children (my father was the only son). My Lockhart roots actually go back to my great grandfather, Philip Glosserman, who immigrated to the United States in 1900 from Russia, eventually landing in Lockhart where he set up a cart to peddle fruit.

Aquick history lesson: Lockhart has been an oil town, a cotton town, an automotive hub, and the setting for many a motion picture (Waiting for Guffman and The Getaway, to name two), but it's most famous for its barbecue. Austin gets all the attention right now, and we'll get there later, but three of the original barbecue shrines—Kreuz Market, Smitty's, and Black's—are within five blocks of each other, making this small town of 10,000 the official barbecue capital of Texas. Each of these places has their own fans, loyalists, and rich and storied traditions. Each also has its own family drama—the Hatfields and McCoys had nothing on these guys—but at the end of the day, the barbecue that these guys turn out is second to none, and it's the inspiration for what we do at Hill Country Barbecue Market.

Let's start with Kreuz Market, our initial stop on the tour. First, it's pronounced Krites, and if there's one place that Hill Country is modeled after, it's Kreuz. Pulling into the vast parking lot is akin to arriving at the smoked meat Mecca on an epic barbecue pilgrimage. A massive wood lot to the side of the 20,000 square foot building is stacked with rows of post oak wood, giving testament to the quantity of barbecue that Kreuz serves up daily. You walk in and the first thing you notice is the heat. Yes, it's Texas, but the heat you feel is courtesy of the red brick smokers, which take up the entire back half of the restaurant.

As you walk up to the counter, I'll bet you an ice cold Shiner Bock you'll momentarily pause, completely overwhelmed. The rows of smokers, the cords of wood, the beautiful briskets, sausages, prime rib, ribs, and, as of a couple weeks ago, smoked chicken, will take your breath away.

Years ago, whenever we visited Lockhart, Kreuz would be a rendezvous point for my family between the trip from the airport to my grandparents' house. As I approach the wood meat counter, all the memories start pouring back. Kreuz's proprietor, Keith Schmidt, greets us by the pits. He is the third generation of Schmidts that have owned the iconic barbecue joint. Keith's father, Rick, was a classmate, Lockhart Lion teammate, and childhood best friend to my dad. Much of the Kreuz family, including Keith, has known me since before I could chew brisket.

Usually I just ask one of the counter people to give me a little bit of everything, which they do, in a big, beautiful pile of meaty goodness on a sheet of butcher paper, twisted and folded to double as a plate (as I said, this place inspires me, and this is how we serve at Hill Country). You pick up your meat (and likely some crackers and white bread) and carry it into the air-conditioned dining room, where you pick out your sides (mac and cheese, baked beans, German potato salad), your drinks (cold beers are the best beers), maybe a dessert, and sit down.

While there are a few smaller tables, settle in at one of the dozens of long, communal tables. Today we are joined by my Aunt Abbi and cousins Jeffry and Shelly—Lockhart locals. What's so great about a place like Kreuz is that it's a community meeting place. You'll see local candidates for city council shaking hands and kissing babies, you'll hear the latest gossip, and you'll experience the best that small town America has to offer.

Oh, and the food! Plenty of people with more accomplished culinary chops than I have will wax about the barbecue at Kreuz, but if I had to pick three things not to miss there, I'd go with the prime rib (beautifully crusted in salt and pepper and equal parts moist and tender), the brisket (see: prime rib), and the jalapeño cheese sausage (full of flavor and has that "snap" that makes a good sausage great). By the way, don't ask for sauce ("Good barbecue is about what you leave off, not what you put on") or forks ("They're at the end of your arms"). They don't have them here.

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After tackling a mountain of barbecue at Kreuz, it's hard to imagine that we have three more barbecue stops ahead of us this afternoon. From Kreuz, we make our way to Smitty's Market (the original site of Kreuz) right off the town square.

Stepping into Smitty's is like setting foot in a historic landmark-cum-barbecue museum. The butcher shop to the left of the market still sells prime cuts and harkens back to barbecue's origins in Central Texas born of local meat markets. The cheap cuts (brisket, ribs, trimmings made into sausage) that couldn't be preserved (due to the fact that refrigeration didn't exist back then) were smoked in makeshift pits using indigenous wood (post oak) and sold to the local laborers, cotton pickers, and migrant workers. Remnants of this tradition are evident in the long hallway corridor lined by wall-facing benches that has been blackened by a patina a smoke and grease built up over more than 100 years. There are old photos on the wall, including one of the storefront of Glossermans Clothiers, my late grandfather's old men's clothing store.

Further back by the smokers, crusty kreosene pillars of grease hang from the ceiling like stalactites. We pass a staircase leading up to a private room where we celebrated my cousin's bar mitzvah nearly 30 years ago. Walk through a door into the sweltering back room where the sausages are being smoked, and you can peer into the smoker and sees rows of perfectly plumped sausage links hanging from metal rods, their amber skins glistening in a haze of smoke. Head back to the main pit room to place your order at the counters.

Beef shoulder (known as shoulder clod in Texas) was historically the signature meat at Smitty's before brisket came to Texas prominence. I order a few slices for our group, which is still in meat shock from our last joint, and get some sweet teas and Big Reds (iconic Texas soda pop) to help wash the 'cue down. Aunt Abbi meets us at our table bearing a box of Lammes pralines, another Texas tradition, and we unwrap our chewy pecan treats during a short interlude before heading to our next destination—Black's BBQ.

We make our way through Smitty's screen door, pile into our SUV, and make the short trip across the town square to Black's. Black's is the oldest family-owned barbecue joint in Texas, and I've know the Black family as far back as I can remember. When I was growing up, Black's was the only place that served smoked chicken (some of the best I've ever had), so that's what I naturally go for. Today we sample turkey and brisket as well. The brisket is outstanding—great smokiness with a perfect crusty bark that simply melts in your mouth.

Terry Black, who grew up in the business, recently split from his family and opened his own place, Terry Black's BBQ, with his two sons in Austin. After a short respite, we're ready to make it our next stop and head back up 183 to Austin, hoping to avoid the heart of rush hour.

Austin: Even More Than Food

About 45 minutes later, we pull into the parking lot at Terry Black's on Barton Springs. Terry's has been open for all of twelve weeks, but is already gaining a reputation for solid barbecue. One of Terry's two sons, Mark, comes out to greet us. We order chopped beef, turkey, and sausage, and Mark brings some top-notch brisket to our table for good measure. Despite all we have eaten, we manage to find a bit more stomach space. Mark invites us out back to see the smoker set-up. He's got two massive offset Lang smokers directly behind the restaurant, which they only use on weekends. Around the side of the building is where the main smoking takes place in a screened-in outdoor room. The whole operation is impressive, and you know immediately that these guys really know what they're doing. We talk shop and compare notes. I invite him to Hill Country Barbecue when he's in Manhattan for a planned trip in December.

Next stop is Hotel San Jose on South Congress where we check-in around 5:30 p.m. A former motel that was converted into a boutique hotel several years ago, San Jose has the quintessential Austin vibe—low-key and casual, cool and stylish. We agree to meet at Guero's Taco Bar in an hour, which gives me and my wife, Kristen, time to head up the street a couple blocks to Allen's Boots to do some boot shopping.

We rendezvous at Gueros, and, after a couple rounds of margaritas, head to Bryce Gilmore's new-ish restaurant, Odd Duck, where we meet my cousin and Austinite, Jon (Jeffry's younger brother). The restaurant specializes in small sharing plates, and the food is outstanding. Our night is topped off with a visit to the Continental Club where local Austin legend Rosy Flores is jamming out with her band. The music is great, but it's been a long day, and finally it's time to retire.

Located adjacent to the San Jose on South Congress is Jo's Coffee. Jo's is a local institution where you will see an eclectic mix of artists, techies, musicians and politicians getting a start to their day with a caffeinated beverage and often a pastry or breakfast taco. The outdoor benches are the place to sit and read the paper or just people watch.

A trip to Austin in not complete without a proper Tex-Mex breakfast. For that, I like Juan in a Million for migas, breakfast tacos, and agua fresca. Tacos cost, $2.40 apiece, so the price is hard to beat. But coming off a day of meat feasting, you'll probably struggle to finish even half of the Don Juan a $5 portion of tortillas, eggs, cheese, and assorted vegetables. Unless your stomach is feeling really ambitious.

We have a bit of time to kill before our noon flight, so we had back into town to the Whole Foods headquarters to check out their flagship store. It is impressive—there's a walk-in beer cooler and a fresh-baked pizza counter—and should not be missed by any foodie. They even sell their own barbecue!
It's time to make our way to the airport. Mission accomplished.

But Wait, There's More:

The 72-Hour Food Tour of Austin

Where the Cool Kids Are: East Austin

Fathom Austin Guide

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