Day Trips

photograph by Gerald E. McLeod

Gerald Birkelbach at the City Meat Market in Giddings enjoys the details of being the town's top meat purveyor. High among the hundreds of tasks that he must look after in a typical day is taking care of his customers who come to him for fresh cuts of meat, custom processing, or delicious barbecue smoked on the grill daily.

"I'm kind of a jack-of-all-trades around here," Birkelbach says, punctuated with his easy laugh and friendly smile. If he has a favorite aspect of his three-pronged meat company it is cooking the barbecue and working with the customers. Hired help serve the customers at the meat counter and at the processing plant, but it is Birkelbach who personally slaps the smoked meats on the pink butcher paper for the line of hungry customers.

Birkelbach started working at the meat market's processing plant right out of high school. "I'm still doing it because I enjoy what I do. People still call me for custom cuts," he says. Most days, though, you can find him working in the small restaurant in the back of the meat market, with brick walls varnished with the residue of years of meat cooking on the two smokers.

The market in Giddings began more than 45 years ago when H.W. Doyle began processing local farmers' stock and supplying fresh cuts of meat to the "city folk."

Birkelbach and his staff begin their days around 5:30 in the morning when the fire in the smokers is stoked and the first briskets put on to cook. During the day he'll cook several hundred pounds of brisket, sausage, pork butt, pork ribs, chicken, pork chops, pork steaks, and several different kinds of beef steaks thick enough to remain juicy in the extreme heat of the smokers.

He prefers using smaller briskets because they have less fat and tend to be more tender. Birkelbach also likes to cook them fast to add to the tenderness. The meat that is the mainstay of any Texas barbecue house is cooked until it is almost done and then it is placed in a pan with water and barbecue sauce on the grill to finish it off. Depending on their size, the briskets can be ready by about nine o'clock. The main lunch run begins about 10:30am and ends around 1:30pm.

"We always sell out," Birkelbach says. "I cook a certain amount and then add as demand dictates. We almost always have sausage." The sausage may be the last thing left on the grill, but it is not second best to anything on the menu. A coarse tube steak, The City Meat Market's sausage is pure beef with no fillers, additives, or preservatives. The flavor is a heavenly combination of flavors with just the right amount of spiciness.

Birkelbach uses only good old Texas native post oak for his fire. "You don't have to work with post oak," he says. "You can leave it for 30 minutes and not have to worry about it."

"People come in and ask where my thermometers are," he says, "I don't use thermometers. I know how the pit should feel. If it burns the hell out of your arm, then you know it's too hot."

Besides barbecue, City Meat Market also serves potato salad, pinto beans, and of course, white bread. A survey a couple of years ago asked the customers what they would like to see added to the menu and only one out of 500 said desserts. "We don't have desserts," Birkelbach said.

The barbecue sauce has a rich tanginess that complements the meat without hiding the basic flavor. Hold on to your Stetson - Birkelbach buys it from Oklahoma. Before you reach for a rope, hear this native Texan's explanation. "For what I pay for it by the gallon I can't make it," he says. "It's one less headache I have to put up with and besides, I like it."

Local barbecue lovers are still the backbone of the City Meat Market's clientele, but traffic from the highway is also a substantial part of his business. Mr. Doyle visited the market one day recently during a lunch run and commented on how the clientele had changed since he owned the place. Out-of-town folks are hearing about the little old-fashioned barbecue joint in the back of the meat market.

Willie Nelson has stopped in a couple of times and Lyle Lovett has been in three or four times. "Haven't seen him [Lovett] in a while, but I hear he owns a place up the road near Bryan," Birkelbach says.

The City Meat Market in Giddings is at the first traffic light on US290 as you enter town from Austin (or the last as you leave town going to Austin). The market and barbecue are open Monday-Friday, 7:30am-5:30pm, and Saturday, 7:30am-4pm. You can get to the barbecue in the back through the front doors or a rickety screen door on the side of the building. There are nine tables in a small room off the serving line, but he plans to spruce up the place a little and add more tables and a new sign in the front window. Birkelbach takes special orders (including making a garlic sausage), caters, and does custom processing. Call him at 409/542-2740.

Coming up this weekend...

Winedale Festival and Texas Craft Exhibition outside of Round Top has something for everybody with history, food, scenery, music, and lots of fun, Mar. 21-22. 409/278-3530.

Spring Antique Show & Sale happens at New Braunfels' Civic Center, Mar. 20-22. 800/572-2626.

Lockhart Opry features an evening of music and storytelling, Mar. 23. 512/601-2154.

Alligator Program by the rangers at Choke Canyon State Park includes baby alligators and local wild habitat, Mar. 21. 512/786-3686.

Coming up...

Attwater's Prairie Chicken Festival in Eagle Lake offers tours of the refuge along with shows of antiques, photography, music, and nature displays, Mar. 27-28. 409/234-2780.

South Texas Polka & Sausage Festival in Hallettsville swings around music and lots of German food, Mar. 28-29. 512/798-3288.

Bluebonnet Festival in Natalia welcomes the first wildflowers with music, entertainment, and food in Mustang Park. Mar. 26-28. 830/665-5439.

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