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Savoring Saveur


Saint Arnold's Lawnmower graces a plate of Kenny Callaghan and the restaurant Blue Smoke's black pepper beef ribs. Resting underneath are sections of beer-can game hens in root beer sauce, a creation of Steve Raichlen, author of Barbecue Bible. (Photo by Laura Fries)
Savoring Saveur

By Laura Fries & Ron Bechtol

A Texas foodie festival worth gaining 10 extra pounds

Beef, bison, boar, lamb, quail, game hen, turkey, pork, tuna, shrimp, crawfish, oyster, and turtle: All on the menu at the 2004 Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival. Here's a roundup of highlights from the four-day feast.

Thursday, April 1

Board a bus well-stocked with beer, and eat the best barbeque outside of Austin: four joints in three hours. That's the challenge of the Big Bad Barbecue and Beer Bus Bash chaperoned by Robb Walsh, the restaurant critic from the Houston Press with a potbelly full of credentials. By noon, we'd already run out of the best beer: Saint Arnold's Lawnmower, a light kolsch with a faint taste of grass. The first destination is the Kreuz Market in Lockhart: a huge red barn resembling a church. Barbeque here is plain and simple: a slice of fatty prime rib, brisket, and peppery sausage with a stick of cheddar cheese. Right down the road is Smitty's Market, where an intense fire behind the cashiers smokes the meat, the customers, and the walls, which are encrusted with craggy black formations. Smitty's - a close relative of Kreuz's - beats the pants off their cousin that occupies their previous location, with tender brisket, a richer, smokier sausage, and sticky-sweet ribs that hardly need the accompanying sauce that's suspiciously Kraft-like.

Six line chefs work to create Bobby Flay's BBQ duck breast tacos, garnished with watercress and avocado relish. (Photo by Michael Salas)
Oil derricks aside, the main attraction in Luling is the City Market. Ominous signs warn customers to leave the sauce - an addictive combination of honey, vinegar, mustard, and pepper - on the table. Brisket comes off the cutting board in foot-long slabs, rivaling only the spectacular ribs - a crispy, thin skin encases a layer of sweet, hot fat bordering tender morsels of beef. The sausage was a living creature - oozing grease when squeezed. Order it dry, advised the man across from me - a large, goateed fellow who used his own inlaid handle knife to spear me a chunk.

Gonzalez Market - in Gonzalez, of course - is the last stop on this barbeque tour de force. The market offered lamb, pork, ribs, and heavily spiced sausage, all fatty and delicious, but by this time, even the heartiest of the crew was deep in a meat coma.

Friday, April 2

I remember that I left my sausage on the bus on my way to an outdoor farmer's market that was spoiled by a spring shower. The weather made it hard to enjoy fresh produce, but the day was saved by a piping hot Beef Bourguignonne and creamy polenta prepared by Lou Lambert of Plaza San Antonio. Also of note were buffalo tacos, produced by Hugh Fitzsimmons of Thunderheart Bison. As we left, farmers from Westlake Farmers Market in Austin slipped us a bag with one of the best oranges I've ever eaten.

A happy Saveur guest makes short work of Flay's duck taco. (Photo by Michael Salas)
Arrayed in finery, guests arrived later that evening at the Stars Across Texas Grand Tasting at the Driskill. Here, more than 40 restauranteurs manned tasting tables with goodies galore. They divided themselves into two categories - those going for true-Texan flavors, with dishes of beef, bacon, cheese, and other Lone Star ingredients - or those offering speciality ingredients - like the turtle soup from Brennan's of Houston. In the latter category, Uchi of Austin shone, with a bright red and pink skewer of tuna and watermelon, dusted with golden caviar. San Antonio's Silo proffered a delicate quail dish, and Austin's Ranch 616 had the ingenious idea of creating a gourmet Frito pie - inside the bag. By far the best dish of the evening was one that was hidden from the masses - the bacon-wrapped stuffed quail from Royer's Round Top Cafe. Twenty-six wineries poured sip after sip, and rooms dedicated to Tito's vodka and Patron tequila enticed those who weren't satisfied with Evian.

Saturday, April 3

The Home on the Range at the Texas Disposal Systems Exotic Game Ranch was an afternoon of skeet, meat, celebrities, tequila, and music. Just south of Austin on FM 1327, the bus lumbered past the enormous tan landfill, which TDS trucks were working to fill. Taking a laborious left at the site of a tiny decrepit cemetery, we entered a beautiful stretch of land improbably inhabited by wild longhorns, axis, buffalo, zebras, emus, and gazelle-like creatures that flowed across the land as gracefully as birds.

Food TV star Bobby Flay - who looked bored - handed out barbeque duck breast tacos, decorated with watercress and avocado relish. His line was long, but his taco was dull. Austin's Roaring Fork boldy served only side dishes, and their green bean casserole with Quick Creek bacon, wood roasted onions, and garlic was declared the best dish of the event by my compatriot in landfill dining. Kenny Callaghan of Blue Smoke in New York provided the much-needed black pepper beef ribs, and Marcus Moerbe and Rebecca Barsch Fischer of the Texas Culinary Academy served up a sweet succulent brisket coated in a tangy sauce that also graced their amazingly lean boar and buffalo sausage.

Rebecca McGuire of Big Bob Gibson's BBQ serves up a roasted whole hog. (Photo by Michael Salas)
It's not Texas unless you combine liquor with guns - an ongoing skeet contest punctuated the afternoon with blasts from BBs. Best Cellars' Joshua Wesson led a hilarious and informative wine tasting inside the pavilion - hung with zebra and lion skins and stuffed deer heads. Austin's Big Bob Gibson's BBQ displayed on their table the remains of the whole hogs from which their pulled pork had been, well, pulled. The pig was damn good. County Line surprised us with a smoked pork loin stuffed with green chiles and pepper jack cheese - a mouthwatering morsel that should be added to their regular menu.

Sunday, April 4

As I turned off I-35 at Kyle, I found myself hoping the Sunday fair hadn't changed with the sponsorship of Saveur, the flossy gourmet mag. Parking was provided on a red-dirt field generously laid with cow flops - an encouraging sign.

Situated along the banks of a cypress-flanked stream, the Salt Lick Bar-B-Q Pavilion is a spectacular slice of Texas. Some of its rustic charm was lost with the addition of several large tents, but the butt-bumping crowds inside seemed not to care. And they shouldn't. The Saveur imprimateur may have brought us the likes of the telegenic Flay doing cooking demos and book signings, but the event remains relentlessly Austin, right down to the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash on the main stage.

Raichlen's beer-can game hens roast on cans of Budweiser. (Photo by Michael Salas)
A Gathering of Chuckwagons featured Grady Spears, Tom Perini, Robert McGrath, and Matt Martinez, big name chefs with Texas connections. The lines were too long in front of the Spears and McGrath wagons, but the chili from Perini's wagon was welcome with red wine from Alamosa Vineyards. The spicy-smoky hefeweissen from Austin's Live Oak Brewing Company wasn't half-bad with the chili, either.

It was good to encounter old friends such as Paula Lambert from Dallas' Mozzarella Company and to make discoveries, such as buffalo from Carrizo Springs, sourced out of San Antonio. We also encountereed some unabashedly spunky vinaigrettes from another San Antonio company, Oils by Design. Ham I Am's classy bacon from Plano was a revelation. Qupe's marsanne, a California product, hit the spot right out of the gate. It was time to leave - before I became interested in the cigar-rolling demonstrations being put on by Austin's Bobalu Cigar Co. •

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