Thursday, December 13, 2012

City Market (Luling)

LULING: City Market
633 Davis St.
Luling, TX 78648
Open Mon-Sat 7-7

Update: There are many folks around the country that may have just been introduced to the existence of City Market in Luling, Texas earlier this year when Newsweek published their list of the "101 Best Places to Eat" around the world. I myself have joked at the dubious nature of most lists like this one, but as one of only fourteen restaurants in North America to make the list alongside such names as Husk, Daniel and Momofuku, City Market was in good company. I too had sang the praises of this temple of Central Texas style barbecue to anyone that would listen. 'No barbecue trip to Lockhart is complete without a stop in Luling' was my normal line to smoked meat novices on a virgin Central Texas BBQ tour. It's only a fifteen minute drive after all. My first visit was after an early morning drive from San Antonio where a religious experience was had with a breakfast of beef brisket smoked simply over post oak and a link of homemade sausage baptized in a golden sauce. I thought it would always be that good, but it is no longer. One of the mighty in Texas has fallen off a bit, and that sweet memory from years ago was strong enough to cloud my better judgment for a few years.

Over-trimmed and Under-cooked Brisket

A visit here earlier this year was when the sad realization manifested itself. The brisket was tough, dry and lacking in smoke and flavor. The ribs took too much effort to clean, and my jaw got quite a workout. The excellent beef link has never wavered, but the pleasure I took in eating the sausage occasionally dipped in sauce heightened the flaws of the other cuts (there are only three smoked meat menu items here). I was eating with my photographer Nick that day who also agreed that this place just wasn't living up to the best we'd been enjoying on the road. I scanned my meat memory bank to recall that two previous visits had also been lackluster, but this was still one of my favorite places (not just barbecue joints) to eat in all of Texas, so I needed to be sure.

Joe Capello and the Steel Pit

After that meal I strolled back to the alley behind the building and walked to the open door of the pit room. Pitmaster Joe Capello was there and greeted us warmly. He showed us the smallish steel pit and the wood pile that was just disorderly enough to know that somebody was actually using it. Joe didn't explain much about their smoking process, but did fill us in on some history of the Bar-E Ranch that was owned by the family that started City Market (the sign above City Market reads "Bar-E Barbeque & Sausage"). The ranch still exists north of town, but the briskets aren't from the cattle at the ranch any longer. As I turned to leave I noticed a stainless steel Southern Pride rotisserie smoker in the corner. I tried to hide my disdain when asking Joe why it was there hoping that it was just a joke, but Joe said they had to crank it up during busy weekends to keep up with demand. The smoker felt cold and hadn't been fired up recently enough to cook the meat I ate on this day, but the fact that a recognized pillar of Texas barbecue tradition uses it at all is alarming.

Southern Pride on the right just inside the door. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter.
Several months later we found ourselves back in Luling. It was early in the morning just like it had been on my first visit, that religious experience in 2007. I wanted to make sure I didn't fallen victim to the barbecue doldrums of mid-afternoon. I carefully guided the meat cutter to select a fresh brisket and cut liberally from both the fatty and the lean end to get a good sample. I selected pork ribs from both the short end and the center of the rack to keep from getting that one bad rib that might be lurking in the rack. Two links of sausage would also be needed because, well, I wasn't going to share one.

Texas Trinity from City Market

We sat at a table in the side room near the window to let the light in. I wanted it to be good, no, great. I wanted the brisket to sing, but instead it was George Strait on the speakers that cut through the silence of the empty dining room with 'He's got a fool hearted memory." George was right. It was great only in my memory. Tough slices of brisket and tougher ribs were several hours from being done. The brisket slices could not easily be pulled apart, and the visibly unrendered fat along the edges was tough to chew through. They both had the smoke and the ribs got a flavor boost from a restrained sweet glaze.  Mind you, this was still good tasting barbecue, but I've come to expect some of the best in the state from this joint. It wasn't.

Dry Meat and Unrendered Fat

Leaving a painful amount of meat on the butcher paper, we polished off the links of sausage and purchased a container of the best sauce in Texas. Maybe next time it will be perfect again and all will be right with the Central Texas barbecue world, but probably not.

Rating ****

2010: Showing this joint to a friend for the first time is always fun, but the huge line can be daunting. Luckily we were stuffed, so waiting for a half hour or so wasn't the worst that could have happened.

Once inside the smoking room we were mesmerized by the smell and the view of these huge smokers. One of them was completely full of the popular beef links which helped to create some room in our stomachs. We opted for the minimum order of a link, two slices of brisket and two ribs, then we headed for the hood of our truck.

Not much more can be said about how great the meats are here in Luling. The brisket was perfectly smoky, tender and moist with a great crust and impressive smokering. The ribs had a bit of chewiness, but the flavor was perfect. Seasoning and smoke worked together to bring the best out of these simple spare ribs. The links were juicy with great snap, and plenty of black pepper kick to go with that beefiness. There's a reason I go back to Luling whenever I'm within about an hour of it.

2009: No joint on this blog has been able to capture the coveted sixth star. This requires independent verification from both BBQ Snob and Smokemasterone on consecutive visits that each meat is flawless. Based on my previous visits, I was hoping this might be the first.

Our journey earlier in the day commenced at Snow's in Lexington where we noticed a large group of guys enjoying breakfast alongside our table. When we exited our car outside of City Market, we noticed the same group, so we stopped to talk. It turns out they write for a blog called BBQ Pilgrimage, and they were enjoying a Saturday 'cue tour as well. They were just leaving the joint, and mentioned their slight disappointment at the meat today. Could we be in for disappointment as well?

A huge line at 3:30 heightened the anticipation. I was excited to get back to my table with a pile of brisket, ribs and sausage. The brisket was as good as always. It could have been more tender, but the smoke, flavor, and moistness were excellent. The fatty beef sausage also gave a strong showing. The no-so-moist ribs were the six star downfall. They had been basted too soon before slicing hindering the basting sauce to meld with the meat. A layer of unrendered fat was also present, and the texture was a bit tough. As always, I look forward to finding that true six star joint, and I'd love to bestow it to a place like City Market, but they just didn't have it on this day.

2008: Not to be confused with "Luling City Market" in Houston, this place goes only by "City Market", and it's one-of-a-kind. I've been here twice, so I can verify that the heaps of praise piled on City Market is warranted. My first visit was the finest breakfast I've ever eaten...a ring of sausage, a couple slices of brisket and two ribs. The sausage had good smoky flavor and a nice snap, but it was loosely packed and was heavy on the fat, so the second time, while visiting for the annual Watermelon Thump, I ordered only brisket and ribs. The ribs here are large and meaty with a beautiful crust from the rub that had a touch of black pepper. The fat is well rendered and the flavor was smoky and delicious. I was unable to detect anything to be critical of in these ribs. On the other hand, the brisket was only nearly perfect. There was a great crust with salt and pepper, and the smoke line was generous. The smoke flavor went throughout the meat, and the flavor was excellent. The fat was well rendered, and the fat that was on the few slices I ate was nearly as good as the meat. The only negative, although slight, is that it could have been more tender. I can't wait to go back.

One note about visiting...plan to smell like that sweet smoke all day after you visit. You must traverse through a smoke stained swinging door that separates the dining room from the smokehouse. This is where your order is placed and paid for.

City Market on Urbanspoon


Austin4Sharon said...

Still my favorite BBQ in Texas!!

Anonymous said...

Made the trip here from San Antonio today hoping to satisfy a craving, and unfortunately I walked away somewhat disappointed. The ribs and sausage were delicious. The sausage had great snap and flavor. The ribs were moist, tender and smoky, with a slightly sweet taste. The brisket, however, was not up to their usual standard, or any standard for that matter. There were chunks of unrendered fat clinging to the slices, and the meat was tough and smokeless, basically no more than roast beef. I could have gotten better beef at pretty much any joint in San Antonio, including Bill Miller's, and that's saying a lot, because San Antonio BBQ, particularly Bill Miller's, is sub-standard compared to other places in the state. Maybe next time I'll just hit up The Smokehouse, or make the longer trek to Lockhart or Franklin's.

Anonymous said...

Ate here on Saturday August 4 around lunchtime and enjoyed the conversation in the line, the rings, and the cold Dr Pepper...but not much. The ribs were dry without much meat and the brisket was dry on about half my order (half pound) and good but not smoky enough on all the order. Disappointing to say the least. I'll plan my next trip around Schulenberg's City Market (they were closed on my way back to Houston this weekend) and go out of my way to Kreutz and Black's in Lockhart on my Houston to San Antonio and Austin runs. I'm about out of patience with Luling.

PM Summer said...

My most recent visit last month was a disappointment. The brisket was dry, but the ribs were good. Smoke flavor seemed distant. I wondered.

casey said...

I've been twice since summer 2008 and was underwhelmed both times except for the sausage. I guess I waited too late to try it.

Anonymous said...

Went on a BBQ tour in July 2011. Franklin's, Snows, Kreuzs, City Market, and Smittys. I had never been to City Market and me and my brother were looking forward to it. We were both disappointed. Brisket was dry with little flavor, ribs were tough but had a nice crust. Sausage was outstanding with a good snap. However, I base a BBQ joint off the brisket. I figured we just hit a bad day but apparently not.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all of the comments. It is similar to the esperience we had in June 2011 on a BBQ tour. I am surprised the author still left it at 4 stars other than respect for the long lived legacy despite the underwhelming current experience.

Anonymous said...

Ribs were dry, overcooked, not much meat. The place across the street was much better.

Chris Johnson said...

Hey guys as a BBQ pit master abd award winning BBQ cook. I have cooked in many BBQ competitions over the last 35 years. The meat isn't always as good as it could be it changed from one cow to another. To be perfect everytime is a myth sometimes its as good as it can be and sometimes its just good but its always good. I live about five to ten minutes from luling city market and eat there quite often when I don't want to cook myself. The sausage is easily controllable since its ground beef and days added to make it what it is. The ribs should be pretty consistent though as we all know any idiot can cook pork. Brisket though well its literally another animal. The beefs not always fatty as last time or as tender and never has the same grain in beef. The beef being able to get it perfect abd keep it perfect throughout the day is pretty hard to do. This is why a bunch of these places do the clods instead of briskets. The clods start to fall apart when held in Warmer's. the briskets though sometimes toughen up as they are held in warmer. The moral of the story is go early that's the best meat if the pitmaster has done his job. Get a bunch of meat and enjoy I would say go cakes and luling markets both are the best sausage and ribs etc. in the state consistently among the best it doesn't get much better than that unless your getting meat at 15-20 dollars a pound in Austin from franklins lol its a little different meat I do believe. These guys take toughest worst piece of meat in the beast of the field and make it something that makes you desire more all the time. Its about timing try and get here early always its better before sitting on the warmer all day if your here early get all you can. Its better the second day believe it or not but most people have none left the second day. After sitting and resting the meat a day in fridge then reheating the meats its going to be the best you've ever had. That's the facts second days always better if you look at BBQ competitions those guys including myself are trying to get it to rest off heat for awhile relax the meat something BBQ joints don't have time for. Take a bunch home rest it in fridge and then reheat you'll have a sexual almost exsperience lol with your meat lmao. Its just the way it is people like to complain a lot it seems but as for cook at luling he's a great one. Rest that meat reheat it tomorrow and you'll get the desired things your looking for. I think any really good BBQ place could tell you that but they haven't got space or time to stand on that meat for a day or two then reheat. Plus they have to keep brisket in the Warmer's which really sucks for the meat itself as far as making it good. Just try it once you'll be going and getting double triple or more meat when you go. This old truck will keep your memory intact because that's all it is people are buying so much BBQ they can't keep up and they think it won't effect the meat they're buying lol well well it sure has. We living right down the highway know when we go to buy much more on the slow days and hold it reheat it on the same post oak I have growing on my property they use. Try it and you'll be happy again. Buy more and reheat it in the oven crisp it up and enjoy that's the ticket to BBQ paradise your looking for they cook a fine product so go early and buy extra that's what we all do around here or make our own.

Anonymous said...

I've been fortunate to travel the country eating BBQ in KC, Memphis, all through the south, even had edible que in Seattle, and in Edmonton, CA, not to mention Gorillas BBQ in Pacifica, CA.
I've also been fortunate to eat at most of the great Central Texas joints, of historical lore.
I've givin this place four different trips in anticipation of what should be good Central Texas BBQ, but it's lost its quality to serving the masses IMO!
The sliced brisket is always dry, very little smoke flavoring, and the last trip the rub tasted like way to much salt.
It's a shame, as this is a Historical Landmark, and deserves more care in their preparation, but more than this they need to lose their, this is just a Job attitude, and learn to take more pride in what's a special part of what makes up Texas cuisine!


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.