To further my Texan food education, I ventured out this weekend past where my bike could carry me, making a red-meat pilgrimage to the state's 'cue capitals -- and meandering just enough to make the acquaintance of a few other worthy foods. I'm still reeling from the chicken-fried pork chop and blackberry cobbler at Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City.
I didn't find anything new, inventive or untried on my trip, which was exactly the point. Barbecue's about as tradition-bound as any American ritual, including those involving preachers and grannies, so my goal was to get a handle on how it's always been done here. I think I made a fair start, although I hope you'll help me craft my next itinerary.
First, though, a few pictures and favorite lines from my latest expedition:
1. "15 seconds usually does it." I first learned about kolaches while writing a poppy seed manifesto that my then-editor was forced to run in two parts. I don't think anyone read it, which meant I could keep poppy seed supply in my conversational quiver for months. Basically, quality poppy seeds are no longer widely available, so most recipes calling for them have been changed to call for something else. Also, it turns out most people just like chocolate better, which is why I can no longer find poppy seed hamantaschen on Purim.
As I trawled the Internet in search of poppy-seed sympathizers, I stumbled upon kolache fans, who -- like me -- still swore by poppy seed and prune pastries. Kolaches sounded very much like hamantaschen with the dough folded back, but I didn't get a chance to try them until I visited West.
The kolache at Czech Stop wasn't anything special: My cottage-cheese version was dry and stingy on the butter, which is a crucial component of any great breakfast pastry. But since two kolaches surely pad the gut for an all-day barbecue feed even better than one, I made my second morning stop at Old Czech Bakery. The kolaches there were big, soft, slightly salty and served cold: Regular customers popped their paper bags in the microwave just before stepping out the door. I followed their lead and the staffer's guidance: "15 seconds usually does it." Indeed it did. I'm thrilled to have another reason to fight for poppy seed preservation.
2. "You want pickles and onions?" While I knew Texas barbecue was a stripped-down affair, I was still stunned by the array of fixings I encountered at every joint I patronized. Coming from the land of hush puppies and Brunswick stew, I couldn't imagine why anyone would bother with such humble sides as pickles, onions, jalapenos and a hunk of rattrap cheese. At Black's Barbecue in Lockhart, I ordered nothing but meat, fancying myself some sort of purist.
At Southside Market in Elgin, I realized I was really some sort of moron. While the Southeast's whole hog tradition is an outgrowth of community festivals, where big batches of fussed-over side dishes made perfect sense, Texan barbecue's working-class roots are exposed in the grocery store haul that's served alongside ribs, sausage and brisket. Each meal (and I ate seven) recalled the convenience store raids my friends and I conducted on grad school budgets, sweeping up tinned sausages, bottles of Tabasco sauce and squishy duck bread.
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But I'm not sure I enjoyed any meal more than the sausage wrap I had at Southside, featuring a single greasy link, its skin pulled tight, cuddled in a slice of bread. I squeezed the bread around the sausage, so it functioned as a sauce sponge, and doused it with Southside's hottest sauce. It made for a breathtaking beef in a blanket.
3. "I have brisket in my shoe." Brisket is everywhere in Texas. And, at
Louis Louie Mueller's in Taylor, it was in my counterman's shoe. He had to excuse himself to shake it out before slicing me a serving of brisket, moist. While I wasn't so moony about the meat that I'd consider eating the bit that sat under the staffer's foot, I'm sold on the smokiness and profoundly deep flavor of the cut.
4. "Was there something wrong with the ribs?" I didn't finish my ribs at
Louis Louie Mueller's. That drew the attention of a dining room staffer, who motioned for the counterman -- now without brisket in his shoe -- to have a look. He just shook his head sadly. To be fair, I wasn't especially enamored of the ribs I sampled anywhere, with the exception of Smitty's Market, where I found tender, meaty, lightly-glazed ribs that did justice to the pig and almost distracted me from the wonderfully savory sausages.
5. "You look like you've got it made." The line at Louis Mueller's was so lengthy I snuck out for a half-pound of brisket from Taylor Café, which I ate while sitting on a sunny sidewalk. "You look like you've got it made," a passerby remarked, noting my fingers and face greased by what was probably the best brisket I had all day, marbled with fat and reverberating with flavor. He was absolutely right.