Texas Barbecue Trail, Dispatch #1: Elgin
As part of Apropos de Nada's continuing efforts to defy categorization, to mess with and, ultimately, re-embrace Texas, to stave off the imminent post-March Madness and pre-kickoff doldrums and, lastly, to undo whatever good is being done with the new gym membership, the crack staff at AdN has endeavored to canvass the Texas Barbecue Trail. Slow-cooked meat is one of the few subjects about which we're qualified to comment at length, having resided in barbecue Meccas such as Memphis, Georgia and both Carolinas and having competed in the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
It's only fair at this, the outset, to warn our readership across the Mississippi River: this will involve beef. The Southeastern visitor will note with a mixture of derision, befuddlement and sadness that Texans include beef in their otherwise delicious barbecue cornucopia, which also features chicken and turkey. In the South, inviting someone to barbecue that includes any kind of meet besides pork is akin to inviting them to a satanic orgy. As for Texas' take, well, beef comes from cows, which are, um, plentiful in Texas. Dance with them what brung ya.
Having previewed Lockhart rather aggressively before our departure to barbecue oblivion, aka California, AdN pre-loosened its belt and picked as its first stop Elgin, home to the Southside Market & BBQ Inc. and to Meyer's Elgin Smokehouse. Famous for its hot sausage, Elgin is a tiny hamlet roughly 30 miles northeast of Austin on Highway 290.
The first stop was the Southside Market, which was founded in 1882 and has been in the same hands since Ernest Bracewell took over in 1968 after moving from San Antonio. As with most Texas barbecue establishments, you can buy your meal buy the pound and eat it off of butcher paper. For the dandies among us, you can also order a plate for lunch.
Oscar Wilde, clearly with barbecue on the brain, famously averred that "Nothing exceeds like excess." Thus, we ordered up the four-meat combo, which featured sausage, brisket and ribs of the pork and beef variety.
As a native Georgian, I share my home region's wariness of brisket, a lower-quality cut of beef. And bad brisket is about as appealing as shoe leather. Fortunately, Southside shares the conviction held by the sorely missed John Mueller, who smoked his brisket until it was of near-liquid consistency. The same could be said of Southside's cuts, which, as tired as I am of this cliché, melted in my mouth. The all-beef sausage, too, was superb. While it lacked the almost explosive juiciness of Smitty's in Lockhart, the hallmark piquancy more than compensated.
I am always frustrated by the beef rib. Sure, it's huge. It's also a lot of work and it rewards that work with poor-quality meet and relatively little of it. I dunno, maybe I'm getting bad cuts, but my Southside experience was no different. You spend a lot of time gnawing off small chunks of meat off this Flintstones-sized bone and get very little out of it, besides a lot of grease on your face. Contrast that with the Memphis-style baby back pork rib, which is of manageable size and the sheath of meat slides off the bone like silk. Southside's pork rib was a better experience, primarily because it's pork and pork ribs are proof that our God is a loving one. The fat seems to be marbled better on pork ribs than on beef ribs and the meat is much more tender, so you get a much more buttery experience.
Sauce, in my experience, seems to be something of an afterthought in Texas. Primarily, this is because the effort is directed towards the rub and the smoking. If you've done that part right, the logic goes, why cover it up with sauce? Fair enough. Also, unlike the Southeast, there's not a real regional bias toward vinegar, tomato or mustard. At the Salt Lick and at County Line, you get a viscous, sweet syrup that I recommend avoiding. Southside serves a peppery vinegar sauce that aficionados of South Georgia and Eastern North Carolina barbecue would feel right at home with.
The next stop was Meyer's, founded in 1949 by R.G. Meyer and, before you consider me inhuman, this was a "to go" purchase. I finished this meal today for lunch at my desk and, due to having had to re-heat the meal in an oven, I'm can't claim to having been equitable to Meyer's, where I ordered a three-meat combo. That said, perhaps due to the extra baking, I found their pork ribs to be exceptionally tender, whereas the sausage, a pork and beef combo, was perhaps toughened by the baking. The brisket was a little tougher, too. Some of that can be blamed on re-heating, but I just didn't see the balanced fat distribution in their brisket that Southside's well-marbled cuts had. The sauce seemed a little sweeter, but featured the same vinegar base as Southside.
At first blush, I have to give the edge to Southside over Meyer's, but I say that with the caveat that I owe Meyer's a fresh shot at a later date.