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The pleasures of Texas barbecue

March 15, 2013|By Russ Parsons
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Everyone has their own iconic food -- not just a food they really like, or even really love, but a food around which the world turns. For me, it’s barbecue. And not just any barbecue, but Texas barbecue.

Credit my passion to a sentimental education received at the pit of C.B. Stubblefield when I was still at a very impressionable age (not that his barbecue wouldn’t have made an impression on someone of any vintage).

Stubb is famous now – or at least his name is. His line of barbecue products can be found on supermarket shelves across the country. Back then, he was running a dingy little stand on the bad side of the railroad tracks in Lubbock, Texas. And I ate dinner there almost every night for several years.

America is a land of many barbecues, and there are even distinct subdivisions of the Texas style. But generally speaking, Texas barbecue is an austere plate.  

There will be meat – pork ribs and sausage, of course, often beef ribs and maybe chicken for the vegetarians. But the chief signifier is brisket. When you find barbecued brisket, you have probably found a Texas barbecue.

The meat is usually served naked, flavored only by the spice rub, smoke and time. If there is sauce – and there won’t always be any – it will be served on the side or brushed or spooned over top just before serving. The sauce itself will be tomato-based, but fairly thin, tart and peppery. Corn syrup-injected ketchup is not an appropriate barbecue sauce in Texas.

Side dishes will be few: pinto beans and either cole slaw or potato salad (usually potato salad) and a big chunk of white onion, which is the perfect accompaniment to smoked brisket, crisp and sharp. There might well be a pickled jalapeno on the side. And a couple slices of white bread. No, not sourdough. Deal with it.

I linger over these descriptions, mouth watering, because I can no longer linger over the real thing very often. In the first place, I’m no longer in my 20s. My meat consumption has scaled back drastically. How quickly good digestion flies!

Probably more to the point, though, there just isn’t very much good barbecue in Southern California – at least not of the Texas variety. The best I’ve found is Bludso’s, which is very good indeed. For Southern California.

So you can understand why flying back to Texas last week, I had barbecue on my brain. I figured I couldn’t get any in my couple days in Austin, because the friends I was staying with were vegetarians (nice folks, though).

Fortunately, my wife and I had set aside one day to drive through the Hill Country to visit some more old friends. Before I’d left I’d done some scouting. Fredericksburg, where we would be staying, is a pretty little town, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of barbecue.

Fortunately, on Twitter, Daniel Vaughn (@BBQsnob) came up with a place called Cranky Franks. Now, in general, cute names are reverse indicators in barbecue joints. They’re warnings more than endorsements.  But Vaughn seemed to know what he was talking about – his book “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue” will be published by HarperCollins in May. So I took a chance.

The first good sign was that after I emailed my friends, they said they’d pick some up early in the day. Great barbecue can be cooked only in limited amounts and should not be reheated or held over. Good barbecue purveyors acknowledge that by staying open only until they sell out. At Franklin’s, the hippest Q  joint in Austin, folks stand in line waiting and are sometimes turned away even before noon.

Cranky or not, Frank’s did not disappoint. We got pork ribs (beef ribs have always seemed too greasy to me, even in my meatiest days), chicken, sausage (probably the best meat of the night), and brisket (appropriately, they let you choose between fat and lean cuts; we took both).

Sauce came on the side – both their normal sauce (which could have used a little more pepper, maybe), and what they call their “German Sauce”, which is just a little big sweeter with some warm spices.

The meat was perfectly cooked, and lightly perfumed with wood smoke (mesquite, I think, rather than hickory). The ribs were moist and tender without being soggy and soft. The brisket was sliced thick – any thinner and it would have fallen apart. The sausage had wonderful snap. Didn’t try the chicken.

We ate and ate and ate until there was almost nothing left. It was like being 21 again -- though I’ve been living on salads ever since.


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