Central Texas Barbecue Crash Course

Tootsie Tomanetz, pit mistress at Snow's BBQ
Tootsie Tomanetz, pit mistress at Snow's BBQ (Photo by Mick Vann)

Austin sits along the geographic and cultural line where the American South ends and the American West begins. Our location along the Chisholm Trail, between the hardscrabble ranchland to the west and the rich Blackland Prairie farmland to the east, contributes to our identity as one of several definitive American barbecue regions. We can trace our barbecue heritage to the vaqueros and cowboy cooks who smoked beef over plentiful mesquite, to the frugal German and Czech immigrant butchers who made sausages and dry-smoked those and other utility cuts of beef and pork over smoldering oak coals to feed cotton pickers, and to the descendents of freed slaves who used the aroma of hardwood smoke and spicy sauces to enhance the flavors of cheap cuts of beef, pork, and mutton. The quality and diversity of Central Texas barbecue is phenomenal, and we are naturally very proud of it. It is one of the culinary elements we thoroughly enjoy sharing with visitors. Dishola representative Lindsey Simon, frequent Chron­icle contributor Mick Vann, and I are preparing to do just that during an official South by Southwest Interactive party next week. Since participants will be concentrated Downtown and most likely afoot, our concept was to find a convenient venue and throw a party with a menu of Austin and Central Texas barbecue for our guests to try, providing them with a crash course in the best we have to offer. We discussed our favorite briskets, sausages, beef and pork ribs, specialty meats, side dishes, desserts, and drinks and put out invitations to six pit masters. This year's party is a limited edition, preview event – we plan to have a bigger, meatier, full-fledged, on-the-program blowout in 2010!

Mick and I struck out on a Saturday barbecue road trip recently to recruit barbecue cooks for next week's inaugural preview event. Most of the rural communities surrounding Austin have long-established barbecue traditions of their own, and we wanted to check out a new (to us, anyway) dining destination, as well as drop in on some of our old favorites. We arrived in Lexington (population 1,178, about 50 miles northeast of Austin) at 9:15am and joined the line of eager customers on the porch at Snow's BBQ (516 Main in Lex­ing­ton, 979/773-4640, www.snowsbbq.com). It's a little embarrassing to admit that we're among the last publications to write about Snow's. Its barbecue was proclaimed the best in the state by Texas Monthly last year and has been the subject of features in major Texas publications as well as The New York Times and The New Yorker. Snow's is a Saturday-only phenomenon that has made tiny Lexington the newest holy grail of barbecue destinations, and we were hungry to find out what the fuss was all about. The fuss is about toothsome, flavorful brisket; a marvelously tender pork butt; simply excellent pork ribs; and moist, smoky chicken. (The sausage here didn't set our world on fire, but we knew we were headed to Taylor and could get great sausage there, so we didn't see this as a big problem.) We can vouch for the fact that Snow's humble proprietor, Kerry Bexley, and spry, 73-year-old pit mistress Tootsie Tomanetz are the real deal. Their barbecue lives up to all the hype. We invited them to participate in our party, and they graciously accepted.

Leaving Lexington already stuffed with barbecue at just after 10am, we headed to Taylor to visit one of our favorite Central Texas barbecue shrines, Louie Mueller Barbecue (206 W. Second St. in Taylor, 512/352-6206, www.louiemueller
). Wayne Mueller represents the third generation of his family to operate the downtown Taylor barbecue joint bearing his grandfather's name. He told us proudly that the Texas Legislature had honored his late father, legendary pit master Bobby Mueller, in mid-February and that a copy of the resolution would soon join the numerous other awards gracing the smoke-stained restaurant walls. We stocked up on the signature black-pepper-rubbed brisket and pork ribs and some links of the house sausage, securing Wayne's promise to appear at our party in March.

Go to www.bbqcrashcourse.com to book a seat at the party, and look for more details and pictures from our recent road trip and some changes on the Central Texas barbecue scene on my blog, Virginia's On the Range (austinchronicle.com/ontherange).

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