Monday, November 15, 2010

The Texas BBQ Trail Tour: City Market, Luling, TX

For a guy who is a self-proclaimed addict of the style of food preparation in question, the word "Barbecue" has admittedly gotten a little old to me in certain aspects. Specifically when proprietors, enthusiasts, cooks, and misguided "grillers" throw the word around as much as they do. A conversation/interview sentence might go something like, "Barbecue is love, and good barbecue should be barbecue that's made like good barbecue should be made. To me that's just good barbecue." Call it the John Madden Syndrome.

Nevertheless, the word "barbecue" cannot be over-used when discussing one of the most unique regions of local indigenous cuisine in the U.S. It's small area bounded by a 40-mile like east-west through Austin, south to San Antonio, known as the South Texas BBQ Trail. A few small towns in this area are home to tastes, techniques, flavors and aromas that can be found nowhere else. I had done my homework, reading/drooling over photos and articles about BBQ in this area, knowing that it would take a special reason to get down there and sample some of these soked eats. The opportunity presented itself when I had a conference to attend for work in San Antonio. I found a free afternoon, and dedicated it to the 3-4 hour round trip that would be my baptism into how BBQ is done in the Lone Star State. My goal: hit at least 5 joints in 2-3 different predetermined locations in the span of an afternoon, and have the gastro-intestinal fortitude to finish. I didn't know if/when this opportunity would present itself again, so I was determined to make the most of it; future soft, smoke-infused bowel movements be damned.

My first stop took me east of San Antonio about 40 miles to the small town of Luling, a tiny but busy little railroad town, home to one of the true American BBQ legends, City Market. The barn-door red painted brick building looks completely unassuming, like it's home to any other Mom & Pop cafe you would find along any other main street in small town Texas. As well-known it is to true Q enthusiasts, the unassuming facade of City Market is part of the charm. Once inside, it's not the decor that grabs you, it's the aroma. Post Oak wood smoke has bee slowly staining and saturating the pores of this place for a few decades. I want to wear this cologne.

Ordering your smoked meat products occurs in the pit room, one of the most incredible food experiences I've ever had. This moment, this scene in this blackened room on a hot Texas summer afternoon....this is what makes this kind of barbecue fundamentally different from any other in the country. Freelance writer Katharyn Rodemann captures the scene beautifully in her description from Texas Monthly Magazine's 50 Best BBQ Joints in Texas.

This is barbecue’s holy of holies: City Market’s dark pit room, located in a back corner of the main dining hall. Clouds of post oak incense have been rising from its five pits for fifty years, and the smoke envelops manager Joe Capello Sr. and his crew as they slice your order—a choice of brisket, ribs, sausage, nothing else—onto butcher paper. You pay at the blackened cash register (bread comes free, onions, pickles, and peppers for pocket change), then reemerge into the dining area, where staff at a central counter sell sides and liquid offerings: vessels of potato salad and beans; hunks of yellow cheese; an array of beers, Big Red, IBC Root Beer. You take your place at one of the pine booths or tables among the multitude of other devotees, a startlingly ecumenical mix of faces white, black, and brown. A handwritten notice proclaims the righteous requirements of the meat before you: “No forks—use your hands.”

My standard, predetermined order for all of my stops (except for one) was 1/4 lb of brisket and one sausage link. I ordered as if I wasn't meeting one of my idols or something, acted like I had been there before, and confidently placed my order. No sides for me. I found my way back into the dining are and sat alone, scanning the rest of the 3/4 full dining area. Rodemann's description is perfect, as it was a true mix of everything and everybody. I was smiling, and I hadn't even taken a bite. The brisket was cooked to perfection, prepped with the simple salt-and-pepper dry rub that everyone seems to make in this region. It made me completely rethink my approach to my own brisket preparation. Why do I bother with a rub with 12-15 different ingredients? Does brisket really taste better with a little finely ground espresso roast coffee in the rub? Or ground ginger? Really, J.B.? This simple preparation and flawless smoke bath in the City Market pits was a flavor explosion, and an epiphany for me. I was a doubter before I came here. I mean how good could it be when it's made so simply? What a fool I was.

As good as my first experience with Texas brisket had been, I had yet to savour what would be quite possibly the best thing I have ever eaten in my life. My experience with sausage has been pretty limited (hey.....dirty mind!). Pre-made links like those you would get at the supermarket, or the rare find at a small butcher shop, perhaps a pork-based bratwurst. That was about it. Just as unique to Texas as their brisket is their take on smoked sausage. Handmade, hand-tied, 1/3 lb links of love, made with the same simple approach that "less is more", smoked sausage in Texas has no BBQ equal. A bold statement, I acknowledge. And there is no better sausage than the all-beef beauties at City Market. Cutting into that first bite, you could see the coarseness of the filling inside the natural casing. I distinctly remember uttering aloud to nobody (or to everybody?) in particular, "Oh my God." I had taken a bite of something truly life-changing in my own little food world. The bar had been raised. Perhaps never to be reached again. Holy hell. Who could possibly begin to make something any better than this? (Hint: I didn't find them that afternoon, or since then)

People asked me after I got back from Texas if I thought Texas BBQ was better than Kansas City BBQ? My answer to them wasn't really an answer, as I said it's comparing apples to oranges in my opinion. Kansas City joints aren't trying to do what they do in Texas (They couldn't), and Texas isn't trying to make KC Que (They wouldn't). What I would say is that if you ever get the opportunity to get down to that part of America, seek this stuff out. The beautiful part about this trip is.....I still had 3 more places hit up that afternoon. City Market was an incredible experience, and it wouldn't take a back seat to the rest of the spots I visited. More on those coming up......

City Market
633 E. Davis
Luling, TX
Open Mon–Sat 7–6.
Closed Sun.

City Market on Urbanspoon


Dan Flaherty said...

I know you say less is more, ... when talking about your rub, ... but have you ever considered a dash, pinch, shot, etc of grape Kool-Aid mix?

Kate ( said...

We recieved your blog claim on Urbanspoon. However, since your Urbanspoon account comes from Facebook, we don't have an email address for you yet. Could you please email me at kate at urbanspoon dot com to complete your blog claim? Please include the name of your blog. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Dead on commentary on City Market. We make our 90- minute pilgrimage as often as we can.