AUSTIN and LLANO, Texas—Here's the amazing thing about Texas barbecue. Even a run-of-the-mill place around here is better than the best barbecue anywhere else. On Monday night in Austin, my father and I ate our third barbecue meal of the day at the Iron Works, a downtown joint with a modest reputation. It was great!
There was a bit too much forced funkiness in Austin for my taste. We spent the night in the funky Austin Motel ("So Close Yet So Far Out," read the sign), ate dessert at the funky ice cream shop across the street, read the paper the next morning in the funky coffee shop next door (but we didn't get a funky tattoo at the funky tattoo parlor). After a tour of the fantastic Museum of Texas—where there was a lot of talk of longhorns, but none of barbecue—we headed west through the Hill Country to hunt for lunch. The barbecue in the Hill Country west of Austin is slightly different than in towns east of Austin such as Lockhart. Some Texans claim that West Texas—and thus the whole American West—starts in the Hill Country. The barbecue west of Austin has a slightly more cowboy feel. (It's cooked over mesquite rather than post oak, for example.)
In the Hill Country, the bluebonnets and other wildflowers were in bloom, and the sun finally decided to come out. It was a perfect day for driving. We cruised 100 miles through ranches and scrub land to the small town of Llano. We pulled up at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q, a place recommended by several of my barbecue rabbis. I realized, as we stepped out of the car, that Cooper's was where I first tasted Texas barbecue on my road trip 16 years ago. I was so glad to return.
At Cooper's, you step right up to the outdoor pit and point at the meat you want. The pitmaster grabs it; slices off as much as you ask for; slaps it on a tray; pours a tiny bit of thin, vinegary sauce on it; and hands it to you. Then you take it inside and hand it to a cashier, who weighs it and dumps it on butcher paper—your plate. We ordered ribs, brisket, and two kinds of sausage, then returned for seconds of brisket and prime rib. Customers sit family-style inside, helping themselves from the buckets of jalapeños and loaves of Butterkrust bread on the tables. The place is less charming than Smitty's—the walls are cinderblock and ceilings are low—but it's friendly. The barbecue was superb. The brisket was stellar, and the ribs may be the best I've tasted. (It's criminal that Memphis is recognized as the city of great ribs, because every rib I ate in Texas was vastly superior.) We also ate a mesmerizingly delicious blackberry cobbler. It was the first dessert I ate at a barbecue restaurant on the whole trip, and it made me wonder what I missed elsewhere.
On our way out, we discovered that my father and President Bush, who don't agree about very much, agree about Cooper's ribs. A testimonial letter from Bush to the ribs hangs on the wall. He ate here when he was governor, and during the vote-counting after the 2000 election, Cooper's catered a picnic at Bush's Crawford ranch.
We made our way back to Austin, sated. I had driven 1,800 miles in seven days, eaten 15 barbecue meals in a row, and finally found bliss in Texas. The four Texas barbecue meals I ate in 24 hours were better than any other barbecue I ever had in my life (save my one meal at Cooper's in 1989). I had found my barbecue bliss, and I was done. My lower intestine had ground to a complete stop, and I had a slight pain in my chest. It was time to go home.
At the Austin airport, I was singled out for a special security screening. The TSA agent fingering through my bag pulled out a jar of barbecue sauce I had bought at Gates in Kansas City. "What's this?" she asked.
"It's barbecue sauce," I said.
"I know it's barbecue sauce. I mean, what kind of sauce is it? I've never seen this kind before."
"It's from Kansas City."
She grimaced at this. Holding the jar like it contained C-4 explosive, she showed it to another screener. "Look, this guy has some kind of barbecue sauce from New York City or something," she told the other screener derisively.
"Kansas City," I weakly interrupted.
She waved me off, then said in an ominous voice. "Now, why would you have that?"
"I was on a barbecue tour," I answered. "I started in Kansas City, and finished here."
"Did you go to Rudy's?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"You came to Texas for barbecue, and you didn't go to Rudy's?" She turned to her partner. "He came to Texas, and he didn't go to Rudy's!" The partner shook his head.
"What about the Salt Lick?" she asked. I shook my head no again. She made a face.
The partner continued the interrogation. "How about the County Line?"
I shook my head.
"Well, where did you go?" the screener asked in an exasperated voice.
"I went to Cooper's in Llano. And I went to Smitty's and Kreuz Market in Lockhart."
She lit up. "Well, why didn't you say that to begin with?" She nudged her partner. "He went to Lockhart." The partner nodded. The agent turned back to me, and handed me the bag and the sauce. "You can go ahead now."