The Texas Brisket Triangle
Eight Towns and A Lot of Brisket
To not eat brisket in Texas is to not experience the Texan way of life. So Dylan Ho, a Los Angeles-based international food photographer and writer, had a self-assigned mission on his first trip to Austin with his wife, Jeni: experience barbecue beef as it is meant to be, where it is meant to be eaten. Forty-eight hours, eight towns, and much meat later, he discovered a newfound respect for Texas’ pride and passion — and three prime pits helmed by men and women, young and old, whose brisket is worthy of bearing the sacred standard. (To read about the rest of his trip, visit his website at www.eatdrinknbmerry.com.)
Where: 215 N. Main St., Lockhart, 888.632.8225, www.blacksbbq.com
Owners: Norma and Edgar Black Jr.
Pit Masters: Kent Black (son), Barrett Black (grandson)
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market may have legendary meats, beautifully stained buildings, and family drama, but there’s another Lockhart barbecue joint that is sorely underappreciated. When you drive into town, you can’t miss the huge yellow signs advertising Black’s Barbecue, a restaurant that is open “8 days a week” and has been owned by the same family for almost 80 years. From the moment you enter, it’s almost as though you’re walking into the Black family’s busy living room, with taxidermy, plaques, photos, awards, and magazine articles covering the wooden walls. It’s quite obvious that you’re meant to feel at home, and you do.
The family claims Edgar Black Jr. was the first American proprietor to use beef brisket for barbecue, and he still uses brick pits instead of metal ones. You can taste the difference. The brisket is not only fatty and moist, it has a beautiful al dente bite to the meat. Sometimes when meat is overcooked, instead of becoming dry it can actually lose its texture: Fall-off-the-bone tender is not always a good thing. But these beautiful, glistening briskets with their blackened spice rub crusts have just enough bite left in them, thanks to the combination of the pit masters’ skills, the brick pits, and high-grade meat.
Where: 516 Main St., Lexington, 979.773.4640, www.snowsbbq.com
Owner: Kerry Bexley
Pit Master: Tootsie Tomanetz
Hours: Saturdays, 8 a.m. till sold out
After an hour’s drive, we arrive in the town of Lexington but can’t spot hide nor hair of the famed barbecue joint until we see a group of eight people crossing the street toward the only building awake at this time — Snow’s BBQ. We walk in and see about 35 people in the building, which is basically a converted house. There are people chowing down, people in line, and people stocking up on condiments. Life is in motion in this town of 1,100. It is only 8 a.m.
There is an insane amount of meat around, most of it wrapped in foil. I look at the menu then ask the lady behind the counter what she recommends. This is where I make my first rookie mistake. Instead of letting her know which part of the brisket I want, I watch as she cuts slices from the smaller, leaner end with an electric knife. The meat is flavorful, but a bit more fat would have really sealed the deal.
The best part of Snow’s happens after I finish my “breakfast.” I head out back to meet the chef/owner, Kerry Bexley. Previously working jobs as a rodeo clown, in a power plant, and as a prison guard, Bexley found his calling in a barbecue pit — and it only took him five years to be recognized as one of the state’s best. He comes in every Friday night around 11:30 p.m. to light the wood. Then, on Saturday mornings at 3 a.m., Tootsie Tomanetz, who ran the pits at the City Meat Market in Giddings and works weekdays as a custodian in the local school district, shows up to start the smoking. She is 76 years old, with 45 years of barbecue experience under her belt. The photo I took of her is one of my favorite photos from the trip. I see pride, strife, age, dedication, diligence — and pure love.
Where: 900 E. 11th St., Austin, 512.653.1187, www.franklinbarbecue.com
Owners: Aaron and Stacy Franklin
Pit Masters: Aaron Franklin, John Louis
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. till sold out (tip: arrive an hour early)
Before heading home, I pay a visit to a newcomer in the Texas barbecue republic that has garnered quite a lot of attention — so much so that it recently moved into its own brick-and-mortar digs. My buddy Kevin of Portland’s Guilty Carnivore website had referred me to another friend’s site, this one about an upcoming Texas barbecue documentary, For the Love of Meat. The documentary trailer features a guy serving barbecue out of a camper trailer on blocks in an old gas station lot. I could see the silhouette of a man lighting up coals in sheer darkness — it was badass.
Turns out the silhouetted man from the video is Aaron Franklin, a 33-year-old Texas native. Franklin grew up with smoked meats, as his parents used to own a barbecue restaurant, and later, in between jobs and drumming gigs, he experimented with meat and wood in his own backyard on the weekends. As he tells me, “I was that guy running out in my boxers with a beer to check on the barbecue every hour.” After throwing barbecue-themed parties, it was obvious to everyone around him that he had found his calling. A year and a half after his professional barbecue debut, I find myself waiting in line at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, an hour before opening time. Along with 60 others. Thank goodness I’m first in line.
Sometimes pictures can say more than a thousand words. Just looking at Franklin’s brisket, you can actually taste and feel the textures. He proudly uses Meyer Natural Angus beef from Montana. When I ask him how much it costs per pound, he tells me he doesn’t want to think about it because he is spending double over what other barbecue joints are. But it is clear that the beef is worth every dollar when Franklin’s assistant pit master John Louis (a barbecue savant with accolades from competitions in his home state of Colorado) takes the brisket out of the foil. When it lands on the cutting board, the brisket jiggles a little like Jell-O. I shed a tear. Louis takes his carving knife right down the middle and the brisket basically parts like the Red Sea.
The meat is salted beautifully, beyond moist and laden with fat. I dip some of the brisket in Franklin’s signature Espresso BBQ sauce and it just makes so much sense — not that it needs the added boost of flavor.
Your food says a lot about you. Franklin’s food thankfully speaks for him, as he is a humble man. With his choice to use high-quality Montana beef, smoking skills, and unique sauces, Franklin is a man true to his profession. The lines are long because the brisket is that good, but — as with all great barbecue — it’s also due to the time and care that Franklin and Louis give to every single customer, and every side of beef.