Let’s face it, barbecue in San Antonio for the most part sucks. Texas is the barbecue capital of the world, and our city is the heart of the Lone Star State, so it’s a damn shame that to get really excellent Q you have to drive to Lockhart or Austin. You’d think with all the cattle we’ve got grazing about that someone could get it right. Look, I’m not knocking the big boys. I’m sure Bill Miller, Rudy’s, and the County Line pump lots of tax dollars into our economy and keep a good number of us employed and fed, but when the competition (Grady’s) boasts a sign out front that reads “Best Chicken Strips in San Antonio,” you know all’s not right with the world.
When folks talk about Texas barbecue, they are usually referring to beef brisket. Truly great brisket means never having to use the sauce. It means meat so tender and juicy that you can cut it with a fork, but that also has a smoky flavor that stands up on its own. I’ve found most places in San Antonio can nail one or the other, but I have yet to find a barbecue joint where all the stars align. Brisket isn’t the most succulent part of a cow, so it has to be that perfect combination of the right piece of meat, the right seasonings, the right smoke, and the right cook that brings it all together.
To me, the best barbecue in town isn’t found at a restaurant, but right in the backyards of our neighbors and friends. You can smell it on the scalding breeze of a summer afternoon. You can see it when your coworkers bring leftovers to the lunchroom. And you can actually taste it if you are lucky enough to get an invite to the home of a backyard barbecuer. Lucky for me, I married one.
Bill and I met in New York City. He was the only guy I knew who kept a grill out back of his apartment. We fell in love cooking together. Being a Carolina girl, I taught him the finer points of boiled peanuts and pig pickin’, and he schooled me in everything Texas from jerky to sausage. When we eventually moved to San Antonio and married, we spent the first six months unemployed and living in a tent on a farm in Bulverde. Cooking out became a necessity. Using a New Braunfels Smoker, we barbecued all the inhabitants of the meat aisle from brisket to pork to chicken in those first honeymoon days.
As we worked our way through cases of Lone Star left over from our NYC send-off, my husband’s Q-legs grew stronger and stronger. He became a master at creating rubs and bringing the firebox to just the right temperature. For us, cooking of any kind is a sport, with barbecue being like Wimbledon, the Super Bowl, and the World Series of food all rolled into one. I’m not gonna say he’s become a pro, but as far as barbecue goes, he’s a little bit Jeter.
Recently, it occurred to me that there must be other serious backyard barbecuers out there. So last month, I put out the word and asked my friends if they knew any San Antonio smokers who would be willing to have their picture taken. Lots of names rolled in, but damned if I didn’t end up driving to the coast to meet one of the better ones.
Brian Zintgraff and his buddies are what I like to refer to as serious recreational grillers. On the way down to Fulton for the rendezvous, Brian called and asked me to pick up some sausage from his buddy’s dad in George West. I met the sausage guy at a Valero station just off I-37. We nodded. He passed me a bag of meat and departed. It was like Cops meets the Food Network, a drug deal gone terribly tasty.
So on this lazy August afternoon in Holiday Beach, I eventually found Brian and a few of his friends — beer koozies in hand — watching the sun set around the silhouette of a giant Uvalde Smoker. It took only one whiff of the chicken, pork loin, sausage, and ribs to know I was home.
Brian is in his 30s now, but has been cooking for and with his friends since their college days at Texas Tech. About six years ago, the boys took home second place for their beer-can chicken at the Barbecue Cookoff, but team member Scott Sams was eventually banned for life for starting a giant bonfire that melted large portions of the parking lot at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
They meet up at Holiday Beach (or what they like to call San Antonio South) a few times a year, sans the wives and kids, to share old times, fish, get totally loaded, and cook up some mean barbecue. Brian is the ringleader, and attributes his love of good food to his mom, Marsha. A West Texas homemaker, she was apparently quite the queen when it came to home cooking. At some point, Brian figured out that if he cooked, someone else might do the dishes, and he fell into grilling because it’s “kind of a guy thing.”
“I grew up watching my mom, and she never used recipes,” he says, “so I learned by trial and error. I’d smoke something then say, ‘That tasted like shit.’ We either need to drink more or make something that tastes better.”
Friend Joe Willie Lee showed off the boudin I had acquired at the drop-off point, and told me his dad used to run a restaurant in the ’70s in George West and now makes anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of sausage a year. He described how Terry Lee makes the Cajun sausage using the traditional meat and rice combo, but goes heavier on the meat, adding the rice just to give it a smooth texture. Yeah, these were definitely not your average good-old boys throwing some flank on the grill.
While Joe Willie pulled the perfectly crusted pork loin out of the Uvalde, Brian examined the three-hour-smoked pork ribs, coated them in barbecue sauce, and covered them in tin foil to cook another hour. Joe Willie and Brian agree that when it comes to barbecue, you should only use sauce on ribs.
“You’re looking for the smoke, the meat, the goodness … that’s why you spend eight hours smoking a brisket,” says Brian. “You don’t go through all that and say, ‘Wow that sauce was so great!’”
At 9:30 p.m., when the meat was finally extracted from the smoker, the boys did not disappoint. What came out were some of the tastiest ribs I’ve ever eaten. Pork loin that melted in your mouth like butter. Beer-can chicken that was smoky yet sweet. I can’t even begin to go into the sausage, as the Lee family is a whole other story of culinary awesomeness.
Back home, I was hooked up with a backyard barbecuer of another sort. Gabriel Saucedo has been barbecuing for some 20 years, having learned the value of good food and a buck at the elbows of his mom and dad. His father was a mechanic at Kelly Air Force Base, and to make ends meet, “Every morning my mom would wake up at 4 a.m. and start making homemade tortillas. My dad would be there cutting the bacon, making beans, and eggs.” Gabriel laughs, “They’d make a hundred tacos, and by the time he punched in, he already had $60 in his pocket.”
That entrepreneurial spirit spawned the man that stood before me, feeding the firebox and watching over five briskets that would soon become 50 plates for delivery to neighborhood businesses later that day.
“My dad was always cooking in the backyard. Chicken, sausage … you name it,” remembers Gabriel. “Every holiday, my family was out in Brackenridge Park, and I would watch all this and that’s how I learned.” He gained professional experience working at the South Presa Icehouse — schooled by Harold L. Farmer in the finer points of brisket-smoking — and eventually went on to become catering manager, a post he held for 12 years.
Now, juggling a food-service job with the San Antonio Independent School District and a thriving lawn-maintenance business, on weekends Gabriel finds time to cook for friends’ weddings, family funerals, and businesses right out of his own smoker. “It’s something I do to pick up a little cash off and on,” says Gabriel. “It’s just in my blood.”
He and his brother hope to parlay their love of the Q into a full-blown weekend gig. They’ve just purchased a kitchen-on-wheels and are in the process of outfitting the truck and getting certified so “Backyard BBQ” can hit the streets sometime in the next two months. “You see the other rigs out there, taquerias and all that, but nobody is doing just barbecue,” grins Saucedo. “We’re gonna do chopped meat and po-boys, potato salad and beans — all that — and park out on Converse by Judson High School.”
The perfect brisket? Unlike Brian, who prefers seasoning with olive oil and Bohlner’s, Gabriel first dips his brisket in vinegar and then coats it with a simple layer of black pepper. But like
Brian, he thinks the key to good brisket is the flex. “Grab it, and if it folds end to end, then you’ve got yourself a winner,” Gabriel says. “Dip it. Spice it. Put it on the grill fat side up with the thickest part closest to the fire box. Smoke with mesquite for seven to 10 hours, and that’s it.”
Though Brian and Gabriel are at opposite ends of the spectrum, I could see in both of them a love of the grill that tied back to the past and kept them somehow in check with their primal Texan-ness.
Every person I talked to for this story had an opinion. Of the 50 or so folks I asked if there was any good barbecue in San Antonio, every single one of them replied using the “suck” adjective.
Everyone settles for less than ideal when eating out, or, like Bill and I, they prefer to do it themselves. Backyard barbecuers aside, I have to assume that when the next barbecue issue of Texas Monthly comes out — sometime in midyear 2008 — once again San Antonio will be just a blip. (Come on, is Bar-B-Q Patio really the best we can do?) In the meantime, I’ll be out back pulling pork, putting calls into Gabriel for delivery, hoping for an invite from the barbecue boys, and waiting for the day pigs fly and the ocean turns to a vat of Stubbs. •
The San Antonio BBQ SURVEY
The truth is, out of the seven BBQ joints in San Antonio I selected to survey based on research, recommendations, and hearsay, only one was what I would categorize as truly “sucky.” Barring that exception, all of it was edible and good. If you don’t have all day to smoke your own, all of the guys listed below are worth the drive. Though still … no holy grail. Every place here served brisket that needed the sauce.
Listed according to awesomeness — most to least.
— Burgin Streetman
#1 The Smokehouse
Previously called Bob’s Smokehouse. I have a few barbecue-head friends who refuse to return since its namesake passed away some years ago, but out of all the places I tried, this one was the winner. Not to bring race into it, but this was the ONLY restaurant I visited where there was an equal mix of white, black, and Hispanic customers at lunchtime, both behind the counter and seated in the dining room. The service was so sharp, it was worth a nod to the manager. The brisket was super-flavorful, but a little dry. However, it was the sort of dry I happen to love — the butt end of a well-smoked brisket that has that amazing flavor and crusty crunch on the edges. The ribs and the sausage were the best I ate anywhere, and it was the only place I visited where I actually wished I had more when the meal was done.
Survey says: While it wasn’t one of those restaurant experiences that has you phoning your friends before you leave to tell them how incredible the meal you just ate was, this is one place I might seek out if I got a hankering for a hunk of meat.
#2 Bun & Barrel
1150 Austin Hwy
If I had friends visiting, this is where I would take them. For ambience and taste, I think this is the closest to a real Texas barbecue experience in San Antonio. The pork ribs were really tasty, the brisket a solid B+, and the poppy-seed rolls with the sliced barbecue sandwich rocked.
Survey says: No prize-winner, but a cut above the rest.
#3 B&B Smokehouse
über-friendly staff, fabulous smell, and fair prices keep this place packed. The beef brisket was smoky and tender, if a little on the fatty side. The sausage was a tad lackluster and the ribs fair, but the Sliced Beef Po Boy absolutely blew my friend’s mind … not an easy feat for $4.89.
Survey says: Pretty dang good.
#4 Augie’s Barbed Wire Smoke House
3709 N. St. Mary’s
Yes, this is that restaurant with the giant-flaming-pig-mushroom that you’ve passed a million times on your way to the zoo. It’s a cute little setup with a wine and cigar bar out back, a young and attentive wait staff, and tasty barbecue — the highlight being the super-yummy pork ribs. The sausage and brisket were standard.
Survey says: While I certainly wouldn’t go back to this place just for the meat, it seems like a real fun place to hang out, have a few brews, and enjoy a rack.
#5 Jones Sausage and Barbeque
2827 Martin Luther King Dr.
A teeny-tiny takeout joint with a few tables. If you sneeze, you miss it. Although the service was a little gruff, the beef sausage was worth the trip. Loosely packed ground beef, it was very flavorful and almost made up for the largely flavorless (yet succulently tender) brisket. Plus, they serve 7-Up cake.
Survey says: Just OK.
#6 Barbecue Station
1610 NE Loop 410
When I polled around, this was the most-mentioned fave. Head there at lunch and you’ll find yourself among middle-class, white-collar males. Served old-school on paper, the brisket was flavorful, but a little on the dry side. The sausage was good and the ribs a wee bit fatty. But, on the whole, it was still way better than the other, larger chains.
Survey says: If you’re in the neighborhood at feeding time, this is a good choice.