Before I ever cooked a brisket, I was taking day trips out to visit the various pillars of Central Texas barbecue. In those days, there wasn’t really any good barbecue in Austin; it all lived in the small towns outside of the city. There are barbecue joints everywhere in Central Texas, but there have always been a few places that have stood above the rest. It’s worthwhile to visit these temples because in their old buildings and time-honored ways, they provide a window into barbecue history (not to mention a taste). These days quality can be up and down, but when they’re on, the food can be as good as it gets. Words by Aaron Franklin
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Smitty’s Market, Lockhart
Just 30 miles southeast of Austin, Lockhart is a historic barbecue town, and Smitty’s is a glorious living relic of the way things used to be. The building itself is a must-see place that all barbecue fans should visit. You enter through the back and walk right past a roaring fire that’s literally at your feet — even when it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
Fave Dish: The sausage!
Kreuz Market, Lockhart
Just down the street from Smitty’s is the massive redbrick food hall known as Kreuz. Smitty’s used to be called Kreuz, but due to a familial disagreement, one sibling took the name while the other kept the original building. So here you have a new building, but the original name and techniques. Mutton-chopped, soft-spoken Roy Perez is the pitmaster and a barbecue celebrity. It’s always heartening to stop in and see him tending his pits. There are no forks or sauce here, following the old ways. Lots of good food is on offer, but the true specialties are the smoked-to-perfection pork chop and the snappy, spicy sausage links.
Fave Dishes: End-cut prime rib, pork chop, jalapeño-cheese sausage.
City Market, Luling
Luling is a little town 15 miles past Lockhart and is home to yet another Central Texas barbecue great: City Market. Under the pitmastership (yes, I just coined that term) of hard hat-sporting Joe Capello, City Market is one cool spot. You enter a little smoke-filled room in the back of the restaurant where the meat is cut. Then, you step back out into the dining room to find a table. There’s great people-watching at City Market, and the sausage and ribs are great!
Fave Dishes: Sausage, crackers, cheddar cheese, great sauce.
Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor
An hour to Austin’s northeast is the little town of Taylor, which is probably most famous for the epic Louie Mueller Barbecue. Founded as a grocery store in 1946, with barbecue coming a few years later, the building itself is a beautiful shrine of smoke-blackened walls and heavenly light streaming in through the fog. The food here has had its ups and downs over the years, but when it’s good, there’s almost nothing better. (And it’s been on a hot streak for a while.) While the dipping sauce is sort of thin and watery, the meat’s so good it doesn’t need it. It’s led by a super-peppery brisket and a beef rib that will blow you away. Do not miss this place.
Fave Dish: Beef rib.
Southside Market, Elgin
Elgin is the sausage capital of Central Texas in large part because of the Southside Market. Started in 1882, this place oozes amazing tradition, much in the same way its famous Hot Guts sausages ooze deliciously meaty juices. In the past, Hot Guts were spicier than they are today, but they’re still darn good. Just a 30-minute drive from downtown Austin, this place is always worth a visit.
Fave Dish: Sausage, obviously.