The prep area behind the counter at House Park Barbecue in Austin is reminiscent of those dimly lit Flemish Renaissance paintings of kitchens with laden groaning boards. The scene embodies the essence of Texas barbecue, mahogany dark, glistening, irresistible.
The Austin Barbecue Belt: The Soul of American Barbecue
"Barbecue is not what we do, it's who we are." Tim Mikeska, Rudy Mikeska's, Taylor, TX
How's this for a confounded concept for what the restaurant trade calls "destination dining"?
Location? The boonies. Exterior? Looks like a barn. Interior? Looks like a high school cafeteria decorated by the taxidermy class. Ambiance? Seats 560. China pattern? Brown butcher paper will do fine, thank you. Utensils? You were born with hands, werencha? Kitchen equipment? Handmade brick "pits" caked with carbon, grease, and soot. Fuel? Some cowboy with a pickup and a chainsaw brings it. Menu? The ultimate in slow food. It takes 5 to 6 hours to cook a brisket. If we run out, you're gonna hafta eat somewhere else. Service? If you're hungry, get off your duff and come to the counter. Cost per entree? Pay by the pound. Wine list? You've gotta be kiddin', son.
That's more or less been the business model for Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas for more than a century, and purt near the same concept for a herd of other joints in the Austin Barbecue Belt. Their names make carnivores salivate, face south, and genuflect. Not much has changed at some of these joints in the past century, iffen you don't count internet ordering and overnight shipping.
Charles Kreuz started his place in 1900 just a horsehair off the town square in downtown Lockhart. It was just a grocery store with a meat market at first. He whupped up his own sausage and smoked meats. Tuckered out cotton pickers and cowboys would buy his grub wrapped in butcher paper, and sit outside to chow down with their hands and pocket knives. Before long he put in tables. In 1999 there was a family feud and some of the owners moseyed to the north edge of town and built a new place under the Kreuz name. Other's stayed downtown and hund out a sign that said Smitty's Market. But there still ain't no plates or silverware at either place.
The menu couldn't be simpler: Brisket or shoulder clod ($9.90/pound), pork spareribs and pork chops ($9.50), ham ($7.90), sausages ($1.45 to $2.00 for a big fat link), and boneless prime rib ($17.90). White bread, tortillas, or crackers are tossed in because it's always been that way. Beans (most definitely not sweet), German potato salad, and sauerkraut are the sides ($2.80/pint). There's soda, iced tea, and lemonade to wash it all down. A personal size pie is $2.50. And that's pretty much all she wrote on the menu. Because of Kreuz's reputation, these are among the highest prices in the barbecue belt.
European, slave, and
Barbecue is king in Texas, and if you haven't experienced it first hand, you have nooooo idea. Texas barbecue is as different from Kansas City, Memphis, and Carolina as a cow is from a steer.
There are three important culinary influences: European immigrants, freed slaves, and Mexicans. Sorry, cowboys didn't have much to do with it.
Czech, German, and Hungarian immigrants came in large numbers in the mid 1800s and they brought their expertise in making sausages and smoking meats, common practices in the homeland.
Slaves were relegated to eating the tough cuts of meat such as ribs, shoulder, brisket, and the scraps, while master ate high on the hog, the tenderloin. So they learned the art of low and slow cooking, a technique that we now understand allows fats and collagens to liquefy without tightening the proteins' undies in a bunch. Mexicans, with their Spanish, Mayan, and Aztec roots, were masters of spices, chiles, corn, tortillas, and beans.
The influence of all three groups can be found in practically every barbecue joint in Texas although the house style will vary if the owner is Bohemian, African-American, or Tejano. One thing they have in common: You can taste the tradition and the history in every bite. This is cooking that has stood the test of time. "Barbecue is not what we do, it's who we are" says Tim Mikeska of Rudy Mikeska's in Taylor.
Kreuz is the buckle of the barbecue belt, and the whole cotton pickin state for that matter, but calling it the best will start a kerfuffle in any Austin bar with no shortage of hombres to defend the honor of Smitty's, Southside Market, Cooper's, Black's, Louis Mueller's, City Market, The Salt Lick, Broken Spoke, Stubb's, Taylor Cafe, County Line, Iron Works, Meyer's, and Opie's, just off the top of my head. They're all in or within spittin' distance of the state capital (there is a map with address info below), and they all dish up the Holy Trinity of Texas Que: Brisket, guts, and ribs.
The Holy Trinity of Texas Que: Brisket, guts, and ribs
Brisket is the national food of the Republic of Texas. A whole barbecue beef brisket is a huge clod of meat, in the 12 to 16 pound range. It is a cheap cut of cow, especially the select grade favored by many restaurants, as tough as a boot if you grill or roast it over high heat. Yankees turn brisket into corned beef, pastrami, or pot roast. But in Texas brisket is smoked low and slow for 5 to 18 hours over glowing post oak and mesquite coals. It comes off the pit almost black, looking more like a meteorite than a meal. But it is not burnt, and beneath the crust is tender, juicy, smoky meat which, when sliced 1/4" thick, melts in your mouth like buttah. You can get it on a sandwich in some places, but most places dish it up nekked on a plate or butcher paper. Some offer it chopped on a bun, but that's for tourists. The best meat is sliced, not chopped.
Guts, also known as hot guts, are fat, greasy, spicy, smoked sausages, packed in snappy natural casings (hence the nickname). Some are hotter than a $2 pistol and others are quite mild. Some cooks mix in pork or other meats, but most are beef. Don't ask for a bun or mustard or sauerkraut. Jes' pick it up with your fingers. When the grease drips on your butcher paper, well, that's what the white bread is fer.
Ribs in Texas are usually huge untrimmed slabs of pork spareribs, with the cartilage, breast meat, flap, and tips still attached. No cutesy trimming. Only rarely are baby backs offered. A few places offer dinosaur sized beef ribs.
And don't ask for no dadburned barbecue sauce at Kreuz. They have none. Only some hot pepper sauce. Although most other places have bent to public demand and serve barbecue sauce nowadays, the best Texas sauces are something totally different from what most of us call barbecue sauce. Beef don't cotton to sweet sticky sauces, so the best Texas sauces are typically thin and tart, flavored with vinegar, chile powder, lots of black pepper, cumin, hot sauce, fresh onion, and a touch of ketchup or tomato sauce. They often resemble a thin tomato soup and penetrate the meat rather than lounge on top. Some of the best have meat drippings, and so they cannot be bottled. They are offerend as an optional finishing sauce for everything, including sausage, mutton, pork ribs, chicken, and goat.
In the small towns of Lockhart, Taylor, Luling, and Elgin, the barbecue restaurants are the heart and soul of the town. Their large capacity seating makes them the natural place for events of all sorts, from weddings to football banquets. And I'm not kidding about this being destination dining. Rick Schmidt of Kreuz says that 85 to 90% of his customers come from outside the county. When I had lunch at Opie's in Spicewood six guys choppered in and landed in a parking lot out back. Cooper's leaves a van at the local airport. At Black's it's common for the parking lot to look like a Harley dealership.
Here are some of the best places for barbecue in the barbecue belt. Hit them all if you dare, and try to eat yourself out alive. Their numbers correspond to the numbers on the map. Hours of business may change so please check before you make the drive.
604 West Young, Texas Highway 29, Llano, TX 78643, 915-247-5713 or toll-free 877-533-5553. Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Guests stand in long lines at Cooper's in tiny Llano in the middle of nowhere somewhere west of Austin. They sidle right up to the holding pit, a "pulley pit" typical of the older barbecue restaurants in the state. It gets its name from the ropes, pulleys, and counterweights that hold it open. Customers point, and say "I reckon I'll take a hunk of that brisket over yonder." Pitmasters like Senith Graham, below, cut off as much as they want, and ask "Sauce or no sauce?"
Smoked ribs, lightly seasoned, in the hands of Terry Wootan, owner of Cooper's.
Click here for more photos of Cooper's.
125 Spur 191, Suite A, Spicewood, TX 78669, 830-693-8660. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. When I was there folks were helicoptering in from Austin. You've gotta try the Tater Tot Casserole. Here's Todd Ashmore, the owner, at his outdoor pit.
Click here for more photos of Opie's.
2400 N. IH-35, Round Rock, TX 78681. 512-244-2936. Rudy's is a popular chain and franchise with several locations. And no wonder. The food at the Round Rock location, the one I visited, is as good or better than most Mom & Pop shops. This unit has a sanitization station for the diners before they get in line. You stick your dirty mits in two holes in the device and it sprays them with jets of warm soapy water. Customers love it. There's even a brisket-cam mounted over the cutting board so you can watch the meat being carved on TV as you wait.
Click here for more photos of Rudy's in Round Rock.
(4) House Park Bar-B-Que
900 W. 12th, Austin TX 78703, 512-472-9621. Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. House Park Bar-B-Que is not far from The University of Texas campus in Austin and is open for lunch weekdays only. Barbecuing since 1943, the interior walls are browned by decades of smoke and as dark as the inside of a cow. But the sign above the picnic tables outside says it all. The picture at the top of this page is also House Park.
The pit man loads briskets at House Park.
Click here for more photos of House Park.
5204 F.M. 2222, Austin, TX 78731, 512-346-3664. There are two locations in Austin and several around Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. Open for Lunch & Dinner 7 days a week. I visited the Austin On the Lake location, a beautiful waterfront spot with a dock and big outdoor deck with bar on the water. The nautical theme indoors is more Catskills than Texas, but it's a lot of fun and really jumps on weekend evenings.
Click here for more photos of County Line.
512 West 29th Street, Austin, TX 78705, 512-477-2529. Open everyday 11 a.m. to midnight. Right on the edge of the UT campus and open late every night when you get the munchies. The owners are ex-hippie musicians who love barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Cajun, and you'll find all of them at this funky place. Shocking as it may seem, there's often crab on the pits.
Click here for more photos of Ruby's.
2000 E. 12th, Austin, TX 78702, 512-478-0378. Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Friday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. The effusive friendliness of Sam's in Austin is unmatched. Housed in an old frame house, the tiny neighborhood operation seats only about 20, but folks have been eating the food where "love is the secret ingredient" for more than 70 years. Left to right, that's Veronica Mays, Ron Mays, and Kay Mays. Not shown: Wanda Mays and Brian Mays. Did I mention that it is owned and operated by the Mays family?
Click here for more photos of Sam's.
801 Red River, Austin, TX 78701, 512-480-8341. Monday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. There's a good chance you've seen Stubb's barbecue sauce in your grocery since it is now widely distributed. Stubb's is at the heart of Austin's jumpin' music scene in a stone building built in 1870. There is an open air concert stage out back that regularly packs in 2,000 music and meat fans to hear everyone from Bob Dylan to Snoop Dogg. The indoor Sunday Gospel brunch buffet has fans waiting in line for opening time. Here the Christianettes have the house stompin' while they're chompin.
Click here for more photos of Stubb's.
(9) Iron Works
100 Red River St., Austin, TX 78701, 512-478-4855. Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Located right next to the Convention Center in Austin, this former iron works, is now hugely popular with tourists and locals. Here's a combo plate with a beef rib, brisket, and links.
Click here for more photos of Iron Works.
1212 Highway 290, Elgin, TX 78621, 512-285-3407. Monday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Southside is famous for all beef sausage shipped nationwide and known worldwide as Elgin Hot Guts.
Click here for more photos of Southside.
188 Highway 290, Elgin, TX 78621, 512-281-3331. Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Just up the road from Southside, Meyer's is also a guts specialist.
(14) Louie Mueller's
206 W. 2nd St., Taylor, TX 76574, 512-352-6206. Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The walls and business cards on the bulletin board all have a smoke patina, and the meat is very good.
Click here for more photos of Louie Mueller's.
(16) Rudy Mikeska's
300 W. 2nd St., Taylor, TX 76574, 512-365-3722 or toll-free 800-962-5706. Tim Mikeska is one of the nicest guys in the state and his sausage is killer. Since I visited the restaurant it has closed and Mikeska's is now a caterer and online store.
Click here for more photos of Rudy Mikeska's.
(17) New Zion Missionary Baptist Church
2601 Montgomery Rd., Huntsville, TX 77340 936-294-0884. Wednesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. but you must call ahead - the hours change. Although the Mt. Zion Church Bar-B-Q in Huntsville is closer to Houston than the barbecue belt around Austin, it is one of the most unique restaurants in the nation and worth a pilgrimage. In a small house barely more than a hut with an outdoor pit welded from pipe, it is owned and operated by the church next door. It was started about 30 years ago by a parishioner smoking lunch for her husband and her pastor in a 55 gallon drum while they were painting the church. People kept stopping to see if she was selling any. So a few weeks later she bought some extra meat and sold it. Since then it has built a rep as one of the best in the state. Folks call it the Church of the Holy Smoke, and say the barbecue is a spiritual experience and the taste is heavenly. The all you can eat price of $12 is divine.
Horace Archie, manager and pitmaster of Mt. Zion Church Bar-B-Q works the register and waits tables too. The potato salad, served with an ice cream scoop, is better than Mom made it.
Click here for more photos of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
(18) Kreuz Market
619 N. Colorado St., Lockhart, TX 78644, 512-398-2361. Monday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. The most famous barbecue restaurant in the state. Below, pit boss Roy Perez has been carving meat at Kreutz Market in Lockhart for owner Rick Schmidt (in the background) for more than 20 years.
Click here for more photos of Kreuz.
(19) Black's Barbecue
215 North Main Street, Lockhart, TX 78644. Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Juicy giant packer briskets have been whittled down 1/4" at a time and honkin' big slabs of spareribs have been amazing customers since 1932.
Here you can really see how the pulleys hold open the pit doors.
Black's is popular with the motorcycle crowd.
Click here for more photos of Black's.
(20) Smitty's Market
208 South Commerce, Lockhart, TX 78644, 512-398-9344. Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In Smitty's Market in Lockhart, the raucous main dining room is no frills eating. There are no plates and flatware, and most folks go home with nothing but the scent on their fingers.
Click here for more photos of Smitty's.
(24) Salt Lick
18001 FM 1826, Driftwood, TX 78619, 512-858-4959 and toll-free 888-725-8542, Monday through Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is also a storefront at the Austin airport. The Salt Lick in Driftwood might could be the daggum biggest little barbecue house in Texas, with 800 seats. And a conference center in a mansion. And a pavilion. There's a vineyard planted and a winery in the works on their 600 acres. And a general store. And a B&B. And maybe some homes someday. This is the original pit, built outdoors in 1967 by founder Thurman Roberts. Since then it has been enclosed and is used as a warming and finishing pit for meat that has been cooked in large automated pits in other parts of the operation. It is quite an impressive sight as you walk in the door.
Click here for more photos of Salt Lick.
Here are some of the other notable pitstops that I was unable to photograph:
(10) Broken Spoke, 3201 South Lamar, Austin TX 78704. 512-442-6189. Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Known as much for the music as for the meat.
(11) John Meuller's, out of business.
(15) Taylor Cafe, 101 N. Main St., Taylor, TX 76574. 512-352-8475.
(21) Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Q, 1323 S. Colorado, Lockhart, TX 78644. 512-398-6027.
(22) City Market, 633 E. Davis St., Luling, TX 78648. 830-875-9019. There are a lotta folks who think this is the best in the state.
(23) Luling Bar-B-Q, 709 E. Davis St., Luling, TX 78648. 830-875-3848.
More than BBQ in Austin area
Barbecue is not the only reason to high tail it to the Austin area. There are numerous other good restaurants and food trucks, the State Capitol Buildings, the University of Texas, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, several excellent museums, and a vital arts community.
There is also a major music scene that rivals Nashville, especially in the 6th Street downtown warehouse district and in the hip SoCo district along South Congress Avenue. South by Southwest (SXSW) has become a major music, film, and tech festival every March, just about the time the abundant wildflowers begin to bloom. In recent years the flavor of New Orleans has been seeping into the dining and music scene with the arrival of the refugees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, so don't be surprised to taste gumbo in your chili.
The city's motto is "Keep Austin weird", and Austin is definitely different from the rest of the state. Evidence: In 2004, in a red state, in the county where George W. Bush sat as Governor, the citizenry voted for Kerry over Bush 56% to 42%.
Then there are the million or so bats that live under the Congress Avenue Bridge much of the year. They come out and fly at night in late summer and draw crowds. There's even Batfest, a music festival in early September, to celebrate them.
The Colorado River flows through the city and water sports are a big part of the lifestyle.
Just west of the city is Hill Country which is rapidly becoming Wine Country with more than 20 wineries.
The LBJ Ranch is now the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park west of Austin. Texas A&M, Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas are not far, but why bother with so much to do and eat in and around Austin?
Click here to see more pictures of the Austin Barbecue Belt as well as enlargements of these images.
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