John Kelso blazed a barbecue trail in '78. His reviews show how times have changed.
Journey back to an era when barbecue was simpler and cheaper
The beef rib takes a less aggressive posture than others around town, and the pork ribs shine with a honeyed glow, the freckles of pepper diminished with Lewis’ most recent adjustment to his recipe. Considerable heat from cayenne and turmeric bursts from the snap of hot guts sausage made with beef liver, beef heart, ground brisket and fatty brisket trimmings.
— Statesman food critic Matthew Odam, in a 2014 review of La Barbecue
“If you bite down too hard on the sausage served at Biggers you will squirt meat juice all over your shirt. Although the place sells porks ribs ($3 a pound) and beef brisket ($3.50 a pound), the biggie is the sausage.”
— Statesman columnist John Kelso, in a 1978 review of Biggers Barbecue
That’s right, Austin. There was barbecue in Austin long before four-hour lines and baroque praisings of “bark.” Back when “jicama and carrot slaw” was a kitchen accident. Years and years before anyone rubbed espresso on anything.
We even had barbecue critics back then. Or, at least a columnist willing spend half a year hitting about a joint a week and telling Central Texas about ‘em — albeit with a little less poetry than what you’d see today.
It wasn’t long after Statesman columnist John Kelso died, that I was down in the Statesman’s paper archives looking for a cross-dressing trapeze artist … hey, let he who has a clean browser history cast the first stone.
Anyway, as it turns out, “Barbette” wasn’t there, but “barbecue” was. In that file I discovered clippings of “John Kelso’s Barbecue Trail,” a series of about two dozen reviews from March through September 1978. Not in the electronic archive, they’re almost a hidden treasure. I knew I had to share them with you.
They are mostly short takes. A few words about character and menu. A short interview with an owner or cook. And an opinion on the meat … especially the sausage.
Nearly 40 years later, about half the places are still open: The Salt Lick, Kreuz Market, Cooper’s in Llano, Luling City Market are among the legends in these yellowed clippings.
That means the rest are long gone. Who remembers Jays Bar-B-Que Hut and Grocery? Homestead Barbecue on Burleson Road? The Rosewood Barbecue Center?
The columnist holds forth
Of course, Kelso got in plenty of zingers. Here are some of the highlights I found.
The County Line, May 13: “The beef rib I ate had all sorts of meat hanging from it, and you could have beaten somebody to death with the bone.”
Luling City Market, June 10: “The day I ate there, the brisket was chewy, but it was served in mastodon-size chunks and slices.”
Rosewood Barbecue Center, March 18: “Rosewood ... doesn’t have ambiance. It has atmosphere. Ambiance is for escargots. Spencer Nobles’ place is for ribs and such.”
Bastrop Meat Company, May 27: “Expect to dine next to some fellows wearing big hats.”
Coupland Inn, March 4: “All you can eat means all you can eat. This is not one of those places where the waitresses stand around studying their shoelaces after you’ve finished off Round One.”
Fox’s Pit Bar-B-Q To Go, June 24: “Fox’s … is one of those typical Texas brick and corrugated metal holes in the wall that survives on lean beef, paper plates, a homemade sauce and country ways.”
Jay’s Bar-B-Que Hut and Grocery, May 6: “Whether (the chicken) can be accurately described as pure Texan is doubtful, however. Johnson smokes it with hickory chips that are imported from Mississippi. But I don’t care if they come from Red China because I like the stuff.”
Then things get weirder
One of the weirder stops was at Real Pit Bar-B-Que, east of Bastrop. In addition to mentioning Pretty Boy, the parrot who could sing the first line of “The Eyes of Texas,” Kelso had this paragraph …
This is one of those “old socks” type barbecue places. Outside is a sign which announces: “Shirts required, bras optional,” and (owner Norman) Novosad is proud of that. “I get a lot of compliments on that,” he said. That is probably because many of his customers are truckers and deer hunters.
No, I don’t know what he meant by “old socks.” But I’m guessing it doesn’t apply to Micklethwait Craft Meats.
Another strange stop was at Hunt’s Ranch House Barbecue in Cedar Park, where 21-year-old cook Billy Noble actually told Kelso this: “I couldn’t cook at all when I started here. The first time I cooked ribs you shoulda seen ‘em. They were black, just like everybody’s. But I usually don’t have any problems these days. Now I can cook steaks at home and pork chops and crazy things like lasagna.”
Crazy things. No telling what he’d think of the smoked beets at Freedman’s.
One of the longer reviews was a stop at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, where he talked to Edgar (Smitty) Schmidt about why they offer crackers.
“Some of the oldtimers,” mused Schmidt, 58, who has owned Kreuz since 1948 and has worked at Kreuz since the invention of meat, “you can’t get ‘em off crackers. If you haven’t got crackers, you haven’t got barbecue, they always say.”
Brother can you spare a 2-meat plate?
Of course, looking back four decades into barbecue history, you can’t help but notice the prices. And how they’ve changed, uh, just a little.
Beef sandwich: $1.30, Jerry Jacob’s Pit Barbecue System, 1978. $9.75, Kerlin BBQ, 2017.
Two-meat plate: $2.75, Rudy Mikeska’s Bar-B-Que in Taylor, 1978. $14.99, Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew, 2017.
Brisket: $3.95 a pound, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, 1978. $22 a pound, Franklin Barbecue, 2017.
Family-style dining: $3.95 a head (but not all you can eat), Salt Lick, 1978. $24.95 a head (all you can eat), Salt Lick, 2017.
Draft beer: 50 cents for a “fruit jar full,” Big John’s Bar-B-Q, Buchanan Dam, 1978. $8 for a 20-ounce imperial pint of craft beer, Lambert’s, 2017.
It all comes back to the sausage
Lastly, there’s the sausage Kelso cared so much about. He might have shied away from a negative review in general, but he didn’t hesitate to say “the sausage was bland,” as though it were a personal affront.
He spent a lot of ink on who had the best sausage in Elgin, eventually deciding that Real Pit Bar-B-Que outside of Bastrop was better than both Elgin frontrunners Southside Market and Barbecue and Biggers Barbecue.
Southside Market got the last laugh, though. They’re still in business.
I’m guessing Kelso would be glad one is still around.
And he’d warn you to watch out for that grease.