Zen and the Art of BBQ: Great Texas Barbecue

O. Rufus Lovett

Enough with the reviews and rankings. This Texan is ready to kick back and enjoy

My favorite table at Martin's Barbecue in Bryan, Texas, has an intriguing pattern on top. The original Formica was ersatz wood grain, but decades of tile-dragging domino players wore a brown-and-ivory double oval in the middle. When I placed an order of smoked brisket and pork ribs, pickles, and onions on the table recently, it looked like a barbecue mandala.

Since I left the Houston Press, after 10 years of restaurant reviewing, I'm seeing things differently; barbecue is a lot more enjoyable without ratings or rankings to fret over. I do less waxing eloquent about the way oak-smoked central Texas beef seasoned with austere Teutonic salt and pepper compares with the Tejano bravado of chili powder-rubbed borderland goat smoked on mesquite. Unless I have a freelance gig that pays by the word, my new mantra is, "It's all good."

And without the strictures of the critic's anonymity, I can banter all I want with the guys who tend the pits. At Martin's, that's third-generation owner Steve Kapchinskie. His grandfather Martin Kapchinskie bought this site, in southeast central Texas, in 1924 and built that most beloved of Texas retail operations: a combination gas station, barbecue stand, and convenience store. They don't sell gas or groceries anymore, just barbecue, but the social part of the business lingers on. There's always someone hanging out with Steve in the pit room. To get there, you walk a path worn through several layers of vinyl flooring to the bare concrete underneath.

Martin's doesn't turn up much on Best Texas Barbecue lists; the quality of the barbecue is rated "average" by the websites. Of course, average is pretty damn good in this neck of the woods—moist and smoky brisket, pork ribs crisp on the outside and tender at the bone. Still, I'm not sure why I love joints like Martin's so much. Is it the matter-of-fact cultural preservation, the glimpse of a disappearing Texas, that I find so compelling?

I contemplated this last week in the parking lot of Lev's Paint & Body on 90A, just southwest of Houston in the town of Richmond. Under a pecan tree beside the parking lot is where the Plantation Barbecue trailer sets up. The Garcia family has operated it for 22 years. On this morning, Rose Garcia scrambled eggs while her husband, Lolo, sliced brisket. "I smell like smoke all the time," Lolo said. "Sometimes I go to the store and the cashier puts my money up to his face and sniffs it. He says, 'Your money smells so good!'"

As I was eating a sublime smoked brisket, scrambled egg, and pico de gallo taco at this little-known Tex-Mex barbecue trailer, it dawned on me that Top 10 lists, ratings, and the rest are, as the Buddhists might say, illusion. There is no best barbecue, any more than there is a best symphony or a best painting. And in Texas, where this way of eating has long been part of everyday life, as soon as you forget about scorekeeping, you become open to barbecue as culture, art form, and spiritual pursuit.

O. Rufus Lovett

photo by O. Rufus Lovett

Sausage, brisket, pork loin, and spareribs at Smitty's Market

Some days, the sausage at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, 25 miles south of Austin, is so wet that it squirts when you cut it, and sometimes, late in the day, it gets dry. So what? If you eat at the wooden counter along the wall outside, you can feel the indentations where generations of customers cut their meat and see where the knives on chains once hung. Some say they were kept on chains to prevent theft; others say it was to prevent knife fights.

At Taylor Cafe, in the central Texas town of Taylor, Vencil Mares broke up lots of knife fights after he opened the place, in 1948. "I'd just gotten back from the landing at Normandy. I wasn't afraid of getting in between a couple cotton pickers with steak knives," he said. Mares never got around to installing an air conditioner, so it gets toasty in July. He never bothered to get rid of the separate doors for different races, either. Times have changed here, too, but the past is still palpable.

When he checks the pit, Mares uses a walker to get there. It's amazing to watch an 87-year-old guy slinging ribs and briskets around with a barbecue fork. The brisket is decent and the sausage is great, but that's not why people stop by. A Tejano guy drinking beer at the bar told me he started coming here with his grandfather, and now he brings his son.

At famous barbecue joints, humble gas station stands, and roadside trailers, the stream of humanity that comes to eat never stops flowing. When you lean on the counter and order lunch, your clothes pick up the smell of smoke, and you become part of the continuum.