Whether from actual experience or drooling over online photos, the area surrounding Austin, Texas, known as Hill Country, has a special place in the heart of many of us roadfooders. It’s a hub of Texas’ most celebrated old-school barbecue joints, while Austin itself is home to some of the state’s best smoked meat houses among the modern generation of Texas barbecue purveyors.
For a good number of years, I knew all of the legendary restaurants in that region from reading about them on the roadfood web site and message boards. But I also carried the weight of never having actually been there. That changed in 2016 when my wife and I accepted the invitation of her aunt and uncle, who lived in the heart of Hill Country, to visit them. We decided to explore the Austin region and also visit San Antonio while down there.
Of course, I laid out a fairly extensive meal itinerary for the trip. But probably close to half of what I had planned in terms of food never came to fruition, as I was hit with one of my then recurring bouts of acid reflux and had to essentially ration the amount of pain-inducing food I ate each day to make sure we made it to the highest priority restaurants on the itinerary. I had burger and fried chicken stops planned that were cancelled. We also didn’t get to as many barbecue restaurants as I intended. Having said that, as you’ll see in this report, we did our fair share of good eating.
We flew into San Antonio, rented a car, and headed to the home of my wife’s aunt and uncle, north of Austin. But before we got very far from the airport, we made a lunch stop at a regional fast food chain I had read about a number of times; Whataburger. They started in Texas and the bulk of their outlets are still there, but they’ve expanded all across the southern third of the country, from Florida and Georgia to Arizona.
While I enjoyed my strawberry shake, I was unimpressed with their burger. I can’t see eating there again, especially knowing that their competitor, Freddy’s, which puts out a far superior product in my opinion, is also in Texas.
I enjoyed the scenery as we made our way north and eventually into Hill Country. There was a special treat in store for us that night to get the week’s barbecue theme started. My wife’s cousin, her husband and a couple of their children would be joining us and he was bringing his extremely impressive offset smoker, which was doubly awe-inspiring given that I use a small bullet-style smoker that runs on charcoal and wood chunks in my backyard. The offset beauty on which the following day’s dinner would be prepared has a fire-box that is big enough to burn nice-sized logs. Charcoal is only used at the beginning to get the fire started. From then on, all of the heat and flavor-imparting smoke would come from wood, the way barbecue is supposed to be.
I did say the following day’s dinner. We didn’t get started until the early evening and it takes a while to get the smoker up to temperature, then the meat cooks for many hours over low heat. Low and slow gets the job done when it comes to barbecue.
We had wonderful baby-back ribs and brisket, as well as something else I can’t identify at this point. I should be better at labeling photos. But I can definitely say that the ribs and brisket were perfectly prepared. They were tender with great flavor and beautiful smoke rings.
There were also Texas-style beans.
It was great to enjoy top quality authentic barbecue with family in a home setting.
The morning after our dinner, my wife and I were headed to Austin, but not until we stopped for a late breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, which was just a short ride from where we had been staying. They are a classic small-town cafe that serves up great breakfasts, meat-and-three plates for lunch and dinner, and world class cream pies.
You may not be surprised to read that I was primarily concerned with those pies. If it had been a little later, I’d have also been up for the meat-and-three, but my wife and I both stuck with basic breakfast plates, saving the best for last.
The Blue Bonnet offers cream pies with both meringue and whipped cream toppings. We tried one of each, ordering coconut pie with meringue and chocolate pie with whipped topping. While I’m normally more of a meringue guy for cream pie, the chocolate pie won the day for me. The chocolate flavor was plenty potent without being overpowering. It also worked extremely well with the whipped cream.
We walked around downtown Marble Falls a bit after eating and checked out some shops. We also saw an indication of how big college football is in that part of the country. The local theater was advertising that they would be showing the upcoming University of Texas game on their big screen.
From Marble Falls, we moved on to Austin. Although I missed out on meat-and-three at the Blue Bonnet Cafe earlier that day, our dinner was at a restaurant that served that style of food and which I had known of for years via the roadfood web site; Hoover’s Cooking. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a meat-and-three style restaurant offers a selection of mostly meat entrees with a list of vegetables and other sides. Diners pick an entree and two or three sides.
Hoover’s strong reputation on the roadfood message boards was due in substantial part to their chicken-fried steak. Although that’s not really a favorite of mine, I decided to do the “when in Rome” thing and ordered it anyway. It still wasn’t a favorite after I had eaten Hoover’s version, which was extremely well prepared. But I’m just not a chicken-fried steak guy. On the bright side, the porky green beans I had with it were among the more memorable Southern-style sides I’ve eaten over the years.
Hoover’s dessert menu featured one of my favorites, banana pudding. But I wasn’t in love with their version. There were too many dry pieces of vanilla wafers. They need to soak in the pudding until slightly softened. to achieve the desired texture. My wife was very happy with her dessert selection; peach cobbler.
The next day started with what was probably my most eagerly-anticipated meal of the trip; lunch at the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue of Taylor, Texas.
Louie Mueller, which opened in 1949, is probably the most famous barbecue restaurant in a state that may have more of those than any other. It was a dream-come-true to finally step inside and try their smoked beef.
The brisket was perfectly cooked; extremely soft, but not quite to the point where it broke apart as soon as you touched it. They use oak, which is a mild wood for barbecue, so the meat did not have a strong smoky flavor. You just get the natural flavor of the meat.
While brisket is the meat most closely associated with both Texas barbecue and Louie Mueller, in later years, they have also won raves for their massive short ribs. None of those raves could possibly be any stronger than my own feeling of ecstasy as I bit into that rib. It was without a doubt the most succulent piece of meat I’ve ever eaten.
That evening didn’t feature much in the way of eating. But we hit one of Austin’s better-known barbecue joints, Stiles Switch BBQ, for an early lunch the following day.
While I had read positive things about Stiles Switch, our meal turned out to be the least impressive barbecue I ate during this trip. The ribs were pretty good, but the brisket was too fatty – even for brisket – and a little on the tough side, which is obviously a big no-no for that cut of meat, especially in a barbecue-crazed region where almost everyone knows the difference between good and not-so-good Q. The highlight of the meal was my side of corn pudding.
After lunch and before moving on to our sightseeing agenda for the day, we stopped at Nau’s Enfield Drug, a drug store with a classic soda fountain and lunch counter in the back. I’ve mentioned my fascination with pharmacies that still serve food and ice cream in earlier posts. I tend to look for them when researching food for any city we’ll be travelling to. And I haven’t found many that were more classic-looking, both inside and out, than Enfield Drug.
My banana shake was also great.
We actually did partake in non-food-related activities on this trip. I’ll get to those – along with more culinary adventures – in the conclusion of this trip report tomorrow.
To be continued.