Monday, October 30, 2006

Vacation re-cap Part 4

Dueling Barbecue

Ask a dozen Texans where to find the best barbecue in Texas, and you might get a dozen different answers. But if they know their stuff, at least a couple of them will probably mention one of a select few establishments in or near the central Texas town of Lockhart.

Lockhart is known (at least in an unofficial capacity) as the barbecue capital of Texas. Or since some folks consider barbecue a "religion", the term "barbecue mecca" might be more appropriate. Two of the state's best-known barbecue establishments (Kreuz -- pronounced "krites" Market and Smitty's Market) are located within a mile of each other in Lockhart; Smitty's is in the downtown area and Kreuz is just north of downtown.

We had planned our travel route so that we could meet K's sisters for dinner at Kreuz Market on Saturday evening. (This would be my third visit to Kreuz -- K and the kids and I first ate there in 2002 -- and afterwards swore that we could never eat north Texas barbecue again -- and I had been there a second time on my own). When we returned home from Port Aransas on Wednesday, we decided on a whim to return by way of Lockhart so we could sample Smitty's for the first time.

A little background: Smitty's Market is located in what once was the "original" Kreuz Market. A disagreement between the owner's family members resulted in one side of the family (those who owned the BUSINESS) moving Kreuz Market to a new location north of downtown. The side of the family who owned the BUILDING stayed behind and kept the barbecue tradition alive under a new name -- Smitty's Market.

Before venturing into Kreuz or Smitty's, it is wise to set aside all previous notions of your typical barbecue lunch or dinner, which might include such things as sauce, pinto beans, and maybe a side of potato salad, green beans or corn on the cob. Not at Smitty's or Kreuz. At Smitty's and Kreuz, the experience is about two things -- smoke and meat. That's what you're paying for, and that's what you get, without such non-necessities as barbecue sauce or potato salad (or even forks). But we'll get to that in a minute.

Just a glimpse of the bundles of cut post oak wood sitting outside in their parking lots should tell you that you're in for something special. But wait until you walk inside and the smell hits you... if heaven doesn't smell like that, then I'm not sure I wanna go!

Kreuz Market - Lockhart, TX

I need one of these "no salesmen" signs for MY front door...

We'll start with Kreuz Market since I've been there more times, and it was the first place we visited on this trip. The newer, bigger Kreuz Market opened a few years ago in a cavernous, red, barn-like building on US 183 north of Lockhart's downtown area. When you walk in, you can smell the smoke, but it doesn't really hit you until you walk 50 feet or so back to where the pits are. Posted along the corridor, at eye-level underneath the menus and prices, are the "rules" for eating at Kreuz.

The 5 Commandments at Kreuz Market

Once you reach the pits, you place your order, which you receive wrapped in brown butcher paper. They'll ask how many are in your party, and then tear that number of sheets of paper from the roll. These are your "plates". They'll also give you some sliced, white bread. If you want drinks, beans, pickles, or any other sides, you go to a counter in the main dining area to order these. You'll get a plastic spoon to go with your beans, and a plastic knife to cut your meat, but there's not a fork to be found (refer to "rules"). If you really want to savor the experience, you can choose to sit at one of the picnic tables in the "pit" area.

I had been looking forward to this ALL DAY. I hadn't had Lockhart barbecue in about three years, so I was ready. Both of K's sisters (plus the fiance of one of the sisters) joined us, so we had a happy party of six. We ordered about 4 pounds of brisket (you get a choice between fatty and lean; we chose fatty, which is more moist and flavorful) and 5 or 6 sausages. Then we went to the indoor counter to order Cokes, Dr. Peppers, beans, avocados (for K's sisters), and a few slices of cheese, and then sat down to enjoy our magnificent feast.

Our feast at Kreuz Market

Not everyone liked the sausage; although it was very flavorful, it was also very greasy. The brisket's skin was heavily salted; I tried to avoid this portion and just concentrate on the meat. Everyone else filled up before I did; I was the last one eating and pretty much had to be dragged out of the place, and we had plenty of leftovers for K's sisters to take home with them. Consensus? Awesome!

our happy group...

L and I bought t-shirts (red ones to complement the white one I bought four years ago). They were selling Blue Bell ice cream for dessert, but we were too full. Bonus: a train rolled by outside toward the end of our meal (the UP Lockhart Sub runs past the south edge of Kreuz's parking lot) and I stumbled outside for an OS. That makes two out of three times that I've seen a train while eating there.

Displaying my "satisfied customer" expression


Fast forward to Wednesday, October 11. I had ridden my bike around Port Aransas before we left the island. Feeling like I had "earned" a repeat performance of barbecue indulgence, and not having any firm plans for lunch, we decided to hit Lockhart once again on our way home, this time to sample Smitty's. Thanks to the GPS computer in K's car, we found it, a block or two off the main highway in Lockhart's downtown area, without any difficulty. The towering smokestack emblazoned with the word "Market" served as an unmistakable beacon.

To hell with any suspense; I'm just gonna be right up front about it. The barbecue at Smitty's was every bit as good as what I've experienced at Kreuz. The atmosphere is, well, a bit different.

Smitty's Market - Lockhart, TX

We parked in front of Smitty's and used the street entrance; I believe the preferred (and more common) method is to park in the back parking lot and use the rear entrance which leads right to the pit where you place your order. When you enter from the street, you walk down a long narrow hallway; a door to the left leads to the butcher shop, while a door to the right leads to the dining room. But the best part was the smell of the smoke as we walked down the hall from the front entrance toward the pit... it smelled as if everything was covered with a hundred years' worth of barbecue grease and smoke, a true testament to the length of time that this location has played host to one of the state's top barbecue establishments. Advantage: Smitty's.

The setup is pretty much the same as it is at Kreuz; you order your meat at the pits, and receive it in brown butcher paper with bread. Then you go into the dining room to order drinks and sides. Just like at Kreuz, you get a knife, and a spoon if you order beans, but no fork. Smitty's dining room is smaller than Kreuz's, and the only seating available is at "community style" picnic tables. And I could have done without the tv blaring away near the front window. Advantage: Kreuz Market.

Regarding the quality and taste of the meat: Smitty's sausage was less greasy, and the brisket's skin was not as heavily salted. Advantage: Smitty's (Obviously, this is a subjective category; what tastes salty to one person might taste just right to someone else. And the quality and taste of the barbecue can vary from day to day, or even during different parts of the day).

We were in a bit of a hurry, so unfortunately I did not have a chance to take many photos at Smitty's. That will just give me the excuse I need to make a return trip! We were glad we stopped, and the experience was everything we hoped it would be.

The bottom line? It's simply too hard for me to choose a favorite between Smitty's and Kreuz Market. I'd gladly spend my hard-earned lunch or dinner money at either one, and would recommend either to friends and family, with no reservations. Smitty's and Kreuz might very well duke it out for barbecue bragging rights for the remainder of the 21st century, but there will be no losers -- only winners (i.e., everyone who comes to central Texas to enjoy good barbecue).

Stay tuned for Part 5...


nr: John Steinbeck - Tortilla Flat

np: CBS - Late Show with David Letterman - guests Tiki Barber, "Borat", and Beck


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