An estimated 250,000 tourists annually descend upon Lockhart, Texas, a quiet residential town of 12,000 residents. Tourists from Texas and further afield bypass Austin, San Antonio and the San Marcos outlets for time better spent: sampling smoked meats in the "Barbecue Capital of Texas."
They drive with purpose, alongside flat, insipid terrain until arriving in Lockhart. The historic courthouse, built during the 1890s, powerfully occupies Lockhart's center: its Texas-Victorian exterior beguiled several cinematographers, including Christopher Guest, who incorporated its façade into Waiting for Guffman. Guffman fans are advised to walk the building's perimeter and stand on its southwest corner where Corky St. Clair's eclectic abode sticks out like a sore thumb.
BBQ purists should snap a token photo and head for lunch. Heavy feasting awaits.
To appreciate Lockhart BBQ, one must try at least two of its famed establishments. The preferred way, featured on Food Wars, involves back-to-back meals at Smitty's and Kreuz. The Travel Channel wisely selected these two natural competitors, using their unique history to intensify rivalry and hearty appetites.
They share century-old roots, operating under the "Kreuz Market" title from 1900 until 1999, when a family feud among the owner's children caused the restaurant to bifurcate. Daughter Nina retained the original structure where she operates Smitty's Market. Her brother took the established Kreuz name down the road after allegedly dragging hot coals from the original smokers to the pits of his new establishment, dramatically signifying his intent to carry on the family tradition.
Food wars were thus born.
Ten years have passed and the sawdust has surely settled, causing me to wonder whether the story's persistence owes more to fact or good old-fashioned exaggeration.
Owners of both establishments engage my curiosity during my recent visit. Nina Sells, owner of Smitty's, laughs off rumors of a rift, insisting that both families do what they can to "support one another" but concedes that the two restaurants are "competitors." Keith Schmidt, the current owner of Kreuz Market, fervently denies the feud, calling it "entirely media-driven."
Accuracy aside, persistent rumors promote competition -- and business by extension-- luring BBQ-lovers into both establishments.
My first assessment occurred several years ago and has since become an annual tradition, a gluttonous activity that inevitably results in wide grins, greasy fingers, and an all-day food coma, the type that necessitates unbuttoned trousers and several couch-bound hours.
Lockhart BBQ is not for the faint-hearted foodie. Anyone contemplating their own sojourn should know:
1. Meat and little else will be consumed (sides roughly consist of Saltine crackers, tomatoes, cheese and avocados).
2. Eating will be extraordinarily messy. Meat is served on wax paper, not plates, and forks are not provided. The owners expect diners to eat with their hands.
3. BBQ sauce does not factor into the equation. Do not look or ask for it.
I park my car and bound towards Smitty's, flinging open the screen doors where dark, smoke-stained walls reveal themselves. At the end of the venerable hall are historic BBQ smokers, producing an intimidating amount of heat and billowy smoke, forces that smack you as you approach their guardians, armed with little more than a few sharp knives. I peruse the Smitty's menu, tacked on blackened walls, before requesting my favorite Texas BBQ staples: beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage. I will order the same at Kreuz after finishing here, careful to fairly assess the two mega-competitors.
A handful of Saltine crackers, one avocado and a Coca Cola: these modest sides accompany my meal. I begin with a hefty pork rib, savoring its sweet glaze before taking a bite of sausage, my favorite offering in all of Lockhart. It is perfect, so I finish it rapidly and move on to the brisket, the unfortunate low-point of this memorable meal. Dry and lacking in flavor, the brisket must have accounted for Smitty's loss on Food Wars. I wrap things up by chatting with fellow diners, including one 90-year old man who's been coming here "for as long as [he] can remember."
With greasy hands, I steer my car to Kreuz, a huge, cartoonish structure on Lockhart's main street. Rick Schmidt built this place with Texas-sized confidence: its space dwarfs Smitty's historic site. Vast rooms, empty at this late hour, encircle hefty smokers, odd-looking contraptions. We encounter a few familiar faces as we proceed inside, fellow BBQ enthusiasts who have driven from Dallas to taste Lockhart's finest. They agree on nearly everything about Smitty's, bemoaning the brisket while praising everything else.
I'm racing against time when I order the BBQ trifecta from Kreuz, ignoring my stomach's natural fullness trigger when I begin tasting the brisket, Kreuz's most popular menu item. So tender the plastic knife becomes a hindrance rather than a tool. I consume much and eat too quickly, but Kreuz hits the mark today. In contrast to Smitty's, with its smoky sausage and sweet ribs, Kreuz seasons all of its meat with a peppered rub. Pepper lovers, and brisket loyalists, will almost always prefer Kreuz for this reason.
I wipe my hands on my jeans and compare notes with my fellow BBQ pilgrims one last time. We concur once more, making us a swift, if slightly boring, adjudicatory body. Smitty's offers delectable sausage within a unique, historic dining space. Kreuz is decidedly less charming, but its brisket dominates that of its competitor. The ribs are a tie-breaker, inspiring one final remark, "I guess that answers it. We'll have to keep coming back to both restaurants."
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