Wednesday, June 20, 2012

East Texas Hot Links

The mantra of "I'll try anything once" isn't enough for me. You never know if the first try was the worst that the world can offer, so I'll try anything twice just to make sure. When I left for East Texas I was looking forward to ribs at Stanley's in Tyler, seeing Caddo Lake and trying East Texas Hot Links (ETL's). These ultra regional links can be found at a few joints in Dallas, but for the most part you need to be in the Piney Woods to really get your fill. The Lockhart of hot links is Pittsburg, Texas where Pittsburg brand hot links have been made for over a century. John Morthland provides a good history of the place in his 1997 article on ETL's, but I'll suffice to say that the place is an institution that has got to have a solid following to stay open this long. His description is also spot on. "They’re pale, stubby grease bombs about the size of a thumb."

Before a visit to the Mecca, we had a few other stops to make. As we were leaving Stanley's in Tyler, owner Nick Pencis asked if we'd heard of Rhea's in Tyler. 

They make their own recipe hot links, and in the East Texas tradition they are baked rather than smoked. These all beef links are stuffed into natural pork casings. The grease oozed out onto a styrofoam plate when I cut into them. I shook a large pool of the traditional hot sauce garnish onto the plate. Even a leisurely dip into the sauce didn't cover the strong taste of ground offal. At just a couple bucks for four links (the minimum order), you can't expect the finest cuts of beef, and you won't get them.

The casings aren't taut nor are they crisped. The texture is more gelatinous and the extremely fatty filling easily falls out of the casing. If you just have water to drink you can't hope to rinse the film that forms in the mouth. The thick fat from the links coats the tongue, gums and teeth. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Up the road in tiny Gilmer sits the gently aged building that houses Doc's Hot Links. After the city hall, this is the oldest building in town. The interior has only a large U-shaped bar clad in formica surrounded by long wooden benches. A simple menu hangs on the side of a drink cooler that lists the cost of links all the way up to twelve dozen ($77.95).

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

I had quickly learned that a heaping helping of hot sauce was needed to mask the strong gaminess and livery flavors. I've heard all the legends about barbecue sauce being used to cover up the taste of poor quality meats in the early part of last century, but this is not legend. For my taste, the sauce is the only thing that makes these links palatable. Saltines after each bite are just another way to cover the flavor.

At this point I was disappointed in myself that I couldn't find a way to appreciate this bit of Texas tradition. I'd tried two versions and neither were very pleasing. Maybe a trip Pittsburg would make me see the light.

Instead of seeing the light, all I could see was dog shit. This is not just an attempt at an easy joke. Look at the photo below and tell me you see something more appetizing than steaming feces.

Even after a hefty dose of hot sauce and a saltine chaser, I couldn't get more than a couple of these down. There were whole families in the dining room with a dozen links each on their plates which barely lasted five minutes, but I just wasn't getting it. I guess it's something you have to grow up eating to appreciate. I like fat and can appreciate some odd bits, but these links were on another level. It was also surprising how similar all of the versions I tried tasted. The masochist in me would try another version of these a couple of days later at a joint that smoked them instead of baking them, but the smoke was barely perceptible when competing with the pungency of the ETL.

I gave it all I could and tried three places in East Texas all making their own links. I went in with an open mind, but I left knowing I never needed to eat these links again. I know I'll catch hell from some East Texas diehards, but there are just too many other great sausages around this state to go back for more ETL's.

- BBQ Snob


Wayne Duhon said...

being from and following you from southeast texas I have encountered these on rare occasions. We preferthe full plump and pop of a zummo or earl campbell.

adam @unorthodoxepicure said...

You sound like my wife, when describing Pittsburg (not "East Texas") Hot Links. I happen to be a huge fan, although I must acknowledge that your description of the appearance is spot on. (I've also heard that from my wife for 18-some-odd years.) If there is a next time, please contact me and allow me to show you the proper way to eat these things. It could save your life.

Anonymous said...

What a puss.

BBQ Snob said...

Anonymous - I agree. I was a disappointed that I couldn't find the stomach for them.

Jugg said...

Just to clarify, in the hood, where all proper consumption of these fine intestinal casings filled with scap and grease occurs, they are known as "ET's" not "ETL's". At least in the hell-hole I used to call home known as Terrell.

Anonymous said...

I love Pittsburgh links....I grew up calling them east Texas links...I love eating liver and onions too, so maybe I just have the palate for it.

Bruce said...

I have been reading your blog for a long time, and this was the first post that made me laugh out loud. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Gilmer. Doc's was always around, but my parents never took me. Not too long ago they were featured on Texas Country Reporter. Anywho, I have wondered who was first - Pittsburg Hot Links - or Doc's Hot Links?

Tyler has Rhea's, but I have wondered why I have never heard of a hot link place in Longview?

The link you posted about an article went nowhere.

Chick said...

I tried the "links" from California Rib Hut in Orange, Tx, one time. Don't think these are sausage links, because they are not even close. The casing was stuffed with something ground into puree, and the taste reminded me of something off the concrete of a dog pen. Be sure to ask if they are sausage links, if you buy links in this area. (I have lived here 57 years, and this is the only time I have seen this)

jayjaylen75 said...

I love them so this review means nothing to me lol.

William said...

Little place in Terrell, Tx when i was growing up sold them (Hwy 34). My dad worked at the OMS shop and would stop by there after work. My mom never really liked them, so he would get her southern fried chicken. The old black man that owned the place with his wife and daughter was always so nice. I thought the little links were the best. I've been gone from Terrell now going on 30 years, was back about a month ago to visits friends and family; and one of the first places that my wife and I went was to the little hole in the wall in Terrell. That old black man and his wife and daughter were still there dishing them out (made me feel like a kid again) the smell feeled the suv just like when i was young. We got home to my folks place and sit down to enjoy them at the dinner table. My mom still doesn't care for them (she got chicken), and my wife said they were ok (Japanese, doesn't enjoy fine Texas eats), but me and my dad eat damn near all of them at one sittin.
So you folks from other areas of the US can go back to eating whatever it is you eat, but I'll take my east Texas soul food any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

Garland Texas had the best ever home made east Texas hot links for years at JC's east Texas hot link stand., He used more beef and more seasoning., When he was living I never bought the store's Pittsburgh Links, But now that he's gone, Pittsburgh is second best., I had a relative from Gladewater to stop by Docs on her trip to Dallas and grab me 3 dozen, And they was twice as fatty, I gave em all away., Another store Minyards in Dallas has Pittsburgh's brand and a brand called Hubba Bubba., Hubba Bubba was awful., I browse constantly waiting to see a review where the best ET's in Texas are, I wish JC's relatives would resurface anywhere in Texas with his old recipe., They are still legendary.

Anonymous said...

Moved from Midland to Mt Pleasant (worked in Pittsburg) at the ripe old age of 38... Thought I had died and gone to Heaven the 1st time I had Pittsburg Hot links on that snow white piece of butcher's paper.. All covered is their house hot sauce and dabbed with a little chili on top... Moved to DFW after about 10 years there... Been nearly 20 since I've been back... But 5 stints later.. I still get a craving for them... like little turds of dope..... Thanks for reminding me how much I miss them...



Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.