If you're looking for a quick day trip out of town, or if you're arriving to Austin by car from Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio, this section is for you. With just a short drive or detour, or perhaps no detour at all, you can, for instance, find one-of-a-kind world-famous barbecue, see a bit of small-town Texas that's not the least bit touristy, canoe on a clear river under tall cypress trees, hike in a pine forest, or shop in a Texas-size outlet mall.
Thirty miles southeast of Austin lies an ecological anomaly -- a pine forest surrounded on all sides by prairie. It is the last remnant of an extensive pine forest that once extended all the way from Piney Woods of East Texas. This one patch of forest has survived because the soils in this one area are rich in iron, which favors the growth of pine trees over the grasses of the surrounding prairie. It is very hilly, which also marks a difference with the surrounding land. Located within the forest is Bastrop State Park (tel. 512/321-2101; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/bastrop), which offers plenty of hiking trails, a golf course, a swimming pool, campsites, and cabins (which must be reserved by phone well in advance: tel. 512/389-8900). Mountain biking is not permitted, but the park road, which extends to a nearby park, is one of the most popular bike rides in Texas. This park is situated just off Hwy. 71, which is one of the main roads between Austin and Houston. Also located in this pine forest is Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa (tel. 512/308-1234; www.lostpines.hyatt.com), which is a family-oriented resort in the same style as the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort on the outskirts of San Antonio. It's located on the banks of the Colorado River and offers such activities as kayaking and canoeing, as well as horseback riding. Rates for a standard room run from $250 to $325, depending on the day of week and time of year. Promotional rates and packages are often available.
Texas Hill Country
A rising and falling land of rivers, lakes, springs, and caverns, the Hill Country is one of Texas's prettiest regions -- especially in early spring, when wildflowers daub it with every pigment in nature's palette. Dotted with old dance halls, country stores, quaint Teutonic towns -- more than 30,000 Germans emigrated to Texas during the great land-grant years of the Republic -- and birthplace to one of the U.S.'s most colorful presidents, the region also lays out an appealing mosaic of the state's history.
San Antonio lies at the southern edge of the Hill Country; Austin at its eastern edge. The Interstate highway I-35, which connects the two cities, parallels a line of steep hills known as the Balcones Escarpment. These hills divide the coastal prairie from the Edwards Plateau, which extends for hundreds of miles north and west of San Antonio and Austin; the part closest to these cities is called the Hill Country. The extra 1,200 feet of elevation makes the climate a little drier and milder in summer than San Antonio or Austin.
In the 19th century, many German and Czech settlers arrived in the area fleeing the social upheavals in Europe. They established small towns that now dot the land and add a little contrast to the prevailing cowboy culture. The mild climate, rolling hills, and abundant springs attract visitors to this part of the state, with summer camps, guest ranches, and resorts serving a public that comes here to enjoy the outdoors.
The state government sells maps of different regions of the state for wildlife enthusiasts. The two that cover the Hill Country are called Heart of Texas-Wildlife Trails. There's an east and a west region. You can download sections of the maps at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/wildlifetrails. They offer loop routes covering a variety of the region's natural attractions and are available at several local visitor centers. You can also order the maps online for $2 each by going to www.tcebookstore.org or calling tel. 888/900-2577.
Lavender Fields Forever -- You may equate Texas with cattle trails, but in the Hill Country, folks like to gush about the lovely lavender trail that cuts a pretty path through these hills. Not so long ago, local winemakers and farmers realized the Texas soil is much like that of the French countryside in Provence and that lavender, like grapes, grows well in the Hill Country. Today, lavender fields at farms and Texas wineries are so popular that visitors come to see and smell the pretty plants, buy fragrant soaps and other lavender products, and enjoy lavender-inspired dinners and parties. Each spring, local growers host a Lavender Trail festival, with special weekend events, activities, and lavender farm-to-table dinners. Texas trails never smelled so sweet!
Small Towns & Texas Barbecue
More so than chili con carne or chicken-fried steak, barbecue can justly claim to be the quintessential Texas food. Not only is it highly prized in all corners of the state, but barbecue is also the recipient of contributions from just about every major culture and ethnic group that came to Texas. Everyone lent a hand in its creation -- cowboys and Indians, Mexicans and Germans, Anglos and African Americans. And it took every one of those contributions to perfect the technique of combining meat, fire, and smoke into a rare sensory delight. It also created a rich lore surrounding barbecue, lots of traditions, and, of course, endless debate over such important matters as wet or dry, direct or indirect heat, and sauce or no sauce.
City vs. Country -- Before I tackle such complex and weighty issues, it's important to note that Austin is at the center of a constellation of small towns famous for their barbecue. Here you'll find the real deal. Franklin's BBQ, off I-35, has the most traditional, uncompromising style. But if you can leave the city, you will find small-town barbecue, where the slower rhythms of life and the importance of tradition apply to the cooking of barbecue.
Another advantage small towns have is the lack of clean-air ordinances, because to create old-time barbecue you need lots of smoke. City barbecue is leaning more and more on the use of commercial cookers, which have improved over the years, but they still can't match the character of barbecue cooked using wood. Wood is the fuel of choice, not charcoal, because charcoal burns too cleanly. The moisture and sap in the wood create the smoke that gives the meat its flavor and creates the pink line running just below the surface of the meat. This line is produced when nitrogen dioxide in the smoke reacts with the myoglobin in the meat. If the brisket has been cooked with a wood fire in a proper pit, the line will be redder and deeper than on brisket cooked in a commercial smoker.
Experiencing Central Texas Barbecue -- In Texas, barbecue varies from region to region. In central Texas, the traditional "dry" method is most often used. (A dry rub is applied to the meat, which isn't marinated or basted. Then the meat is cooked for many hours using indirect heat.) This method produces a delicious crust on the meat, which is different from Kansas City or Carolina barbecue. As to which style is best, you be the judge.
Barbecue joints in central Texas will cook a variety of meats, but there are three constants: brisket, spareribs (pork), and sausage. All other meats, such as beef ribs, pork chops, turkey, and chicken might be offered, but are not considered essential. When ordering brisket, you'll often be asked if you want it lean or fatty. Try the fatty. Another hallmark of Texas barbecue is the sauce -- a sweet and spicy tomato-based concoction. There is a debate in Texas as to whether good barbecue needs sauce or not, to which there is no definitive answer as it is entirely a matter of personal taste. Almost all barbecue joints will offer sauce, and the customers are free to use it or not.
In Texas, barbecue is always served with plain white bread (anything else would be too highfalutin'), onions, and pickles. Popular side dishes include chili beans, potato salad, and cole slaw. Often the barbecue is served on butcher paper (as plates would also be too highfalutin'). Most small towns sell barbecue by weight -- prices run about $7 to $10 per pound for the mainstays: ribs, sausage, and brisket.
It's important to note that barbecue is traditionally eaten early, to allow ample time for digestion. Many small town barbecue joints close by 6pm, and many run out of meat long before then. And one more thing to remember when heading to these small towns for barbecue: Bring cash. Credit cards are often not accepted.
This little town 30 miles south of Austin is the most famous town in Texas for barbecue. If you have but one shot to try real barbecue, this is the place you should go. From Austin, take Hwy. 183 south. Try to leave before 4pm to avoid traffic. If you're headed to Austin from San Antonio, you can make a little detour at San Marcos. Follow Hwy. 80 E. to Martindale, then Hwy. 142 to Lockhart.
Lockhart has three important barbecue joints. Perhaps the most famous (and a personal favorite) is Kreuz Market. It's located north of downtown at 619 N. Colorado St. (tel. 512/398-2361). Hours are Monday to Saturday 10:30am to 8pm. As you enter Lockhart (coming from Austin) on Hwy. 183, you'll come to a flyover. Take the last right before the flyover, and you'll practically be in the parking lot.
Once you walk through the doors, head to the pit room in back. A sign on the wall reads like an edict: NO SALAD. NO SAUCE. NO CREDIT CARDS. This is one of the few places that refuses to provide sauce. A lot of barbecuers agree with this position in theory but aren't about to chase off those customers who like sauce. The guys here just don't care. Once you buy your barbecue, head to the large dining room where you can buy drinks and what few side dishes are available. The sides are few and not very good, but the meat is amazing. With one bite of the brisket or the ribs, you'll understand what Central Texas barbecue is all about. The sausage is spicy and coarsely ground. For some it's too fatty, but I love it.
If you want sauce with your barbecue, head to Black's Barbecue (tel. 512/398-2712), at 215 N. Main St. It's located 3 blocks north of the town square. You'll see signs pointing the way as you enter Lockhart. In addition to excellent barbecue and a tangy sauce, Black's also offers well-prepared side dishes. Food is served daily from 10am to 8pm.
Your third option is Smitty's Market (tel. 512/398-9344), at 208 S. Commerce, a half-block south of the town square. It's open Monday to Saturday from 7am to 6pm. Even if you eat elsewhere, make a point of strolling into Smitty's just to see the smoke-caked pit room. This is the original location of Kreuz Market. The family parted ways 15 years ago -- one side kept the original location while the other side kept the name. The recipes are about the same in both places, but I think the quality of the meat is a little better at the new place. While you're walking off your meal, take a spin around the town square and county courthouse, which was renovated in 2000. It's a distinctive building with mansard roofs on the corners and strangely shaped decorative towers in the center and on the north and south sides. Small, struggling businesses and empty storefronts make up the main square, which is indicative of the state of the local economy. Barbecue may be the town's economic engine.
This town is 16 miles south of Lockhart. It's actually a bit closer to San Antonio than Austin. And, if you're traveling between Houston and San Antonio, it's but a short detour off I-10. The place to go is Luling City Market (tel. 830/875-9019), at 633 E. Davis, where Hwy. 183 crosses the railroad tracks. As with other barbecue joints, first you buy your barbecue in the pit room, before getting your sauce, drinks, and side dishes in the dining room. Only beans and potato salad are available. In my opinion, the ribs and the brisket are the best of the offerings. The dry rub on the ribs gives them a slightly crispy texture, and the brisket melts in your mouth. Luling City Market is open Monday to Saturday 7am to 6pm. You can walk off your meal by strolling down Davis Street to the Oil Museum
Seventeen miles southwest of Austin is the tiny town of Driftwood and its famous barbecue joint, the Salt Lick (tel. 512/858-4959). Take Hwy. 290 west. As you pass through Oak Hill, keep to your left when the highway forks. After you pass the fork, make a left on to FM 1826 at the third traffic light. Drive 13 miles to the Salt Lick. It will be on your right, and Camp Ben McCulloch will be on your left. The address is 18001 FM 1826, but that's not going to help you much, and it's not important, because you can't miss the place. If you're in the vicinity of San Marcos, continue north on I-35 and exit Kyle, taking Hwy. 150 W. Stay on 150 until you get to FM 1826, then turn right.
The Salt Lick is open daily 11am to 10pm. It can get crowded on weekends when Austinites come down with their ice chests full of beer, which they drink while waiting for a table. (Beer can't be sold because this part of Hays County is dry.) The Salt Lick cooks its barbecue differently from standard local practice. It uses an open stone pit, direct heat, and basting. In Texas, this is often called "cowboy style." If you prefer Kansas City-style barbecue, you'll like this place. The meat gets a good smoky flavor, but leans more heavily on the sauce -- it's rich and tangy and a favorite with the locals. The setting is charming and rustic, in a long rambling building filled with picnic tables. There's a screened porch area, which is pleasant when the weather is mild. Food is served in individual portions or all-you-can-eat family style. The cole slaw, potato salad, and beans are good, as are the desserts.
Llano is 75 miles northwest of Austin, which is too far to go just to get some barbecue, when there are great places closer by. But if you're already up in the Highland Lakes area, in the vicinity of Lake Buchanan, you can take advantage of your proximity and enjoy some barbecue at Cooper's (tel. 325/247-5713). It's located at 604 W. Young (Hwy. 29). Like the Salt Lick, Cooper's uses the direct-heat method, and the same comments apply. The brisket is the star of the show. Cooper's is open daily from 10:30am to 8pm.
Northeast of Austin is the town of Taylor. It's about a 35-mile trip. Take I-35 north to Round Rock, then Hwy. 79 E. This is the home of a famous barbecue joint called Louie Mueller's (tel. 512/352-6206), at 206 W. Second St., open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 6pm. If you're on your way to Austin from Dallas, it's only a 16-mile detour. Barbecue is cooked with the indirect heat method in an impressive pit. The rub uses a lot of black pepper, and combined with the smoke, makes a wonderful black crust on the brisket. The restaurant is large and old-fashioned and smells of smoke that's been wafting through here for 50 years.
If you're coming from Houston on Hwy. 290, you won't have to make any detour whatsoever to have some excellent barbecue at City Meat Market (tel. 979/542-2740). It's located in downtown Giddings at the intersection with Hwy. 77 (aka Austin St.), in an old-fashioned brick storefront. You can't miss it. This place is also a market that sells fresh meat, despite the fact that it's also been selling barbecue for about 50 years. It's open Monday to Friday from 7:30am to 5:30pm and Saturdays from 7:30am to 4pm, but most of the barbecue is gone by 1 or 2pm. The owner tells me that people can call ahead to reserve meat. This place cooks a delicious pork shoulder, which I recommend. Giddings is 55 miles east of Austin. While digesting your meal, you can walk down Austin Street for a block in order to view the Lee County courthouse, built in the 1890s. It was designed by J. Riely Gordon, the same architect who built the courthouses in San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Gonzales. He loved to use Romanesque elements, which emphasize solidity and gravity -- virtues one would like to associate with the administration of justice.
Also in Lee County is the town of Lexington, home of Snow's Barbecue (tel. 979/542-8189), at 516 Main. From Hwy. 290, take Hwy. 77 north for 20 miles (from Austin, take Hwy. 290 to FM 696; you see a sign pointing the way to Lexington). Snow's is open only on Saturday, from 8am until noon. This inconvenience is made worse by the fact that it often sells out of meat before 10am. It became a destination bbq joint after Texas Monthly food editors dubbed it the best in Texas, and so it draws the serious aficionados from across the state. In truth, the cooking is excellent, especially the brisket, and would be well worth the effort and timing needed to get there were it not in the heart of barbecue country, which offers so many excellent options.
So what is the best bbq in central Texas? That depends on the day in question and perhaps the alignment of the stars, and of course, on your own taste. I prefer the traditional dry method, with its smoky, peppery crust. On some days, I show up at a bbq joint at the exact moment when the meat is just perfect, and the smoky taste is at its height but before the meat has had a chance to dry out. On other days, I'm not so lucky. But, of the places mentioned above, I think those in Lockhart, Luling, and Lexington are the ones where that magical moment is most likely to occur.
Drive the Golden Corridor
In the 1980s, the stretch of Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio was dubbed "The Golden Corridor." Since then, the area has lived up to its name -- with commerce exploding along the way, linking more closely each year such booming little towns as Buda (pronounced "Byoo-dah") and Kyle, with its charming downtown. San Marcos is known as a fun college town and shopping mecca, and New Braunfels is an old German settlement turned busy modern town.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.