I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it many times, “Barbeque is where you find it,” but in Texas all trails lead to barbeque. In central Texas, just crossing the street can lead to barbeque. While I haven’t been able to get back to Texas for a few years, I’m certain the number of barbeque joints in the state is greater than ever. Needless to say, I have many fond memories of Texas barbeque.
In the mid-‘forties, my grandfather and his friend Sam put their heads together to start a barbeque restaurant. My grandfather built the pits and a barn-like building for the restaurant and left the rest to Sam and his family. Sammie’s Bar-b-q is still there near the corner of N. Beach and E. Belknap in Fort Worth, although the original pits were rebuilt long ago, and I doubt if it is still family owned. This was one of two main places providing the store-bought barbeque I grew up eating. It was good, but my memories of barbeque really began when I was a kid on a family vacation, and we made stops in Elgin and Lockhart. ‘OMG!’ was not a phrase used back then, but I can apply it in retrospect.
In the late ‘sixties, Hank and I traveled to Austin to visit a friend enrolled in the University of Texas. Bobber decided to take us to a couple of barbeque restaurants he liked to frequent, and we couldn’t say ‘No.’
We spent nearly three days just traveling from joint to joint sampling barbeque (Bobber told us it was just two places, but one thing leads to another). While some were better than others, only one place we decided shouldn’t keep its doors open. It was a Santa Maria California-style place specializing in tri-tip. Now that I live in California I realize that place in Texas was far better than many of the ones in California. Anyway, we quickly reached capacity, but that didn’t stop us from buying the barbeque and taking it with us.
Hank and I drove back to Fort Worth with more than thirty pounds of barbeque. Well, maybe I should say we left Austin with more than thirty pounds of barbeque. By the time we reached Fort Worth, our smoky stash was considerably smaller. And we were considerably bigger.
Just before I moved to California in 1975, I decided to spend a couple of weeks or so driving around Texas. I had been to almost every corner of the state many times, but business was involved for most of those journeys, and I just wanted to take time to enjoy this world I was leaving one last time. The one criteria I had for the journey was to have barbeque and Tex-Mex every day—several times every day.
I packed my car, and the next morning I left the old farmhouse about 8am. My first stop was a small restaurant about 10 miles away where I had a very small breakfast of eggs, chicken fried steak, sausages, ham, bacon, biscuits and gravy, and French fries. I needed to save room for my next stop—Angelo’s.
I met my great-uncle George for an early lunch at Angelo’s and we worked our way through way too much brisket and beer. From there I drove south to Hillsboro where I met a couple of old friends for “2nd Lunch.” The small café near the old county courthouse was owned by a family from Harlingen, and they understood what Tex-Mex was all about. Oh, my. I was full. Too full. But I left there to visit some friends in Waco where we were going to have an early dinner.
Waco is not known for the world’s greatest Tex-Mex or barbeque, but at it’s worst, it’s still very good. However, early dinner was at my friend’s home where they were preparing brisket and sausage with several sides. I couldn’t say ‘no,’ and I ended up taking a small container of food with me when I left later that evening to get to my reserved lodging in Killeen.
Killeen is home to Fort Hood where my friend Zeke was stationed. He had a week’s pass, and he was going to accompany me on some of my journeys through the state. I picked Zeke up about 7am the next morning and we immediately drove east a few miles to Belton for a Tex-Mex breakfast. This was the last Tex-Mex I would see for a week. We were entering the heart of Barbeque Country—Central Texas.
For a solid week we ate barbeque. Every meal. Snacks in between meals. Desserts. Because it was there. There is no remembering just how many places we visited. Usually we ate at the restaurant, but we often got it ‘to go’ so we could eat outside in a park or at a roadside picnic table (remember those?).
After returning Zeke to Fort Hood, I continued my travels through other parts of the state (El Paso, Alpine, Marfa, Marathon, Eagle Pass, McAllen, Corpus Christi, etc.), and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but the barbeque was the highlight.
Today, well over forty years later, many of those barbeque joints are still there. Yes, some are gone, and new ones have taken their places. I started hearing some twenty years ago about the ‘Texas Barbeque Trail,’ and as I did a little research as to what it was about, I realized that there is no actual ‘trail.’ It is simply a word used in relation to all the barbeque places in central Texas. Some places are famous, and some are not. All are worth stopping at, just like Zeke and I once did.
One could make a case for a ‘barbeque trail’ by mapping out a series of stops at the more well known places in a roughly fifty mile circle around Austin, but one would be missing out on some great places only the locals know about. Sometimes the place is located behind, or in, a grocery store, or bar, or gas station. Sometimes it’s in front of a church or junkyard. You never know—as I’ve said many times before, ‘Barbeque is where you find it.’
To me the best barbeque trail begins where you live (even in California). It’s local, and that’s a good start. To expand the trail, just take the time on your travels to stop and eat barbeque at a new place. And if your travels ever take you to central Texas, your trail will be complete.