As you head up I-35 and out of Austin, the true spirit of Texas Hill Country begins to reveal itself. Massive dunes drift by in your rearview mirror while expansive subdivisions and shopping centers take up the space in-between.
When Chevrolet invited me down to Austin to take a drive outside the city and experience this part of the state (along with some incredible BBQ), little twisting of either arm was required.
Upon arrival at the airport, a Chevrolet “Special Ops” Silverado greeted me at the terminal. While it would be the butt of several jokes from old friends throughout the weekend, it would also gain plenty of respect from new friends and passersby around the region.
This particular Silverado was created in collaboration with the Navy SEAL Museum’s Trident House Charities Program, which benefits families of fallen and injured and active duty military.
As we left our home base of the trendy Hotel Van Zandt in downtown Austin, I pulled over to figure out directions to Taylor, Texas for our first stop at Louie Mueller Barbecue. The Silverado’s internal navigation system was having some issues, so I turned to trusty Google Maps to get me out of town (Google and the internal OnStar system would battle on which toll road to take the entire way).
Once on the highway, you understand why Silverados are as common as the Texas Two-Step. The truck is built for long voyages on wide open thoroughfares. Acceleration is smooth and should anyone be slowing you down in the fast lane, passing is a breeze with clear sight lines out of every window.
Taylor is part Austin suburb, but primarily a quintessentially-Texan small town with State Route 79 serving as the main thoroughfare. Louie Mueller (the man) was a cornerstone of this community, initially selling meat and cooking cheaper cuts behind a gas station across the street from the cookery’s current location. He built his first pit in 1946 and began his BBQ operation in 1949.
In 1974, Louie handed over the keys to his son Bobby, who would oversee production and the growth of the operation until his son, Wayne, took over in 2007. The year prior, the business won a James Beard Award being recognizing the eatery as an American Classic.
When you walk into their charred counter-service restaurant, you feel and smell the history. Dark brown walls are crusted with layers of brisket and pork smoke from generations of tinder. A corkboard is home to business cards that are easily aged based on richness of their tint.
Custom to their hospitality, Wayne Mueller greeted us and gave a quick overview of how to order (yes, in Texas, there’s a method to ordering barbecue, and it’s best to follow it). Every customer gets a sample and it’s a tone-setter. Mueller’s brisket smokes for 7-11 hours, depending on any number of temperature and weather conditions. The sheer level of smoke and flavor is game changing.
Once you’ve had your palette blown away, ordering seems like an exercise in futility. We ended up with a little bit of everything.
Although their chicken and sausage are stellar, you come here for two things: pork and brisket. Both are best suited to develop a famous smoky crust (known as bark) that’s just about the best piece of meat this writer has ever had.
It causes time to stop. It makes you think about everything else you’ve eaten and wonder why it took 20+ years for you to get here. And you eat well beyond what your brain thinks you’re capable of. When meat like this is in front of you, you eat until you call for mercy.
At this point, anything else is just gravy (something you definitely don’t need on the dining table). Wayne took us behind the counter for a look into their tight pit quarters. With a physics and engineering background, he dove deeply into the science behind barbecue and a discussion of its Eastern European roots. More than anything, a great deal of finesse and patience is required to perfect this art and it takes a Texas-sized spirit like that of the Mueller men to do so.
The drive from Taylor to Lockhart, Texas is a lonely one. Our second and final stop of the day was in the critically-acclaimed “BBQ Capital of Texas,” where no less than four of the state’s top ranked meat joints are within two miles of each other.
Cruising along State Route 130 (and in a midst of a minor meat coma), the hills continued to peek over the median, then recede quickly as the best sign of the day read “Speed Limit 85.” (This writer definitely didn’t push the truck towards triple digits and would not suggest cruising at that rate out of sheer relaxing pleasure.)
With the thick afternoon humidity descending, a constant blast of a strong A/C system kept things in check on the drive (and aided this writer’s digestive system).
After about 45 minutes, Lockhart appears rather suddenly. The state’s oldest BBQ house, Black’s, is the first option pulling into town, but I opted to find the town square for a bit of walking and discovery.
It’s clear Lockhart has seen better days. It’s casting as the backdrop for several films, including Waiting for Guffman paints a rosy picture of this sleepy small town, but aging buildings and old advertisements suggest otherwise.
I found a country western clothing store as one of the few storefronts with doors open, so I walked in and found a gentleman potentially pulled out of a Brooklyn neighborhood playing an upright bass to the tune of some song I didn’t recognize. His wife quickly emerged from behind a storage door almost as if a carbon copy of her husband, wearing similar thick, black glasses and older patterned attire. I listened mostly as an observer, learning about Lockhart’s heritage and what drew them to set up shop essentially in the middle of nothing (she’s Texan, he’s from Florida).
When a new barbecue spot opens in the proclaimed capital of the art, it becomes a major talking point. Jen and Ben, as I’d learn to call them, noted a new barbecue spot had opened a couple miles down the road out of a trailer, but they hadn’t tried it yet. All they knew it was tiny, cheap and whoever opened it had serious guts to do that in this town.
Intrigue at a high, I drove down to find “Thumper’s BBQ” emblazoned across the side of a singlewide in a used car lot. If I had been looking for any sort of regular restaurant, I would have driven right by.
Pamela Stokem is an officer at a local juvenile detention facility, who convinced her husband David to move out to Lockhart to become a pitmaster. She makes the sides and he handles the meat (no comment on the name “Thumper’s”). According to them, they’re famous for their shredded pork, but had run out quite some time earlier in the day, so I “settled” for the brisket.
At this point a ¼ lb. pile was all my digestive system could muster, so I took that and a side of coleslaw to their makeshift patio behind the trailer. As the wind persevered to routinely blow the butcher paper place setting in my face, the meat more than made up for the challenging conditions. Mr. Stokem’s methods resulted in a delicate bark that was just as good as anything the Muellers were doing up north. The meat itself wasn’t anywhere near that standard, but the crust alone is worth a return trip.
In the spirit of Texas, I took a ¼ lb. back to my new friends in the town square as a thank you. When you’re driving a special edition truck on massive wheels around the Lone Star State, you get into a certain joie de vivre. You feel inspired to do share the spoils of a wonderful day on the road.
It sets a pretty high standard for a return trip, when I’ll be looking forward to cruising past “Speed Limit 85” once again.