How succulent can beef be? The answer is found in the barbecue belt of central Texas, a wedge of prairie east of I-35 and north of I-10 where brisket, prime rib, and sausage are cooked in the haze of oak smoke so slowly that, in effect, they baste themselves. Not much fat drips out: the heat is low enough that it cooks in. The fibers of the meat absorb all the flavor, giving the beef tremendous heft. Even the dark-crusted rim of brisket fairly drips with protein potency, while the outer, less pink circumference of a slice of prime rib radiates the earthy perfume of burning wood.
The word primitive does not do justice to the elemental nature of dining in one of the great barbecue parlors of this region. Originally evolved early in the 20th century when butchers decided to smoke unsold and unwanted cuts of beef and serve them at makeshift tables in the back rooms of their meat markets, Texas barbecues are secret-seeming places where amenities are minimal. Best of them all is Louie Mueller of Taylor, Texas, which began as a grocery store in 1936, started barbecuing beef in 1949, and moved to its current location in 1959. A new dining area has since been added, but the old space is still in use, and to a devotee of barbecue, simply being in it is a religious experience. The peeling-paint walls of the big hall (which once served as a gymnasium) have been exposed to smoke for so long that they have become the color of tobacco; the room is so dark that it appears to be lit by candles. At the back is the counter where you step up to order your food. Behind the counter is the pit, perfuming the room (and your clothes) with the swirling, come-hither scent of beef and smoke.
Brisket is the star of the show. It is sold by the pound, cut to order, and presented not on a plate but on a sheet of butcher paper. Utensils are available, but BBQ acolytes don't use them. There is something downright arousing about eating with one's hands. Pulling bite-size pieces off each slice is an easy task; and the sensuous feel of warm beef juices only adds to the joy of a meal. Perhaps "meal" is too grand a word, because dining here is all about the meat; everything else is, at best, a supporting player. Many customers like slices of crisp raw onion and puckery pickle chips on the side—a sharp, welcome contrast to the tender luxury of the meat—and it is possible to have pinto beans, potato salad, cole slaw, or a baked potato on the side; but all these fade into the background. Even sauce is extraneous. It's a thin dip, and a nice complement to the meat; but this beef is juicy enough and full-flavored enough that it needs nothing in the way of adornment.
The meat menu also includes slow-smoked pork tenderloin, turkey breast, and three kinds of rib (beef, baby back, spare); but the must-eat item, after brisket, is sausage. Peppered, coarse-ground beef is packed into pork gut that is porous enough to suck in flavor of burning wood as it cooks, but so impenetrable that no juice leaks out. Whereas Texas brisket and mutton laze on the grate in the pit for hours, link and ring sausages swell up fast as the flue on one end of the pit draws smoke from fire at the other, maintaining a temperature of about 250 degrees. When they are done, the casing has transformed from translucent membrane into chewy, wrinkled coat. They quite literally burst with juice when the coat is severed; but there are some connoisseurs who prefer their links extra well done and ask the pitmaster for those that have been on the grate the longest. They sport a leathery, crackle-textured skin and glow with salt-and-pepper zest. Some juice spills out when one is sliced or bitten, but it isn't nearly as plump and oozy as a traditional link. Sublime as the juicy links are, there is something to be said for these well-done sausages, known to pit men as dry links, because so much fat has been rendered out of them. Extra time on the grate diminishes the wanton hedonism of the sausage and concentrates its flavor into an edible epigram of beef, pepper, and smoke.
Louie Mueller handed the reins of the business to his son, Bobby, in 1974, and today it is run by Bobby's son, Wayne. If all Wayne did was uphold the unique legacy of Texas barbecue and preserve the family restaurant as a national treasure, we would be deeply grateful. But he has done more than maintain one of this nation's culinary glories. He has given it new life. And we don't just refer to the spectacular 18-foot rolling pit that he trucks to food events around the country to let non-Texans know just how good Lone Star barbecue can be. Wayne has infused the whole operation with a spirit of joy and dedication that is stealth seasoning no one can duplicate. Shortly after his father, Bobby, passed away in 2008, Wayne responded to worries that the restaurant would change by saying, "The focus is consistency—if it weren't, I have no doubt my father would reach across the inter-dimensional plane and smack me a good one!"
Louie Mueller Barbecue: 206 W. 2nd St., Taylor, TX. 512-352-6206.
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