Texas, Day 10: Lagrange to Austin via Lockhart

April 8, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Yes, today is my last half-day in Texas, as I’m flying home around noon from Austin. But I didn’t leave without one more visit to a BBQ joint. Yesterday I decided to go back to Black’s (homage to Amy Winehouse) in Lockhart, as I hadn’t tried their famous Giant Beef Ribs, and it was only a half-hour drive to the Austin Airport, near where I stayed last night.

The drive from La Grange to Lockhart was lovely, going mostly on small roads through tiny towns—just the kind of drive I like. I’ve managed to almost completely avoid the Interstate Highway system here, though Texas state roads can also be large and soulless.

When I saw a bunch of cows huddled around a giant wooden cross, I knew I had to stop. How often does one see good Christian beeves?

I stopped and communed with the cows for a while. They were much tamer than most of the cows I’ve encountered, which tend to move away from you. One even came up to me and thrust its muzzle against the fence, demanding a petting:

This cow was really demanding, so I had to pet and scratch its head for a while:

On to Black’s, where my heart was set on a giant beef rib. I haven’t had too many ribs this trip, and Black’s serves the Mother of All Ribs. You’ll see what I mean below.

The unprepossessing entrance with a GIANT BEEF RIBS! sign:

The line at 11:15 (Black’s opens at 10 a.m.) Ten minutes later it was out the door.

As you wait for your ‘cue, salivating over the smells from the pit, you pass a picture of one of the Black family with LBJ, who used to throw BBQs, complete with a chuck wagon, for dignitaries visiting the Western White House.

These, I guess, are the owners themselves in days of yore:

The dining room (there are two), full of happy people. How can you be glum when eating BBQ?

The menu. You have to choose quickly. The giant beef ribs aren’t cheap—$18.99 per pound—but I was going to get one come hell or high water.

You start by ordering the sides (usually the meat order is first), and then go one-on-one with the Meat Man, who cuts and weighs your BBQ:

My plate: a giant beef rib with my usual sides: potato salad and pinto beans. There were also gratis onions and pickles, and I purchased one of their homemade jalapeño corn muffins. I got a small container of sauce, but used it for only one dip. Texas BBQ is invariably degraded by sauce—except at the City Market in Luling, which makes a magic elixir that really enhances the meat.

That rib weighed well over a pound, but I was hungry. Here’s a side view with my finger for scale. It’s like a huge gob of brisket on a stick!

And praise me, people, for I ate well and finished the entire plate except for some big pieces of fat on the rib:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, concludes my BBQ tour of Texas. Here’s a list of my bests for foods (and remember, I had but one visit to every place but Black’s):

Best brisket: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Best brisket with sauce: The City Market, Luling

Best beef rib: Black’s, Lockhart

Best sausages: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Best BBQ pork chop:  Cooper’s, Llano

Best breakfast: Migas at The Monument Cafe, Georgetown

Best pie: Chocolate cream pie with pecan crust and a thick topping of whipped cream, The Monument Cafe, Georgetown

Best coleslaw: Louis Mueller, Taylor (it was really fresh and had some spice to it)

Best local ambiance: Peter’s BBQ, Ellinger

Best chicken-fried steak: (not this trip, but overall): Hoover’s, Austin

Coyne’s Blue Ribbon for BBQ: Louis Mueller, Taylor

Remember: this represents only ten days of eating. Texas is big and there must be thousands of BBQ joints here. I have not yet begun to eat.

Texas, Day 9: Around La Grange

April 7, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I’ve spent two nights in La Grange, Texas, a small town (population about 4,600) near the Colorado River. I’d hoped to go to a well known (non-BBQ) restaurant in nearby Round Top, but it’s open only from Thursday-Sunday, as are many of the other recommended places around here, including BBQ joints. However, I saved the day by finding a very good local BBQ place out in the sticks, and today I’ll head back to Lockhart to either try another BBQ place or (as Jen Psaki says), “circle around” and return to Black’s BBQ, the site of my first meal on this trip.

After the trip is over, I’ll make a list of the best places I’ve been, and which places are best for which items, including side dishes. But be aware that I’ve had only ten days of culinary fieldwork in Texas, and the state is very large.

Back to La Grange. Google says that the town is famous for two things:

La Grange may be best known for two things: being the home of the Chicken Ranch, the inspiration for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and the subject of a classic ZZ Top song. The town began as a small fort built in 1826 to protect settlers in the area from Indian attacks.

For the first time I had a bit of breakfast, for I woke up at 5 a.m. and wasn’t going to eat for at least six hours. I headed two blocks north to a famous food emporium in town, Weikel’s Bakery, which specializes in one thing: kolache.  These are a sweet bun heavily laden with fruit (not really jam, as it’s very thick—more like thick preserves. There were many kinds on offer (see below), but I was abstemious and chose only one type: blueberry. I knew I’d be returning later in the day.

It was absolutely spectacular, laden with full-flavored fruit. With it I had a large Colombian coffee, and that was all I needed to hold me until lunch.

After a bout of feverish restaurant-Googling last night, and having gone through several places, all of which were closed until Thursday, I found one that had good ratings, and was only 15 miles away. It was Peters BBQ in Ellinger, Texas, right on route 71. The ratings were good, and so the laws of physics sent me there.

And here ’tis, as they say. Note that, at about 11:15 a.m., the parking lot was already crowded and most of the vehicles were pickup trucks. Both of these are very good signs. Note that the guy is wearing a mask.

This was the most “authentic” BBQ I’ve been to—not in terms of authenticity of the food, but because it was truly local. Everyone there seemed to know everyone else, and all spoke with a heavy Texas accent. I was the only Yankee, but everyone was super nice to me.

As with most such places, you go to the meat counter first, order what you want (including sides, which are dished out by a nice lady from a steam table in the next room), and pay. Sweet and unsweetened ice tea are available ad lib in the dining room.

The locals (a lot of older people) were enjoying their lunch. Many got BBQ to go, as well. It’s cattle country here, and some of these folks may be ranchers or workers on a ranch.

My plate is below. I had the lunch special: two meats, two sides, free bread, jalapeños pickles and onions,along with tea and BBQ sauce (to be used only sparingly) on the side. My meats were brisket (of course) and pork ribs, and the sides were, as usual, pinto beans and potato salad. (There was no cole slaw, which also counts as a vegetable.)

I was lucky to find the place, as the food was very good. The pork ribs were tender and meaty, and the brisket, pictured below, while not the best I’ve had, was better than at other “famous” places I’ve eaten, like Cooper’s or the Southside Market. (Again, there can be brisket-to-brisket or day-to-day variation.) Here is “juicy” (i.e., fatty) brisket, and by now you should know to look for the outer char, the red “smoke layer”, and a ribbon of fat.

Yum! I was plenty full, believe you me, and it was about $15.

All over Texas I’ve been seeing signs with just a picture of a beaver wearing a hat. I guess the Texans know what it means, and I found out yesterday that it’s a chain called Buc-ee’s, which has 39 locations in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They are convenience stores and gas stations that also sell food (see below). I wouldn’t eat there, though occasionally, as with Weikel’s Bakery, a gas station can have great food.

As I drove around the area, I saw a bunch of cars pulled off onto the shoulder of Route 71, and of course I stopped to see what was going on. Below the road was a sunken field, glorious with blooming Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis), the state flower. People were luxuriating in the flowers, taking selfies, and even having picnics. I’m told that entire hillsides can be in bloom like this, with many different flowers, but this is the only mass bloom I saw:

What a lovely sight to see, especially with a belly full o’ BBQ:

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Bluebonnets and Texas Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa).

An unflattering selfie. I need a haircut and am unshaven, but so be it.

A few miles down the road, I pulled over because I saw a field of Texas longhorn cattle, the official State Large Mammal. (The Official Small Mammal is the armadillo, and the Official Flying Mammal is the Mexican free-tailed bat.) Look at those horns! They have a cool history; as Wikipedia notes:

The Texas Longhorn is a breed of cattle known for its characteristic horns, which can extend to over 100 inches (2.54 m) tip to tip for cows and bulls, with the biggest-horned steer measuring 127.4 inches (3.23 m) tip to tip. They are descendants of the first cattle introduced in the New World, brought by explorer Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonists.

Descended from cattle that thrived in arid parts of Southern Iberia, these cattle have been bred for a high drought-stress tolerance. Texas Longhorns are known for their diverse coloring, and can be any color or mix of colors, but coloration mixes of dark red and white are the most dominant.

Here’s a group (I can’t tell if the adults are male or female):

As the article notes, there’s substantial variation in color among individuals:

Adult and adult in statu nascendi:

A longhorn calf with the horns starting to sprout.

In the afternoon I took a tour around La Grange, which of course didn’t take long, for the good bits of these towns comprise the courthouse and a few blocks around it, with sprawling roads out of town lined with McDonald’s, Wal-Marts and the like.

Here’s the Fayette County Courthouse, built in 1891.

And the customary courthouse square, lined with old buildings (“old” in America means “older than 100 years”).

Finally, I went back to Weikel’s to get two kolache for an evening nosh (as I said, I have one meal and one treat per day, though I also had a kolache at breakfast). You can see that the bakery is part of a gas-station/convenience store/restaurant complex, which proves that you can get good food in gas stations.

I found the place because the Sterns gave it a “memorable” rating on Roadfood, but I’ve heard of it from other food sites as well. Kolaches are a remnant of the Germans and Czechs who settled in Texas long ago.

Here are all the kinds of kolaches they had. Hard to choose!

Left to right: cream cheese, strawberry,peach, apple, blueberry, and cottage cheese.

I got a strawberry and a cream cheese, which seemed to me a good pairing. The strawberry one got squished a bit in the car. The cream cheese one was good, but the strawberry, with whole berries, was fantastic.

As I head out to BBQ in Lockhart today, I’ll stop by Weikel’s again to get a few kolaches for an evening treat, for I’ll be spending the night in a motel near the Austin airport, ready to catch a flight home tomorrow. That’s when I start my kale juice cleanse. (Only kidding! But I am going to eat very abstemiously for a while. . . )

Texas, Day 8: Georgetown to La Grange

April 6, 2021 • 10:30 am

These are lazy days, as the driving distances of my planned itinerary are short—at most three hours per day—there isn’t a lot to see in these small towns, and the day’s main event is usually a meal.

But this down time is good for me, as I’m getting a lot more sleep (a full 8 hours instead of 5 or 6) and am more relaxed, as I always am when I travel. I read a lot and move slowly, knowing that when I return to Chicago there will be work to do on top of Duck Hell: the near-simultaneous breeding (again) of Dorothy and Honey.

But best not to think of that now. Yesterday I woke up around 6 a.m. in Georgetown (population 80,000 and growing fast), got some coffee and ate half of my last mini-pie from the Texas Pie company. This one was pecan, and it was great. The crust was still firm and flaky after four days. I didn’t want to eat the whole thing because I planned a late breakfast at the Monument Cafe, a well known local restaurant with a roster of great homemade foods. That includes the pies, two of which—the coconut cream and chocolate pie with a pecan crust—are famous.

I decided to eat breakfast at 10 a.m. so it would segue into lunch, assuring me that pie would be available. Although I planned to finish up breakfast with the chocolate pie, I was too full for that (and truly, pie after breakfast is a bit weird), and so I got pie to go.

The pre-breakfast mini-pie (I ate half):

The Monument Cafe in Georgetown. You can read Jane and Michael Stern’s laudatory review here.

Even at 10 a.m. there was a 20-minute wait, so I used my time to walk around the grounds, which were teeming with great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus). It’s breeding and nesting season here, and the males are displaying to each other constantly, waving their heads, wagging their tails, and making a variety of sounds.

They’re handsome birds, especially the iridescent males. (The females are brown and not as striking.)

Here are two and then three males displaying to each other.

I was called in for my table and presented with the menu. I’d already decided to have their “famous migas”, described by Jane and Michael Stern this way:

One hot breakfast unique to the region is migas, Mexican scrambled eggs that include melted cheese, chunks of tomato, and small ribbons of crisp tortilla that soften in places but stay crunchy in others. [JAC: there’s also jalapeño peppers.] On the side of migas, you get red salsa to heat it up along with grits or hash browns and a soft flour tortilla rolled in aluminum foil so it stays warm.

You also get bacon and refried beans.

My breakfast plate. This was fantastic, especially with the salsa spread over the migas. I used the tortillas to eat the refried beans and delicious bacon. I can’t imagine a more satisfying breakfast! I would love to try all the home-cooked dishes this place offers. (Open only for breakfast and lunch.)

My piece of chocolate pecan pie to go, with a heavy layer of pure whipped cream on top. You can’t see the crumbled pecans that serve as the crust, but I’ve put a picture of the pie from Roadfood below my own photo.

Photo below from Roadfood. Truly, this may be the best piece of pie I’ve ever had. See the crust of candied pecans? It was like eating the most delicious chocolate cream pie atop a pecan pie!

After breakfast I explored the town a bit. Like many small Texas towns, it’s built around a central square with the county courthouse (in this case the Williamson County Courthouse), the grandest building in town. Small streets lined with local shops encircle (ensquare?) the courthouse.

Some of the old buildings east of the courthouse square.  A bit from Wikipedia:

The city was recently named one of the best places to purchase a historic house. Today, Georgetown is home to one of the best preserved Victorian and pre-WW1 downtown historic districts, with the Beaux-Arts Williamson County Courthouse (1911) as its centerpiece. Due to its successful preservation efforts, Georgetown was named a national Main Street City in 1997, the first Texas city so designated.

See also the long list of movies filmed in Georgetown.

Two old buildings north of the Courthouse.

The picture show (closed, of course).

Then I made 1.5 hour drive to Lagrange (population ca. 4,600), where I discovered that the two restaurants where I planned to eat will be closed today and tomorrow. I’ll have to scrounge for meals.

On Wednesday I’ll drive to the airport, stopping at either Lockhart or Elgin on the way to have The Last BBQ Supper. And on Thursday it’s back to Chicago—and an abstemious couple of weeks. No meat!

Truth be told, though, I don’t think I’ve gained any weight on this trip, at least judging by the fit of my pants. I eat only one meal a day, although I do have a piece of pie as well.

Texas, Day 7: Johnson City to Georgetown via Llano

April 5, 2021 • 10:30 am

I can’t resist a challenge when it comes to good food. So when no fewer than three readers told me that I had to eat at Cooper’s BBQ in Llano because it was better than all the places I’d eaten before, well, I simply had to make the one-hour drive to Llano to test that assertion. (The town, by the way, is pronounced “Lah-no”, not the Spanish pronounciation “Yah-no”.)

It turns out that Cooper’s is a very good pit, though they smoke over mesquite charcoal rather than wood, but on my one visit there was an uneven note in the form of mediocre brisket (verified by another visitor). I can’t rank it up there with the City Market or Louie Mueller, but it’s certainly worth a visit if you avoid the brisket.

Here’s the place: pretty much of a ramshackle dive, as all good BBQ places are.

The ordering system is unique: you enter by the grill, with every smoked meat on display for your inspection, along with a price list. You simply tell them what you want (see the menu below). It’s easy to overorder this way, and of course I did it. But I did eat everything.

The menu lists sixteen items. The most famous item at Cooper’s is their giant smoked pork chop, so I had to have that. But I had to try some brisket, too—to compare with the other places I’ve eaten. And one reader said I should have the BBQ goat, and since I love goat, and have never seen it in a Texas BBQ, well, I had to have the goat as well.

The display of smoked animal flesh:

These are the per pound prices, I believe. The half chicken, which I didn’t get, is a bargain at $8.

Below: the inside, with deer heads. Llano (population about 3,500) is known as “The Deer Capital of Texas”; as Wikipedia notes:

The density of deer in the Llano Basin is the highest in the nation. Hunters from all over come to Llano for deerquaildoveferal pig, and turkey hunting, using guns as well as bow hunting.

The whole town is full of taxidermists who will dress your deer (cut it up for meat) and also stuff and mount the head, as in the restaurant below. There are also tons of gun stores, many with signs making fun of gun control and its advocates.

The dining room. It’s smoky in there as the pits are right outside.You sit on benches, which makes it easy to talk to the locals

After you order at the pit, they place your meat smack on a plastic tray, which a guy then takes inside, wraps each piece in butcher paper, weighs, and calculates the price. Then you order sides (beans are free). The assortment of cobblers for dessert—blackberry, peach, and a fabulous looking pecan cobbler—was stunning, but I abstained because I still have a mini pecan pie from the Texas Pie Company.

My plate. Pinto beans with a jalapeño pepper, then the goat at upper right., the giant pork chop below it with a side of coleslaw, one slice of brisket (I asked for “juicy”) to its left, and two pieces of white bread. I also had sweet tea (I got half and half sweet and unsweetened).

The meats. Verdict: The pork chop was fantastic: thick, smoky, juicy, and porky. It would have been a meal in itself! The goat was very good as well, though one has to carefully gnaw the meat off the jagged bone. The brisket, sadly, was dry and uninspired, even though I went at opening time (11 a.m.) and asked for a moist piece. Verdict: mixed. Go for the pork chop and maybe the ribs and sausages (I didn’t try them but see below), but I though the brisket sucked. I could, however, have had a bad piece.

I struck up a conversation at the table with a nice couple who had driven four hours down from Dallas to eat BBQ on Easter and see the wildflowers. Usually the Texas hills around Llano are bedecked with colorful flowers at this time of year, but the rains were light this spring and the flowers few. There were lots of Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets along the highway, but the couple told me that in a good season the flower displays are stunning.

We chatted and ate for an hour, and I tell you what: that couple had a LOT OF STUFF. They planned to take much of it home to freeze (I’m told BBQ freezes well except for cooked sausage). And they had a couple quarts of coleslaw and potato salad, and about five portions of cobbler. Here’s what was left over after they ate. There are pork ribs, beef ribs, sausage, and half a chicken (they weren’t keen on the brisket, either, and didn’t get any. They were regulars here).

When I left after an hour of eating, the place was full and there was a line out the door. And remember, this is on Easter, when respectable folk are eating ham at home! The take-out window was also doing a huge business.

The line at noon at Cooper’s, “Home of the Big Chop”. Indeed it is!

The smoker out back:

They use charcoal made from mesquite rather than straight wood. That is the sign of a lazy pitmaster:

Right across the street from Cooper’s was—you guessed it—a taxidermist:

Here’s the Llano County Courthouse and Jail in the center of the town square. Built of sandstone in 1893, it is on the National Register of Historic Places. The stones in front remember members of the armed forces from the county who died in action during WWII.

Pink flowers along the road (botanists, please give me the species):

I had to cool my heels when I arrived at my cheap motel 1.5 hours early. But I heard a bunch of chirping nearby, which turned out to be a large number of great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) who had made their nests in the nearby trees. Each tree must have had 20-30 nests, each with two noisy superintendents. I filmed under the trees so you could hear their songs.

Listen to the videos below: I swear that one grackle is imitating a car alarm. Looking it up, I see that common grackles can imitate other birds and even “human noises”, but I found nothing on great-tailed grackles or about car alarms. You be the judge. You have to admit that the song is enchanting, though.

Another video under the Grackle Tree:

And a male showing off for a female who isn’t interested:

Texas, Day 6: Johnson City; chicken-fried steak and the LBJ Ranch

April 4, 2021 • 10:00 am

I had a full day in the Johnson City area yesterday. The plan: wake up, write a post or two, and then head half a block north to the Hill Country Cupboard for an early lunch (or late breakfast) of chicken-fried steak, the specialty of the house. Then on the the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, 15 miles west to see the Western White House and the LBJ Ranch.

For those of you unacquainted with this Southern (mostly Texan) treat, it’s a thin beef cutlet breaded and fried like chicken. It’s invariably served with cream gravy and a side of mashed potatoes. And they’re famous for being large, which is good because I’m eating only one meal a day. (Note: I’m not even pretending to eat healthy on this trip, so don’t food-shame me. I’ll have a juice cleanse when I return to wash the beef, fat, and other toxins out of my body.)

The venue for my meal:

It’s pretty much of a dive inside, with fiberboard walls and not much in the way of either light or ambience. But who cares if it proffers you an excellent chicken-fried steak?

What the menu says: not only is it the “world’s best” chicken-fried steak, but they’ve sold nearly 3 dozen!

Below is my lunch: chicken fried steak (regular size) with gravy, a big glop of homemade mashed potatoes (with lumps), and fried okra. The fried okra, tender, not slimy, and toothsome, was perhaps the best rendition of this vegetable I’ve ever had. As for the chicken-fried steak, it was very good, but not the best I’ve had (that would be at Hoover’s in Austin); and they should have used less gravy or put it on the side.

I washed this all down with sweet tea. It was a substantial lunch.

I then drove the 15 miles to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.  Here’s where it is, about 50 miles west of Austin in Texas’s “Hill Country”, one of the state’s most appealing parts.

The park has two parts bisected by the Pedernales River. One one side is the Visitors Center, a “model farm” from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and a one-room schoolhouse where future President Lyndon Johnson went to school at four years old.

In the visitor’s center, which must be your first stop (you need a free pass to drive around the LBJ Ranch) are several items of interest. Here’s one, with the label.

Can you see his initials in the desk? It took me a while to find them.

Here they are!

Also on display, LBJ’s white Stetson Hat and cowboy boots. The boots are by Dan Post, and although they may be custom boots, specially made to fit LBJ, Dan Post isn’t known for making great boots. A President deserved better!

Near the visitor’s center is the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, in which Park employees still work the original property as the residents did 150 to about 110 years ago. There are cows to milk and sheep to shear, and you can see displays of knitting, cooking, and gardening.

The rangers, dressed in period clothes, were very chatty and helpful. Given that there were surprisingly few visitors when I went yesterday, I got to talk a lot to the Park employees. Here’s the farm.

I think this is a Charolais cow, but I’m not sure. I am sure that a reader will know. It is a cute cow.

And a sheep, of what breed I know not:

Here’s a device inside the house that dates from about 1918. Can you guess what function this served on the farm? The ranger quizzed me, and I came close but didn’t quite get it. Answer at the bottom of the post.

This is LBJ’s first school, the Junction School, a one-room schoolhouse opened in 1910 and closed in 1947. Johnson went here as a four-year-old for only a few months before the school closed because of a whooping cough epidemic.

Johnson graduated from high school in Johnson City in 1924, when he was 16. He went on to graduate from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in San Marcos, and, as you’ll know if you read Caro’s biography (the best bio ever!), LBJ went on to teach in three places, including one where his pupils were all Mexican-Americans.

Below is LBJ’s birthplace, or rather a replica of it. He had it reconstructed as a sort of memento. As the National Park Service notes:

Lyndon Johnson took great pride in his heritage and his roots here in the Hill Country of Texas. In order to share that heritage with interested visitors, President Johnson hired architect J. Roy White of Austin, Texas in 1964 to reconstruct the birthplace home. President Johnson and Roy White relied on old photographs of the original birthplace house as well as family members’ memories to guide the project. The house represents how Lyndon Johnson wanted us to see his birthplace. Lyndon Johnson’s birthplace has the distinction of being the only presidential birthplace reconstructed, refurbished, and interpreted by an incumbent President.

The family burial plot sits on the north side of the Pedernales River. You can’t go into the plot, but you can go right up to the wall and see the graves of the Johnson family sitting peacefully under the large oaks. The two larger stones in the middle are the graves of LBJ and Lady Bird.

They rest side by side. Although LBJ had affairs, the impression one gets is that they were deeply devoted to each other. It saddens me that Lady Bird lived for 34 years after LBJ died in 1973, just four years after leaving the Presidency.

Lady Bird died at 95. Her tombstone is engraved with a flower, the symbol of her “Beautify America” campaign.

LBJ’s grave with the Presidential seal. Beset by heart problems, he died of a massive heart attack at only 64.

Below: cattle on the Johnson ranch, the descendants of ones bought by LBJ. He was quite proud of his herd, and had only Hereford cattle, which are tough, adaptable, and gain weight easily. I was told that all the cows and horses are tended by Park employees, and the farm is not a money-making venture. They do occasionally sell a calf.

LBJ tending his farm in 1954, when he was a U.S. Senator (a Democrat, of course):

A sign at the “Show Barn”, where animals were displayed but also taken care of: branded, hooves tended, and the like. How could I resist a visit with a cow?

Here are the two cows on display, a mother and calf. The mom is called “LBJ Intense Lady 373”, and the calf, named only #543, was born exactly a month before the picture was taken. (It weighed 84 pounds at birth!) As you see below, it already looks like a miniature cow.

Mom and calf.

Look at those lovely eyelashes on the calf!

When LBJ became President after JFK’s assassination in 1963, his ranch became the “Western White House,” where he spent about 20% of his time. It is a surprisingly modest place for a Presidential retreat, but does have certain accoutrements of power. One of them is a runway for his downsized version of Air Force One, called “Air Force One Half.” It’s a Lockheed JetStar VC-140. They had to build a 6000-foot concrete runway on the Ranch to enable it to land.

Johnson would usually fly on the big Air Force One to Austin or San Antonio, and then take this smaller jet or a Marine helicopter to the Ranch, a very short flight.

The plane now has a permanent place close to the Johnsons’ house: the Western White House.

The hanger for the plane doubled as a place where the Johnsons would show movies to visitors and listen to music. Here’s the official Juke Box (Juke Box One?) emblazoned with the Presidential seal.

And of course I was curious about what music the Prez liked. I was told by a ranger that these are the original records and songs. You can see that it’s pretty anodyne pop music from the era. I didn’t see any Beatles songs.

The family cars. LBJ favored Lincoln Continentals. The brown one belonged to Lady Bird, and the white to Lyndon. Note the license plates: both Lyndon and Lady Bird had the same initials. (So did their two daughters: Lynda Bird Johnson and Luci Baines Johnson.)

Here’s LBJ’s Continental with its “suicide doors” (read the text below):

And here’s the Western White House. As I said, it’s not the kind of impressive house you’d expect from a President, but Johnson liked to be folksy with his visitors, putting on barbecues and wearing casual clothes.

The house will be closed for a few more years while it’s being renovated, but you can take a virtual tour of the first floor at the National Park Site.

He even had an “aqua car” that could travel in land or on water, and he’d frighten visitors by driving them straight into the Pedernales river, pretending that he’d made a wrong turn.

The pool on the south side of the house. It was built to give LBJ exercise for his heart, but Lady Bird used it far more often.

The west side of the house.

Johnson installed “friendship stones” outside the house: distinguished visitors would be offered the chance to sign their names in a wet cement flagstone. Here are a couple of notables: the famous Air Force general Curtis LeMay and country singer Eddy Arnold.

Some of the original seven astronauts: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Leroy (Gordon) Cooper, Deke Slayton, and John Glenn.

Right across the street from the big house is a small house where the Secret Service agents assigned to LBJ and Lady Bird lived and worked:

And the small Pedernales river runs just across the street from the Western White House:

If you want to learn more about LBJ, I can’t recommend highly enough the wonderful four-volume biography by Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. A fifth and last volume is in the works, and we all hope Caro, now 85, finishes his masterpiece before he “moves on.” It is the best biography of any sort that I know of, and, already over 3,000 pages long, is still a page-turner. Read it!

***************

Answer to question above: The device at the Sauer-Beckmann farm is a cream separator, using centrifugal force to separate the milk from the cream, with the latter used to make butter.

Texas, Day 5: Taylor to Johnson City. Have I found America’s best BBQ?

April 3, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I’m now in Johnson City, Texas, named after an uncle of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who of course made the city famous. His “Western White House” was here, and here is where he retired, died, and is buried. It’s a tiny town (population less than 2,000), but one redolent with history. Who can hear of the Pedernales River without thinking of LBJ?

I will spend tomorrow visiting his childhood haunts, the LBJ Visitor’s Center, and perhaps, if it’s open, I can drive through the grounds of LBJ’s Western White House (visitors are no longer allowed to tour the house itself).

This is Hill Country, more famous for chicken-fried steaks than BBQed brisket, and so I may spend a few days essaying the region’s famed dish.

But first my report from Taylor, Texas, the home of famed Louie Mueller BBQ. The restaurant is well aware of its renown; atop its webpage you see this:

As you’ll see, both assertions are correct, at least in my view.

Taylor has a population of 15,000, and, like Elgin, is a town where many B movies were filmed.

I checked into a cheap motel on Thursday and immediately went downtown just to locate Mueller’s, as I planned to visit it when it opened at 11 Friday morning. This Apotheosis of Smoke opens at 11 a.m. six days a week—this is religious Texas, and most places close on Sundays—and stays open until it runs out of barbecue. They told me yesterday that that’s usually around 3 p.m.

Sure enough, when I dropped by at 4 p.m. Thursday, this sign was on the door. But no mind: I was coming the next day anyway.

There was also this cheerful sign in another window:

I had a ramble around downtown Taylor, which, like many dying Texas towns, consists of a central city (I couldn’t find the courthouse) with little streets lined with old buildings containing local shops. Taylor also had two pianos on the sidewalk for people to play as they will. This one even had sheet music, and bust my britches if one of the pieces of sheet music wasn’t “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich, one of my favorite country songs.

And here’s a statue of Bill Pickett, who was, as the plaque says, “The Father of Bulldogging.” What’s that, you wonder? It’s wrestling steers, which, as Wikipedia describes:

. . . is a rodeo event in which a horse-mounted rider chases a steer, drops from the horse to the steer, then wrestles the steer to the ground by grabbing its horns and pulling it off-balance so that it falls to the ground. The event carries a high risk of injury to the cowboy.

The risk of injury to the steer is much less: about 0.04%.

You can see a video of bulldogging here.  Pickett has a fascinating biography on Wikipedia. He was born in 1870, the son of a slave, and had African and Cherokee ancestry. He lived for a while in Taylor, and actually invented the sport of steer wrestling.

Taylor died in 1932 after being kicked in the head by a bronco. Here’s a photo of him, probably the model for the statue above:

Here’s a defunct BBQ in town. This is what happens if you produce inferior brisket:

This was in a store nearby. Why, though, do ranchers want cedar stumps?

Elsewhere in town I found the Lucky Duck Cafe

Jane and Michael Stern, whose many books about eating on the road got me hooked, have this to say about Mueller’s brisket:

Several years ago, Louie Mueller added a new, modern dining room that lacks the smoky patina of the old brick-walled restaurant; but no matter where you eat in this venerable BBQ, the flavor is historic. Here is a restaurant where beef is cooked and served the way pitmasters have been doing it for decades in this part of Texas. Step up to the counter behind which you have a view of the old smoke pits. Order your meat by the pound or plate. It is presented on a serving tray, which you carry to a table.

The brisket is a thing of beauty. It is sliced relatively thick, each individual slice halved by the ribbon of fat that runs through a brisket, separating the leaner, denser meat below from the more marbled stuff on top. This is the Platonic Ideal of Texas BBQ.

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. Wayne Mueller, Louie’s grandson, and now master of the BBQ domain, told us that no spices go into or onto his briskets other than salt and pepper. Add time and smoke to those two elements, plus a pitmaster who knows how to move the meat around in the pit to take maximum advantage of hot spots, cool spots, and drafts, and the result is beef that is impossibly juicy and huge-flavored.

Everybody knows about Louie Mueller’s reputation, and that’s why—aside from Franklin’s BBQ in Austin—it’s the most crowded BBQ joint I know of. There was a line of ten people at 10:45 when I arrived, and it was much longer by the time the doors opened. When I left at noon, the line was out the door. Many people were taking out huge orders for groups; perhaps some had come from nearby Austin.

I asked the woman at the counter if there was always a line, and she said yes, and it was much longer on Saturdays! I also inquired about when they put the briskets on to smoke, and she asked a man who I believe was Wayne Mueller, the grandson of Louie and the pitmaster. He said they start the smoking at 4 a.m., so they’ve been smoking for 7 hours when the restaurant opens. (They are cooked not with direct heat, but with smoke.)

The line:

A Beard Foundation award (one of many encomia for this place) hangs on the wall.

Below: the handwritten menu. They didn’t have BBQ plates, so after some exchange with the counter woman, I got three slices of juicy (i.e., fatty) brisket, a regular sausage, onions, pickles, and sides of potato salad and pinto beans, along with two slice of white bread and sweet tea. (Sound familiar?) That was about $23–expensive for a BBQ joint.

As you see, their brisket is $28 per pound, the most expensive I’ve seen yet (it usually ranges between $13 and $18 per pound).

But it was worth it.

Here is my plate, and every item save the beans was the best examplar I’ve had in Texas. The potato salad was copious and creamy, and the sausage, in a natural casing, snapped when I bit into it and then released a flood of juice. It was fabulous: meaty, spicy, and smoky. It’s the best Texas smoked sausage I’ve had by far.

And oy, the brisket! Here’s a close-up view showing the char on the outside, the red “smoke layer,” and the meat itself, with the entire slice bisected by a ribbon of succulent fat. It was, well, ethereal. No sauce needed: the smoke, beef, and salt melded in a gastronomic epiphany. I sat there at the table and ate very slowly, savoring every bite.

I have had brisket all over Texas, including this trip, and BBQ all over America. And right now I can say that Louie Muller, as its website advertises, is the best BBQ brisket in Texas, ergo the best BBQ in America. I’ll add that I’ve never had a smoked sausage as good either, even at the famed Southside Market where I ate on Thursday.

Ladies and gentleman, brothers and sisters, and comrades, if you are near Austin, get yourself to Louie Mueller’s (preferably before noon and not on a Saturday) and be prepared to enjoy the best barbecue in America. (Right now the City Market in Luling, my old favorite, has slipped a notch to the #2 spot.)

Day 4 in Texas: San Antonio to Taylor

April 2, 2021 • 8:30 am

Yesterday morning I woke up in San Antonio after a fitful night’s sleep (was it the tacos?), and hightailed it out of town as fast as I could. I had two destinations, each an hour’s drive from the previous one.

My first stop was the renowned Texas Pie Company in Kyle, a small town (ca. 28,000 people) that had at least one notable resident: writer Katherine Anne Porter spent a few years here as a child.

Now it’s the Home of Excellent Pies. Here’s the store; I was waiting out front when it opened so I could get freshly baked pie. Look at that giant slice of cherry pie over the door!

They sell all manner of baked goods, but of course they don’t call it the Texas Donut Company or Texas Lemon Bar company. YOU MUST HAVE PIE. Their pies are rated highly by food mavens Jane and Michael Stern, as well as others. Fortunately, you don’t have to buy a whole pie: they have 4-inch “mini pies” for $5 and the full 8-inch jobs (four times the area) for $18. Here’s the pie case with the mini pies on the top shelf. It was a hard choice:

I was going to buy two mini pies but settled on four. Shown below, they include a strawberry peach pie, a buttermilk pie (an Indiana and Amish favorite), and two pies recommended by the counter woman (who called me “Honey”): pecan and dutch apple. I’ll have one a day for dessert after lunch, as she said they’d last about ten days at room temperature. I’ve already polished off the buttermilk, which was superb, with a thick and flaky crust and the sweet classic (and slightly tangy) filling of this species of pie.

A four-inch diameter pie is just enough to constitute a hefty dessert! (They gave me plastic forks.) Highly recommended if you’re driving between Austin and San Antonio: it’s right off the main highway.

But my prime destination was another hour to the northeast: the Southside Market in Elgin, famed for its sausages (also called “hot guts” in Texas). The population is about 8,000, and it’s in cattle country, so you see a lot of boots and cowboy hats. Check out the many famous movies filmed in this small town.

A cow or horse trailer parked outside. It was from Louisiana, and empty, so maybe they just delivered a load of cattle.

At noon there was a huge line of cars outside picking up orders. Every car that you see is in the BBQ line. The place is famous for its sausage, but the brisket is also well known.

An old smoker outside the door:

Inside, there was already a huge line by 11:30 am (bbq is often eaten early in Texas). Note the social distancing and masks. Despite the absence of a statewide mask mandate in Texas, most stores and restaurants still require you to enter wearing a mask, and everybody I saw was compliant.

This is a fancy menu for a BBQ joint. I got the “Southside Combo Plate,” which had a sliced sausage, three fat pieces of juicy brisket, two pieces of white bread and a picks (a separate counter had jalapenos, sauce, and onions). My sides were beans and potato salad, which turned out to be good choices.

One of the two eating rooms—this is a big place for a barbecue joint!

Two old timers tucking into their lunch.

My plate, described above. I didn’t see the condiment bar with saltines, but wish I had, as I prefer saltines more than white bread with my meat.

This shot of the brisket shows all four essential bits: the charred bit on the outside, the red “smoke ring” of meat below it, the meat, and the fat. Brisket without any fat is dry, good only for those on a diet.

Closeup of the sausage.

My judgment on the Southside Market: the BBQ was very good, but not great, and that includes the sausage. In fact, both the brisket and the sausage were better at Black’s BBQ in Lockhart, and the brisket was better at the City Market than at either Black’s or the Southside Market. The City Market remains my top choice for Texas BBQ, but I have other places to visit, including the famous Louie Mueller tomorrow.

Many hold Mueller’s to be the best barbecued brisket in Texas (ergo the best BBQ in America), but I’ve never been there before. It’s in Taylor, Texas, just 15 minutes from Elgin, and I’m staying there now so I can be at Mueller’s at opening time of 11 a.m.  If you’re a reader in the area (it’s only 30 minutes from Austin), I’ll be glad to meet you at Mueller’s at 11 on the dot today (Friday).

The Southside Market has plenty of sausages to take home, and they were doing a land office business at the meat counter.

Here’s the list of purveyed “hot guts”:

I’ve finished my pie, and it’s time for a little nap. . . .

In a few hours, on to Louie Mueller!

Tacos in San Antonio

April 1, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m writing this after lunch on Wednesday, and I’m still not full, so I may go out for more tacos this evening.

The taco is the signature food of San Antonio, which is heavily laden with Tex-Mex cuisine. And if you Google “best tacos in San Antonio”, you’ll get a gazillion different sites, with very little overlap between the lists. This put me in a quandary, as which should I choose, given that I get only one or two chances?. Based on a recommendation yesterday and one reliable-looking list, I decided to try the “puffy” taco at Henry’s Puffy Tacos, a bit of a slog from where I’m staying. (Texans think little of driving long distances, as their state is so big!)

Here’s the recommendation from Female Foodie:

Henry’s Puffy Tacos is absolutely legendary in San Antonio because no one does puffy tacos better. These puffy tacos have a deep-fried, crisp exterior, a slightly chewy interior, and are filled with your choice of deliciousness. Female Foodie favorites are the Picadillo and chicken fajita puffy tacos. Once you get your order, waste no time in noshing, as the juicy meat will eventually work its way through the crunch of the taco and leave you scrambling to get it all in. The charro beans are house-made and a great side dish if you’re looking for one. Over the years, Henry’s has expanded its offerings into quite an impressive list of cantina items, but there’s no doubt you’re here for the puffy tacos—some of the best tacos in San Antonio.

Here’s the exterior: for my style, it’s a fancy place!

The interior, too, is a bit upmarket, but no worries:

I had the spicy beef and chicken fajita tacos. I ordered only two because the waitress told me that would be enough for lunch. It really wasn’t. With it came chips and salsa and refried beans (I was too addled to order the charro beans).  The tacos were very good, and the texture was great: as the recommendation above noted, you must eat them quickly lest they lose their crunch and become soft. I polished them off within 15 minutes. I should have ordered another, but contemplated instead going to another taco place for dinner. Here’s my lunch plate:

As I said, they were quite good, but hey, it’s tacos, Jake! This ain’t beef brisket or sausages or ribs, so I almost feel that I’ve wasted one day of field work. Tomorrow I’ll go to the Texas Pie Company in Kyle for takeout pie, and then on to the Southside Market in Elgin, famous for its sausages (some say they’re the best in the U.S.)

Day 2: Texas, Luling to San Antonio

March 31, 2021 • 11:00 am

Well, it’s a good thing I posted on the day before yesterday that I was going to eat at the City Market in Luling at 10 a.m.Tuesday, because I met two friends there: both readers of my website who traveled to the BBQ joint to surprise me. One came from near Houston, a four-hour drive, and the other from San Antonio, an hour away. You’ll see them shortly, though I will withhold names as I forgot to ask permission (it was okay to post photos, though).

I went to this place many years ago and pronounced it the best BBQ of any sort in America. I was thus worried that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, for there had been dark mutterings on Yelp and other sites that the brisket was sometimes dry.

I needn’t have worried, though.

Below: outside of the City Market in Luling. At 10 a.m. there was nobody there except a guy standing in front of the restaurant. As I walked in, he came up to me and said, “You look like a guy who likes ducks.” He then introduced himself as a reader of my website, and said he’d gotten up at 4 a.m. at his home north of Houston to meet me in Luling. (I had no warnings of this.) He presented me with four lovely miniature wooden ducks (one is in the sipping water posture we often see in our Botany Pond ducks). What a fantastic thing to give me! (I just found out via email that they were given to my friend 25 years ago by an Argentinian dentist.)

He asked if he could join me for a meaty breakfast and of course I agreed instantly. We walked inside this unprepossessing building, and could smell the BBQ instantly.

The inside. There was another guy, somewhat younger, standing right inside. I thought he worked there, and asked him how we ordered (it’s complicated there, as in many BBQ places: you order and pay for the meat in one place, and the drinks and desserts in another). It turned out that he was ANOTHER reader of this site, living an hour south in San Antone, and had independently decided to meet me.

So I got to have breakfast with two readers. How great of them to take the time to drive to Luling to say “hi”! I was very touched, and we had a nice chat. It’s a good thing I always do what I say I will, and at the time I say I’ll do it, or they might have missed me.

Ordering the meat in the back room. I had a sample of their specialities: brisket, pork ribs, and their famous sausage. I also had two slices of bread and a slice of raw onion. That’s all they have besides a pickle and a jalapeño pepper, but you can get beer, soda, tea, and banana pudding in the main room.

Below is my late breakfast (or early lunch): two pork ribs (superb) sitting atop a juicy (i.e., fatty) pair of brisket slices, with a sausage to the right and raw onion on the side. And, of course, sweet tea. The brisket, which I doused with the City Market’s homemade BBQ sauce, was part of a combination that still makes me think this is America’s best BBQ.

Meals are served on butcher paper, not plates, and you’re expected to eat with your hands, but they will give you a plastic knife or fork if you ask.

My newfound pals, neither of whom had eaten there before. They both became instant fans of the BBQ and both ordered some extra to take home. Guys, if you want me to give your names, email me.

The guy who brought me the ducks also brought his dog and his leash-trained cat, named Sagan (after Carl), to meet me. (He said they both travel well.) I got a good cat fix, petting Mr. Sagan. Note the liberal stickers on his car; he’s also a pro-masker and an atheist, so I’m surprised he’s still alive in Texas! (He’s not from Austin, a blue area.)

From Luling it was about an hour and 15 minutes south to San Antonio. I had three hours before I checked into my cheap motel, so I took a walk downtown to visit the area, the famous River Walk, and the Alamo.

I was pleasantly surprised by the old Art Deco architecture downtown, as well as by lots of original stores with their original signs, and many old theaters.

Some buildings (I know not what they are):

 

Front view of the building above;

 

Nowhere but in the South could a hotel bear this name:

An old Walgreen’s drugstore with an original sign:

And where do you find big hat stores any more? Here’s Paris Hatters. They specialize in cowboy hats like Stetsons, as this is cowboy country.

Just within a few blocks I found lots of old theaters with their original signs. Sadly, they’ve all been closed for a year.

 

 

 

An old original ticket booth in an abandoned theater. I’m reflected in the window.

The famous River Walk, built along the San Antonio River from the late 1960s through the late 1980s. It’s peaceful, with all the touristy stuff on the streets above, and you can take barge tours down the narrow river.

The River Walk also leads to the most famous building in Texas: the Alamo, It was originally a Spanish mission built in 1824 and called Misión San Antonio de Valero. Its grounds were quite extensive, and housed a whole community of priests and native Americans, who lived and worked on the grounds. What you see below is actually the church of that mission; much of the rest has been destroyed, especially in the great battle between Mexicans and American colonists in 1836.

You can take tours of the inside, but they were all booked up yesterday. I was happy enough just to see the famous facade.

The Battle of the Alamo lasted less than two weeks, from February 23 to March 6, 1836, as the Army of President General Antonio López de Santa Anna of Mexico besieged the structure and the Texans (who claimed the land for their Republic) and Tejanos inside.  On March 6, the Mexicans scaled the wall and slaughtered nearly everybody inside, including William B. Travis, James Bowie, who gave his name to the famous knife, and, of course, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.

The famous battle cry “Remember the Alamo” was used by Texas troops in the the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, when U.S. troops defeated the Mexican Army.

A cannon barrel from the Battle of the Alamo, placed on a reconstructed carriage.

A statue of William B. Travis, commander of the Republic of Texas and of the troops at the Alamo. He was killed in the battle; only a dozen people, mostly women and children, survived. The rest were killed on the spot by the Mexican troops or executed later.

Davy Crockett with his frontiersman garb and coonskin hat. (Yes, I had one when I was a kid because of the famous Disney television series.)

Davy has an eponymous hotel nearby.

A Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus; male) said hello at the Alamo.

Ducks and Texas BBQ

March 29, 2021 • 3:15 pm

First a few shots from Chicago, and then. . . . today’s lunch in Texas!

Yesterday someone brought a beautiful English shorthaired cat on a leash to Botany Pond. The cat didn’t look like it enjoyed it at all: it was hunkered down and appeared frightened. And it certainly wasn’t walking as if it were used to a leash.

Scared cat is circled:

Then a quick trip to the harbor behind the Museum of Science and Industry where, I was told, there were mergansers. And there were: lots of them. Some were diving, though I can’t be arsed to either look up the species, see what they eat, or if the brown vs. black-and-white ducks represent a sexual dimorphism. Readers can answer these questions:

Punk duck:

Females?

And a damn Canada goose, the bane of all waterways:

Then, on to Texas! The two-hour flight was uneventful, and we were even offered drinks and snacks (I refused). I rented a car at the Austin airport, and within an hour I was in the Barbecue Capital of Texas: the small town of Lockhart (population about 13,000). It boasts three of the best BBQ joints in the state (ergo in America): Kreuz Market, Smitty’s, and Black’s. I had to choose one, and since the last time I was here Black’s was the best, I returned. The other two places weren’t nearly as crowded today.

The exterior of Black’s, in this location since 1932.

The interior is austere, as is seemly for all good BBQ joints. You’re there to eat, not admire the view. You wait in line, first getting sides, then you encounter the Meat Guy and tell him what you want: brisket, sausages, or ribs. Drinks (sweet tea is essential) are on the side.

The “feminist” restrooms. “Women are always right.”

The meat guy slicing my brisket (I had two “moist”, or fatty, slices). Briskets are smoked in the rear.

My lunch: two slices of BBQ beef brisket (the speciality of Texas), a jalapeno-cheddar sausage, raw onion, pickles, black-eyed peas with green beans, potato salad, two slices of squishy white bread, a scoop of banana pudding with vanilla wafers (fantastic), and, of course, sweet tea.

Since I hadn’t eaten all day, this filled me up nicely.

The other two places in Lockhart. Kreuz Market (pronounced “Krites” with a long “i”) and Smitty’s.

I passed these places up as I plan on having only one big meal per day.

A poseur in town! Famous banana pudding my tuches!

The lovely old Lockhart city hall. This really is a classic small Texas town, with a central square on which converge small streets lined with local businesses:

I’m now digesting in nearby Luling, where I plan to go to the place where I had the best BBQ I remember in America: the City Market. Brisket is usually best without sauce, but they have an absolutely addictive sauce that puts their brisket over the top. I hope it’s as good as I remember.

I plan to go when it opens at 10 a.m., as BBQ is best right when taken off the smoker in the morning.