Project Wonderful

Monday, October 28, 2013

Restaurant Review: Schmidt Family Barbecue

It doesn't take much to appreciate Texas barbecue: Just dig in and enjoy the magical harmony of smoke and meat as it blissfully dances across your palate. But to be considered a true Texas BBQ aficionado, one needs to know a little about the tiny town of Lockhart and the BBQ feud (barbefeud?) that took place there.

Back in 1900, Charles Kreuz, Sr. (pronounced "krites") opened a small meat market and grocery store in Lockhart. Refrigeration wasn't as advanced as we have it today, so to prevent the unsold meat from spoiling, Charles would cook the the best cuts over a BBQ pit and use the lesser cuts for sausage. Customers loved the BBQ and the Kreuz family ran the market until 1948, when long-time employee Edgar Schmidt bought the business.

When Edgar passed away in 1990, he left the building to his Daughter Nina. However, while Nina owned the building, Edgar's sons Rick and Don owned the business, and the family couldn't see eye-to-eye on things. As a result, the brothers moved Kreuz Market to a new location down the street, while Nina opened Smitty's BBQ in the old building. The feud - along with a couple of other fantastic BBQ joints that opened in the area - helped to put Lockhart on the map as the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.

The third generation of Schmidts have now taken over the business. This year, Rick's son Keith, along with his brother John, sister Susie Schmidt-Franks (Don's daughter) and Susie's husband Chad Franks realized that the world craved even more of the smokey mana of the Gods, so they joined forces and opened Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave.

Managed by Nina's son, and former Smitty's pitmaster John Fullilove (and how can you not love food made by a guy who's name is "Full of love"?), the new restaurant draws on the century-old family heritage to bring the classic Texas-style BBQ to the Hill Country.

The coals used to light the 16-foot-long, 4 1/2 ton fire pit were collected from the pits from both Smitty's and Kreuz Market - which have been burning steadily for 113 years - and carefully transported to Lakeway in a ceremony I can only imagine looked like a Texas version of the Olympic torch relay.

We got there at 12:30 with about 50 people already ahead of us, but the line was moving quickly and no one seemed to mind.

Opening day is always a tough time to critique a new restaurant. Usually there is a long break-in period where the staff works out the kinks in the operation, but one foot inside the door and you could see that this was already a well-oiled machine. The crews were quickly slicing up the brisket, chopping up the ribs and serving it up with little delay. They knew they were going to be swamped with customers and staffed accordingly.

Fair warning: A thing you need to know when coming to Schmidt's: there's no sauce. None. That may be a bit shocking to some folks, and there were several customers wondering where the sauce was, but the Schmidt family holds fast to the belief that good barbecue doesn't need to hide behind sauce. And you know what? They're right. Good 'cue should be measured on the quality of the meat alone; naked and un-accosted, for all the world to see. 

They also begrudgingly offer forks for the more civilized folks, but to be honest, the best utensils to eat BBQ with are right at the end of your arms. 

In a word, the meat was extraordinary. 
The brisket had a solid, well defined smoke ring, good bark, and was perfectly cooked. Tender, flavorful, and delicious.

The sausage ring was surprisingly lightly seasoned. Most Texas hot rings are filled with an abundance of pepper, but this one had a nice balance of spices and was stuffed in a casing that gave a decent snap, but wasn't so tough that you needed to work at it to get through it. It was also SUPER juicy, so make sure to lean forward when taking that first bite.

About the only thing that I was a bit surprised about were the pork ribs. They were nicely cooked, juicy and tender, and had a flavorful rub on them, but they left the silver skin on. To me, this is a BBQ faux pas. That piece of membrane makes it difficult to sink your teeth properly into the rib and it's just tough and inedible. Removing the membrane is a chore, and perhaps they skipped this step in their efforts to make sure that the ribs would be ready for opening day. The ribs are VERY GOOD, but removing it would be the thing that I feel helps make them one step better.

The food was served on butcher paper the way it's been done for over a century, and comes with the obligatory slices of white bread, onions, and pickles. The pickles were cut a little thicker than most BBQ places and that was a nice touch. I quickly slapped together an open-face brisket sandwich - and this is the point that I wished I had some BBQ sauce to go with it. I'm thinking of sneaking some homemade sauce with me in a little bottle next time I visit.

We also tried the potato salad, coleslaw, and beans. The potato salad and slaw were very good, but really nothing to write home about. The beans, however, really surprised me. I don't know how they did it, but the flavors were absolutely incredible. Hearty and delicious, they went great with the rest of the BBQ.

There's also the usual assortment of banana pudding and pies, but apparently no cobbler. Not that I had room for any desert after powering through all that wonderful smokey awesomeness, of course.

With a long lineage of expert preparation, the old-school tradition of smoking quality meat and serving it without pretense continues with the new restaurant. From its strong family roots in the BBQ Capital of Texas, the new Schmidt Family Barbecue in Bee Cave is sure to please even the most discerning of BBQ aficionados.

Long may its smoke fill the air!

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