It should surprise no one that, committed as I am to the consumption of smoked animal fat, I found little time to actually write about the tour while I was on it. Those intersticial periods between barbecues were spent either in productive slumber, or recumbent on an air-conditioned easy chair in my Hill Country headquarters. But having now returned, I feel the need to get the first of these four essays done. Today's post is hymn to the greatness of Kreuz Market; tomorrow a summary of the also-rans; then, an open-pit barbecue done collaboratively by myself, meat-master Zak Palaccio, and Robbie Richter, New York City's most decorated competition barbecuer; and lastly, I'll do my best to answer the questions with which I began this adventure (not that anybody cares.)
There is a special poignant paradox about starting at the top. Orson Welles spent a lifetime constructing the postscript to Citizen Kane; David knocked out Goliath with a single shot, and the next thing he knew, he was setting up Uriah the Hittite. My trip followed a similar path. The very first stop on our tour was Kreuz Market, the Bayreuth of Beef. Kreuz's isn't much to look at; it's a new building, unpleasing to the eye, offering no hint of the magic within. A story comes with it.
Kreuz was the oldest and most venerable of all the hill country barbecues, the place where, it is claimed, barbecued brisket was invented. But an unfortunate turn of events resulted in a family squabble between siblings Nina Schmidt, who owned the building, and Rick Schmidt, the pitmaster who actually ran the place and earned it its global reputation. The upshot was that Rick got kicked out of Kreuz market, and built a new, much larger barbecue restaurant a few minutes away. It's a sad business, because the old Kreuz's, now known as Smitty's, is the only imaginable setting suitable to Schmidt's minimalist genius. This is barbecue that seems to exist outside of time, that precedes the endless debates over sauces and seasoning, of rival rotisserie manufacturers and glossy clippings from Texas Monthly and Gourmet. Schmidt's meat is primal and perfect. And the dark, cave-like hollow of Kreuz market is the only proper place to consume it. The place is black from generations of smoke, and when you enter it from the bright, burning outside, it's like you've stepped into a cathedral. The new place isn't like that; and I felt cheated that the pit and the pit-master had been so unnaturally separated. The pitmaster at Smitty's is a genial, good-natured fellow name John Fullilove, whose broad and beaming countenance has convinced some visitors that the place is what it once was. (A local barbecue man noted to me that Fullilove had been hailed by a magazine as having the face of a quintessential pitmaster. "That's interesting, because six years ago he was working in the sewer," he said, drolly.) In fact, though, the barbecue at Kreuz is manifestly better than Smitty's, for the simple reason that it is better than everyone's. It's also worth noting that at no other barbecue is sauce nowhere to be seen. Most of the other places put it directly on the meat unless directed otherwise, and all of them have it available. Kreuz has no sauce anywhere. The meat is served on butcher paper, and you consume it with its classic accompaniments: white bread, onion and pickle, and some crackers. At an enclosed, air-conditioned dining area, you can also get a bottle of hot sauce, salty home fries, and cole slaw, but that is as far as Kreuz's goes.
Rick Schmidt: The Master
In what does Kreuz's greatness consist? It's a fair question, and one almost never answered by food and travel writers, whose hosannas are usually more poetic than precise. Not that they aren't accurate: Rick Schmidt conducts an ongoing seminar on smoke, making barbecue as well as it can possibly be made. Here is what it is like.
Brisket: brisket is the most difficult meat to cook -- the least forgiving, the hardest to punch smoke into, the toughest and, in the case of the flat section, the leanest. For the life of me, I've never figured out why anyone would eat, much less smoke, brisket flat. On the other side of the fat seam, resting like the Promised Land across the Jordan, is the luscious deckle, teeming with fat and flavor and collagen, and taking to smoke better than any meat you can name. Kreuz only cooks flat, albeit with a little bit of fat on the end, the so-called "point cut." I got a few thick slices of brisket, cut the wrong way, and with only a little bit of fat on the end. By rights its chance at greatness should have been forfeit. But it was magnificent: yielding without being mushy, robustly beefy, aggressively salted and peppered, and intensely redolent of oak smoke, without ever shading into that vaguely nauseating point of oversmoking. To put a sauce on it would have been a crime. So I didn't.
Pork Ribs: As noted before, I had heard all about Texas's aversion to pork ribs, and in fact Kreuz didn't serve them until very recently. But, in the most outrageous event of the whole trip, these turned out to be the best pork ribs I had ever had -- beating out the former champion, Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's restaurant in Decatur, Alabama. For one thing, they're bigger and meatier -- these spares look to have been custom fabricated, as they seem to have an inch or so of belly meat on top of the usual spare rib cut. Plump and pink and juicy, they were full-bodied in their smoke without ever becoming the slightest bit dessicated. It was like as smoky and flavorful as bacon, but when you bit it it was like the first bite of a hot knockwurst. Again, salt and pepper and a little cayenne were the only tools Schmidt used to produce this materpiece -- that and the incredibly low-tech pits, a series of metal boxes set over a ditch.
Prime Rib: It was this that convinced me of Rick Shmidt's quasi-divinity. What would you say if I sad that I ate a thick piece of prime rib that had been smoked all the way through around the edges, but whose central surface was still a perfect pink ? Would you have thought such a thing possible? I wouldn't. Schmidt insists that, contrary to all the lore and science of barbecue, his product is cooked hundreds of degrees hotter than conventional barbecue, for a fraction of the time. At first I thought he was putting us on. But after eating this prime rib, I believe him. This wasn't just a better version of barbecue I had eaten elsewhere; it was a whole new kind of cooking, something unseen under the sun. Amazing to look at, and better to eat.
Sausage: Even Homer nods, as the poet says, and the sausages were the one blot upon an otherwise peerless barbecue performance. None of us liked them much at all. Though perfectly smoked, the casing was too thick for the soft, mealy interior, which had the consistency of blood sausage. Happily, this was a genre at which the other hill country barbecue temples excelled, so perhaps it was only right that Schmidt not own this category too.
Pork Chop: Finally, our plate included a thick smoked pork chop, cut from a whole bone-on loin, and added on to our order on impulse at the last minute. Smoking pork loins this way always seemed less than ideal to me. When smoking, you want to maximize the surface area exposed to the fragrant fumes; that's why ribs taste better than pulled pork, and pulled pork tastes better than whole hog, at least from a smoke-centric perspective such as my own. And in fact, since this chop was not from either end of the loin, there was no rosy hue or ruby-brown dripping fat for me to kvell over. But there is one big upside to smoking the chops as a loin -- it stays very juicy. This pork chop had a strong, delicate flavor throughout, only enhanced by the rub on the outside; but it was its center that took top honors, remaining moist and rich and porky.
Afterwards, I enjoyed an audience with Rick Shmidt, which I am saving for another day. But I left convinced that America should institute a version of the Japanese government's "living national treasure" title. This guy is the pitmaster of pitmasters. The meats at Smitty's were pallid versions of the same meats -- less smoky, less seasoned, less meaty. The pork ribs were no better than half the barbecues here in New York City. (The links, though, were much better, full and plump and resillient, coarsely-ground almost maroon on the outside from smoking.) And of course the room itself puts one in a frame of mind to revere barbecue. But coming as I did from the Master, Smitty's meats were more a cause of sorrow and regret than exultation.
Next: The Rest of the Hill Country