Rather early in the morning of Saturday, September 3, Andrew Christman, Anna Kaladish, Matt Robinson and I piled into Matt’s wicked-cool ’97 Buick Park Avenue and set off on not the first of our gastronomic adventures together, though surely our most ambitious. We had heard of a little town south of Austin called Lockhart, officially the “Barbecue Capital of Texas” as promulgated by the state legislature, and since we had been left unsatisfied by the likes of the mediocre DFW-area Dickey’s and Sonny Bryan’s, we knew we had to make the drive south to get a taste of real Texas barbecue.
Though the ride to Lockhart through drought-ridden central Texas was something less than beautiful, the town itself was much fun. If you’re ever in Lockhart, walk about the fine old downtown, appreciate the Second Empire style Caldwell County Courthouse, drink a float at the general store, and spend an hour at the delightful Southwest Museum of Clocks and Watches, itself a “perfect example of the random stuff you find in small-town America,” as Christman put it.
But your emphasis, like ours was, is on the food. We ate at two Lockhart barbecue joints. The first was Black’s, founded by Judge Ed Black and his wife Norma Jean back in 1932 and still owned by the family. When you walk inside, you enter a narrow hallway lined with photographs of the Blacks and notable customers. My favorite was one of Ed shaking hands with a slender Lyndon Johnson. You then move into a cafeteria-line of side dishes before placing your order for meats.
I had the sausage and a chopped beef sandwich. The sausage was incredible: tasty, well-textured, and juicy without being greasy. The sandwich was good, if less remarkable. Robinson ate brisket and absolutely loved it. Kaladish found her sausage and chopped beef sandwich too smoky for her taste, but liked the “extremely friendly service” and the “homey feel” of Black’s. The atmosphere was undeniably great, the walls lined with memorabilia relating to both Black’s and Lockhart itself, including fascinating team photos of old youth sports teams.
After a spell of quiet digestion, we ate our second meal at Smitty’s, a venerable institution with a parentage dating back to early in the 20th century. Smitty’s consists of two rooms. One is a large, wide-open dining room featuring cafeteria-style tables and somewhat Spartan décor. The other room is the incredibly hot and smoky pit area itself, where lines of indeterminate origin form, in one of which Christman and I waited and placed our order, which was ready immediately and served on butcher paper.
Kaladish was all about Smitty’s. Not only were the ribs and sausage the best barbecue she’d ever had, but she liked the “mighty fine” sweet tea and the “random” complimentary saltines. I think it’s safe to say we all enjoyed the first-rate ribs. I personally liked the sausage less than that at Black’s, finding it too greasy.
Dining at Smitty’s, what with the butcher paper, the saltines, the communal seating, and the sweat-inducing ordering-process, is quite the experience. Black’s, with its cafeteria-like line, wide ensemble of sides, and homey atmosphere, has virtues of its own. The barbecue at both is worth your time and dollar.