We turned our foodie selves loose on American barbecue recently. Mostly Texas BBQ, but a little Florida BBQ too. Y’all grab a beer, or a Southern sweet sweet tea, and come along with us.
Big Lee’s BBQ, Ocala FL
Brisket, pork ribs, corn nuggets, fries, cole slaw
Big Lee’s is a big thing in Ocala. Rashad Jones is the owner and pit-master. He’s won TV BBQ competitions and hosted at least one show on the Food Network. He has a few food trucks that serve the area.
Last year, we visited his main food truck in a parking lot in Ocala.
At least three big dark smokers sat next to the food truck; it all looked and smelled very authentic.
At the time, we were there just to enjoy some BBQ. And we had a nice lunch without thinking much about it.
However, this year, we set out really to enjoy BBQ. We were ready with our critical tasting skills (honed with wines and food thanks to Emma Kershaw!).
We arrived at 11 when the food truck opened for business. To our surprise, we were the only customers there. And the smokers were unattended and didn’t give off any smoky aromas. We ordered, and waited at a picnic table in the full Florida sun for our BBQ.
Take-out trays in front of us, we were ready to concentrate, critique and enjoy. The meats were pretty, moist, with good mouth feel. But the flavors were surprisingly blank, without smoky or charred flavor. The food didn’t live up to the reputation, and even to last year’s experience. We wondered if we were being TOO critical?!
Louie Mueller, Taylor TX
Brisket, sausage, beef rib, coleslaw, potato salad
Now we’re in Texas where the real BBQ lives.
First stop was the famous Louis Mueller in Taylor, about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The first half of the drive from Austin was on the interstate with endless urban sprawl on both sides. But the second half was on a state highway, across mostly flat empty landscape, with the occasional billboard for accident lawyers or truck tire stores.
We turned into Taylor, which is pretty much just a crossroads that fell out of a time machine.
Even with GPS directions, we passed right by Louie Mueller’s: Its storefront looks almost boarded-up, with old AC units punched out of the dark brown wood walls.
We waited with about eight other folks outside the metal mesh gate for the place to open. At exactly 11, a woman appeared, unlocked the gate, and said, “Come on in, y’all.”
If the streets of Taylor look like they haven’t changed much in 50 years, so too does the inside of Louie Mueller’s. Which is just fine! We’re here for good ol’ traditional Texas BBQ after all.
Even being among the first people in line, it took about 30 minutes to get to the counter. For reasons unknown to us, each order required careful selection of meat, careful slicing and cutting, and perhaps a little conversation. But the wait allowed us time to absorb the atmosphere and feel like we were really really in the heart of Texas.
The brisket melted in our mouths. Unlike at Big Lee’s, this one had the smoky and charred flavor that we had longed for. The sausage was tasty, but also dense: not our favorite part of the plate. The beef rib — a single rib that cost about $45! — was delicious: moist, meaty, with spectacular BBQ charred smoky crust.
That $45 rib disabused us of the expectation that a rustic BBQ meal on paper plates with potato salad and coleslaw would be an inexpensive meal. Admittedly, we ordered big to maximize our experience; we didn’t need any more food for the day. But still: about $100 for a BBQ lunch for two; and this turned out to be the norm for the other places we visited. We decided that these famous places in the rarified world of Texas BBQ are the equivalent to Michelin-starred restaurants in the rarified world of French cuisine.
This was a pretty fine BBQ lunch. We wondered if our next two choices could live up to it.
Franklin BBQ, Austin TX
3/4 lb brisket, 1 lb ribs, 1/4 pulled pork, 1 ea sausage – original and jalapeño
Unlike the previous as well as the following BBQ destinations, Franklin BBQ is a relatively recent establishment, and it is right in the heart of Austin. These days, Austin is a sped-up, economically-charged, hipster-occupied city. It is nothing like the sleepy college town and state capital it was until about 20 years ago. Nonetheless, Franklin BBQ is considered one of the absolute best BBQ joints in the region.
We arrived at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, 30 minutes before opening time. Already, the line of BBQ lovers extended along the long porch of the building into the parking lot. We had been told to expect a line, and this was our only appointment for the day; so, it’s just part of the experience! A few minutes after our arrival, a young woman came out of the building to offer those of us standing in line folding camp chairs — “to make your wait more comfortable.” How neighborly was that!
About 90 minutes later, we reached the counter.
The woman who took our order and sliced up the brisket was chatty and friendly. Which was wonderful considering how long the line had been up to this point, and how many people were still waiting.
The brisket here was OUT OF THIS WORLD! Moist, smoky, spicy, carbon-y. The smokiness and salty flavors rose up behind our palates and into our noses. The meat was smooth like (need to use the cliché here) butter.
The original flavor sausage was nice, not as dense as what we had at Louie Mueller’s. The jalapeño sausage tasted great! The little bit of pulled pork lived up to the rest of the meats on the tray. It would be even better on a roll with some pickles.
But the brisket was the mega-star of the show.
Black’s BBQ, Lockhart TX
Brisket, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw
Next day, we headed back out of Austin in search of classic country BBQ. This time south of the city to Lockhart. We found another tiny town with a charming old-style town square, and at least four BBQ places.
Our choice, Black’s BBQ, says it is the oldest BBQ place owned by the same family — since 1932.
It was a Monday morning at about 11 am, so we didn’t find the line of enthusiasts like we did back at Franklin’s in big-city Austin. Black’s also has a couple more locations in central Texas. The atmosphere was nice and old-timey rural, like at Louie Mueller’s. But also a bit more organized, clearly designed to get BBQ lovers up to the counter and on to their table. Same friendly service as everywhere else.
This time we ordered pork ribs (which we enjoy regularly at home). They were moist and packed with smoky flavor.
But it’s with the brisket that we have been judging our BBQ experiences. Black’s brisket was wonderfully moist, and gently flavorful. Really nice — now that we’ve been learning through our different restaurants. But, we had to admit that the brisket at Franklin’s gets our gold medal. In any other context, this brisket at Black’s would have us closing our eyes in BBQ transcendence. However, Franklin’s has set the bar very very high.
Oh no, what have we done? Will all the BBQ brisket that we eat from here on out be: “OK. But you know it just isn’t Franklin’s.”
We’ll keep trying anyway. At least once we stop being overstuffed with three-days worth of Texas BBQ.