Where we're at and how we got here
I’m writing this sitting outside a coffee shop in San Antonio, not a city I ever expected to fall in love with. I hear that much of it is strip mall sprawl but for the past two days I’ve been in a hooked-up bubble of updated bungalows and downtown loft spaces and cruising uncrowded streets in various golf carts. Flip-flops and outdoor dining, 70s and sunny, riverwalks, lobster rolls, caramel chicken wings. My (business) partner Andy and I were plunged into insider-SA since the figurative minute we pulled off the interstate.
We landed here in a rouuuuunddddabout way. Obsessing over weather maps depicting the cold front that froze most of Texas, we needed to get on the road. We mapped a route that would land us in the Venn-diagram-sweet-spot of barbecue places we wanted to check out (gleaned from online reading and barbecue-oriented podcasts) but which weren’t still recovering from weather-related infrastructure issues. Those parameters had us shooting for oft-mentioned Vera’s Backyard Barbecue in Brownsville TX, pretty much as far south (and a lot east) as you can go in Texas. Lauded for the dining experience as much as the food, Vera’s is the only place in the US allowed to smoke cows’ heads buried in the ground.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because “shooting for” Brownsville is not the same as teleporting to Brownsville. In the temporal world there are over twenty hours of driving between Boulder CO and the southern tip of Texas. How to get there?
Cloudcroft NM, home of the best bark so far
A fortuitous exchange with a customer of mine in Durango led me and Andy to our first crazily-arbitrary-seeming stop eight hours out of Boulder in…Cloudcroft NM (population 654). After sleeping in a sweet, clean, sparse hostel owned by a German woman named Steph (“How’d you land in Cloudcroft?” “Love and adventure. The love went away but the adventure didn’t.”) we stood shivering in line just before 11am waiting for Mad Jack’s Mountaintop Barbecue to let us in.
Mad Jack (if that’s the owner’s name) started with a trailer in Lockhart TX (population 13,600) – home to well-known joints Kreuz Market, Terry Black’s, and Smitty’s Market – before making his way to Cloudcroft. That trailer is now part of outdoor seating decor, along with two thousand-gallon cookers and large stacks of post oak trailered from Texas. In the summer it would be an idyllic place to lunch outside.
Everything we ate was good to great, but the brisket was in a league of its own, mostly because of the quality of the bark. (Bark is the crust that forms on the outer layer of the brisket over the course of the 10+ hour cook.)
Supposedly (and most likely) the brisket was seasoned with only salt and pepper, but the hours of sitting in the flow of smoke caramelized the rub until it tasted like brown sugar must have been present; most notably, there was an almost-chewy quality to the bark, akin to…caramel (hence “caramelized”). Layers of flavor unfolded over the course of each bite, making it feel disrespectful to have another bite anytime soon.
Marfa / Del Rio / BROWNSVILLE
After Cloudcroft we tackled the figurative meat of our first leg. We passed through Marfa (very cool if extremely quiet due to the freezing temperatures and the snow on the ground), slept in border town Del Rio, then got ourselves way down to southern Texas to eat at a “joint” we had been hearing about.
This is a good time to note that despite being in the hospitality industry and aware of the powers of PR and hype, we also need to get information from somewhere. We’ve been reading blogs and magazines and listening to podcasts about Texas barbecue. It becomes an echo chamber — Texas Monthly magazine mentions a place, then podcasters eat there and talk about it, then…two dudes from Colorado drive 20 hours to check it out.
Repeated mentions become endorsements even if no one is specifically saying that the food is great.
But where else would we find out about places? Our hope is that we now have starting points and will hear about or stumble on a slew of others. (Mad Jack’s wasn’t on our radar until my customer-friend mentioned it.)
1400 miles later...
Our Rio Grande Valley barbecue stops were good. As amateur meteorologists we sussed out that this area would thaw sooner than anywhere else in Texas. Under normal circumstances we may not have made it this far “out of the way” but during this very special late February, temps in the 50s and 60s and the chance of beach camping was enough to load up a truck and drive 1418 miles to check off a couple of places on our list.
Onto, then out of SA (with sublime barbecue along the way)
The chance of beach camping turned into actual beach camping. It was a treat for two days – more than a treat, really – and then it wasn’t. After a sunny, warm day of travel recuperation, the second morning we woke up not-quite warm, definitely wet and sandy, and ready to pack up and go.
Our next scheduled stop – a sort of internship, which in restaurant-speak is called a “stage” (pronounced “stahj”) – was still a few days away and Andy and I each had a friend in sort-of-nearby San Antonio. After two whirlwind days with our respective hosts we felt like we knew half the town and it seemed, as Andy put it, that the Siren song of San Antonio might be pulling us away from our mission.
We resolutely stayed the course and after saying farewell to our hosts we hit up 2M Smokehouse on our way out of town, a place well known in the aforementioned echo-chamber of barbecue media.
2M proved to be the unexpected last-minute-decision pièce de résistance to our SA stay, and it was emblematic of the few days we had been privileged to experience: exuberantly, authentically friendly. The brisket, ribs, and sausage were all exceptional.
The night before that sublime barbecue I had a few hours to myself. During a solo dusk bike ride through neighborhoods of ungentrified one-story houses while saying hey to folks sitting outside going about their everyday lives – or not, in the case of a couple loading a moving truck, their kids playing among household goods in the front yard – I experienced a real heartache I’ve come to recognize as geophilia: love of place.
San Antonio is a place I’ll see again.