The Back Roads & Barbecue Of Texas Hill Country | Texas Bar-B-Q Road Trip - Baggers Magazine
There are just a few constants in the tribe we call motorcycling…
Scenery, great roads, and when it’s all done some good food (probably with some beer or Jack). Barbecue is not everybody’s cup of spices, but it seems to be a popular pursuit among the two-wheeled crowd. Texas Hill Country’s got all of the above in spades, so it seemed a perfectly good spot in need of some attention around here.
I did some research in the interest of furthering the knowledge of you all. Okay, really I was just after some barbecue, and got to do some riding while I was at it.
This isn’t the story of one trip or a couple of rides, this is a couple trips and closer to eight rides. I ended up trying 10 different barbecue joints in my jaunts around Austin (and the surrounding area), and fit in close to a thousand road miles trying to get a little digestion in between stops for more hearty helpings of meat. Not that that was all the rides were for.
The Hill Country of Texas is a spectacular place to explore on a motorcycle, and thankfully on two different occasions, Victory Motorcycles saw fit to loan me a bagger to take my fill of meat and asphalt. They even tossed in an out-of-print road map that helps to find all of the little gems of roads, called South Central Texas.
The big roads, while beautiful, are mostly pretty bland. You have to be following a watercourse (lake or river) or taking one of the many one-and-a-half lane farm roads to really get some fun riding in. The Farm to Market roads and Ranch Roads are the way to go. They’re all pretty well maintained and safe, while some of the smaller county roads are a little less so (more on that later).
I found out a few things about Texas Q that I was unaware of before. Firstly, and this should be obvious, Texans are all about the cow, specifically the brisket. So, to a Texan, the relative worth of a barbecue place starts and ends with how good the brisket is. The second thing I learned is about the brisket itself. Texans like it fatty, with good marbling, and super moist and drippy. Most Texan BBQ purists don’t even believe in sauce, reasoning that well-cooked meat should stand on its own, with perhaps a little white bread to sop up the fat. Unfortunately for me, I’m far more of a rib guy, and specifically a pork rib guy. I can appreciate a good beef rib, and I like brisket just fine, though I’m far from a connoisseur, so take all of my recommendations with a grain of salt if you’re a Texan, or like your meat like one.
**Salt Lickin **
It seemed like a perfect place to start a Austin barbecue odyssey. The Salt Lick is perhaps the most famous joint in the area, not counting the legion of BBQ palaces in Lockhart. The ‘Lick is also a nice quick jaunt out of town down some cool little back roads. It’s just 25 miles from Downtown Austin, so typically a longer ride would be in order to work up an appetite.
The ride there isn’t much to talk about. Pretty, hilly, and ranchy, as many are around here, but not many vistas or twists in the way. But, make no mistake, Driftwood is in the heart of riding country, or the gateway, if you prefer. Just down the road in the town of Driftwood, there’s a county road (170) that leads you through some tight twists between ranches, past a big swanky housing development seemingly planted in the middle of nowhere, and out to FM12.
You can’t go wrong with 12. South will take you down into Wimberly, which is considered by many to be the heart of Hill Country, or north into Dripping Springs, which is adjacent to Pedernales Falls State Park. 2325 west out of Wimberly is a particularly good stretch, which hooks up with 165 and takes you into Blanco. Blanco is the county seat out this way, but it doesn’t have much in the way of sprawl, so it doesn’t get in the way of a nice long ride.
A popular weekend destination is straight down the 1888 west out of Blanco to the very small town of Luckenbach (population 3). It’s basically an old post office that’s been converted to a gift shop, a barn for dances and other events, and very biker-friendly. It’s a welcome tourist trap and cold soda, in the middle of a long ride.
Like Wimberly, Luckenbach leaves you with a staggering number of choices for extending the ride. US-290 just a couple miles north will get you somewhere in a hurry, or, if you can find it, Grapetown Road will take you south, deeper into the hills.
Way, Way Out West
While way off the map as far as notable Barbecue joints go, 336 north of Leakey is heaven, and worth the trip. It’s about 170 miles from Austin one way to Leakey, (in fact, the day I rode this road I stayed the night in Fredericksburg) so it’s a pretty ambitious day trip, but well worth it.
336 twists and turns its way through nearly deserted ranchland, following ridgetops, then dropping into little hidden valleys, and back into the hills. It’s narrow, and has a distinct lack of guardrails, but it’s roller coaster ride, I’d try again in a second. Once at the north end of 336, taking SR-41 east for about 12 miles to Ranch 1340 drops you onto a cool country road that follows the Guadalupe River becoming the 39, then the 27. If you get to Leakey from this direction, taking the 337 east out of town will take you through Vanderpool, then on to Bandera on the SR-16, again, some nice hilly twistiness.
East and South
Heading out east from Austin takes you out from Hill Country proper, so it’s not much for terrain, but the barbecue and small towns with monumental architecture more than make up for it. Most of the “world famous” places are out this way, as are a ton of smaller towns from the founding of the Republic (of Texas, naturally). Due to its relative flatness, this is the direction that development sprawled, so some freeway riding is needed to get clear of constant traffic lights.
My first stop, even though I knew it wasn’t open was Cele Store, the one commercial building in the (town?) of Cele a few miles east of Pflugerville. This reservation-only Barbecue has been here for 60 years, with a third-gen pitmaster running the show. But for me the attraction was the mostly-deserted peeling-paint building itself, featured in the later-day Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies, as well as more family friendly stuff like Secondhand Lions.
Even further northeast of Austin, in the city of Taylor, is Louie Mueller Barbecue. Mueller (pronounced Miller) and even older than Cele at 62 years old, but it’s held up a little better due to the stone building that it’s housed in. This is truly a temple of barbecue, with its long tables and smoke-stained walls. The (also third-gen) owner Wayne Mueller spent a good long while talking to me about their process of smoking over fruit tree wood starting at the wee hours of morning to have the bounty ready by opening time at 10 a.m. (everyday but Sunday).
Like Iron Works, there are all manner of ancient implements strewn about as decoration, only here it’s meat processing equipment. Wayne showed me a hand crank meat grinder that was used up until just a few short years ago to make their signature sausages.
The next stop out east is Southside Market in Elgin. A huge place with a very factory look from the outside, it warms up with a wood interior. We got to this one at 10:30 in the morning and didn’t figure it to be open, but were pleasantly surprised when we pushed the door open and entered its smoky ambiance. I bought a t-shirt because it smelled so goshdarned good.
Stuffed after showing up at Southside Market and actually getting fed, Lee and I made sure to kill some time getting down to Luling, where a couple more Q Palaces are. We meandered through Bastrop State Park and Buescher State Park, both good rides, and nice places to perhaps take a greasy bag of barbecue to sit by one of the scenic lakes and feel your arteries harden.
A good 35 miles to the south is the town of Gonzales, where the Texas Revolution started, when a contingent of Mexican troops attempted to take back a cannon from the American settlers in 1835. A lesson that could be carried forward to today in what happened when you attempt to separate Texans from their armaments. The town’s been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice in its long history, but despite its sleepy feel, has an epic feel about it with it’s old buildings and war monuments.
Now just 15 miles from Luling we took a mix of Ranch 2091 and US-183, using GPS and gut feel to cross the Blanco River two or three times along the way. However, we found once we arrived that the legendary City Market had closed for the day, so we had to settle for trying it’s competitor Luling BarBQ, just across the street. We made a point to go easy on the food this time and share a single sampler plate, since we were just down the road from the self-proclaimed capitol of BBQ, Lockhart.
Lockhart was another one of those smallish towns with an epic town square, this one topped with a freshly-painted red and beige courthouse in the middle of the park, surrounded by old stone buildings. Two of the town’s Barbecue Royalty places are right of the square. Black’s is a couple blocks north, while Smitty’s Market is a block south. As it was a Sunday that we visited on, Smitty’s had already closed, but Black’s was open. Unfortunately, there was also a line out the door. So we skipped it and went to the less-known (except by locals) Chisholm Trail, out on US-183.
Smitty’s has a bit of a history. It was originally dubbed Kreuz Market, but due to a family squabble, one sibling took the name and built a huge factoryesque Barbecue joint out on 183, while another kept the historic space in downtown, but had to come up with a new name. On another of my trips I tried Kreuz’s out. Though my day was over at Chisholm my first time out, Kreuz’s was just the beginning of my next trip.
From Lockhart, it’s a short hop over to historic Gruene, over on I-35, and from there into some very cool riding. The River Road splits off of SR-46 just west of town, and follows the twists and curves of the Guadalupe River for miles, just 10 as the crow flies becomes closer to 20. Deep in the canyon, with cool breezes and the river so near by, it’s the perfect place to spend the hottest hours. Leave some time for this, as the speed limits are low and there’s lots of tourist traffic from all the tubing businesses along the river.
After the River Road leads you to Farm 306, you’re greeted with fabulous views of Canyon Lake, as it follows the curves of the manmade reservoir. It wasn’t long after this that I figured out to mostly stay on the Farm and Ranch Roads. On the far side of the lake, I took 32 to 473 to where it ends at US-281. It was here that I heard about a little county road that looks like it’s going through people’s back yards, following an unnamed waterway (Little Blanco River perhaps?).
Little Blanco Road, aka County Road 101, is a one-lane road with 4 potential water crossings. I’d been warned about these super-slippery algae-covered concrete death traps before, and I’d crossed a few already with no real incidents, so chances are, by the time I got to this one, I was feeling cocky. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t dragging my Gore Tex boots in the water and going under 5 mph like I’d done before.
The first couple should have been a warning. Slipperier than the ones had been on the larger Farm Roads I made it past two of them without much of a problem, just steady throttle and super low speeds. The one that got me (GPS: Lat: 30 00’46” N Long: 98 26’19” W) was even slipperier, so slippery that at my very low speed, I still slid all the way across to the other side. Good thing too, as I don’t think I could have picked up the Cross Roads from the middle…it was hard to just walk on the stuff.
So this was my first moving street crash in 20 years of trying. Pretty low-impact, I somehow bruised my calf when the bike levered suddenly onto the crash bar. The only real damage to the bike was the chip in the paint of the tank from my camera that was dangling from my neck (like an idiot). My crash alerted me to one other potential hazard of riding out here alone. On a little road like this, it could be hours until another motorist comes along…and you can bet there’s no cell service.
After getting back underway, I discovered a pair of really nice and non-hazardous routes. At the end of 101, I turned left on Blanco road, then right on Crabapple for a truly wonderful backroad ride. Nothing too difficult, but just hilly beauty that feels like a thousand miles form nowhere with pastures, and streams tucked away between the trees.
Making my way up to Johnson City, I went east on 2766 toward Pedernales Falls. I no longer had time for the falls, but managed to ride the edge of the park, which is another slice of Hill Country heaven. Ironically continuing past the park into Fitzhugh put me back on County Road 101, but this time Hays County, not Blanco. This one’s safer, with just one not-very –slippy crossing.
Louie Mueller BBQ, Taylor
Despite the raised expectations of walking into a smoke-filled palace like this, LMB pulled it off. Especially with their sausage. While very smoky-tasting, most of the barbecue they make here came off as slightly bland to me, which can be traced back to Wayne’s grandfather Louie who believed that there was a reason that salt and pepper were the most popular condiments and that they should keep it simple. The saving grace of the place was twofold. First, the trio of sauces they have on hand (all the hardcore no-sauce Texans just cringed) can shape the otherwise bland meat in a sweet, spicy or tangy direction. The other hit for me was the Jalapeno sausage. All of the sausages were unique in the coarse-ground pure beef (most sausage has pork to smooth it out) texture inside, juicy and yummy, and totally do not need sauce. Jalapeno is a flavor that Wayne introduced since taking the joint over. If this is the sort of change this otherwise traditional gent brings, I say bring it on.
Despite a good reputation, we really weren’t expecting much from this large prefab factory, but boy were we wrong. Perhaps the most un-Texas of our BBQ stops. The sauce was crazy good, as were the pork ribs.. yeah, I said pork! In Texas! Seeing as pork ribs are my absolute favorite, I was in love. The sausage was pretty good, as were the beef ribs, but the pork and Q sauce were king. It’s a little ironic that this generic-looking place has more history than any of the rest, opening as Elgin Hot Sausage in 1882.
Nothing really stood out here. It was solid BBQ, the sausage was a little greasy, and I had chicken for the first time on the trip, since it was on special. That said, it’s better than most places back in LA.
Walking into what looks like a very sloppy lunch counter does little to make one’s mouth water, but the food more than makes up for the wood-paneled cowboy ambiance. Chisholm is known as the local’s choice, and clearly they rely on their customers and food to tell their story. Everything I had here was really good, if a bit salty. Meat well seasoned and very tender, sides were tasty, and even the pork had us licking our chops the whole time. When a couple at the next table suggested going back up and ordering a smoked pork chop (basically a rib, with the chop still attached) off the secret menu, despite bursting beltlines we did. It was the best thing I had all trip.
The Salt Lick, Driftwood
Places that are ultra-hyped, usually are a let down, and this one was no different. As my first taste of Texas ‘Que, I was expecting to be blown away, and I wasn’t. Everything was very good, no doubt about it. Solid smoke flavor, a good mix of flavors, but not an eye opening “wow.” The sausages were heavy on the grease and short of flavor, while the ribs were very nice, but my very non-traditional favorite was the smoked turkey breast. The turkey seamed to breathe in the smoke, and tasted perfect with the tangy sauce. That was another thing, the sauce seemed to work well with the turkey, and just okay with everything else.
The Hog Pen, Leakey pronounced Lake-Ey
I did find one little cute little motorcycle-themed BBQ place in Leakey called The Hog Pen on the corner of US-83 and Ranch 337. The meat was decent, but they didn’t have much when we visited before lunch on a weekday. The owner highly recommends what he refers to as the “Three Sisters” routes 336, 337, and 335 (which parallels 336 about 10 miles to the west).
In the City, Austin, that is
Feeling like taking your riding separate from your Que’n? Or if you’re just unambitious about your mileage totals, I tried a couple of in-town joints while there. The first was an old black man set up with a little portable rig in back of the Continental Club. Austin is known as a major live blues music locale, with its many stages hosting hot up and coming bands, country bands, and the local scene which is a little of everything, known in some parts (but not around here) as Ya’llternative.
With the ContiClub’s back alley gent, expectations again reared its ugly head. Unlike at the Salt Lick, they were pretty low in the alley behind a bar, but Texas’ rep for quality meat came through with a fine smoky piece of cow flesh.
The other place I tried in the city was Iron Works BBQ. On the premises of the old F Weigl Ironworks, the place has a ton of charm, with many of the ancient metal working machines left around the place in their own roped-off areas. The back porch directly overlooks a stream that runs right through downtown with a jogging trail alongside. It feels like a world away from the bustle of the city outside the front door. The ribs were good here, but the star was the sausage, which is another thing Texas Barbecue is known for. Everything else was of high quality, but nothing stood out.
Cooper’s pit bar-b-que, Llano
Easily my favorite of the bunch. Not only do they do pork and beef equally well, they are a little more wide-ranging in the cuts they’ll attempt. I managed to stuff myself full of smoked prime rib, which was crazy good, but also crazy-priced. It was a shame because, the far cheaper beef rib, was the best of it’s kind that I’ve had. They were huge! And oh so tender and tasty. Salty, but, I like that, so no complaints there. The pork ribs paled in comparison, and they were damn good. They also had turkey, ribeye, and a number of other cuts you don’t normally see at a smokehouse. Though on this weekday lunchtime that we went there A
Like the other factoryesque place (Southside), once you get inside, it gets better, with real wood rails and lots of old machinery from BBQs past. As one of the heavy hitters of the Lockhart scene, I was anxious to taste what Kreuz had to offer. I made the mistake of going wacky on my order. I was dazzled by the array of meats on offer, so I went for the smoked ham, a sausage, and some ribs. I’m very picky on ham and this was just okay, the sausage was greasy, and the ribs were good You order your sides separately from the meat, and they were the highlight of my visit, with potato salad done dry and very flavorful. I need to go back and try some brisket it seems.
The Lake Lap
I was bummed on my first trip to not be able to make it out to Llano or Mason to try Cooper’s BBQ (they have two locations), which I’d only heard good things about. So when I hooked up a ride my next time out with a long-time resident who knew the back roads, I was beside myself. Turns out that local (Warren) happens to be familiar with Coopers, and likes to go every few months.
I can’t say I know every route we took northwest of out Austin to get there, but I know that 962 and 1431 (on either side of Lake Travis) were involved. Though this area is actually lower than the one I detailed in the last section, it feels like highlands for some reason. It seems even the wide roads are constantly climbing and looking out on expansive vistas.
Lake Travis is the Beverly Hills of Austin, so everything is beautiful and well cared for on the major roads, but even the little towns you roll into have an antique feel to them, rather than broke down. There’s an old general store at Cypress Mill that was closed when we arrived, but quickly opened up by the owner who noticed us loitering and taking pictures. Despite shelves full of vintage goods and old gas pumps outside, the store is just an event hall now. An antique store that is the antique, not a place to buy them.
Died and Gone to Heaven
A complete canvas of the area’s meat offerings would almost certainly cause this reporters blood vessels to rupture in a spectacular manner, so I didn’t even try, hitting only 10, and gazing longingly at another six or so. So this is not a complete list, but I’ll certainly try to complete it if I ever get the chance. Thanks again to Victory for hooking up the bikes, and to Star who flew me out for something unrelated one of the times. B