Return to Texas BBQ Country: Taylor, Llano, Driftwood
If the hand-scrawled list on that wall meets your definition of "complete food," you know you've come to the right place: Taylor, Texas.
Me, I'd come back after last year's short but bbq-filled visit
with both sons in tow, to see my sister as well as friends who'd moved to the Austin area. In this case "Austin area" means 20 minutes out of town, in a one-horse town with the picture-perfect name of Dripping Springs, which was damned inconvenient if you wanted Asian fusion and funky retro shops but damned near perfect if you wanted barbecue-- The Salt Lick was just up the road in Driftwood-- a creek to swim and catch frogs in, and lots of stars to gaze at at night.
was high on my list to try on my return because it promised the answer to one of the questions I'd come home with from my last Austin-area BBQ exploration: what's with the beef sausage at all these barbecue joints? It was a feature of nearly every place I'd tried, but its appeal had largely eluded me-- hamburger in a tube, was basically how it struck me, fairly unseasoned at most places (Kreuz Market at least dialed up in the pepper), greasy as all get out, with none of the transcendent qualities of the pork hot links found with barbecue around here. Or, for that matter, of the more familiar forms of beef-based sausage sold in meat markets, most of which are ground more finely and certainly spiced more artfully. By comparison, this stuff was like a meatloaf with its grease trapped by a skin. I knew why it existed-- because any livestock-raising culture turns its leftover bits into sausage of some sort-- but I had yet to see why anybody would boast about it.
But Louie Mueller's was famous for its sausage above all else, which promised that here, I might find the sausage that answered the question of why this was said to be one of the main draws of central Texas barbecue.
And so the first thing we did after arriving at the airport was light out for Taylor and lunch. Last year I said every place in Texas seemed to be decorated in one of two styles: Cornpone or Ersatz Cornpone. Mueller's was the first place I've seen that managed to hit both the folksy and the fauxsy notes within one building. A room to the left has the requisite pseudo-roadhouse decor, as well as a sunny view of the gravel parking lot, but the main room is an authentically smoke-stained vision of a Dickensian barbecue workhouse every bit as 19th century as the butcher shop at Smitty's. Perhaps the feature that sums it up best is the wall of local business cards... turned varying shades of mahogany by their many years of bathing in smoke.
I ordered a little of everything that mattered-- brisket, pork ribs, a beef rib, and one each of two of the flavors of sausage offered: regular and chipotle. (The third, untried, is jalapeno.) One really nice touch: as you waited to order, the man slicing brisket up deposited a sample of burnt end on your tray to whet your appetite for what was to come.
The pork rib and to some extent the beef rib and brisket were all coated with large pieces of cracked pepper, which frankly made it seem like all your food had taken a spill in the gravel parking lot. Despite the condition of the room, which promised an exceptionally smoky dining experience, I found that none of the meat had all that strong a smoke flavor, compared to the places I'd visited last year. The beef rib was greasy and not all that interesting; the pork rib had a straightforward pork flavor, like a pork chop, and was similarly chewy; the brisket was pretty, and probably the best of the three, yet still short of the high quality beef flavor of City Market's, say.
But the sausage... oh yes, the sausage...
here at last was a beef sausage which justified the species, a little more finely ground than the hamburger tubes I'd had elsewhere, yet still ground beefy, but with a buttery mouthfeel at the same time, the regular was very good, the chipotle was sublime, piquantly spicy, robustly meaty, bursting in the mouth with luminous heat. I knew at last why Louie Mueller's made beef sausage, although I still didn't know why anyone else bothered.
For that sausage alone we would have driven away happily from Taylor, a perfect little half-abandoned Last Picture Show
town of mostly shuttered Victorian-western storefronts. See it now; in five years, to judge by Hutto to its west, it will be Home Depots and Caribou Coffees, absorbed by the metastasizing Austin metroplex. (One amusing note: downtown Austinites protest the mallification of their city with the slogan "Keep Austin Weird"; in Dripping Springs we saw a bumper sticker trying to keep their funky neighbor at bay: "Keep Dripping Springs Normal.")
I said we would have driven away happily... but...
I knew there was such a place as Taylor Cafe
but I hadn't meant to take it in on this trip until I spotted it, virtually erased by the overpass. Coming down at the other end, we doglegged our way through streets of sleepy toolsheds and machine shops until we got back to it, facing the railroad tracks. We were just about to walk in when I was stopped by a middle-aged Mexican fellow seeking someone to help him push his van parked under the viaduct to where the tow truck could more readily haul it away. Seeing no easy way out of his request, I parked the kids firmly on the sidewalk with instructions not to budge, and helped him.
Rarely have I seen karmic payback work so quickly. We entered Taylor Cafe-- and here was all the Texas authenticity one could dream of.
Hey, sometimes it's easier to sneak a picture if you pretend you're taking one of your kid.
Now, I say "authentic" versus the other places that are gussied-up to be old-Texas quaint for visitors, but of course tractor seats at a bar are a deliberately cute touch just as much as the humorously cranky signs at Kreuz Market. Yet it was the kind of cute that has aged into authenticity; no marketing consultants had been involved here, you could sense that as soon as you walked in. Or maybe it was just the feeling that it wouldn't be all that hard to get your ass kicked in the Taylor Cafe.
We didn't really need anything to eat, but I ordered a plate of three meats, and before I could make my choice the waitress informed me that there were only three left: pork ribs, brisket, and a beef-pork sausage (somewhat surprisingly, they also make a turkey sausage).
One sign that you're eating authentic food dating back to before World War II is when it's unnaturally soft. People didn't often have money to fix their teeth and so it's common to find foods that have been adapted to be easily chewable, like the Maid-Rite or Nu-Way
crumbled-beef style of hamburger. That was how the barbecue was at Taylor Cafe-- sweet-glazed ribs almost fall off the bone, soft, not too fatty brisket, slightly hot-dog-like sausage, a tomatoey sauce to help it go down. At first my 5-Step-Program-trained snobbishness felt it was too soft to be proper chewy barbecue, but I have to say, once I made a sandwich of the brisket with a slice of pickle and a ring of onion on cottony white bread, it was pretty darn wonderful.
Wonderful or not-- and I finished it happily the next day-- it was obvious that the three of us were not eating at a rate typical for Taylor Cafe customers, and so the waitress soon came over to see if everything was all right. I fessed up that this was our second lunch within an hour and we chatted about what had brought us to Taylor Cafe. She regarded us with the mix of amazement and amusement that I often get when people realize what kind of an exotic culinary adventure I've dragged my two chicken-finger-aged boys on, but thanks to her smalltown friendliness, I was pretty sure that the asskicking danger was past.
As I went to pay I noticed that the proprietor of 60 years, 83-or-so-year-old Vencil Mares, had taken a spot at the end of the counter. I went over with my sons to pay our respects. I told him that we had flown in from Chicago for barbecue and he looked at the fellow next to him and joked, in one of those high-pitched, courtly Southern voices, "Thay have direct flights from Chicaga ta Taylor now?"
"Well, it's direct the way we came, anyway," I said. "Thank you for the barbecue, it was excellent."
"Don't thank me. Ah thank you
for comin' in ta mah restaurant," he said.
As we were leaving we stopped to watch the trains pass by Taylor Cafe. That's fine for trains, but don't you make the same mistake.
Louie Mueller Barbeque
206 W. Second
101 N. Main
The world is divided into two kinds of people: those for whom it's crazy to drive 70 miles and back for lunch, and those for whom it would be crazy not
I need hardly say which I fall into, so a couple of days later I took off northwest of Dripping Springs into the Hill Country for Llano, home of Cooper's.
Cooper's location, on an unlovely highway amid used car lots and drive-thru banks, is nothing to write home about, but there's plenty of atmosphere in the outdoor pits, starting with the open fire blazing at the edge of the parking lot, which you could easily back into under the wrong circumstances. That smoke is fed to a series of big smokeboxes:
You choose your meat from the one closest to the door:
Unfortunately there was nothing all that unusual to be had, not even mutton, so I stuck with my standards: pork and beef rib, brisket and whatever sausage they offered. I paid quite a lot of money for it-- almost $30 for what you see here plus a drink and some cobbler-- and sat down at the tables inside. (Why are these all sepiatone? I don't know, it just looked cool with the setup at Cooper's.)
And, sad to say, it was the least inspiring barbecue of my trip. The meat was greasy as heck and not of terribly high quality, there was relatively little smoke flavor, surprising given the setup you passed through to get it; and the sauce was, like Mueller's, a thin vinegary dipping sauce, but this time so vinegary it almost made your eyes water. Especially for the price, it was a real disappointment-- even if, of course, many people would be turning cartwheels if a place turning out the same food opened in Chicago, or almost anywhere other than within 50 miles of Austin.
I caught a scrap of conversation about "since the old man's been gone" and Cooper's opening franchise locations somewhere, and though I have no idea how accurate any of that is, what I had certainly gibed with the food you'd get at a place where the second generation didn't have the master's touch and was overextending its abilities with mail order and new restaurants. Too bad.
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q
604 W Young St
Llano, TX 78643
If any place ought to be extended beyond its abilities to produce barbecue the way it used to, it would be The Salt Lick,
which has grown to two large buildings at its original Driftwood location, a catering facility next door for weddings and such, a more upscale location elsewhere in Austin, a Las Vegas outpost (reviewed here
by Stevez), and even a stall at the Austin airport. I'll pass on the airport version but to judge by Stevez's report the Vegas one is fully worthy of the place's heritage and to judge by last Saturday night, so is the extremely busy, impressively efficient original.
We were, by luck, seated in the original restaurant near the original trademark round pit, which is far too small to serve the hundreds they feed nightly today, but is still used to prep and finish food brought over from the behind-the-scenes smokehouse. A pitmaster tends the meat, picking out pieces which are then sliced up as needed:
The easiest way to order is simply to pay a flat price (about $16/person, about $5/per for kids) and they bring it till you're stuffed. We got two or three platters of spareribs, brisket and pork sausage like this:
plus cole slaw, beans, German-style potato salad, the requisite white bread, pickles and onions, and soft drinks.
It's all gobbled down by everyone from babies to the owner of the world's longest mullet:
One thing we noticed while waiting to be seated (which you do on a big open-air patio to which you are allowed to bring your cooler full of beer; many folks seemed to be in no hurry to go inside) was that nearly all the parties were large ones, including one group of soldiers and family with about 40. It was really impressive that The Salt Lick, almost effortlessly, can move so many folks through, serve them high-quality barbecue so quickly, and maintain a general good-time atmosphere throughout it all. I've certainly never seen a barbecue operation of comparable size and quality.
I could have done without the meat being slathered in The Salt Lick's sweetish mustard-style sauce, but the quality of the meat was first-rate all around (and many of the sides, especially the potato salad, were excellent too-- if one were foolish enough to waste significant stomach space on such things). The brisket had all the smoke flavor I'd been missing in my other stops, the spareribs were, like Smitty's, sweet and ham-like in flavor and texture, and the pork (or maybe beef and pork) sausages were robust like a good Polish. I am deeply jealous of my friends for living just half a dozen miles down the road from it, and within reasonable distance of so many others. I think we will have to visit them again next year. And if The Salt Lick spreads to somewhere you happen to be, do not hesitate to give it a shot.
The Salt Lick
18001 FM 1826
Driftwood, Texas 78619