Up in smoke: Legendary Lockhart barbecue is overrated

Barbecue pilgrimages to Lockhart once served as a group bonding exercise with my buddies, an entree to Central Texas culture for out-of-town guests and a chance to eat some of what I considered the best barbecue in Texas.

But something has changed over the past decade. I’m not sure if it is Lockhart or me. Maybe both.

Maybe the rich history and charm of the small town previously colored my perception. Or maybe I’ve gotten spoiled by the exceptional smoked meat offerings now in Austin, the new capital for Central Texas barbecue. And, quite possibly, as Austin’s barbecue game has transcended the humble beginnings of smoked meat, perhaps Lockhart really has lost a step.

My parents made their first pilgrimage to Black’s Barbecue recently and invited me along. I happily obliged and figured that while I was down there for the first time in about two years, it might be a good time to check in on how all four of the Lockhart players are faring.

I didn’t have the stomach space to eat the entire menu at each place, so I decided I would try the brisket at each stop. While the restaurants might be known for other items (the end-cut pork chop at Smitty’s, the sausage at Kreuz, etc.), I decided brisket would make for a good measuring stick.

The result? They all came up short of their former glory. Some much shorter than others. And none would make the top 10 brisket in Austin.

TOP 10: The best barbecue in Austin

Kreuz Market served up the best brisket of the bunch. The massive barnlike structure with a tongue-in-cheek sign on the door threatening to shoot salesmen has a pit room that resembles a kill room in a horror movie, complete with hazy lighting and sharp knives. You can often find pitmaster Roy Perez — sporting sideburns a la Bill “The Butcher” Cutting from “Gangs of New York” — wielding a knife, though he was absent on this day.

The rippled fatty cut at Kreuz (the lean was actually shoulder clod) seemed to get the majority of its moisture from the pooled grease, but the beef held decent smoke penetration and a thick and ruddy if ragged crust along with a faint smoke ring. If I’d had room, and they’d had it available, I would have ordered some jalapeño cheese links to go with the welcome pickle options available inside the dining room.

Black’s Barbecue doesn’t have the same charm as Smitty’s or the grandeur of Kreuz. In fact, it’s almost downright uncomfortable before you get to the eating part. Once you make it inside, you are crammed into a narrow memorabilia-lined hallway that turns a corner at a salad bar. Just beyond is the chopping block, possibly manned (though not this visit) by Barrett Black, the fourth generation of Blacks to cut meat at the restaurant that opened at this location in 1936 after initially operating as a meat market across the street.

The brisket at Black’s was the most tender of the four stops this trip, but it had an off-putting chemical aftertaste, as if it had been smoked over a creosote-slicked telephone pole, and the rubbery dark bark offered little bite. The gargantuan beef rib, which my father declared the best he’d ever eaten, was a marked improvement, and my nephew, Charlie, got a kick out of seeing the bone slipped from its meaty sheath and wielded as a cartoonish weapon. But, we’re here to talk brisket.

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The folks at Smitty’s Market might prefer, however, that we talk shoulder clod or pork chops. The brisket shone with a lacquered finish you’d expect from pork ribs and was as dry as the dusty parking lot outside the iconic building with the famed open fire pit. Smitty’s will always get points for its ambiance (and ice cream), but on this day the brisket was a hearty swing and a miss.

Chisholm Trail B.B.Q. gets the least love from barbecue aficionados, but it might have the broadest popular appeal due to its drive-thru lane, low costs and recently added breakfast service.

Calling this a plate of beef brisket, however, felt like a bit of a stretch. Though packed with beefy essence (along with too much salt), the thin-sliced meat rimmed by dry edges and centered with fossilized waves of unrendered fat was suspended in limbo between brisket and Frankenjerky. Chop it up and splash it with sauce and you might have the makings of a decent sandwich.

As I squeezed back into my car for the return to Austin, I unpacked the mixed emotions of the day. Showing my teenage nephew a colorful and historic part of the state he’d never seen brought me joy, and I always feel a bit closer to my fifth-generation Texas roots when I spend a little time in Lockhart, with its languid pace, historic courthouse and quaint town square. But the thrill of young love had receded into gauzy memory. I didn’t mourn its passing. Things change. People change. And you can still have fondness for something even if you don’t know whether to trust your original memory of it. Just because you found The One (brisket in Austin) doesn’t entirely diminish Your First.

I’ll be back to Lockhart, even if the city puts up a sign that reads, “Big-city critics no longer welcome.” But I’ll be doing it more for the ritual and the tingle of nostalgia than the brisket.

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