An American Barbecue Pilgrimage

The Greatest Barbecue Restaurant in the World
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
May 26 2005 9:55 AM

An American Barbecue Pilgrimage

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. to LOCKHART, Texas—Sunday is a sabbath day for many barbecue restaurants, so that's when I made my monster 600-mile drive from Memphis to Houston. It took me past Hope, Ark., right around lunchtime, so I pit-stopped in Bill Clinton's hometown to hunt for sustenance. Clinton's birthplace, sandwiched between the railroad tracks and a grim strip of cash-advance and fast-food places, was closed, but just outside of town I found Uncle Henry's Smokehouse open for lunch. Arkansas styles itself very pure about its 'cue, and owner Bobby Redman made me a totally unadorned sandwich: a pile of fresh chopped pork on a bun, with no slaw and no sauce. It was good, if a little dry and shy on smoke for my taste. Fleetwood Mac was singing "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow" on the Uncle Henry's radio, which seemed only fitting. That was Clinton's 1992 theme song and my theme song for Sunday, because Monday was when I would make my hajj to barbecue's most holy city: Lockhart, Texas.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

I had persuaded my carnivorous father to join me for the Texas leg. He met me in Houston on Sunday night, and on Monday morning we raced west, first on highways, then on farm roads, toward Lockhart, which is 150 miles from Houston and 30 miles south of Austin. It's in the heart of the Texas Barbecue Belt. Start in Austin and drive 15 or 30 or 70 miles in practically any direction, and you are liable to find yourself at a world-class barbecue shop. (It will probably be advertising "hot guts." Do not be alarmed. This is Texan for sausage.) When I was 19 years old, I drove through this part of Texas with a friend. Knowing nothing about the Barbecue Belt, we stopped at a roadside stand and ordered a few slices of brisket. That meal burned in my memory as the Platonic ideal of barbecue. It is my barbecue Rosebud. It is why I came back.

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Texas barbecue is like Texas itself: brash, arrogant, and beefy. In the Barbecue Belt, meat is seasoned with only salt, pepper, and a little cayenne, then smoked quickly over mesquite or post oak. It is cut in huge slabs in front of you and served on butcher paper with a pile of saltines or white bread. The best places serve no sauce. Some don't even have forks. It's pure longhorn showmanship: They are so sure of their meat, they don't think you should eat anything else.

The Texas idealism produces extraordinary barbecue fealty. Barbecue: A Texas Love Story, a charming new documentary, captures the cultlike nature of it, cruising with the University of Texas student barbecue club and worshipping at the New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, whose barbecue side business is so beloved it has earned the nickname "Church of the Holy BBQ." Every few years, Texas Monthly magazine rates the best barbecue restaurants in the state, an announcement that is to Austin almost what the Academy Awards are to Los Angeles.

When the latest Monthly rankings came out, two of its five "best of the best" were in Lockhart. A town of 11,000, Lockhart became Texas' barbecue capital for three reasons. First, Germans and Czechs settled in this part of Texas starting in the mid-19th century, bringing the central European butchering and smoking techniques that made Texas barbecue. Second, Lockhart is where the Schmidt family settled. And third, the Schmidt family can't get along.

In 1948, Edgar Schmidt bought a German meat store in Lockhart from the Kreuz family. Over the next half-century, Schmidt's Kreuz Market became the most beloved barbecue restaurant in the state. In 1999, nine years after Edgar's death, his children squabbled. Son Rick Schmidt was running Kreuz Market, while daughter Nina Schmidt Sells owned the building. Nina wouldn't renew the lease, so Rick took the coals out of the pits and hauled them five blocks down the road to the massive new Kreuz Market—a "barbefeud" that made the newspapers and even got a segment on 48 Hours. Nina and her son kept the old Kreuz and renamed it Smitty's Market—thus turning the greatest barbecue restaurant in the world into the two greatest barbecue restaurants in the world.

My father and I stopped at Smitty's first. Entering feels like walking into an ancient shrine. You cross the threshold from the bright parking lot into a smoky darkness. The air smells indescribably delicious, smoke that you want to eat. As your eyes adjust, you can make out the men in white butcher coats hacking off huge slices of brisket on wooden blocks. Two walls are lined with the pits, long, waist-high brick boxes. Metal grates inside hold briskets, shoulders, sausages. At one end of the pit is an opening, and a fire of post oak logs burns on the floor next to it. It's a simple but effective method. The smoke and heat of the fire are drawn through the opening into the pit.

I tracked down Nina Sells' son, who runs Smitty's. His name is John Fullilove; a more perfectly named pitmaster could not be found. John is 31 years old, and wide, with a red face that is both fierce and incredibly sweet. He was a joy to be with, funny, friendly, hospitable, and passionate about his work. We asked him about the cuts of meat he uses, and John—who's a butcher, too—demonstrated on his own body which parts of the cow we would eat.

He piled up butcher papers with sausage, brisket, and shoulder—about 20 bucks' worth, an enormous amount—and directed us out to the cheery dining room. (On Saturdays, this dining room and the overflow room would be jammed, with lines way out the door.) He grabbed himself a slice of prime rib, an avocado, and some Doritos, and joined us for lunch. There are no forks and no sauce at Smitty's. You hack your meat up with a plastic knife and eat it off the knife or with your hands. (The beans and slaw you can eat with a spoon.) In the old days of Kreuz Market, before plastic cutlery and health inspectors, customers ate with communal knives that were chained to the wall. You can still sit at the old wood benches and see the chains.

Smitty's barbecue was unbelievably good, divinely good. The brisket, black and almost crunchy outside, was moist inside—a perfect mix of fat and salt and meat. The sausage—made with nothing more than beef, pork, salt, pepper, cayenne, and smoke, was incredible—so good that my father and I jury-rigged an improvised ice chest in order to buy a dozen links to bring home. Smitty's meat didn't need sauce or sides or even bread. It was perfect.

I felt honored to be eating there with John, a man who loves his job and does it better than anyone, in a place that bears the burden of tradition so magnificently. I couldn't imagine a better meal.

We headed down the street—past Lockhart's charming downtown, with a gorgeous library and confectionery courthouse—to the new Kreuz Market. We chatted for a minute with Keith Schmidt, who's the general manager and the son of owner Rick. He was doleful and unwelcoming, a stark contrast to his cousin John at Smitty's. We ordered a second lunch. The new Kreuz is cavernous—it can seat several times as many people as Smitty's—and it has a USDA-approved kitchen so it can ship its meats nationwide.

Unlike Smitty's, it's modern and sterile, and I don't mean that as a compliment. The menu is essentially identical to Smitty's, except Kreuz has sauerkraut and potato salad and costs a little more. The food was wonderful—fantastic brisket and ribs, a great sausage. Technically, it was probably just as good as the meal I had eaten 15 minutes earlier up the street, but the atmosphere—antiseptic and unfriendly—suppressed my enthusiasm. I would much rather have eaten twice at Smitty's.