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

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rib Hut

EL PASO: Rib Hut
2612 North Mesa St.
El Paso, TX 79902
Open M-Sat 11-10, Sun 12-9

It was late night in El Paso, and none of the other barbecue we'd found in town was noteworthy. The retro A-frame design of the Rib Hut was intriguing, but the sign out front advertising a 12" cod hoagie was worrisome. I placed an order at the bar and quickly retreated to my car once my rib trio to-go order was passed across the bar. I'd had enough bad brisket, and this was the Rib Hut after all.

The beef back ribs had a pitiful amount of meat, but what I could bite into was at least decent. The smoke was evident and the seasoning was bold without being overpowering. Pork spare ribs were a bit tough and no doubt benefited from a sweet glaze, but again it wasn't bad considering what we had already eaten in El Paso. Baby backs were tender enough, but they were missing any of the smoke and had a bit of burnt on flavor from a liberally applied sauce. While being some of the better barbecue we had in El Paso, these were still some mediocre ribs overall. Maybe the cod hoagie was even better, but I'll never know.

Rating **

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Smokey’s Pit Stop

EL PASO: Smokey's Pit Stop
9100 Viscount Blvd.
El Paso, TX 79925
Open M-Thur 10:30-10, F-Sat 10:30-11

It was getting late in El Paso, but this city has barbecue joints that stay open later than I'm used to in Dallas. At about 8:30 the bar was hopping inside Smokey's, but things were pretty dead at the barbecue counter. I asked for my order to-go. I could almost feel the chewy unrendered fat getting stuck in my teeth as I watched them slice off a few pitiful morsels of brisket. I then returned to my car with little hope for the rest of it.

An over-salted beef rib and pork rib hovered just above edible. They didn't really taste smoked as much as they tasted...aged, and not gently. The brisket was as tough as I'd suspected when seeing it sliced. I didn't need more than three bites to know there was no reason to return to this joint. There seemed to be a reason that the bar side of this dual business was the more vibrant one.

Rating *

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Cattleman’s Steakhouse

FABENS: Cattleman's Steakhouse
3450 S Fabens Carlsbad Rd.
Fabens, TX 79838
Open M-F 5-10, Sat 12:30-10, Sun 12:30-9

The sun was just setting as we made our way along the secluded road that leads away from the interstate and into the desert. I knew that Cattleman's Steakhouse was out this way from the online maps and the billboards, but my uncertainty still grew the longer we drove. Finally, we saw a cluster of buildings up ahead. Just driving up and around the grounds to get to the parking lot seemed like an adventure. Once inside this palace of meat, you quickly realize just how enormous it is. Just to get to the host’s stand it seems like you must pass a hundred or so folks waiting patiently for a table. Even with the crowds, the three of us were quickly seated in a table oddly placed within a three-quarter circle in a far corner of the dining room. Given the shape of the area and our elementary knowledge of acoustics, we weren’t sure if our conversations could be heard on the other end of the room, but we did know that we had our own light switch.

While Cattleman’s functions mainly as a steakhouse, there are a few well known options for mesquite smoked meats on the menu with beef ribs being the most popular. A large combo plate of beef ribs and sliced brisket was available as were BBQ beef cubes. Large beef back ribs needed more time on the smoker for any hope at getting tender, and thick bland slices of brisket were dry as a board. Not even a dip into the ketchup-like sauce could save them. I was beginning to think this adventure would be fruitless.

Then I took a bite from the tiny metal pail that held the house beans. These ranch beans were bathed in a thick, rich broth that was both smoky and spicy. I know they were just beans, but man were they good.

When I questioned the waiter about the beef cubes and how they differed from the sliced brisket, he said there was no difference other than where the beef was cut from the brisket. The beef cubes were cut from the edges of the fatty end. They weren't sauced or smoked to make burnt ends, but were just simple chunks of smoked beef brisket. They didn't taste at all like the sad and dry brisket slices. The smoky and crusty bits of lusciously fatty beef went down with ease even after a full day of eating, and in true West Texas style, simple roasted chiles came alongside to round out the meal.

On our visit I was hard pressed to find a table with barbecue on it other than ours. This is a steakhouse that I visited based on the reputation of their beef ribs, but it was the beans and the brisket ends that left an impression.

Rating **

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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.