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.

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