25 August 2009

Lockhart, TX

Just before I returned to Buffalo for the school year, G-D and I took an old friend and an Austin Newbie (a pig-roasting friend from North Carolina!) out to Lockhart for dinner at Kreuz's Market. Kreuz's makes up one pole of the debate that has solidified Lockhart as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. That is, by the way, a bona fide title, bestowed upon Lockhart by the Texas State Legislator, House Resolution No. 1024, 76th Legislature, Regular Session (1999). Anyway, Smitty's Market rests at the other pole of the debate and, to be honest, has persuaded me of its superiority. We ended up at Kreuz's because it stays open later. Not to say that Kreuz's ain't good. It is. Probably it's better than all but one other barbecue place in Texas, and that place happens to be the ghost of its own father.

Let me explain.

Kreuz's, sort of pronounced "Krites's," started out on South Commerce Street circa 1900. Charles Kreuz opened it as a meat market and, like many other market owners did at week's end, he cooked the leftover meat over low heat with lots of smoke. The slow cooking process and abundant wood smoke helped cover up any week-old funk the meat might have acquired. Tougher and fattier cuts, brisket especially, worked well because they stayed juicy and tender for the eight to twenty-four hours it might take to finish cooking. Thus, the central Texas style of barbecue developed, and Mr. Kreuz was one of the first to serve the stuff to weekend shoppers at the back door of his shop.

In 1948 Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt bought the place from the Kreuz family, having worked there for over a decade. He kept the name, for business purposes or out of respect I do not know, but Kreuz's carried on in the same location for an entire century. In 1999, after something of a family disagreement, Kreuz's moved down the street and Smitty's opened in the original location. Apparently Edgar left the business to his sons Don, who retired in 1996, and Rick, who still runs Kreuz's in its new location. So the story goes, Rick owned the business but Don owned the building and, after the disagreement, Don apparently drove rent up so high that Rick had to move out--to a much larger and undoubtedly more expensive place. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that's how I heard it. In any case, Nina Schmidt-Sells opened Smitty's, a tribute to her by-then-dead father, in the original location and her son John Fullilove still cooks barbecue on the same pits his grandfather, and Charles Kreuz before him, used all those years ago.

That's why I like Smitty's, really, because you can still see those barbecue pits, you can see the chains that used to secure butcher knives to the tables, you can see the soot that's built up over a hundred years of use. It is the living ghost of the displaced Kreuz's Market. And Smitty's isn't so big that you feel like the cattle their serving while you wait in line. Still, as I say, Kreuz's ain't bad. Here's what we ate during this last visit:

That red butcher's paper is the only plate you get. Those plastic knives the only utensils. The meat comes with either white bread or saltine crackers, but they won't serve you a sandwich. You pay for the meat by the pound. Here we have four pork ribs, two links of sausage and four thick slices of brisket. The bags of dill pickle slices and fresh white onion come free upon request and if you want to pay for additional sides you can get cheddar cheese, jalapeno, German potatoes. We got the potatoes and a six pack of Lonestar.

I paid my first visit to Kreuz's in 2004, after it had moved to its new location. I don't think it was the first time I'd had central Texas barbecue. It may not even have been my first visit to Lockhart. It was, however, the first time I realized that, oh yeah, this ain't the same stuff they got in Tennessee. Well, almost six years later, I can say the same thing with a little more confidence. Under the name "barbecue" exists an entire complex of cultures and tastes. For our purposes here, however, I'll simplify it with this quote from Rick Schmidt, the current owner of Kreuz's: “Some people seem disappointed. They say, ‘How can it be barbecue without beans and potato salad and sauce?’ We just tell ’em this place was here before all that came along.”

Obviously there's more than a bit of Texas pride in that explanation, but I do believe it gets to the crass generalization that I want to put forward. There's barbecue with sauce (and slaw) and then there's barbecue that's just meat. Texas, in fact, has both. East Texas has a tradition of sauces and sandwiches, much like most of the Deep South, although I don't think anyone in Texas puts slaw on their meat. In any case, there exist separate traditions that often seem distantly related at best and no one knows exactly how to map the family tree. While I hesitate to make any assertions beyond the sauce/no sauce divide, some of the speculation on why that divide exists is fairly interesting.

In a Texas Monthly article from 1973, Griffin Smith Jr. offers a theory that begins with etymology and ends with race. Apparently even the origin of the word barbecue is under dispute. Does it come from the Mexican barbacoa, which, even while it shares some characteristics with barbecue, is an entirely different meat cooking tradition? Or does it come from the French "barbe" (beard) and "queue" (tail), suggesting an orthodoxy of whole-body cooking by which we no longer abide? Perhaps it comes from some forgotten native American language? No one knew in 1973 when Smith was writing and no one knows now.

One of the more generally accepted theories, however, hinges on socio-economic status, which in America demographically means racial status, too. Smith explains the idea in more detail but it's pretty easily summarized this way: The dominant class of white folks had access to better meat and didn't need any sauce while the subordinated class of black folks had poorer quality meats and used sauces to compensate. Thus, Czech and German immigrants developed the central Texas style while slaves and their ancestors developed the east Texas and Deep South tradition.

While I'm impressed by the class and race awareness the 1973 article expresses, a sophistication most modern magazines lack, that theory doesn't quite square with the explanation of Czech and German store owners barbecuing their older, tougher meats. Nor does it acknowledge the fact that white people owned slaves, whose labor they controlled and whose "ingenious" labors they no doubt adapted for their own purposes. I don't have the resources to lay out a competing theory here, but it does seem that the historical circumstances suggest a more complicated explanation of divergent barbecuing cultures. In Lockhart, however, the general theory holds; both Kreuz's and Smitty's are owned and operated by whites, as are the other two reputable barbecue places, the Chisholm Trail and, ironically, Black's.

Those last two certainly add to Lockhart's status as Barbecue Capital, but they represent a second tier legacy. Black's employs too many qualifiers, advertising itself as "Texas' oldest and best major barbecue restaurant continuously owned by the same family." Who'd dispute it? Similarly, they have too many menu options. And Chisholm Trail, well, it's still better than anything within Austin City Limits. At least the name recognizes Lockhart's economic roots as a the oldest and best major northward post on the continuously infamous Chisholm Trail whose runners included members of LBJ's family. Did I mention that LBJ loved Black's? Ha!

We didn't stick around long enough to sightsee during this past visit, but Lockhart also has a really neat jail. The first floor has been converted into a history museum, primarily about the city's history with the cattle trade, while everything above it remains more or less untouched and open for viewing. Then, if after the barbecue there's stomach-room for a drink, I like to visit Lilly's elephant themed bar. Here's what Aasim Syed has to say about it:

As you can see, it's cooler than Fredericksburg.

22 August 2009



San Soo Gab San

There's a lot out there on the Internet about San Soo Gab San, a 24-hour Korean BBQ restaurant in North Chicago. If you're curious, check out this dorky-ass debate style video from Check Please. Or this homophobic dude-review from those ingratiating, fine fare loving douche bags at Chicago Gluttons. Or, for a little contrast, take a look at this explanatory note from Examiner. I don't have much to add to the various accounts of the place. I agree with them all. But I'll post some pictures I took while there recently just so that nobody has to go searching for better ones.

Despite the excellent food and exciting table-grill, it's sort of a depressing scene.

They will really serve you raw meat if you ask for it. Here's the beef.

And here's the beef next to nearly finished pork ribs.

G-D had a delicious Kirin Ichiban Shibori. I ordered an OB because I thought it was the Korean thing to drink. If you look closely, though, it's much less specific than that. OB stands for Oriental Brewery.

And finally, the best part of the meal... All the side dishes.

18 August 2009

Hatch Chili

It's Hatch Chili season. Every year in September the city of Hatch, New Mexico celebrates with a festival. Suddenly, the small town in southern New Mexico swells from a population of 2,000 to about 30,000. Foodies and chili fans congregate to taste the fruit in various forms (sauces, jams, powdered, candied, roasted and stuffed with anything delicious) and to enjoy the carnival events.

I've never attended the festival, but one of Austin's fancy schmancy grocery stores imports plenty of chilies to go around and even hosts a miniature version of Hatch's festival in the parking lot. Come to think of it, though, I don't think I've ever attended that festival either. I learned about Hatch from my Auntie, who makes the meanest pork and chili pepper stew I've ever tasted. Actually, "meanest" probably isn't the right word. Hatch chilies are fairly mild as far as chilies go. Once roasted, they have a complex flavor that blends sweet, tangy and picante. That perfect combination has encouraged the well-deserved adulation, not only because the wonderful flavor, but also because eating Hatch chilies doesn't wreck the taste buds. I admit, though, that Auntie's stew has given me the hiccups on a couple of occasions. I think maybe she added some spice, but it could be that she got a lively batch. Individual chilies can vary a bit on the Scoville scale and green Hatch chilies tend to vary more than most.

I picked up some mild Hatch Chilies a couple weeks ago because I got excited for the season. But when I got home I realized I hadn't a clue what to do with them. I certainly wasn't going to attempt a stew, since that dish had already been spoken for. G-D had some pork chops, though, and since I'd already learned that pork and Hatch Chilies pair nicely, I decided to make a sauce for smothered chops.

First, the chilies need roasting. I've roasted other chilies before, so I sort of had an idea how to go about it. Unfortunately, however, I've never had complete success. There are a lot of tips out there on the internet for roasting in the oven, with the broiler, on the grill, over a gas range. I've tried all except that last, which is, incidentally, the method Auntie recommended to me later. Rather than suggest time limits (which vary widely depending on who you ask), I'll suggest heating the chilies until they blister and begin to blacken. If you don't roast them long enough it gets difficult to remove the skin at the end. That's the problem I tend to have. After you remove them from heat, put the chilies in a plastic bag (or tupperware, or a bowl covered with plastic wrap) to steam for fifteen or twenty minutes. That will help loosen the skin some more. Once they're good and soggy, you can remove the charred skin. If you can't get it all off, don't fret. A little roasted skin adds a lot of flavor to the sauce.

I began the sauce by sautéing half a chopped white onion in olive oil. After they were soft, I added three or four cloves of crushed garlic and kept that over medium heat for another two minutes. Then I added several pinches of flour until I got the thickened consistency that I wanted. Immediately after thickening, I added the chilies, which I chopped up after peeling. The chilies were a bit wet and sticky, so I let them simmer over medium-low heat for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Once everything seemed to gel together, I added about a cup and a half of water. I would have preferred stock, but I didn't have any. Water worked fine. Finally, I stirred in chopped cilantro, powdered coriander, salt, a squeeze of lime, maybe small amounts of black pepper and cumin, I can't remember now. I let that simmer on low for about twenty minutes, until it began to thicken again. After it cooled down, I poured half in a zip-lock bag with the pork chops to marinade over night. The other half I reserved for topping the chops post-grilling.

This sauce will keep in the fridge for a week or so, which makes it easy to prepare lots at one time and save some for later dishes.

The next evening I used the skillet grilling method that G-D and I learned about earlier in the summer. Normally she plays Grill Master, but we were leaving for Chicago the next morning and she had other things keeping her busy. So, I took the task and, approaching it with nearly complete ignorance, I forgot to grease the skillet. As anyone might guess, the chops sizzled, stuck to the cast iron and broke apart into smaller chunks of meaty debris. Luckily, the cuts were pretty big, so even with large chunks falling off we had passable chops. I left them on for about seven or eight minutes, flipped them, and let them cook for another seven or eight minutes. In that time a miracle occurred. The meaty debris transformed into an unencased sausage that absorbed all the Hatch marinade. Unencased sausage? Yeah, well, that's what I decided to call it. The unencased sausage is the stuff in the middle of the plate, and it tasted great.

To serve, I reheated the leftover Hatch Chili sauce and poured it over the four largest chunks of meat, creating a plate of kinda-smothered pork chops. I think smothered pork chops are traditionally covered in their own gravy, but this created a similarly juicy and flavorful dish. We ate them with grilled corn and green beans. Later in the week we made cheddar-jalapeno mashed potatoes that I think might have been really good with these chops. Another time, perhaps. I don't when I'll make these again, but I definitely want to do more with Hatch Chilies. Auntie came over for a taste and said the sauce wasn't bad. "Maybe a bit more lime next time. I don't know, that might not be it, but it needs something." A ringing endorsement! Well, anyway, an invitation to keep cooking.

For more information about chilies, check out The Chile Pepper Institute's excellent website.


It's really easy (and cheap) to make your own pesto, especially if you don't worry about doing it right. I usually crush a pile of garlic, then chop up an equal-sized pile of basil. Combine them with a healthy dose of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and there you have it: homemade pesto. A bit of balsamic tastes good, too, although that's not traditional.

I never use a mortar and pestle, rarely add pine nuts and only sometimes include grated parmigiano. Nonetheless, it's always wonderful. If you don't love garlic, and its peculiar burn, it might be best to use two parts basil for every one part garlic. After you've worked out your preferred flavor, you can use it to dress up any pasta dish, as a spread or even as a salad dressing. I like to put it on one of my favorite summer sandwiches, Il Caprese. This is how Closet Cooking does it. And this is what mine looks like from above:

And from the side:

Sorry for the poor quality photos. I used my phone and it was dark.