My Labor Day Barbecue Pilgrimage to Lockhart, Texas

Best barbecue in Texas: This was a trip I’ve been intending to make for about the last two years, and yet something always seemed to get in the way. Often it was an international trip, or it was dead of summer and I didn’t want to be in Texas because of the heat. And though it was hovering around 100 degrees much of the weekend, it was also Labor Day. And that’s the barbecue holiday of the year, so it seemed like the perfect time although I suppose I worried that others would see it the same way.

First stop was Franklin Barbecue which is actually in Austin. Arriving just before opening, there was already a line. It was a young crowd, people brought coolers ready to hunker down and wait for the barbecue. At 11am an employee came around surveying what people wanted to eat, by the time she came to my spot in line she said it would be about 2.5 hours before I’d see any food and there might not be any ribs left, either.

    Best barbecue in Texas

It was blazing hot, almost 100 degrees, the wait wasn’t covered. And looking at the other people in line, it was young, hip and attractive and seemed like as many people were there for the experience as the food. Drawing on the lessons learned from Tyler Cowen, I judged the crowd as not serious about the barbecue per se. So I didn’t wait, instead moving on to Lockhart. (And at the other restaurants, the teenage track teams notwithstanding, everyone was older and many were overweight and looked serious about what they were eating.)

Eventually I’ll have to make it back to Austin, get in line earlier, and try it out to see if the hunch was right. I could see the line taking an hour to process, but two and a half? My uncorroborated guess was that the food wasn’t actually ready to serve and thus that they hadn’t been up all night cooking. Could this place possibly live up to the legends I was about to experience? Probably great for Austin proper, but not worth killing my chances of barbecue for the whole day.

Barbecue places in Texas open early. It takes long slow cooking to prepare, the briscuit especially, they work the fire pit overnight. They want to sell out each day so they open and start selling the barbecue when it’s ready, it’s also best earlier in the day as soon after it’s been finished as possible. And when they’re sold out, they’re sold out. It takes too long to make more they can’t just adjust the quantity available during the day. I sure didn’t want to delay making it to Lockhart until after 2.

Ultimately I had made an error in judgment in not making it to my first stop until 11, something that would be rectified the next day.

Lockhart, Texas is maybe half an hour outside of Austin and has a legendary status, having been dubbed the barbecue capital of the state. It’s a small town, less than 15,000 people, but its four major barbecue restaurants are estimated to serve a quarter million people a year.

The first stop into town may arguably have been the best barbecue I had all weekend, though it was challenged by the final stop at Black’s.

Kreuz Market is the biggest building with a giant parking lot. Unfortunately I arrived just behind a large group of several early teens that had just run at a track meet. Turning up just before noon, it was 1pm before I was eating barbecue.

    Best barbecue in Texas

    Best barbecue in Texas

    Best barbecue in Texas

As was common in all of the restaurants I visited, there’s a primary line for the barbecue and then a separate place to queue up for sides and drinks. Barbecue is served on butcher paper, only at the last place were there trays, you carry it to a seat mostly at long communal tables with rolls of paper towels.

Kreuz Market has been in its current location since 1999, when a split in the family caused them to move from the original location where Smitty’s now stands (and is run by the folks on the other side of the feud).

Kreuz does not offer sauce. They’re serious about their meat. The sauce hides the flavor they say and the flavor is tremendous.

    Best barbecue in Texas

    Best barbecue in Texas

The pork ribs were almost like bacon. The beef ribs, served only on Friday and Saturday, were my least favorite — a deep smoky flavor, but little beyond that. I should have guessed that ribs not offered daily aren’t part of their core repertoire and wouldn’t live up to the other offerings. The sausage was excellent, a perfect crisp snap. And although I tried the sausage in each place I went I actually felt like the sausage never lives up to the rest of the barbecue and is almost a waste to order. The most amazing thing, though, the brisket. You can order it fatty or lean, I didn’t try the lean and can’t speak to it. But truly melt in your mouth unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.

After finishing up at Kreuz, the next stop was going to be skipping the rest of Lockhart — the other two places I wanted to try, Smitty’s and Black’s, would be open on Sunday. But further south in Luling is City Market and they would be closed the next day.

You had to wait outside until there was enough room to stand in line inside. Once in the restaurant the first room is a dining hall, and the line wraps through that and into the next room which has both tables for eating and the door you enter to buy your barbecue.

This place was clearly different from the last. Immediately you saw a yellow mustard-based barbecue sauce on all the tables. Customers were applying it liberally to the white bread and eating some of their barbecue as though it was a sandwich.

All of the barbecue places offer packaged white bread to go with the barbecue, part of me doesn’t understand this, I certainly don’t want to fill up on bread. But a single piece or two is nice, I would use the bread almost like a plate and the bread would absorb the juices from the meat, eating a single piece makes sense to me towards the end of the meal…

Soaking the bread in sauce though I don’t get, except I did discover that at City Market the brisket was really dry. The rub was tasty but it almost needed the sauce to be juicy. This was the most disappointing of the places I visited over the weekend.

The pork ribs though were good, much more like the traditional notion of ribs I’m used to, much sweeter than at Kreuz where the pork ribs were salty.

After City Market I headed back towards Austin, which meant passing through Lockhart. I could have hit a third barbecue joint but I was full, it was late in the day so more time had passed since the barbecue was done cooking, and I thought a third stop would mean I wouldn’t want any barbecue the next day. So that was it for the day’s barbecue.

Sunday morning started earlier. Smitty’s opens at 9am. That’s a little before I’m ready to eat a ton of smoked meat, but I did turn up at 10.

I’ve seen it written that the entrance looks more like the hallway you’d walk through on the way to hell than like you’re entering a restaurant. But the building has been serving barbecue since the turn of the century. It’s not a modern structure.

Everything at Smitty’s was good, though not quite as good to my taste as Kreuz. The sausage was probably better than anywhere else I’d tried. The brisket and ribs were closer in style to Central Market, though in both cases juicier.

Kreuz was busy, they were just getting’ the job done. Almost no one was at Smitty’s so early in the morning, but the staff seemed entirely indifferent. They weren’t happy or welcoming. You ordered, you got your meat, you ate it and left. Overall I encountered very few friendly people in Austin, but the vibe of Smitty’s was the least friendly of the barbecue places I visited.

Don’t get me wrong — anything at Smitty’s (anything at Central Market, even!) would be amazing barbecue for any other city I’d ever been to. But I started off with my favorite barbecue of the weekend, though the final stop would come close to being as good overall.

The last barbecue visit of the weekend was Black’s.

Walking in I was a bit taken aback. It was the most decorated of the restaurants I’d been to. It also looked almost “corporate” — you got in line and while in line there was an extensive array of sides to choose from, there were bottles of branded sauce to buy and take with you, there was a sign indicating you could order online (frozen, shipped barbecue? From Lockhart?). There were even signs advertising their Twitter presence and that you should talk to them before posting a negative review on Yelp.

I needn’t have worried though. First, I was comforted to see what would have been health code problems in any major city. I saw them refilling the sides, adding to trays of mac and cheese with more mac and cheese instead of replacing what was already out. And I saw some bugs crawling around in the dessert. I compartmentalized, told myself that wasn’t what I was there for anyway. And proceeded to order meat. The staff was friendlier than anywhere else, made suggestions (like two beef ribs was going to be way too much food).

The beef ribs here were unquestionably the best. The brisket may have been the equal of Kreuz, though I tend to think it was just a shade behind. The ribs were sweet, I like the salty ones at Kruez better.

They have an outdoor seating area, and I was going to eat outside, but flies were swarming and I went back inside.

And with that, my weekend of Austin-area barbecue had come to an end, it was time to head back towards the city to catch a flight home. Though all four of my upgrades had cleared, I wasn’t planning to eat much on the plane. I am generally happy with the first class food on American Airlines (though I wish they’d change it up more frequently). But I had just finished eating some of the tastiest meat I’ve ever had in my life, someone nothing they’d serve me in the air would be all that appealing. And it wasn’t.

I have a real choice to make going forward. I like barbecue, even though I’m rarely in a place that it’s excellent. Before visiting Lockhart I think I was happy with a much lower standard of quality. Will I be willing to make that sacrifice in the future?

I discovered I liked the Texas style barbecue where it’s made early, eaten straight away and especially where it’s good enough that you wouldn’t want to add any sauce. I’ll probably make pilgrimages to other barbecue meccas to satisfy the fix, instead of settling for whatever is offered where I happen to be. But I suspect I’ve found the barbecue I like the best already, which in some ways is disappointing. I know I’ll be back to Kreuz Market and to Black’s again some day, for sure.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Actually, you can experience Lockhart-style barbeque close to your home, Gary. Hill Country Restaurant, with branches in DC and NYC , is owned and operated by the grandson of a former Lockhart mayor.

  2. Next trip back you need to try the brisket & pork ribs at Salt Lick, 30min south of Austin. It’s gotten a bit commercial over the last 5yrs, but still has the great taste it did when was just one bldg with no a/c before the upgrades. I live b/w all of these wonderful places & your choices were definetly worthy. Sad you couldn’t try Franklins, but it’s a line everyday and probably worse that wknd given UT just started a new semester – why so many young people there.

  3. Gary. As an Austinite, I have made the pilgrimage to Lockhart myself, and I would say that Black’s was the best. I liked Smitty’s second best and Kreuz was OK for me.

    Austin proper has really added some amazing BBQ joints. By all accounts, Franklins is better than any place in Lockhart, and a few new joints like Stiles Switch are making heads turn as well.

    Next time you are in town, let me know and I am happy to be your food guide for the day.

  4. Gary – let me know next time you are coming to Austin. Be happy to show you around. You might think about heading east to Snow’s in Lexington – only open on Saturday, Texas Monthly called it best in the state. It is REALLY good – equal to if not better than Franklin. Then, ten minutes away, City Meat Market in Giddings. Been going there since the sixties with my dad. Then, thirty minutes to Taylor to Louie Mueller’s – one if the leading families of Texas BBQ, and in an old school gym. If you are still hungry, ten minutes to Southside Market in Elgin for Elgin sausage.

    Or, you could come next year in late September for the Texas Monthly BBQ festival. All the best in the state there, including Snow’s and Franklin. If you want to see what you missed, Anthony Bourdain’s season premiere, on this week, was here and went to Franklin, and – hate to give away the secret – my favorite, JMueller’s. Ssssshhhh! Don’t want Franklin lines there, OK?

  5. JetAway,

    Hill Country in NYC doesn’t hold a candle to anything you can eat in Texas. It’s ok for NYC, but I don’t go out of my way to eat there, and I’m a New Yorker.

    Gary, thanks for the report. Yum.

  6. JetAway is right about Hill Country in DC, but you’ll be deeper in debt than the US after eating there, ridiculously expensive for bar-b-que.

  7. Does the Salt Lick still have an outpost in the airport? Not as good as the original location perhaps but was always my preferred option over airline food ….

  8. @dhammer53 & Robert-Just trying to give Gary an alternative to flying to Austin every weekend. FYI-most of the small towns in “the” Hill Country were populated by immigrants from Central Europe (e.g., German, Czech, Polish, etc.) and the barbeque in each town reflects that town’s particular heritage. Fredericksburg, for example, excels at sausages but not so much at brisket.

  9. I make this run every few months on the way to the in-laws – 3x places in one day! If you did not try the “clod” (beef shoulder), you definitely missed out. I think this is actually (dare I say) better than the brisket at these places.

    If you are looking for some additional places to try:

    I like the sausage & ribs at central market the best.

  10. Even better than Lockhart BBQ is Coopers BBQ in Llano. It’s about 70 miles from Austin, but I make the drive frequently just for the food. I will second the motion for Salt Licl. Again, a drive, but worth it. Just be sure to go to the original for both. Satellite locations are not as good!

  11. What you experienced at Franklin is normal. The meat has definitely been cooked overnight, but the ordering process is slower than you’d expect because it’s one at a time – one by one. The good thing is they do walk the line to let people know where the expected cutoffs are. The folks that get there early, say 930, are the serious aficionados, and the fact that it’s like that every day speaks volumes. Another thing you’ll notice is that every place has one thing they’re best at. Franklin is brisket. JMueller’s would be beef ribs. Etc. Anyway, next time you’re through give a holler!

  12. @@dhammer53 @Robert @JetAway – strictly speaking Hill Country would be CHEAPER for me to eat at once I factor in travel costs. But then Hill Country won’t help me requalify for elite status and doesn’t offer bonus miles….

  13. Franklin definitely smokes their brisket 16-18 hours and the ordering process is extremely inefficient. But they also serve the best brisket in the state and sell out every day so why should they change? Kreuz only smokes their brisket 4 hours or so over a higher heat so the texture is not as delicate as Franklin.

    You were also hitting Franklin on game day about a half mile from the stadium.

    Try J Mueller trailer next time you come back, it too is better than the stuff in Lockhart.

  14. Great review! I enjoyed your take on all my favorite places. Franklin is the winner in my book, so you will have to plan another trip to try it out.

  15. Yum! This is making my lame salad look even more lame. I guess you will just have to come back to TX for another visit. 😉

  16. Gary — don’t forget the social aspect. BBQ is best when you’re with a group of friends, and while the quality of the meat is paramount, my favourite part about going to Salt Lick (another vote BTW) is the lively atmosphere of the place. Folks playing music, hanging out, just enjoying themselves while the smells and tastes surround them.

  17. In my opinion…now that you’ve been to Kreuz and the rest, Hill Country will be very disappointing.

    The music isn’t bad, come on a night when there’s someone playing downstairs and eat then–but don’t make a special trip.

  18. Gotta weigh in on the Salt Lick discussion. I live ten minutes from the place. Been going there regularly since ’85, off and on before then. The ONLY reason to go is the social reason. Nothing beats waiting for a table, with your cooler of beers, listening to music, under the live oaks, with your friends. The BBQ is mediocre, since they do WAAAAY too much volume to be good. Brisket is OK, sausage is too finely ground without a snap to the casing – too close to hot dog for my liking. Ribs may be the best meat on the menu, and the turkey isn’t bad. The place we always take visitors. We take BBQ snobs to Franklin or JMueller.

  19. @tegwj the social aspect may be great but I prefer to separate out the question of whether a place is most fun vs whether its food is best. You’ll rarely find both in the same location.

  20. Gary, I too was reluctant about Franklin’s- thought it was popular because of trendy Austin Foodies. I left it out when I did a Texas BBQ Roadtrip a few years ago, instead hitting Lockhart and a few other big BBQ towns in central Texas. A few years later, with my taste buds having been exposed to such good BBQ that I could no longer stomach the mediocre stuff, I went to Franklins. Its good. Real good, especially the brisket. Only Snows BBQ in Lexington (a mythical joint that is only open on Saturdays and then only for a few hours) has better brisket.

    I will agree with you that Black’s is very underrated- better than Smitty’s and Kreutz in my opinion.

    And not to sound like a BBQ snob (which I most certainly am) but Salt Lick no longer serves up food that matches its price and popularity. Go there for a relaxing lunch when its not crowded and you are not being asked to hurry up and leave.

  21. Gary,

    We should have a Texas BBQ DO! All other responders are correct: Snow’s, Cooper’s, Mueller’s, Salt Lick, City Meat Market, and Southside Market are all worth visits too. Another is Chisholm Trail on the south side of Lockhart (you probably drove right past it to/from Luling).

    If you’ve never done the same in Memphis, it is definitely worth a trip. Central BBQ, Jim Neely’s Interstate BBQ, Germantown Commissary, Rendezvous, Corky’s, etc., etc., etc.. Jim Neely’s has TWO locations at MEM, so if nothing else, build in a long layover if flying Delta.

    Austin has a nice microbrew scene as well — a nice beer and BBQ loop can be made.

  22. this made me hungry for bbq! i’m heading to austin for the 1st time at the beginning of october and am making a list of bbq places to try so this caught my eye. so many people have strong and often conflicting opinions about where to go! but there’s no way i’m waiting in line for 2.5 hours so franklin’s is almost certainly out. anyway, compared to what passes for bbq in seattle, i’m sure almost anything will be great.

  23. I need to make a second post here as I forgot to give my recommedation for Opies Barbecue in Spicewood, TX. For those people looking to do a Central Texas BBQ Roadtrip, Opies makes the best pork ribs I’ve ever had- they just don’t have the aesthetics or history of the Lockhart places, nor the pilgrimage-type atmosphere that comes with Snows. Just as good though.

  24. I travel a good bit and love BBQ. Texas BBQ is my favorite, and is found almost exclusively in the small towns surrounding Austin. Texas BBQ has been receiving bacon-level hype lately and has now created these “experiences,” like what you see at Franklin (and, to a lesser extent, Snow’s). I am partial to Southside Market in Elgin, which is a slightly shorter drive from Austin than is Lockhart. I have, however, been to the Big 3 in Lockhart and also prefer Kreutz’s (then Smitty’s, then Black’s).

    I don’t believe that it is the same person as commented above, but a good Twitter follow is @bbqsnob (Daniel Vaughn), who has a book coming out soon about barbecue. His recommendations have never left me disappointed – and I prefer his out-of-the-way spots to the ones that have now made the TX BBQ Tourist Trail. He is to barbecue what you are to the miles and points game.

  25. @James-The barbeque found in the towns of the Texas Hill Country around Austin has its origins in the smoked meat traditions of immigrants to that area (German, Czech, etc.) and is therefor very different from KC barbeque. Both are good-just different.

  26. Fun article! My dad has spent much time waxing poetic to me about Texas BBQ, mentioning a lot of the same places, and describing the hitroy for me! maybe i should use my miles to surprise him and take him down there from here in MI!

  27. Been to the past two Austin BBQ Do’s, and gotta say that the Brisket and Ribs at Franklin’s were as good as or better than anything else I experienced in the 8 days of BBQ eating…

    Different folks prefer different styles, but the stuff at Franklin’s was well worth the wait. Yes there is a social aspect to waiting in line, but it is in no way a gimmick… They make real good Q.

  28. Until last year, I was on the Management Committee of a company in Luling. One of the highlights of visiting the HQ was going out for BBQ for lunch every day I was there. We were always partial to Smitty’s, but Luling City Market was only a mile from the office, so that was often our choice. Hope you stopped at Bucees on I-10 while you were there.

  29. I’m late weighing in on this chain, but as an Austinite, I would like to first say that I’m sorry you didn’t encounter more friendly people. Also, I love the Salt Lick. It’s a “sweet sauce” kind of place, so it may not mesh with your “salty” tastes described in your post, though. If you go, do drive out to the original one outside of town. It’s the place we always take out-of-town guests.

    I’ll also vote for the Salt Lick airport food over the other airport choices (and WAY above airplane food). I do love that Austin’s airport is filled with local restaurant outposts instead of national chains.


    My mother was born in Texas, I was born in Kansas City. Texas has some of the best BBQ and great but not the best. The World Series of BBQ Competition is held at the American Royal every October in Kansas City. It is the largest competition in the world.

    Secondly read Anthony Bourdain’s “13 Places To Eat Before You Die” Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City is listed. It’s in a gas station and it’s unbelievable.

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