One day, two guys, eight barbecue joints, 12 hours and 433 miles of Texas back roads — the numbers almost speak for themselves. If you and your family are looking for a day trip, may we suggest you take a “Q Crawl.” In contrast to its pub-driven counterpart, this one is family-friendly, full of cultural history and found only in the Lone Star state.
Communities across Texas are often defined by their purveyors of smoked meat. In Waco, people debate their favorites between such locales as Tony DeMaria’s Bar-B-Que, Vitek’s BBQ, Michna’s Bar-B-Que and Uncle Dan’s BBQ. In many ways, our friendship began while we were students at Baylor University, breaking for lunch over Vitek’s famed Gut Paks or all-you-can-eat ribs on Wednesdays at DeMaria’s.
Instead of taking the kids to Schlitterbahn (again) and rolling the dice as to whether your experience on Interstate 35 will be more like a parking lot than a highway, do a little homework and then take the back roads to culinary landmarks that — in some cases — have fueled Texans’ tummies for over a century.
In terms of homework, we suggest you begin by consulting the wisdom of Daniel Vaughn. He’s the author of “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey through Texas Barbecue” and the creator of the “Full Custom Gospel BBQ” blog, where he posted regularly until he became Texas Monthly’s barbecue editor. Vaughn arguably knows more about Q than Art Briles knows about pounding down the hapless Horns. Learning from Vaughn, we initially selected a route through the Hill Country to family-run joints that scored highly in the magazine’s Top 50 and had been in business for at least 20 years.
Heading west on U.S. Highway 84 we arrived about 11 a.m. at what we now refer to as the Holy Grail of Q — Llano’s own Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. In business since 1963, Cooper’s recently branched out and added new locations in Austin, New Braunfels and Fort Worth’s Stockyards. Don’t be misdirected, however, as nothing beats a pilgrimage to where it all started. The family-style picnic tables dotted with jars of jalapenos, bags of white bread and paper towel rolls add to the ambiance. However, what truly defines your experience is the aroma from the meat-bearing barbecue pits that greet you when you get out of your car.
Upon arrival, the pit master asks want you want and opens the lid to the pit, where the meat rests until you are ready to be served. Then you are faced with one of life’s great questions — brisket, sausage, ribs, turkey or Cooper’s own Big Chop, an inch-thick pork chop that cuts and tastes like the finest of steaks. Being creatures of habit, we stuck with what we know best, brisket and sausage. We can testify that no greater gift comes wrapped in wax paper.
Making our way south, we wound past Enchanted Rock and eventually stepped out of our minivan (yes, we are now that old) in Driftwood at The Salt Lick. Unlike Cooper’s, where you park in front of the pits, at The Salt Lick we found ourselves docking out near the tour buses, expecting to look up at a light pole to see an image of Mickey Mouse indicating the zone in which we had parked at this veritable Disney World. The Salt Lick’s reputation has made it a destination for many Q seekers. Its lush landscaping makes it a great place for kids to run around, but we found the true reason for our visit, smoked meat, to be lacking.
For starters, the sausage looked and tasted no better than something we could pull out of the deep recesses of a refrigerated bin at the grocery store. The brisket was a step up from the sausage, but looking back, after we had sampled so many tasty varieties during our tour, we would only rank it below average. Perhaps the best thing we can say about The Salt Lick is that we have been there and now only feel a deeper compulsion to venture further off the grid in search of smoked meat.
Curling further south and east, we next found ourselves in Luling just hours before the annual Watermelon Thump was set to begin. Disoriented by the array of carnival rides being unloaded and posters beckoning us to vote for candidates for the Thump Queen, we first wandered into Luling Bar-B-Q. Since they were out of sausage, we were forced to try what proved to be a rather disappointing offering of brisket. The one redeeming point was the discovery that they sold Frostie Root Beer in bottles — a comforting memory from our childhoods that we feared was all but lost.
Once we got our bearings, we made our way a couple of blocks up the street to Luling City Market and discovered what fueled the Q joy for so many. Before collecting our sides and drinks from a separate counter, we made our way to the back and entered a smoke-filled meat sauna, where we were greeted by our now favorite question: “Brisket, sausage, ribs or turkey?” The brisket proved to be lean and moist, and the sausage met us with a nice snap and flavor that honored the care that went into its creation.
Fearing we might get consumed by the throngs heading to town for the Thump, we made our way north to the buckle in the Texas Q belt, Lockhart, with two scheduled stops, the first being Black’s Barbecue. Owned by the same family longer than any other Q joint in Texas, Black’s dates back to 1932.
Although Black’s decor looks like it has not changed since the Great Depression, it only adds to the appeal as you slide down the line closer to where your meat is carved to order. Breaking open our butcher paper, we were greeted by brisket that was visually defined by its bark but then simply melted in our mouths. Whatever merits the brisket rightfully claimed, it finished second to sausage so good that it may initiate a debate concerning on what day God created it.
Just blocks north of the beloved home of our favorite sausage, we came to Kreuz Market. Dating back to 1900, Kreuz’s is also the bearer of a proud history. While the furnace-like area in the back that is home to the pits is worth viewing, Kreuz’s, like The Salt Lick, now also reflects a Disney World-like quality with its cavernous dining halls. Although the brisket and sausage were worth a try, the necessary fixin’s — such as jalapenos — came with an additional charge.
Making our way further north and closer to Waco we came upon what was scheduled to be our last stop for the day, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. In its 66th year, Louie Mueller came with a reputation that worked to our disadvantage. With our faces pressed up against the iron screen doors, a kindly woman greeted us with the worst possible news: “I am sorry. I fear we are sold out of meat for the day.” Seeing the light go out of our eyes, she recommended we visit Taylor Cafe and proceeded to give us directions.
Needing our fix for smoked meats, we took the advice of this gracious bearer of bad news and made our way to what proved to be the hidden gem of our trip. Wedged between an overpass and a set of train tracks, the Taylor Café dates back to 1948. A U-shaped bar defines the center of this joint, with folding tables scattered around the outside. A pit master carves up the venerable offerings by the back door.
We soon learned that Taylor Café’s stellar reputation for smoked meat makes it a place for people from all walks of life to gather. The day we visited the cowboy crowd was present in large numbers as well as golf groups and families. We overheard one family seated at the bar near us offer their tear-filled goodbyes to dear ol’ Dad as he left to work the night shift. These groups come together for smoked meat in a place that should either be condemned or recognized as an historical landmark. We made a note to file our recommendation for the latter with the good people in Austin at the Texas Historical Commission.
Fulfilled by our trip, we headed back to Waco with not only a deeper appreciation for the edible art that is brisket and sausage but also for the people who pour their lives into these places. We are now more convinced than ever that if you want to gauge the pulse of a community, make your way to its Q joint of choice. We believe we now know one more reason why communities such as Llano, Driftwood, Luling, Lockhart and Taylor have reasons to be proud.
Should you choose to venture beyond Waco for your own Q crawl, please take the back roads, slow down and be willing to take detours. In our hurry to get to Llano and stay on schedule, we passed several joints in Gatesville and Lampasas that looked like they merited a visit. While the pits at Louie Mueller will beckon us back to Taylor soon, our trip would have proven to be something less than complete if we had not followed the recommendation to visit the Taylor Café. That serendipitous moment not only yielded the blessings of smoked meats but also a new treasured memory in our long friendship.
Todd C. Ream now lives in Greentown, Indiana, but Mark W. English is fortunate enough to still call Waco home. Together they are best known for leading the sixth grade boys basketball team from St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School to an undefeated 1991-1992 season. The motion picture chronicling that feat is forthcoming.