Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Spread at Freedmen's Bar

Many things in this world fail to last 5 years: Presidential terms, a quarter of all marriages, your expensive cell phone, the average NFL career....all these things can now take a backseat to the longevity of BBQPALOOZA. What started as a hair brained idea to sample delicious Central Texas BBQ has morphed into a yearly trek across the lower half of Texas in search of the very best Q. It's a two day homage to the greatest state and the greatest cooking method in the history of humankind.  Is it ambitious? Yes. Is it exhausting? Yes. Is it 48 hrs of smoke drenched euphoria? Absolutely. As we get older some things change, we've now got enough offspring that we were able to procure a pimped out minivan for this year's fest. We're not the first or the last group to do a BBQ tour (let's be honest Daniel Vaughan probably equals this trip 40 or so times a year), but in our minds it's a little like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Texas Independence Day all wrapped up in one. And each year I get to document the trip right here....hope you enjoy.

When we started this bad boy 5 years ago we were so naive. Rating and ranking the very best of the best? Trying to eat 8 spots in a single day? Avoiding Austin? All these mistakes have been rectified. I get asked a lot, especially after BBQPALOOZA, Stephen, "What's the best BBQ in Texas?" Well, I just can't throw ranks out there anymore. After meeting the pit masters who spend hours every night stoking fires, rubbing meat, drinking copious amounts of espresso....I can't just rank 1-10 and call it a day. Is Led Zeppelin superior to The Beatles? Does Willie Mays pale in comparison to Mickey Mantle? Ginger or Mary Ann? I mean....some things exude so much excellence that they demand to be appreciated on their own and without comparison. Texas BBQ has become that way for me. So if you're reading this to organize a list stop here, but if you want to know a few of the things that make each of these spots fantastic temples to meat then you came to the right spot.

Corkscrew BBQ

Our first stop this year was Corkscrew BBQ. This Texas Monthly top 50 is in Spring and boasts some of the very best smoked meats near our hometown of Houston. A few of us had been to Corkscrew before so we knew to arrive early enough for a number and then procure a picnic table to sample the smells and await our spread. Corkscrew does not disappoint! The moist brisket would be right at home with the very best in Austin. The pork ribs and sausage are well above average. The beef ribs are enormous and have great texture. This was my first time to have the chicken, and I must say ordering that was a tremendous choice! We usually skip the poultry, but bar none, everyone claimed that pit master Will's smoked bird was quite possibly the best we had EVER had. Pro tip: arrive early to get a number and come on a Saturday when it's the only day of the week Corkscrew offers beef ribs, chicken, and free beer.

From Corkscrew we headed out to Bryan for our first ever visit to Fargo's Pit BBQ. Fargo's was pretty busy but owner Alan Caldwell made sure we had plenty of seating. His moist brisket has a unique taste that is delicious and distinctly Fargo's. The ribs and sausage were good too and it wasn't surprising that this little spot in Bryan has been named a Texas Monthly top 50. Alan is a really nice guy but don't try to get him to tell you his secrets, when we inquired about what wood he used to get that distinct taste he shot us down like a frat boy approaching Katy Perry. He even keeps a tall fence around the pit out back in case anyone thinks they're going to cop a peek or snap a pic. Keep that secret up Mr. Caldwell it's obvious the people love what you're doing.

Since we were in Bryan already we decided to head over to the new Kreuz market in Bryan. We've sampled the original in Lockhart, but in a shocking turn of events this spread may have actually outdone the original. Juicy, flavorful brisket and some of the best sausage of the trip were on full display here, but the real star is the pork chop/ homemade sauerkraut. If you ever go to any Kreuz location DO NOT miss the pork chop and sauerkraut. Just like in Lockhart there's no forks and no sauce, and I can verify that neither are needed. If you find yourself near Bryan and want some authentic central Texas BBQ head to this spot and you will not be disappointed.

After Kreuz we headed to Austin and the current "Capital of Texas and Texas BBQ". We had an evening reservation at last year's biggest revelation Freedmen's Bar. This time there was no argument about what we were ordering.....The Texas Trio. We procured some soy marinated pork cheek as well, and let me assure you that it was the most flavorful bbq/asian assault on my taste buds possible. Pit master Evan LeRoy's brisket is top notch and so is the sausage. The ribs really caught us off guard this time as they were even more flavorful than we remembered. Freedmen's is what I like to call "classy" bbq (fancy and located in a historic building specializing in retro cocktails and the like), but do not let that fool you.....plenty of pit masters toiling at pop ups would love to be able to replicate the taste Evan does with his authentic Texas Q. Two years running Freedmen's has been on every one of our minds as a top meal of the weekend.

la bbq

We woke up the next morning on day two and as always we wondered, "How in Sam Houston are we going to eat more BBQ all day?" A banana and coffee later we were sitting at la bbq as the undisputed firsts in line and by 9:45 when the pits were spilling out that amazing smell......we all caught our second smoke....I mean wind. Let me tell you....NOBODY can put together a better spread than la. Few can equal and many can try, but the combination of perfect moist brisket, delicious pork ribs, and a sausage that was top shelf....is the reason many refer to la as Franklin's minus the line. Don't be fooled though, you still have to get there early or it's going to be at least a 1 hour wait on busy days. Apparently John Lewis is starting a new bbq adventure in South Carolina, but as luck would have it he surprisingly rolled up to the spot right before opening so we also caught a glimpse of the "pound for pound" best pit master in Texas. Great start to day 2!

From there we traveled to what is for my money the most iconic structure in Austin ..... the Micklethwait Craft Meats trailer. Tom is a wizard of meat who has recently won beef rib contests, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel (Microwave), and apparently gotten a LOT more popular. He was sold out of beef ribs an hour after opening! At this perhaps most hipster of all Austin BBQ joints you can get a spread as good or better than the rest, but what steals the show are all the things you can't get anywhere else. Known for his ridiculously good sides, Tom takes pride in everything he serves from the best homemade bread to house grown pickles to the straight from dessert heaven moon pies we brought back to our wives to bank some goodwill for next year's trip. Micklethwait delivers on the smoked meats AND everything else. If you want world class Q, but are also craving sides and desserts that will put you into a food coma for hours then look no further than Craft Meats.

Here is where our little excursion went from ridiculously fun to epic. We decided we had a little time and wanted to see what the line was like at John Mueller Meat Co. As most reading this blog probably know John is the greatest character in all of BBQ, and our history with him goes back a few years. We've sampled his Q many times and never been disappointed so we went to sample what he was cooking that day and as luck would have it John was ready for us. As we were making our order my buddy Chris questioned the worker behind the counter about how long ago they took the fence down that had been surrounding the property. From several feet away John piped, "Several months ago thanks for coming by so often!" Being heckled by John is nearly as fun as sampling his smoked meats. As we tasted his always moist brisket with terrific fat rendering John kept easing by the table.....we bit. "Hey, John you do realize we live in Houston and have to drive a ways to visit?" Not missing a beat while walking away John dropped the mic..."You could come by more if you weren't over at Micklethwait!" So....so.....good. We all nearly fell off the picnic table. Some have sworn John Mueller off, but never because of the food. He is one of the top in Texas, and in some ways the experience is heightened when you get first rate heckled by the legend himself during the meal. Don't let him fool you though, on the way back to the minivan he waved and thanked us for coming by....the exterior might be as spicy and flavorful as his sauce, but when it comes to those who love great Texas Q John Mueller is as soft and welcoming as his moist brisket. (P.S. Thanks for unblocking me on Twitter John.....)

Barely able to contain our laughter and our contentment from John we headed over to the last new spot on our itinerary Blue Ox BBQ. We planned to sample and head out, but ended up staying here the longest of any stop. We settled in and enjoyed an impromptu set from Wood and Wire that was the perfect soundtrack for BBQPALOOZA. Blue Ox has a fantastic setup in the backyard of the Buzz Mill coffee shop and bar's backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The owner and pit master Chase was an incredibly cool dude who offered us some free burnt ends and gave us a tour of the pits (once owned and operated by none other than Aaron Franklin himself). Franklin would be proud to know that Chase is using those pits to optimum effect, cranking out some really delicious brisket, sausage, and ribs. The real star of the show was the pork tenderloin which was without a doubt the best I've had. I can't think of a better brunch idea than getting some drinks from Buzz Mill and sampling Chase's smoked meats. Blue Ox was fantastic and I am really glad we were able to add it to the lineup WE WILL BE BACK.

Barely able to walk and running on BBQ fumes we went over to Stiles and Switch for our last stop. Throwing washers on Shane's back porch and sampling some of Lance's tremendous Q has become a BBQPALOOZA tradition. Shane and Lance were gone to an event for SXSW, but they graciously left us a new invention that seemed personally designed for our pleasure.....the Notorious R.I.B. It's one of Lance's rich delicious beef ribs on a spread of tater tots with homemade queso poured over it...I KNOW. We decided that the Notorious R.I.B. was the perfect closing number for our little dance and we were right. Stiles has got some flak for "desecrating a beef rib in a nontraditional way", but to that I say "Get off my lawn old BBQ men!" Shane is not forcing everybody to order their ribs that way...you can still have it traditionally. Stiles and Switch has the same vibe the building carried in Dazed and Confused (it was the Emporium).....fun and good times. You know what the Notorious R.I.B. was? Fun....and good times, and for us the perfect time to add a little queso and carbs to the menu.

Notorious R.I.B.

And at that BBQPALOOZA2015 came to an end. It included firsts for Corkscrew, Fargo's, Kreuz in Bryan, Blue Ox, and rolling deep in a minivan. We once again were blown away by the quality of BBQ in between Houston and Austin, and barely conscious from a heavy meat coma. Five years is a long time to do anything in a culture where longevity is sometimes mocked, but I don't see BBQPALOOZA going anywhere anytime soon. Big thanks to all the awesome pit masters who fed us and all of our wives for allowing us back into our homes smelling like the inside of a smoke room. Until next year.....