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Signs of spring: Smoke, brisket and Shiner Bock

By Joe Yonan  |  April 6, 2010 – The Washington Post

If Texas is “a whole ‘nother country,” as the state’s tourism campaign once proclaimed, then Jim and Jessica Shahin’s place on Capitol Hill over the weekend surely qualified as a whole ‘nother city, because it sure didn’t smell like the District. I swear I picked up the scent of that telltale combination of smoke and spice (no sauce, please) when my Zipcar was still at least six or seven blocks away. Who needs Google maps?

When my friend and I arrived, margarita and beer orders (Shiner Bock, naturally) were being taken on the porch, and after asking for “rocks, no salt,” a phrase I must’ve repeated a thousand or two times while going to school at UT-Austin in the ’80s, I high-tailed it straight through the house to the little back yard. And yes, in case you’re wondering why I’m using such phrases as “high-tailed it,” it’s because I’m talking about Texas, and whenever I do, my now-faded accent comes back to the fore as I start droppin’ my g’s and flattenin’ out my i’s and using words like “fixin’ ” and “high-tailed” instead of “getting ready” and “rushed.”

Anyway, when I got back there, writer and barbecue aficionado Jim Shahin was lifting the lid on his offset-firebox smoker and showing friends, including Washington City Paper columnist Tim Carman, what sat inside, bathed in swirls of gray. Four briskets from the Lone Star State were tightly wrapped in foil on one side of the thing, while mahogany-colored pork and beef ribs sat on the other.

Why?

I’m going to let Jim tell the story. The man knows his barbecue; he’s written about it for The Post, GQ, Southern Living, the Austin Chronicle, Chile Pepper magazine and American Way magazine, among other publications. He’s judged at the Taylor Barbeque Cook-off in Taylor, Texas, and the Brady Goat Cook-Off in Brady, Texas. He has eaten barbecue extensively throughout North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, Atlanta, and, of course, Texas. A freelance writer, he periodically teaches magazine journalism at the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University.

Anyway, here’s what he says:

Last September, I went to Austin to do a magazine story and some research on a book. Whenever I go to Austin, where I lived for about 25 years, I bring back what I like to call “imported foods” — Elgin sausage, good tortillas from Austin’s Central Market, Jaime’s salsa (usually at least two jars of each the red and green — it is the best commercial salsa I have ever eaten, period), tamales, briskets (smoked from a favorite barbecue joint and raw to smoke when I get home), sometimes a rack of ribs. I always take at least one folding suitcase to tuck inside a carry-on, so that I have space to bring the foodstuffs back.

Without extending the story too long, I’ll note that this routine is not without its distresses. Two Christmases ago, I was bringing back some chopped brisket when the TSA guy at a connecting airport held the plastic container upside down, watched the chopped meat slide downward, claimed it was a liquid, and said it would have to be thrown out. “If you held a container of marbles upside down they’d do the same thing,” I protested. “Does that make them a liquid?” He was unmoved. “Sir,” he said. “I’m going to have to ask you to calm down.” He tossed the ambrosial beef into a trash can. I slunk a few steps, then stopped, and, staring at the trash can, seriously considered the chances of successfully retrieving the container. At the moment when I decided heck-this-just-might-work, my wife and son approached. Seeing them made me reconsider my plan. It probably wasn’t the best idea for Daddy to spend New Year’s in jail. Although, to this day I wonder, if not for brisket, for what, then?

In Texas, arguments over barbecue are fierce. I wondered whether it was possible to actually, objectively, decide the best brisket — the king of the Texas barbecue plate — once and for all. So, while in town, I went to four of Texas Monthly’s top-five rated barbecue joints as ranked its latest quinquennial roundup of the state’s best 50. I made it to Snow’s (TM #1), Kreuz (TM #2), Smitty’s (TM #3), and Louie Mueller (TM #5). The missing brisket was from City Market (TM #4) in Luling, which was too far to go to in the time I had.

I had been to all of the Texas Monthly Top Five ‘cue joints before. Snow’s, only once before, the others scores of times. I had, of course, reached my own conclusions, but the idea of a blind tasting intrigued me. Like wine, only with meat. At the places I went, I ordered only the deckle. That’s the fatty hilly back part, the fatty part, or, as I prefer to think of it, the flavorful part.

Getting briskets from Kreuz and Smitty’s was easy, because they are both in Lockhart, only about 40 minutes south of Austin. As soon as I rented my car at the airport, I dashed down to Lockhart, had lunch at both places and bought the briskets. Mueller’s was also a breeze. On the next to last day of my trip, I reserved the morning to visit my in-laws who live just down the road from Taylor, about 40 minutes northeast of Austin, where Mueller is located. As for Snow’s, it is only open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. until they run out, generally in the early afternoon. My flight left Austin on a Saturday, around 11 a.m. Snow’s is in Lexington, about an hour northeast of Austin. I set my alarm for 6 a.m., left my friend’s house where I was staying around 7:30 a.m., took what I thought would be a shortcut, got lost, and, after thinking I should just forget it so as not to miss my flight, arrived at Snow’s about 9:20 a.m. As always, there was a long line. As I watched the minutes tick away, I told the owner my situation. He took me to their freezer and sold me a frozen brisket Cryovac-ed for mailing. I raced to the Austin airport, got there about 10:20 a.m., and lugged my brisket-laden luggage to the gate just as the plane was boarding.

When I got back to D.C., I double-wrapped each brisket in heavy aluminum foil and zipped them in a plastic freezer bag. Snow’s, I left in the Cryovac. The following weekend, I smoked my own brisket, wrapped it and stored it, too, in the freezer.

I kept trying to find a time to have the brisket tasting, but life kept intervening. Finally, after picking a weekend, our oven broke. I wanted to warm the briskets in the oven so that they would not take on any flavoring from the wood in my barrel smoker and thus change the character of the brisket. A repairman came out, declared the oven fixed. We went forward. But as my wife was making her mother’s Texas pecan pies, the oven went on the fritz again. Every time it went off — which was about every minute and a half (no exaggeration) — she would punch the keys to turn it back on. This went on for over an hour.

With everyone invited and bringing side dishes, I couldn’t reschedule. I had thawed the briskets the night before and discarded the foil. Now, I re-wrapped them, hoping to warm them through without the woodsmoke from my rig penetrating and changing their flavor. That, though, meant risking that the blackened exterior, known as the bark, might suffer, as the foil might make the meat too moist. So, for the final 10 minutes, I removed the foil. My hope was that 10 minutes would be too little time to damage the flavor but maybe enough time to restore whatever of the original bark had been lost — if any. (Remember, all of this was just theorizing.)

We did the tasting and, after rating each brisket on a 1-to-5 scale (5 being the best), a judgment was rendered: In something of a surprise, Smitty’s was voted No. 1 with a rating of 4.5. The other three were in a statistical dead heat for second, with Snow’s getting 3.6, Mueller 3.59 and Kreuz 3.5.

After the tasting, I sliced into my brisket, which I had also put on the smoker, and, along with Elgin sausage, pork ribs, beef ribs and extra-thick pork chops and all the fixin’s of beans, potato salad, coleslaw, collards and (required at a true Central Texas barbecue) cheap white sandwich bread, we had a barbecue dinner that would have made LBJ proud.

How could I say it any better myself? I’ll add just one thing: While it’s true that the Smitty’s brisket is the one that made me moan out loud, and I gave it a 5 out of 5, I would be ecstatic to eat any one of these briskets any day. (I had Snow’s just last year, one of many who went after Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker piece.) Okay, one more thing: We didn’t score Jim’s own brisket, but this much is clear. If we had, it would’ve been a contender.

– Joe Yonan