By Michele Stevens Bernard, TSB Lifestyle Editor
From this neck of the woods, any trip to the heart of Texas requires a road trip. While I-35 will certainly get you there, the next time you head south, consider taking the tastiest route between here and there, The Texas barbecue Trail. Located almost parallel of the interstate just east of Austin, running from north to south of the capital city are a handful of quaint Texas towns that boast the wood-charcoal pits and pit- masters that produce the most mouth-watering barbecue in the Lone Star state.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel the Texas Barbecue Trail. Along the way, I stopped in to check out Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Smitty’s Market, Black’s Barbecue and Kreutz Market in Lockhart, and Luling Bar-B-Q in Luling. I invited barbecue expert and proprietor of Bernie’s Backyard Barbecue, David Bernard, to accompany me. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to clarify that another way to read that last sentence is: My hubby, who likes to smoke barbecue in our backyard, and I visited legendary Lone Star barbecue joints between here and our son’s place in Corpus. While David enjoyed tasting to his heart’s content and checked off a few line-items on his Barbecue Bucket List, I took copious notes and pictures and a few bites too. This is my first installment of our foodie adventure.
Our first stop was Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas. With multiple awards, accolades, and features in both films and documentaries, not to mention write-ups in more publications that even owner Bobby Mueller himself could list, this place was the rock star of the trip. Established in 1949 by the late Louie Mueller, it boasts a colorful history that sees Mueller arriving in the tiny town of Taylor to open and manage the town’s first Safeway Grocery store in 1936 to being named the Official Best Barbecue in Texas in 2008. A quick internet search of the name Mueller will garner as many articles about the family as the food, with time and temperaments creating multiple but separate barbecue businesses in and around the Austin area. Even protégés and former employees of the Mueller’s seem to find their way to the top of the barbecue food chain in Texas. Just ask Aaron Franklin of the mega-successful and succulent Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Click to read about our trip to Franklin’s here.
Taylor, a small town in Williamson County boasting a population of less than 16,000, can be found 30 to 45 minutes northeast of Austin by car. For visitors who would like overnight accommodations, the town boasts a couple of Bed and Breakfasts, as well as a Best Western hotel. Since sampling multiple restaurants along the trail was our goal, we opted to stay in Bastrop, a logical juncture in the road that saw us equally distanced between each of our chosen destinations. Plenty of accommodations can be found in this sweet little town too.
To fully enjoy the Mueller experience, I recommend a visit to their website for a quick tutorial. On the homepage, you will find ordering tips introducing the uninitiated to a few of the finer points of ordering, so guests will be in the know when their wait in line is rewarded with their turn at the meat counter. For example, accept the proffered brisket sample, don’t be alarmed when your order comes to you on a sheet of butcher paper instead of a plate, know the difference between lean and moist brisket. It’s all there, as is their full menu.
The menu features the real stars of the show, beef brisket, beef sausage, ribs, pork tenderloin, chicken, turkey and more. Whatever you decide to order, you really owe it to yourself to try the brisket, it’s what they’re known for, as are their hand-made sausages and their ribs. A quick note about the beef ribs, they are huge! I wish I could adequately describe the look on my husband’s face when they plopped what looked like a Flinstone-esque brontosaurus rib in front of him. This after they talked him out of ordering two! Despite the size, he fought through it, sampling each delicacy in turn.
“Everything I sampled had a perfect balance of smoke, seasoning and moist tenderness,” said David. “The pit master at Mueller’s demonstrated the art of barbecue, by achieving that balance. At the end of the day, it really is an art not a recipe. Barbecue doesn’t need to be covered up with fancy sweet sauces. Showcase the meat and your ability to smoke it.”
My final tip for optimal enjoyment when visiting Louis Mueller’s Barbecue: take in the ambiance of it all. You will stand in line for awhile, but that’s okay. Like with many other famous Texas barbecue houses, line-waiting is itself a part of the experience that I swear makes the barbecue that much better. Note the American flag waving proudly outside the front door of the historic downtown building. Upon entering, adjust your eyes to the smoky dark interior of the cavernous room. It will undoubtedly be filled with locals, random media-types and tourists such as yourself. Chances are you might even see a familiar face or two as seen on television, film or stage. Meanwhile note the walls filled with smoke-stained photographs, business cards and memorabilia. Have you found the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award yet? It hangs right about the tea jugs. Because, really, where else are you going to hang it?
Stay tuned to TownSquareBuzz.com for the next leg of the Texas Barbecue Trail: Lockhart, barbecue capital of Texas.