I came to Lockhart, Texas, looking for a fun pit stop between Austin and Houston. The town's barbecue is world-renowned, so my travel companion and I decided to hit up its three legendary joints ... all in one hour. But what was intended as nothing more than a shamelessly gluttonous "barbecue crawl" ended up revealing much more.
Experiencing Lockhart reminded me that food isn't just what's on your plate. It's about the people who cook it, their stories, their history and a sense of place.
Walking through downtown Lockhart is like stepping back in time. Many of the buildings date to the late 19th century. But you have to step back farther to understand how barbecue got here. After the Civil War, Texas was broke. Crafty ranchers in the south made money capturing unclaimed wild cattle and herding them north to railroads in Kansas. The route was called the Chisholm Trail, and Lockhart was a key stopover.
The trail spurred the creation of meat markets. Because of unreliable refrigeration, day-old meat would get cooked to preserve it. The first market to offer barbecue in Lockhart opened in 1875, and takes its name from the Kreuz family, who purchased it in 1900.
Longtime Kreuz employee Edgar Schmidt bought it in 1948, and his family still runs the place today ... sort of. When Schmidt died in 1990, he left the building to his daughter, Nina Schmidt Sells, and the business to his two sons, Rick and Don Schmidt. A family dispute ensued. The sons took the Kreuz Market name and reopened it in the nearby large building that houses it today. Nina rebranded at the original location, naming Smitty's Market after her father.
Lockhart's third major meat market is Black's Barbecue, opened in 1932. Edgar Black Sr. was a farmer and rancher during the Great Depression, when no one had money to buy his cattle. According to family lore, the government was offering $1 per cow just to shoot them, to get more money into the economy, but Black didn't want to do that. He drove his 100 head of cattle into Lockhart, and opened a meat market.
Kent Black, the third-generation owner, grew up working at the family business. His son and stepson work with him. "We got a fifth generation, six of them," he says. "They're a little too young to handle a sharp knife right now." He credits his parents, Edgar Jr. and Norma Jean, for the success of the business, and remembers their role in the larger Lockhart community.
Black's mother was one of Lockhart's first businesswomen, to the objection of some locals. But her husband was adamant with salesmen who wouldn't talk to her: "You either deal with her, or I'm not going to do business with you." The Blacks had the same attitude toward patrons who refused to eat at their restaurant because they hired minorities during the segregation era. They also worked hard to desegregate schools, sports teams and other institutions in Lockhart.
The town's barbecue legacy still brings people here today. I "crawled" from Kreuz for sausage and brisket to Black's for beef and pork ribs to Smitty's for more brisket. Black describes the barbecue style here as "Central Texas," with a hodgepodge of food from different cultures that have influenced the area. Sides like pinto beans from Mexico, macaroni and cheese and other favorites from the Deep South, and a lot of sausage, brought over by the Germans who—you probably guessed from the names mentioned in this story—immigrated to Texas en masse in the latter part of the 19th century.
Lockhart's no-frills barbecue experience has an old-timiness to it. The wood-paneled walls at Black's are covered with old photos, memorabilia and taxidermy. At both Kreuz and Smitty's, you stand in line to order in the same open-furnace room where they barbecue. Local historian Donaly Brice remembers a time when huge butcher knives were attached to the ends of communal tables with chains, for patrons to cut their own meat. "It was something like you'd never see today," he chuckles.
You won't find any California Cabernets to pair with your barbecue here, but you will find local beers like Lone Star and Shiner.
In 1999, the Texas legislature officially dubbed Lockhart the "Barbecue Capital of Texas." When I asked Kent Black why he thought his town got picked for the honor, over many other areas in the state that also excel in smoked meats, he simply replied: "I think it's because we've been doing it longer than anybody else." People come from all over the world to eat barbecue here. "It's put Lockhart on the map," he added. But much has stayed the same in this charming little town over the years. Minus the knives.