Back to Llano Country

Today’s entry is of a topic very near and dear to me about which I’ve BLOGged to an unjustly sparse degree: food.

In Kansas City the barbecue is famous and passable, but bland by comparison. North Carolina “barbecue” might as well be from an alien world, because having so much syrupy sweetness in the sauce defies the smoky, spicy Western heritage of the real deal. And where does authentic pit barbecue come from? Why of course, no place else but the Lone Star State! Yes, you haven’t had pit BBQ done the right way until you’ve been deep in the heart of Texas.

Growing up in Texas, I had my share, especially on road trips by bus, when the drivers would stop at some roadside meat-smokin’ shack out on the country for a brisket sandwich, washed down with a tall frosty bottle of Dr Pepper. It had been too long — years — since I had the real thing outside of my own efforts at home, and for me, even a week is too long.

Elke and I made it back down to the geographic locus of the home of true BBQ over the weekend: the Llano country of central Texas. Inspired by a previous trip back in March (for early spring wildflowers), we came back again, for the photography as always, and naturally enough, for time together, and of course, just to be back in Texas again. But also — make no mistake about it – we returned for the food.

Two great German dinners in Fredericksburg were part of that, to be sure. [If you ever find yourself down in the Hill Country, and please trust me on this, it’s necessary to dine at Der Lindenbaum and order the Jägerschnitzel!]

Meanwhile, I had gotten tired of smelling those puffs, hints and passing smoke plumes of roadside pit BBQ shacks all weekend, while wandering the highways and byways of central TX, without having any. We decided on Sunday, therefore, to go straight to the very best. I grew up on Llano in Dallas, and only on Dallas in Llano, at Cooper’s BBQ, could this intense craving be satisfactorily tamed.

The setup they have at Cooper’s (a legendary and huge pit BBQ operation in Llano): massive amounts of meat slow smoked over charred Texas mesquite (the best wood for it!) in a series of 20 foot long pits. They must process several whole American cattle a day through that place. You tell the pit boss what you want and he reaches in there, cleaves off slabs of hot juicy meat and tosses ’em right onto your tray (not plate, tray!). This ain’t no place for vegetarian granola-girls from Berkeley!

Yes, we got I-don’t-know-how-many pounds of assorted meats hacked and stacked in the span of just about 20 seconds: racks of ribs that looked like they sawed off the torso of the cow and tossed the whole ribcage into the pit, well spiced and huge pork chops, whole chickens, and of course, timelessly delicious brisket. What a feast!

This stuff was perfectly cooked, all of it — just a little bit of pink inside the ribs, those slabs of pork juicy throughout, the brisket in a melt-in-your-mouth state. We didn’t even order the sausage links, nearly 2 feet long and 2 inches thick apiece, or the goat, which they smoke but I didn’t happen to notice in the pit at the moment.

I don’t know how that outfit cooks brisket and ribs to delectable precision with such huge pits, or smokes up its two inch thick spiced pork chops so evenly, but they’ve had many decades of practice. I also don’t know how the townsfolk can resist eating there when the wind is from the NW, as it was Sunday, and the aroma wafts aloft for miles downwind all through Llano and points beyond.

Lines of hungry Texans, some of them authentic ranch cowboys, wrapped around the building on a Sunday afternoon. Other patrons were city-slickers who traveled hours from far and wide for the experience, from San Antonio, the Metroplex, and Austin. Mostly it was local townsfolk, families freshly changed out of their church clothes in preparation for a marvelously messy, carnivorous feast.

We may not have beaten the Baptists to the chow line, but this particular Texan went back to his Okie home well fed. Even Elke, who normally isn’t much of a barbecue eater, was really impressed, and now that she’s finally had it, smitten with the quality and flavor of the real thing. And of course, it didn’t hurt that they had America’s Team on TV, engaged in an ultimately triumphant effort over the Detroit Lions.

Victorious Dallas Cowboys football, mountains of Texas pit barbecue and (best of all) the company of a beautiful woman…what more can a dude ask for?


4 Responses to “Back to Llano Country”

  1. RJ on November 23rd, 2005 5:18 am

    [quote]Victorious Dallas Cowboys football, mountains of Texas pit barbecue and (best of all) the company of a beautiful woman…what more can a dude ask for?[/quote]

    Cardio Pulminary Resusssssssitation?


  2. Mike Peregrine on November 24th, 2005 12:17 pm

    Interesting how each part of the country has developed its own flavor that is totally unique. Seems like if you are from that particular part of the country, then there is nothing better than the hometown bbq flavor. North Carolina’s bbq is based on vinegar … I actually went to a bbq festival there one time. Being from KC, this was almost like an ‘alien’ experience. But I grew to like it (not as much as KC, of course). For me, there’s still nothing like the smoky, spicy, full flavor of good KC bbq. Give me Arthur Bryants or let me rest in peace.

  3. Gilbert S. on December 29th, 2005 1:39 pm

    Only one: post a sticky list of your favorite
    Texas eateries!!! I got hungry just reading this post…

    BTW, how are the prices at Coopers?

  4. tornado on December 30th, 2005 11:57 pm

    Not too bad considering the quality — about $6-$9/pound for most of the cooked meat.

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