Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How We Came to Be in Luling, TX . . .

at noon on a Saturday is a long and complex story.

I won’t bore you with the details.

But there we were in one of the four towns on the “Texas BBQ Trail” that runs north from Luling through Lockhart and up to Elgin and Taylor. So could our stop be complete without brisket and sausage at City Market?

Michael Stern at roadfood. com said: “Luling has two great claims to culinary fame: the annual Watermelon Thump, a festival presided over by that year’s Watermelon Queen, and the City Market, which is one of the defining barbecue parlors of the Southwest. The meats to eat are succulent pork ribs, beef brisket, and beef sausage rings with chewy skin and coarse-chopped filling.”

Well, it appears that everyone “from near and far” came to Luling that day for lunch—along with a troop of entrepreneurial Girl Scouts, whose cookie sales table was set up next to City Market’s doors. And yes—I bought two boxes of the Thin Mints and one box of the Peanut Butter Patties.

The first thing you see as you walk through the doors is the long line of people inching their way into the smoking room where you order and pay for your meat.

As you near the smoking room, you see a sign on the door admonishing you not to prop the door open. So you wait outside, salivating the whole time, for your turn to enter and order. Since your choices are limited to brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, this process moves quite quickly. The fifty or so hungry diners behind us in line should be served soon.

Yet another no-plates-and-no-forks BBQ joint. Except here you don’t even get a knife. But learning from experience, I now carry a box of plastic utensils in my purse so--you’ll be glad to know—we didn’t go knife-and-forkless.

Again from Michael Stern: “At the back of the dining room a swinging door leads into a shadowy, cave-like chamber illuminated by the glow of burning logs in pits underneath the iron ovens where the meat imbibes the flavor of wood smoke. This is the pit, and here, in heat that feels something like a fireplace gone amok, the pit men take your order, cut and section the amount of meat you want, and assemble everything on a big sheet of pink butcher paper. They gather the edges of the paper together so it becomes a boat-like container that serves as both carrying device and eating surface.”

We were going to limit our meat choices to the sausage and pork ribs. Then I reconsidered. How can I evaluate City Market vis-à-vis Kreutz Market (Lockhart, TX) and The Salt Lick (Driftwood, TX) if I haven’t tried the brisket? So we ordered a half pound each of ribs and brisket and a ring of sausage.

There are two dining rooms. The front room has booths running along two walls with tables in the center. The side room contains just tables. I guess that the regular patrons know better than to linger; our finding a seat was not problem. Soon I was sneaking small bites of brisket, while Chuck set up his photo shoot.

Sides and beverages are sold from a counter in the main dining room. That day, sides were limited to pinto beans and potato salad. We ordered both. Now for something to drink. While standing in line, we noticed that two out of three diners were sucking on bottles of Big Red ("Big Red Instead Since 1937, bottled in Waco, Texas" read the label). Wanting to look like we belong, it was an order of Big Red all around.

(Is it me or does the line to the smoking room seem to be getting longer? And very few of the customers are taking their food “to go.”)

The pinto beans were blah! No seasoning. Not much salt. A few meat shreds that didn’t add much. But the mustard potato salad with bits of sweet pickle and red bell pepper was first-rate. And what does Big Red taste like? Like pure sugar.

Chuck ate all but a small slice of the sausage which he “generously” shared with me. This was a fine grind like those in Kreutz Market and, again like Kreutz, was seasoned with plenty of black pepper. But it was juicy and stayed so until the last bite—mine.

The pork ribs appeared to be naked—no sauce and no rub. But they were large, meaty, and moist with almost no discernable fat. Most of the fat had melted away during the smoking process.

As for the brisket, I am really glad that I changed our minds and added brisket to the order. This was the best Texas brisket we have eaten in our two visits to this brisket-loving state. (The best brisket was at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, MO.) Yes, it was thickly sliced. In fact, we speculated over this half pound that we would probably like Texas brisket more if it were sliced thinner. But this was ultra moist and tender with just the right amount of smoke. And what is the right amount of smoke? Whatever I like.

And the signs that read “Please Leave Sauce Bottles on Tables.” I can understand why. This was a great tomato-less version that was a little sweet, heavy on mustard, and especially good with the naked ribs.
As we left, the line to the smoke room hadn’t abated in the slightest. The folks around here know where to go for really good barbecue. So good that we give City Market the same 4.5 Addie rating (it would have been a 5.0 if not for the beans) we gave The Salt Lick.

One particularly interesting building we saw on our way out of town was the office and some rooms of a motel that had passed its prime.

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