The barbecue grill seekers

The tiny town of Lockhart in Texas is the state’s ‘barbecue capital’, serving 23,500 diners each week. Tim Walker joins the meat heads and loads his plate

Lockhart, Texas, is 30 miles outside Austin on Highway 183: a straight, flat, wide road with a disappointingly low speed limit. It’s a modest community of around 12,000 people, which in the late 19th century sat at the southern end of the Chisholm cattle trail to Kansas and today remains surrounded by ranches and farmland. In the town square, antique stores and pick-up trucks cluster around the restored Caldwell County court-house. Distinctive odours fill the air: animal feed from the Livengood Feeds factory and smoke and hot beef from the town’s four celebrated barbecue joints. Lockhart is known as the Barbecue Capital of Texas.

The four restaurants’ proprietors estimate that between them they serve 23,500 people per week. I drove into Lockhart on a wet Wednesday in winter and found Black’s Barbecue beginning its busy lunch service. Opened in 1932, Black’s is the oldest barbecue restaurant in Texas continuously owned and run by the same family. There’s red gingham linen on the tables in every booth and on the wood-panelled walls are hunting trophies and high-school football photos.

There’s a picture, too, of founder Edgar Black shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson. The pair became friendly when Black was a county judge and LBJ a Texas congressman with a taste for beef sausage. Today, the place is run by Black’s 60-year-old grandson Kent Black, who was behind the counter when I walked in. Customers first pile a polystyrene plate with their preferred sides: pickles, beans, devilled eggs, mac and cheese, mash. Then comes the meat: lifted straight from the oven, cut to order and priced by weight. I started with a slab of flake-soft, fatty, smoky Black Angus brisket. It’s $1.49 for five ounces – about 95p – and it’s better than any £25 steak I ever ate. Aside from being a local politician, Edgar Black was a cattle rancher who, at the height of the Great Depression, had 100 heads of cattle and no one to sell them to. So he drove them into Lockhart and opened a meat market. The market soon became a restaurant. His son, Edgar Jnr, was in college when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Kent said. “When he came back from the War, he finished college,” he said. “He was planning to be an accountant at Exxon. My grandfather said: ‘Hey son, why don’t you just come back to Lockhart and work in the restaurant for two or three weeks?’ Those two or three weeks turned into 50 years.”

Three of Kent’s own sons work at Black’s, which prides itself on being open every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was at Kent’s instigation that in 1999 the state legislature passed a resolution naming Lockhart the “Barbecue Capital of Texas”, a coveted title in a state where “we have about 20 million citizens and about 20 million barbecue experts,” Kent said.

The brisket at Black’s is prepared with a dry rub of seasoning and spices. Then it is smoked with indirect heat in two rectangular, red-brick pits, using oak fires that burn continuously, 24 hours a day. The smoke is pulled through the pits and out via the chimney, flavouring the meat. Edgar Jnr built the pits in 1947, Kent said, “so they have almost 70 years of seasoning”.

The oak is post oak, the same wood used by ranchers to make fence posts. “It gives off a wonderful flavour. We cook our briskets for 12 hours, so you need a wood that won’t make the meat bitter, like hickory does.”

The restaurant’s other signature dish is its homemade beef sausage: peppery and chunky, with a hint of pork for flavour, hand-tied in small rings and hung in the pits to smoke for three hours or so. It was LBJ’s favourite. “When Johnson became President,” Kent said, “the Smithsonian Institute in Washington had a Texas Heritage Day and he asked us to cook our sausage for him.”

In Texas, barbecue is a business of simplicity and precision. Beef there is cooked slowly, typically seasoned with little­ more than salt, pepper and cayenne – and served without sauce. The skills learned in Lockhart are: butchery; seasoning; building a slow, low fire and a pit to capture the right amount of heat; and timing the lengthy cooking process to perfection. There are at least three other distinct barbecue regions in the US, their identities as deeply felt as Bordeaux or Rioja. Kansas City, for instance, is where you’ll find the barbecue that’s popular in the north and abroad: pork and beef smothered in sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce. Memphis prefers pork ribs and pulled pork shoulder. “In Texas we spell barbecue B-E-E-F,” Kent said. “Over in the South-east – Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama – they spell barbecue P-O-R-K.”

I thought I could eat a second lunch, so I asked around for a recommendation. The cheapest of Lockhart’s four barbecue joints is Chisholm Trail, founded in 1978 on the southern outskirts, which has a drive-through window and a $1.95 sliced beef sandwich. But everyone I spoke to in town – and every recommendation site I could find on my smartphone – said to try Smitty’s. If the pleasures­ of Black’s are simple, the pleasures of Smitty’s are primal. Its entrance leads into a long, dark corridor with soot-cloaked walls. To get to the restaurant, you walk right past the barbecue pits, their smouldering post oak fires endlessly tended and replenished by the staff.

Smitty’s is the oldest and youngest of Lockhart’s barbecue quartet. Kreuz Market was established on the site now called Smitty’s in 1900, selling fresh meat during the week and cooking the leftovers at the weekend. In 1948, it was bought from the Kreuz family by Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, but retained its original name. Smitty died in 1990, leaving his son Rick to run the restaurant and his daughter Nina holding the lease for the building.

A familial dispute reportedly ended nine years later, when Nina refused­ to renew the lease and Rick built the new Kreuz Market, an unlovely red barn beside the interstate, Lockhart’s fourth and final barbecue business.

Nina’s son John Fullilove now runs the renamed restaurant on the original site. Smitty’s dining room offers diners a small selection of sides and a plastic knife, but no forks. (Historically, customers at Kreuz shared communal knives, which were chained to the wall.) There’s nothing on the dining tables but Tabasco and salt. Barbecue sauce is verboten, meat is revered.

I decided to swerve the brisket and sausage this time and instead try Smitty’s celebrated boneless prime rib, which is cooked to be medium rare just in time for the lunch rush. A man in a white butcher’s coat sliced off half a pound on a wooden block and gave it to me on a sheet of brown butcher’s paper with four slices of white bread. It cost me $7. Charred and juicy with fat at its edges, it was soft, salty and pink through the middle.

I polished it off messily and quickly, eating with my hands before my stomach could complain. Older, more experienced locals chewed quietly and patiently around me. When I got back to Austin that evening, I could still smell the barbecue smoke on my clothes.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

News

Florida mother launched a petition to ban the sale of the dolls

Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?