We've all suffered enough. After nearly two weeks of harsh winterlike conditions, it's finally springtime in Central Texas. Pretty soon the trees will sprout new leaves, the hills will look like Crayola boxes, and every Austinite will make this year's obligatory "drive in the country." It's the perfect chance to see the land outside the loops, mosey down a few two-lane highways, and eat your weight in small-town barbecue. There's plenty of good barbecue within Austin's city limits, but spring drives are perfect for getting acquainted with our area's renown rural barbecue joints. To help guide your moveable feast, we've compiled an annotated list
of nearby barbecue towns, each within easy striking distance of Austin. (As much as we'd like to give exhausive reviews of every small-town pit, our listings are limited by both space and our collective cholesterol count. In the case where there's another great spot in a locale where we only had room for one complete listing, we've followed that with the names of some other joints worth visiting.)
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
604 W. Young (TX29), 915/247-5713
Mon-Thu, 11am-7pm; Fri-Sun, 11am-8pm
Out west of Austin, the pits smoke with native mesquite instead of oak, and Cooper's fame comes from their use of "cowboy" pits, designed for quick, direct cooking rather than indirect smoking. Ordering couldn't be simpler, since you choose your meat directly from the grill -- just point and they'll cut. In addition to their barbecue, Cooper's also gets kudos for great cobblers, potato salad, and big jars of the Deep Southerner's dream: sweet tea.
Also in Llano:
Kenneth Laird's Bar-B-Q Pit, 1600 Ford St. (TX16) 915/247-5234; Brother's Bar-B-Que, 405 West Young (TX29), 915/247-3003; Inman's Kitchen, Highway 29 and Hwy. 71W, 915/247-5257
208 S. Commerce, 512/398-2361; Mon-Fri 7am-6pm, Sat 7am-6:30pm, closed Sunday.
Step into the pit room of Kreuz Market and you've entered the high temple of Texas barbecue -- a smoke-sweetened blast furnace straight out of Dante. The granddaddy of market-style barbecue joints, Kreuz serves their incredible smoked meats -- including a melt-in-your mouth pork loin -- on butcher paper with simple grocery-shelf side dishes (pickles, onions, tomatoes, cheese). No frills to distract your mouth, nose, and stomach from the spiritual experience.
215 N. Main St., 512/398-2712; roughly 10am-8:30pm, daily.
Lockhart is far from a one-pit town. For pilgrims who prefer more side options, Black's serves cafeteria style in the self-described "oldest and best major Barbecue house in Texas continuously owned by the same family since 1932." Brisket, pork cuts, and peppery sausage can be accompanied by a deep stable of mayo-based side salads, as well as stellar pie-style cobbler.
FM 1826, 892-14333: Wed-Sun, noon-10pm.
For many Austinites, the Salt Lick Experience has become a standard routine for when out-of-town guests come calling. After a quick stop for beer (bring your own) and a relaxing drive through a Hill Country sunset, Cousin Bart from Paducah gets treated to a big mess of the Lick's slow-smoked barbecue, served family style -- on big platters with everyone for themselves. An early mosey to Driftwood will get you back in time for most SXSW festivities, making it a damn good way to power up for the evening.
Louie Mueller Barbecue
205 W. Second St. (US79), 512/352-6206. Mon-Fri, 8am-6pm (4-6pm, take out only); Sat, 8am-until they sell out.
Mueller's building used to be a gymnasium near the turn of the century, but now the old basketball court features one of the best pits in the Barbecue Belt. The brisket and sausage come with styrofoam cups of a tasty dipping sauce that borders on pepper soup. Trips to Mueller's should be planned for early lunch -- consider it the perfect hangover breakfast -- since they routinely sell out before noon.
205 W. Second St. (US79), 512/352-6206. Mon-Sat, 10AM-8PM, Sun 10am-2pm.
The local representative of the prolific Mikeska barbecue dynasty, doing business right across the parkng lot from Mueller's. More consistent hours than their neighbor, and a good fallback in case of emergency.
1212 Highway 290, 512/285-3407, Mon-Thu, 8am-8pm; Fri-Sat 8am-10pm.
Tradition holds that Elgin is the local town for sausage. Though many of us mourn the Southside's move to its current digs -- a Sixties-era bank building -- the quality of their in/famous "hot guts" (spicy beef sausage) has remained consistent. Wander around the building and see if you can figure out which room used to be the drive-through.
Also in Elgin:
Bigger's Barbecue, US290 at Loop 109, 512/285-3402; Crosstown BBQ, 214 Central Ave. (off Loop 109), 512/285-9308.
Luling City Meat Market
633 E. Davis, 210/875-9019, Mon-Sat 7am-6pm.
Across from the city's main tourist attraction (a line of pump jacks in cartoon drag), the City Market specializes in tender brisket, homemade sausage, and a strikingly sweet table sauce. A latter-day remodeling left the Market dining area distinctly less funky than in earlier days, but the pits still work good as ever.