Mick Vann in Gonzales, Marble Falls, and Llano
Gonzales Food Market
311 St. Lawrence, Gonzales, 830/672-3156
When you're heading down Highway 183 and you get to Gonzales, look for the courthouse and you'll find Gonzales Food Market on the northwest corner of the square. Opened 46 years ago by Lopez family patriarch "Chano" Lopez and sister-in-law Maria as a town market, they started stuffing and smoking sausages on weekends as a way to use up meat trimmings from the meat market, and the popularity of the products eventually caused them to expand into every genre of barbecued meats. Now, they produce some of the finest brisket, ribs, pork steaks, chicken, and more in the famed Central Texas Barbecue Belt and are universally praised for their delicious lamb ribs. Everything is smoked over a combo of oak and mesquite, using the family's dry rub mix, and made from all-natural ingredients with no preservatives.
The sausage recipe was passed down through the family, originating from an old German who lived in the area. The Lopezes got the recipe around the turn of the century and perfected it for 50-odd years before Chano started producing it commercially. It's basically a large ring, composed of 10 links, of a medium-coarse grind of beef with assertive garlic and spices. It comes in four styles: raw, smoked and frozen, and what they call "wet" and "dry."
Our favorite is the "dry" version: smoked sausage that has been sitting in the steam table with hot lamps on it, causing the fat to cook out and concentrating that already robust flavor. Now, they have added another version, which they call Ray's Sausage. It's a medium-coarse ground blend of beef and pork, made as a single ring, and the spiciness level has been amped up considerably. If you like spicy smoked sausage, this is the choice for you.
The Lopezes are some of the friendliest folks in the barbecue business, and the place is set up to serve buffet style. The sides are numerous, the sauce complements the meat and not overpowering, and the desserts a very pleasant sweet surprise. Trust us when we say that a drive down 183 past some of the better-known barbecue shrines is well worth the effort. It's a trip you'll want to be making on a regular basis.
Inman's Ranch House Barbecue
Highway 281 & Sixth, Marble Falls, 830/693-2711
Tuesday-Friday, 9am-5pm; Saturday, 9am-2pm; Sunday, 9am-1pmThe famous Inman turkey sausage began as a hobby and an additional income source for Lester Inman's Exxon gas station in Llano in 1960. He set up a small pit to smoke sausage for the hordes of deer hunters that flocked to the area every fall and winter, and it turned out to be so popular that the hunters demanded it year-round when they came up there for summer vacations with their families. In 1964, Lester persuaded his brother Francis to open a satellite operation down the road in Marble Falls, spawning the birth of Inman's Ranch House Barbecue.
The recipe came from Lester's wife Doris' Gillespie County grandmother, and was of German origin. It was initially meant for pork and beef (or venison), but Lester played around with it, producing a variation using the less costly turkey meat. Today, the sausage is made in-house by son Billy Ray, who grew up learning the operation at his daddy's side, creating a thick continuous ring of very coarse ground turkey that is moist and piquant with black pepper, garlic, and a dab of cayenne. It's slow-smoked over oak in the brick pit for hours and is in our opinion one of the finest smoked sausages of any kind made in the state.
Inman's, as the locals call the old wood-framed house in downtown Marble Falls, makes two superlative items: rub-seasoned beef brisket and turkey sausage, with the regular sides and a fantastic sauce that even no-sauce folks slather on their meats. Prices are kept low so that the working man can afford to eat there, and they come in droves daily. If you call ahead, Billy will prepare bulk orders of sausage, either hot or chilled. Regardless of the price of gas, this sausage more than makes up for the time and fuel cost.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
505 W. Dallas (West Highway 71), Llano, 325/247-5713
Sunday-Thursday, 10-30am-7:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 10:30am-8:30pmwww.coopersbbq.com
Cooper's makes everyone's list of one of the top holy temples of 'cue. The dynasty started in George Cooper's backyard pit in Mason, and, in 1953, he made it a growing business. The Llano branch was established by oldest son Tommy in 1964, and after his death in 1979, run for several years by Ken Laird (of Laird's BBQ in Llano) before the Wootan clan bought the operation. They've run it ever since, upholding the original tastes and traditions of patriarch George.
Cooper's does barbecue cowboy-style, cooking the mesquite wood down to coals before adding it to the rectangular steel pits. It mimics the open trench method of the West Texas cowboys and greatly reduces the creosote taste that mesquite can sometimes produce. Cooper's sausage is made at their own plant just down the road, using Tommy Cooper's recipe (which was a variation perfected by father George from a local German recipe). It's a 1-lb. ring of 60% pork and 40% beef, in a natural casing, with a medium grind and a nice zippy finish on the spice. The sausages are smoked at the plant with hickory and then briefly reheated at the restaurant pits over mesquite coals. You pick your own from the pit and can get it dipped in their rich, tart sauce, if you like.
Cooper's sausage is one of the local handmade sausages that will be available in the Sausage Alley at the Texas Barbecue Festival. But don't let that keep you from making your way to the restaurant in Llano: There's something about staring down at that pile of succulent barbecued meats in the pit and choosing your own while the mesquite smoke swirls around you.