No Forks Allowed in This Brisket Haven
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this authentic BBQ joint is the place to go in the barbecue capital of Texas.
By Daniel Malloy
The smoke stings your eyes as you walk into the hallway, the walls black with a century of burnt oak. There’s a gap in the line as you queue up at the meat counter, to avoid the slow-burning fire at the end of the 12-foot brick smokehouse. Contained within: mounds of brisket, sausage, turkey and pork ribs. A sign advises “No Forks,” but they will give you a plastic knife. No plates, either. The meat is served on brown paper, with slices of white bread or saltines. As I tuck into a pound of brisket, with the salty, smoky burnt ends inciting my taste buds, I realize I have reached Texas BBQ nirvana: Smitty’s Market.
Texas has plentiful High Temples of Beef, and as I was casting about for recommendations during a recent trip, an Austinite directed me a half hour outside the city, saying, simply, “It’s authentic.” In a state that takes its brisket seriously, the Texas legislature a few years back saw fit to declare the 13,000-person town of Lockhart “The Barbecue Capital of Texas.”
Smitty’s is a pillar of that tradition. Kreuz Market opened around the turn of the 20th century as a fresh meat market that smoked its castoff cuts into BBQ. The Kreuz family built the building that now houses Smitty’s in 1924 — though it has expanded in more recent years. Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt started working for them at age 13, in the early 1930s. Schmidt bought the place from the Kreuz clan in 1948. A schism in the family in 1999 prompted one branch to take Kreuz Market around the corner. The original spot reopened as Smitty’s.
The salt-and-pepper rub, hand-stuffed sausage and cash-only policy remain constant.
There have been a few concessions to modernity: Smitty’s serves sides such as beans and slaw, though I cannot vouch for them — I chose to save precious stomach real estate for the meat. Owner Nina Sells, Smitty’s daughter, says the knives used to be communal and chained to the table, but the health department nixed that in the 1970s.
But the salt-and-pepper rub, hand-stuffed sausage and cash-only policy remain constant. Most important: the indirect cooking over an open flame, at a time when many competitors supplement with gas or electric for the sake of more precision and less hands-on monitoring from the staff.
The walls of the main dining area, a former general store, are covered with old soda advertisements. On this Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, it’s chockablock with patrons of all sorts at long communal tables.
Occasionally a big name will swing through the doors — Sells recalls Denzel Washington among them — but she says: “We like to leave ’em alone so they’ll come back.” Still, everyone must wait in the line, next to the post oak wood fire, as the smells drive you to hunger-related hallucination by the time you fork over the money.
But then comes a savory payoff that has been consistent for generations, with the hands-on informality of dining sans fork. “That’s been tradition,” Sells says. “It’s always been that way, and we don’t want to change it.” Nor should they.