If there is one thing the Texans know, its how to make outstanding barbecue, and Texas style barbecue is my favourite. It uses a combination of dry rub, liberal meat basting and slow smoking over wood fire to give a deep smoky flavour for the intense black bark formed on the meat after hours of cooking. This bark protects the tender, juicy and melt in the mouth meat. In Texas beef brisket is king and pit masters dedicate their lives to the crafting of the finest barbecue around. While in Austin we decided to sample a number of barbecue joints and those that gave the most satisfaction were Kreuz Market and The Salt Lick. Both are a short half hour drive just outside of central Austin and I can assure you are worth every second of the drive spent thinking about the glorious barbecue.
The Salt Lick, located 24 miles west of Austin in Driftwood has been serving barbecue to happy patrons since 1967. The open-pit fire is a sight to behold as you enter the barn house style restaurant building, the huge seven-foot pit is constantly filled with hunks of brisket, racks of ribs and sausage links, and sauce is liberally added to smoked meat with a mop!
We decided to sample the Brisket Plate and Pork Rib Plate. Each plate sits proudly with a half pound of meat as well as in-house made potato salad, coleslaw and beans. Pillowy soft white bread, whole pickled gherkins and onions are also available on request, and as it’s Texas each order comes with a whole pickled giant jalapeño pepper as standard. The brisket was thickly sliced, moist and tender with a good flesh to bark ratio. If anything I would have preferred a slightly fatty cut of meat, but that’s just personal preference. The ribs were excellent, fall off the bone, super tender, super delicious meat. Everything you could ever wish from a pork rib. Texas potato salad is more comparable to smashed potatoes mixed with barbecue sauce, which is actually a nice change to the usual mayonnaise heavy potato salad were accustom to in England. Coleslaw is sliced thinly as opposed to the usual chopped slaw I’ve encounter along the road so far, and is tossed in a light vinegary dressing, leaving a nice crunch to the vegetables. Beans were smokey and rich but nothing compared to the barbecue beans of Fette Sau in Brooklyn. Barbecue is good at The Salt Lick, actually it’s better than just good, but it’s certainly not the best. The real reason to come to The Salt Lick is to soak up the ambience, mix with the locals on the family style dining tables, witness the open-pit fire and did I mention it’s BYOB. Although you can buy a reasonably priced bottle of wine from the on site wine shop (where you can sample any bottle before buying) or can pick up a frosty bucket of locally brewed Shiner Bock beer.
Kreuz Market is located 30 miles south of Austin in the town of Lockheart. In fact Lockheart is so well-known for its barbecue it’s affectionately known as the “Barbecue Capitol of Texas”, and boasts four excellent barbecue establishments focused on producing some of the best barbecue in Texas. Kreuz Market has been on the Austin barbecue scene for quite some time, starting life in 1900 as a meat market and grocery store. Refrigeration was not up to the standards of today when Kreuz opened its doors and as a result, the owner, Charles Kreuz Sr. began smoking meats out of unsold cuts. To prevent any wastage Kreuz would cook the premium cuts over barbecue pit and would make sausages from the lesser cuts. This barbecue meat became so popular that customers would buy the barbecue and sausage (wrapped in butcher paper) and items from the grocery store to sit alongside their meal, eating straight from the butcher paper. Customers ate with their hands with only the juices from the barbecue as their sauce. These traditions and cooking methods are still upheld today and signs in the dining room states; “No barbecue sauce (nothing to hide). No forks (they are at the end of your arms). No kidding (see owner’s face)”.
Barbecue at Kreuz Market is bought by weight value, there are no plate dinners or sandwiches here, just meat, meat and more meat. On our two visits (it was that good we had to make a visit for lunch as we left Austin for New Orleans) we sampled Original Fat Beef Barbecue Brisket, Boneless Pit Ham, Pork Spare Ribs and Kreuz’s Jalapeño Cheese Sausage. The spare ribs and brisket were incredible. The pit ham was smoky and dense, though a little on the dry side. The sausage was out of this world good, smoky, dense sausage, spiked with chunks of molten, rich cheese and spicy jalapeño peppers. Serious greasy, meaty goodness. I wish I could have bought a dozen to take home and keep in the fridge. As for sides, around a half loaf of white sliced bread and a packet of salted crackers come as standard to mop up juices. In addition to this we sampled the mac n’ cheese (divine), barbecue beans, coleslaw and whole pickled gherkins (particularly good at cutting through the richness of the fatty brisket).
The dining experience is unique at Kreuz, firstly you queue at the barbecue pit and give the attendant your requests, barbecue is then weighed out and handed to you wrapped in brown butcher paper. Following this, make your way to the family dining room where you select your sides and beverages, before sitting down to your meal armed only with a knife and plenty of kitchen paper. No plate, no fork, no messing around. If you find yourself in need of a sweet treat at the end of your meal I highly recommend indulging in the 99c banana pudding, it’s light, creamy, and a perfect end to a perfect meal.
From barbecue to beer, and Austin certainly has plenty of choice. Texas favourites are Lone Star (so much so it’s named The National Beer of Texas) as well as Shiner Bock, a tasty dark larger. Refine your search to Austin and you will find many a craft brewery, many of which operating inside the city. To name a few that I sampled during my stay; (512) Brewing Company, Austin Beerworks, Hops and Grain, Independence Brewing Company and Live Oak Brewing Company. But the brewery we chose to visit on a sunny Saturday morning was Jester King Craft Brewery, a half our drive out of central Austin to beautiful Texas Hill Country. Jester King focuses on crafting artisan farmhouse ales with great depth of flavour, relying heavily on naturally occurring Texas Hill Country wild yeast to ferment their beers and interesting techniques, such as barrel ageing and natural carbonation. The final product is exceptional and unique beer, like nothing I have ever sampled before. The brewery itself is a converted farmyard structure, complete with a functioning well that enables Jester King to draw local spring water to create their beers. Jester King is a mix of rustic charm and industrial minimalism, the hillside landscape serving as a beautiful, yet contrasting, backdrop to the shimmering steel fermentation vessels that lie inside the farmhouse structure.
The beer process starts with milling grains which are piped up to a hopper where they are dropped into a mash tun. The grains are allowed to steep in warm water then mixed to a porridge consistency as the starches break down into sugars.The mixture is then filtered and pumped into the adjacent brew kettle, where it is brought up to a boil. Hops are added to make beer, contributing wafts of aromatics and notes of bitterness that contrast against the sweetness of the malt. Jester King does two hop additions to preserve those aromatic qualities; at the beginning of the boil and the other just before the wort is pulled from the kettle. The clear wort is extracted with a heat exchanger that chills it slowly as to not kill the farmhouse yeast in the large stainless steel fermentation vessels. Most of the fermentation takes place in these vessels within the first 48 hours, and if the focus was on speed, Jester King could go from kettle to beer glass in the span of a week. However, complexity and sophistication reign supreme at this brewery, and beer ferments for 3-5 weeks to complete dryness. Occasionally a third batch of hops are added to the vessels to introduce yet another layer of aromatics. Beer isn’t force carbonated either, but instead gets bottled and packaged with sugar so that the natural fermentation process of sugar breaking down to alcohol and CO2 gets trapped in the bottle for natural carbonation. Some beer is destined for even greater refinement inside their barrel room where it’s aged in oak distillery casks. Since each barrel is unique, with its own traits, Jester King has developed a notation system to mark up and identify the beers and characteristics inside each particular cask. Sour beer is crafted in a minimum 6 month process; one month in the tank, two to three months in a barrel, then another two to three months in the bottle. All beer batches are conditioned and tasted before leaving the site, and if things don’t meet their quality standards they are dumped and the process starts over.
On a visit to Jester King you’re given a card showing you information on which twelve beers are available to sample on that particular day, as well as a fetching Jester King souvenir glass to drink the farmyard ales from. In addition to the brewery and the beer (as if you could wish for anything more), a trip to Jester King is also a fantastic opportunity to experience the beautiful and picturesque Texas Hill Country. Food trucks, bean bag toss, community benches, and fresh open air ensure that this is an enjoyable experience for everyone. On this particular visit a few of the highlight beers for me were;
Salt Lick (Pecan Wood Smoked Saison 6.7% ABV) – Crafted in the once commonplace, Old World tradition of bière de coupage, young, dry hopped ale is blended with old, barrel-aged sour beer fermented with native yeast. A portion of the malt was smoked over pecan wood at The Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas. Unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally conditioned.
Wytchmaker (Farmhouse Rye Indian Pale Ale 7.3% ABV) – Earthy rye and piny hop flavor and aroma meet spicy, funky characteristics from our farmhouse yeast in this American-inspired farmhouse ale.
Das Wunderkind! (Saison 4.5% ABV) – Mature beer, re-fermented in oak barrels with wild yeast and souring bacteria is blended with fresh, dry-hopped beer prior to bottle-conditioning. Dry and lightly tart, with notes of citrus, barnyard, and tropical fruit.
Mexico and it’s food and culture is another huge influence on Texas cuisine. The Texas-Mexico border makes up 1,254 miles of the 1,900 mile long US-Mexico border, and as a result the Mexican population in Texas is vast. From this relationship the hybrid “Tex-Mex” cuisine was born, of which many beloved dishes have spawned; Chili Con Carne and Fajitas to name a couple. One dish that has become an institution in Texas is the taco, and especially the tradition of having breakfast tacos. I’m sure you’ve all eaten tacos in your life. The concept is simple, a corn or what tortilla folded around some form of filling and dressed with garnishes. Austin has numerous restaurants serving up tacos, from hole in the wall style grottos and food trucks to high-end dining rooms. But for me the location serving up the best tacos in town has to be La Michoacana Meat Market, a grocery store chain providing the Mexican community in Texas with all the necessary ingredients of home.
Not only does La Michoacana serve as a grocery store and meat market (the price of meat is ridiculously cheap for the quality of product) but these stores also have a small kitchen set in the centre of the store where you can dine on fantastic, authentic Mexican cooking, from tacos and gorditas to full dinner plates. On our numerous visits we sampled burritos (which were beyond giant!), gorditas, and of course numerous tacos. My favourites included Taco Al Pastore (seasoned pork steaks cooked over flame with onions) and Taco de Asador (a combination of grilled chorizo and tripe), both served on two overlapping tortillas and garnished with beans, fresh salads, salsa, hot sauces and always cilantro (or coriander to me and you). At a dollar a taco (2-3 tacos is a satisfying meal) and with a fresh cantaloupe melon juice to accompany, this is a breakfast of champions, trust me it certainly beats a bowl of cornflakes.
Lastly, I want to let you all know of a little honky-tonk bar for good times, cheap beer, live music and on Sunday, the not to be missed, Chicken Shit Bingo! The place I speak of is Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in north Austin. Ginny’s crowd is mostly locals and cowboys, although you will spot the occasional perplexed student from nearby University of Texas. Music comes courtesy of Texas country star Dale Watson, everyone is friendly and only too happy to flash a smile and have a chat, and not only do they have cheap beer but if you feel hunger setting in then free chili cheese hot dogs are available. The real star of the show on a Sunday is the Chicken Shit Bingo, where a crudely constructed bingo board (we’re talking a sheet of 4/4 sitting atop the pool table with 58 squares drawn on in marker pen), a cage sits on top of the bingo board and chicken feed is liberally spread across all numbered squares. Around 5pm the owner, Ginny (who is a character at 70 years old) brings in the beloved chicken who is placed in the cage and then its a waiting game to see which number is graced by chicken shit. A numbered square on the board will set you back $2, although don’t worry yourself if you don’t win as its common practise for the winner to buy everyone who partook a round of beers. This is Texas after all!