Freeport, Texas was merely a pit stop on our path eastward. Neither of us had seen the Texas coastline, and we were due for a night of camping — both for our souls and our budget. As always, we seemed to be the last guests to arrive at the campground — this one Quintana Beach County Park — but at least, for once, we were able to pitch our tent and cook dinner before dark. We also were happy to see a flat expanse of grass, which is a luxury for tent campers accustomed to sleeping atop dirt and rock and roots. The dogs chased seagulls across the open field, and later zigzagged through the sand in pursuit of crabs during a late-night walk on the beach. It was a perfect pit stop, and it set us back only 17 bucks.


Our bellies full of brisket, Scott and I made our way toward the Texas coast. We cruised through rural roads, past cattle ranches and pastures filled with horses, goats and yellow wildflowers. The scenery was breathtaking. I’ve never known this Texas. My previous trips followed Interstate 40. I remember eating country-fried steak at a Grandy’s in Amarillo, and I once interviewed for a job in Houston — in August. Had I known Texas was so splendid in spring, I would have bypassed I-40 and opted for a 600-mile detour through the belly of the Lone Star State when the bluebonnets were blooming. I now have a better idea why Texans don’t want their state messed with.


A sure sign of maturity is that the more a man knows, the less of a know-it-all he becomes.

A truly evolved man wears self-deprecation better than cockiness. The smirk of his youth gives way to a gentle and knowing smile. He values curiosity above zealotry, and he asks questions even when he might already know their answers. He knows there is an art to letting a conversation come to him, and there is grace in suppressing his own opinion to allow another’s to breathe.

As I ramble across the country with my 40th birthday on the horizon, this is the man I strive to be. I really do. But two things stand in my way: SEC football and North Carolina-style barbecue.

My opinion of these two things is so lofty, my conviction of their peerlessness so assured, that any differing or disparaging view toward them, be it issued from a bar stool or church pew, causes my outer Charlie Rose to be elbowed aside by my inner Glenn Beck. I don’t care who you are or where you live: My football and barbecue are better than your football and barbecue, and I will lecture you as to the reasons why as long as you will listen (and sometimes longer). I might manage to speak in measured tones, but they almost certainly will drip with condescension.

For the first three months of this trip I didn’t have to worry about barbecue and college football corroding my interactions with strangers, because these topics aren’t conversational priorities for most people in California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

But then along came Texas.

Texas is home to the college football team that was defeated by my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide in last season’s national championship game, and the state’s byways and backroads are dotted with joints that serve barbecue I consider inferior to similar fare in North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Put simply, I found myself in enemy territory, a place that challenged not only my allegiances but my quest to become a reasonable man.

(I will not bore you with football boasts here, other than to say it was Jill, not I, who verbally assaulted a drunken frat boy wearing a Texas Longhorns cap when he wobbled off the sidewalk and into our car’s path in downtown Austin then had the audacity to swear at us. Our parents read this blog, so I hesitate to print what Jill shouted at the young man, other than to report it began with “Roll Tide” and ended with a four-syllable epithet that insulted his lineage. Yet another reason to love her.)

Jill and I had already decided that, from Austin, we would follow the Texas BBQ Trail, a circuit of barbecue purveyors scattered throughout four small towns — Elgin, Lockhart, Luling and Taylor — within a hour’s drive of the state capital. My intention was to give Texas barbecue a fair shake.

Photo by Scott Dunn

Best I can tell, the Texas BBQ Trail is the creation of the aforementioned towns’ chambers of commerce, with plenty of help from Richardson Media, a Texas-based marketing company that produced a website and brochure about the trail that makes it seem vaguely official to tourists.

Placing these four towns on the BBQ map (literally) was a stroke of genius, because I cannot imagine another reason to visit them other than to satisfy one’s appetite for smoked meats.

Elgin, Lockhart, Luling and Taylor share a pan-flat landscape crosshatched by wide, straight streets and unfettered by buildings over two stories. The expansive horizons insulate the towns from the big-city silliness of Austin and provide a blank backdrop for Friday-night football games. A sense of provincialism envelopes each locale like a sausage casing, which is probably why Elgin and Lockhart were chosen as settings for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Waiting For Guffman — movies that deal in their own sweet way with small-town disaffection.

The towns on the Texas BBQ Trail share something else: They all were settled in the late 1800s by German, Polish and Czech immigrants who brought their expertise in butchery and sausage making to central Texas. That’s how barbecue began here. These transplanted butchers didn’t have the luxury of refrigerators or deep freezers, so they either had to sell meat fresh or smoke it before it spoiled.

In 1886, a butcher named William J. Moon, having grown tired of hauling meat to town day after, opened a storefront in Elgin and called it the Southside Market. He ground his beef trimmings, doctored them with salt and spices, and packed the mix into casings made from intestines. Moon smoked these “hot guts” and sold them to the townsfolk, and Texas’ first barbecue joint was born.

Southside Market has changed hands and locations a few times over the past 124 years, but it still serves smoked sausage to the people of Elgin and, now, travelers on the Texas BBQ Trail. The restaurant has been in its current location on Highway 290 since 1983, and it was our first stop on the trail.

Southside Market — like Meyer’s, the other Elgin barbecue restaurant on the trail — is famous for sausage, so that’s what I ordered. For variety’s sake, I also sampled the beef brisket and pork ribs. Let’s get this out of the way right now: If you can help it, don’t order pork ribs from Texans. It’s just not their thing. Ribs need to be accentuated by a good dry rub or a tangy sauce, and Texas barbecuers tend not to specialize in either. Brisket is always a better choice in the Lone Star State, and sausage usually gives you the most bang for your buck.

Another helpful road rule for the BBQ trail: Don’t go overboard when ordering. By the time I polished off a half rack of baby backs and several slices of brisket at Southside Market, my decision to save the sausage for last didn’t seem like such a good idea. Still, it proved the best of the trio — smoky, juicy, coarsely textured. New York food critic Ed Levine calls it “simply the best smoked sausage I have ever eaten.” It’s not the best smoked sausage I’ve ever eaten — I prefer mine a little spicier — but I don’t pretend to be the culinary authority Ed Levine is.

I will say Southside Market’s sausage is the best I ate in Elgin — a town that was founded as a railroad stop called Glasscock before growing into the “Sausage Capital of Texas” — because the beef sausage down the road at Meyer’s left much to be desired.

To be fair, I arrived at Meyer’s at closing time after consuming a full meal at Southside Market. Still, the link I was served was wrinkled and odd tasting, and the tomato-heavy sauce I dipped it in ranks among the worst barbecue sauces I’ve ever tasted in a restaurant. Every bite triggered a childhood food memory for me, and it was not until I drove away, a tomato-y taste lingering in my mouth, that I tracked back to its source: Chef Boyardee SpaghettiOs with Sliced Franks.

I must confess that my underwhelming barbecue double feature in Elgin brought out the worst in my regionalistic posturing and dissuaded me from following rest of the Texas BBQ Trail. Grumbling around a toothpick, I boasted to Jill that I could name a hundred places that served better barbecue than what we had just eaten, and I mockingly questioned how a place with sauce as lousy as Meyer’s could stay in business for half a century. Why, I asked, should we waste time driving around the middle of Texas in search of decent barbecue when the sauce-slathered promised land of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee lie ahead?

Jill, no fan of barbecue, was quick to agree with this logic, and the next day we headed eastward. Alas, our path carried us straight into Lockhart, and we happened to pass Smitty’s Market at lunchtime. A massive pile of post oak was stacked in the gravel parking lot, pungent wood smoke swirled from the pit, and a line of customers snaked out the front door. I decided to give the place a chance.

Smitty’s is named after Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, the father of owner Nina Sells, and it occupies a red-brick building that housed Schmidt’s Kreuz Market for more than 50 years. Smitty’s pit is indoors, and it’s the first thing you see — through a haze of smoke — when you walk through the door. A soot-stained menu posted on the soot-stained wall reveals that all meats are sold by the pound — no plates, no sandwiches, no combos. The gals taking orders at the cash register move fast and talk fast, and the front of the line is no place for indecision.

I ordered a pound of brisket, and it arrived on a big square of butcher’s paper. I paid in cash and proceeded through a pair of glass doors into shotgun dining room filled with long wooden tables and jolting light. I purchased a sweet tea at the “side counter” and found a seat. While I waited for Jill to arrive with her bowls of potato salad and avocado(?), I searched for a fork. I wandered the length of the dining room, twice, surveying every countertop and cranny, but found nothing. Finally, I turned to a busboy.

“Could you point me to where the forks are?” I asked.

“We ain’t got any,” he replied, then went back to his work. I had outed myself as a tourist.

Next, I looked up and down the rows of tables for a bottle of sauce. Again, I found nothing. This time I wasn’t about to ask for help. It was quickly becoming apparent that, at Smitty’s, you eat meat with your fingers, and you don’t defile it with sauce. I explained this protocol to Jill (who did get a plastic spoon with her potato salad), and we dug in.

I generally refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain, but … oh my god. The first bite of Smitty’s brisket was a revelation. It was a hot, juicy amalgam of smoke and salt and grease. A glorious blend of flesh and char and fat. I chewed, swallowed and licked my fingers. Then I handed a slice of meat to Jill.

“Try this,” I said in a tone that might easily be mistaken for disgust. Jill gave me a wary look then took a bite.

Oh my god.”

She shared my amazement, as well as the instantaneous realization that we had just discovered brisket so good it redeemed the barbecue reputation of the entire state of Texas.

Going with the flow of food euphoria, Jill launched into a mini soliloquy about how good her avocado was and how pleasantly surprised she was to find such a Cali-like treat in a Texas barbecue joint. But I tuned her out, mesmerized by the taste of the brisket and the echo of my own mastication. I reckon my evolution as a man hasn’t reached the point where I can discuss avocados while eating the world’s best brisket with my bare hands.

I’ll work on that. In the meantime, allow me to list my favorite barbecue joints. Allow me also to admit that I know somewhere in Texas, far off the BBQ trail, there are little towns with no chambers of commerce, and in those towns are little barbecue shacks with no fancy websites, and in those shacks is prepared barbecue that might be even be better than the glorious stuff served at the restaurants below. I admit that.

But I don’t really believe it.

12 Legs BBQ Hall of Fame

Best wet ribs: Dreamland BBQ, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Best dry ribs: Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

Best pulled pork: Scott’s Walk-Up Bar-B-Q, Cartersville, Ga.

Best smoked sausage: Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, Leon Springs, Texas

Best brisket: Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, Texas

— Scott

According to the Nielson Company, which invented the concept of “market research” some 80 years ago, the people of Austin read and contribute to blogs more than residents in any other U.S. city. An outfit called Scarborough Research seconds this, estimating that 15 percent of adults who live in Austin are bloggers.

That’s about 573,000 people. Blogging. In one city.

So when Jill and I rolled into Texas’ famously free-thinking state capital — a place referred to in less progressive Lone Star circles as “300 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality” and “the People’s Republic of Austin” — I turned to her and made a rebellious declaration: “We’re not going to blog about Austin.”

My rationale: Austin needs another blog post like it needs another burned-out hippie or boot-wearing state senator. Besides, after 37 cities and 10,000 miles, I figured Jill and I needed a break. I suggested we find a weekly rental, wander aimlessly around town, read books by the lake, catch a live band or two, and generally take a vacation from our vacation.

I wanted, too, to see Jill saunter down the sidewalk unburdened by her camera and the constant artistic demands that come with having it slung across her shoulder. Is it fair that she squints at our every destination through a viewfinder while I amble at her side hardly ever scribbling a note? The answer, Jill reminds me frequently, is no.

I must also admit to another, more selfish motive for my proposed blog boycott of Austin: I don’t really like blogging.

Maybe its Austin’s countercultural spirit that compels me to make this declaration. Or maybe I’m just copping out, threatened by the creative class of thirtysomethings who mill about the city carrying laptops in leather messenger bags. Surely their blog entries are cleverer than mine. I bet they shoot video and post daily and have advertisers. I hate them.

I am generally not a man who’s prone to self-consciousness, but Austin is one of those cities — not unlike Boulder, Colo., or Cambridge, Mass. — that tweaks my nose and makes me question my credentials. Austin is Lance Armstrong. Austin is South by Southwest. Austin is Dazed and Confused. Whole Foods is headquartered here. “Austin City Limits” is filmed here. Wes Anderson matriculated here. Austinites who aren’t smart are pretty: Tattooed girls sunbathe topless in Zilker Park, and Matthew McConaughey jogs shirtless around Lady Bird Lake.

I contributed to my own private unease by finding us accommodations in SoCo, a neighborhood sandwiching South Congress Avenue that is the steady-thumping heartbeat of all things cool in Austin. From our garage-top studio apartment we were within walking distance of the city’s hippest hotels, coffee shops, fashion boutiques and food carts.

Jill quickly became obsessed with the latter — old trailers, trucks and buses that have been converted into food stands that serve everything from fried avocado tacos to grilled quail to bacon doughnuts. (That’s right: bacon doughnuts.) It’s like being able to eat every day at a magical state fair where the concessions are operated by the Food Network.

Jill ate at Torchy’s Tacos three times in five days. Its trailer shares a graveled plot of picnic tables with two other food carts (Man Bites Dog and Holy Cacao) to constitute the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery. Jill also drooled over Odd Duck Farm to Trailer, where she ordered the grilled quail and I tried a pork-belly slider. I wasn’t crazy about the fancy food most of these trailers dish up, but the price was right, and I did enjoy being able to dine outdoors with the dogs.

When not filling her gullet with trailer food, Jill was stuffing her feet into cowboy boots. She had decided she would not leave Texas without buying a pair as a souvenir, and she tried on two-dozen varieties at Allens Boots. Pulling on and pulling off new boots ain’t easy, and Jill emerged from Allen’s with beads of sweat on her upper lip and blisters on the undersides of her index fingers. (She also emerged bootless. Her quest would have to continue at boot stores beyond SoCo.)

Congress Avenue is also home to the Continental Club, a live-music institution in the Live Music Capital of the World. The Continental Club began its life as a private supper club in 1957, when it hosted acts like Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. It is purported to be the first place in Travis County to sell liquor by the glass. The Continental morphed into a burlesque club in the ’60s before returning to his musical roots a decade later, when Austin icons such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Joe Ely and Kinky Friedman played to audiences bathed in cigarette smoke and neon.

We were lucky enough to catch Dale Watson and his band on a Monday night at the Continental Club. Watson has the salt-and-pepper pompadour of aging greaser, the tattooed arms of an ex-con, and the gleaming horse teeth of a televangelist. His performance is pure SoCo: smooth, retro, satirical. Watson’s act would be considered campy on any other stage in any other city — listen to “Whiskey or God” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies” — but the guy was born to play the Continental Club in Austin.

Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros

Dale Watson provided the opening set for my and Jill’s near-nightly musical tour of Austin.

We saw Walt Wilkins and the Mystiqueros play at Saxon Pub and were treated to an amazing show by LuceroShooter Jennings, son of Waylon, opened — at Emo’s on 6th Street.

Really, if you can’t find good music in Austin, lean your face toward the nearest plane of glass and see if you fog it — you might be dead.

Maybe the only thing better than Austin’s food and music, in my book, is its walkability. In five days there we barely moved our car. Besides strolling around SoCo, we walked the length of Congress Avenue to the Texas State Capitol. This Italian Renaissance Revival marvel was the seventh-largest building in the world when it was completed in 1888, and it remains the biggest (if not tallest) state capitol building in the country. Its construction also prompted one of the largest barter transactions in U.S. history — the capitol’s principal builders were paid with tracts of land in the Texas panhandle. (The laborers who built the capitol weren’t compensated quite as well; most were convicts and migrant laborers who earned a pittance for six years of toiling.)

Even though Austin’s population is about the same as San Francisco’s, its downtown skyline is comparatively unremarkable. The state capitol is the reason for that. For decades, building restrictions prevented the construction of any skyscraper that would obscure views of the capitol from other parts of the city. Those restrictions have recently fallen by the wayside, however, and in their void have risen condo towers and a cloud-kissing W Hotel. Even in a progressive city like Austin, not everybody can agree this is progress.

Texas’ magnificent state capitol is responsible for one other thing, too: Jill finally finding the perfect pair of cowboy boots. During our meandering walk back toward SoCo from to the capitol grounds, she spotted a small downtown shop bearing the sign “Heritage Boots.” She went inside and fell in love with the first pair of boots she tried on.

So we left Austin feeling good. Miles of urban hiking had awakened our leg muscles, a new playlist of country songs rang through the car speakers, and Jill’s ideal souvenir sat upright in the back floorboard as if worn by an invisible cowgirl.

I have a feeling, though, that my shins are going to lament the purchase of those new boots when Jill — whom I implored not to carry her camera in Austin — finds out America’s most blog-crazy city has inspired me to write a 1,300-word post that is in desperate need of photographic accompaniment.



Davy Crockett is the reason I’m at The Alamo. With his coonskin hat, leather hunting suit and long rifle, he embodies the fighting spirit. We Americans love that, and Scott especially loves it because, like Crockett, he is a native Tennessean. So while he abandoned me and the dogs to go read every historical marker and bronzed plaque commemorating Texas’ most romanticized battle, I took a few shots of The Alamo with my Holga. The old, stone mission seemed to call for it. It’s something to stand here, across the street from Fuddruckers and Ripley’s Believe or Not!, and imagine a 13-day siege between the Mexican army and a small band of soldiers led by William Travis, Jim Bowie and Crockett. As tourist attractions go, The Alamo is not a bad one. It spruces up history with a little myth, and gives proud Texans (and Tennesseans) plenty to get nostalgic about. You have to see it to remember it.