From the food to the locals, Texas is all about big flavours, bold personalities and good old-fashioned southern hospitality. Travel writer and barbecue lover Miranda Luby tell us about her experience.
No sauce, no forks. That’s the motto at Kreuz Market, one of the oldest and most revered BBQ restaurants in Texas. No sauce because the meat is seasoned so perfectly that it needs nothing else, and no forks because, well, everything tastes better eaten with your hands. I was an hour south of Austin, experiencing a short and sweet five-day version of the Great American Road Trip — Texas edition — taking in Houston, Austin and their rural surrounds.
It’s easy to be drawn to the gritty romance of Texas — the idea of the great open road, late night two-step bars, strangers in oversized hats and secret sauce recipes. And as a destination synonymous with cowboys, rugged landscapes and sumptuous food, this deep southern state that boarders Mexico is so movie-set perfect, so exactly how you dreamed it might be, so quintessentially Texan that it does not disappoint.
And it starts, of course, with BBQ. And when looking for the best BBQ in the state, I was told to go no further than the enormous brick restaurant in the small town of Lockhart.
When Charles Kreuz Senior opened a grocery store in 1900, he started smoking meats and sausage in brick barbecue pits and selling it to his customers on butcher paper. That’s how they did it in the old country at German meat-markets and that’s how they still do it today. Now, Kreuz Market is a mecca for those looking for flavor and spice in the true Southern tradition.
Peach and hickory wood smoke billows from enormous brick ovens presided over by men with heavy black aprons and huge pronged metal implements, while locals line up for hours to taste the succulent, spiced and seasoned, 12-hour cooked ribs, brisket and pulled pork produced in the kitchen. The meat is served on butchers paper with sides of smoky beans, sweet pickles, and gooey mac and cheese and washed down with an house made iced tea or prickly pear cactus beer. Then you bust your own tray and it’s out the door. No messing about. This is a restaurant that takes its food seriously.
But Kreuz Market is far from the only joint in the state that is serious about food because for Texans, a meal means so much more than just taste. Big servings are synonymous with warm hospitality, a secret recipe means a long-held tradition and big flavor comes from bold personalities. It’s the Southern way.
Take Bud ‘The Pieman’ Royer for example. The proprietor of Royer’s Café in the little town of Round Top (population 80), an hour’s drive west of Houston, is larger than life, just like his eatery. ‘Well behaved children welcome. The rest will be made into pies,’ says one sign on the bountifully decorated café walls, every inch of which is adorned with some kind of playful sign, colourful light or pie-related pun. It’s no secret what he serves here.
Thousands of Bud’s mail order pies are sent around the country every year — some even make it to the White House — but the best way to experience one of his world-famous pastry beauties is in the café itself.
Try the Mum’s OMG Apple Pie, the Pecan or the Buttermilk pies to sample some true flavours of the south or, if you’ve got the appetite, indulge in the Texas Trash with caramel, chocolate chips, coconut, Graham Crackers and pretzels.
From sweet flavours to a sweet disposition, down the road from Royer’s you’ll find a quaint little gift shop where the owner, a grey haired grandmother smelling of scones, pickles, jars and sells her own candied jalapenos. Sweet and spicy, the flavour will dance on your tongue whether sampled on their own or added to her much-loved corn bread. I asked her for her recipe but I’m sorry to tell you — it’s a secret.
But it’s not just big personalities dishing up Texas’ most famous dishes. You can’t separate food from fun in the Lone Star State and that’s where the annual Luling Watermelon Thump comes in. A quick pre-trip Google of ‘events in Texas’ told me all I needed to know to make sure this was on my itinerary.
Situated south of Austin, Luling a town rarely on the tourist map but once a year the rural setting is transformed into a three-day carnival of culinary delights complete with watermelon seed spitting competitions and its very own rodeo.
Cowboys in colorful tassels and turquoise leather chaps wow the local crowd with their bull riding skills, seeming to defy gravity as they’re bucked in every direction without falling to the dusty earth below.
But don't think you’re in for a health kick just because it's a watermelon festival. While you can buy juicy slices of the locally grown fruit to cool you down in the Texan summer, you’re more likely to find it deep-fried or covered in chocolate — it’s a festival after all.
Healthy food, however, is easy to find in Austin, where a multicultural population means a huge variety of cuisines and food trucks rule the colourful city streets.
As the state’s capital, Austin and its surrounds are the perfect place to explore what Texas is all about. A city of less than 900,000 people, it’s got that small town feeling — friendly people and a relaxed vibe — and despite its rapid growth and recognition as one of the USA’s hottest travel destinations, it’s kept the unique and quirky style it’s become known for. Eye-catching flashing neon signs inspired by the American roadhouse add a retro flair to the city’s shops while trendy young hipsters and cowboy hat toting old school Texans mingle on street corners.
A city made for eating and listening to music all night long, the streets of Austin are lined with hundreds of food vans and quirky restaurants and even more live music venues and two-step bars. Set in Rainey Street’s 30-year-old weatherboard houses, out of the way brick bars around South Congress and huge dancehalls just outside of the city, the stages and two-step bars are the place to experience the South’s new live music capital.
Food in Austin means everything from vegetarian, vegan and Vietnamese to typically southern style heart attack-inducing but delicious food such as fried chicken and biscuits and maple glazed bacon donuts.
It also pays to brush up on your Spanish, as Austin is home to some of the best Mexican-influenced Tex Mex restaurants you’re likely to come across. Think margaritas and enchiladas that go down a treat in the stifling city heat.
And just as all the feasting was weighing me down, I discovered the best way to take a break from the food and drink — that’s heading down to Barton Springs, a warm spring-fed pool of restorative jade-coloured water flowing right through the city center, and joining in with the locals swimming, paddleboarding and kayak in their lunch break.
But, as my quick road trip taught me, don’t just stick to the city. Make sure you venture out and explore the beautiful surrounds and small towns of the Texan countryside. Out here, comical looking but surprisingly beautiful long horn cattle line the ranch fences while fields of blue wildflowers scatter themselves over rolling hills during the spring. If you’re lucky, you’ll see an armadillo snuffing its way through the cacti during one of west Texas’ famed fiery sunsets. The saying goes that everything’s bigger in Texas and from the food to the personalities and the landscapes, nothing could be further from the truth.