Best Barbeque in Texas – Fine Dining in the Oil Field

Slicing it up straight from the pit

Slicing it up straight from the pit

Many places are passionate about their barbeque, and the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between types of wood used to smoke, dry rubs versus wet rubs, mustard or vinegar-based sauces versus sticky-sweet, and of course, pork versus beef, are fodder for discussions and heated debates. I prefer pork but love well-smoked beef brisket, and as long as I have a nice smoke ring with a bit of a crust I’m happy. I’m good with oak, hickory, apple, or any combination of woods, and my personal testament is that if you have to put sauce on your barbeque to give it flavor or moisture, you’re doing it way wrong.

The inner sanctum!

The inner sanctum!

Since this is Texas, this is important, and Texas Monthly magazine has an annual review of the top 50 places in the state. The most commonly mentioned top BBQ places in Texas include Kreuz Market and Smitty’s, both located in Lockhart across the street from each other, and run by relatives. Another place is the Salt Lick, located in rural Driftwood, Texas outside of Austin. Salt Lick is especially loved because it’s out in the country. I’ve been there, and it’s a feast for the eyes and nose, as well as the mouth.

Too much lunch for two.

Too much lunch for two.

My personal favorite, however, is the City Market* located in the tiny oil town of Luling, Texas, east of San Antonio. This is really oil field dining! Luling, population 5000, was a small railroad town until the discovery of oil in 1922. The locale has produced over 11 million barrels in those 90 years, and indeed you can smell crude and the faint undertones of H2S permeating everything. Luling is also known for the annual Watermelon Thump. And for my fellow Trekkers, Micheal Dorn was born here!

Working the pit

Working the pit

I was near Luling recently and took the opportunity to revisit the City Market for lunch. The place was pretty full. You order the meats in the back, at the pits. The pits are enclosed in a separate smoked-filled room, so you wait in line until there is enough space in the pit room for you. Don’t leave the door open! Inside the dark room, brick walls and heavy iron doors are coated with decades of creosote and smoke.

All ur ribz are belong to us

All ur ribz are belong to us

Everything is slightly blackened, and to the untrained eye, even a bit dirty. However, wood-tar creosote is actually an anti-septic, and while the pit room is unattractive, the rest of the restaurant is clean. For two of us, we ordered too much food  – a half pound of sliced brisket, one link of smoked pork sausage, and two ribs, which ensured plenty of leftovers for another meal. The food is piled on sheets of butcher paper, along with onions, jalapenos, pickles, and the ubiquitous white bread.**  If you want accompaniments (potato salad, beans, chips, soft drinks), you must go to the counter near the front door and pay separately. Their homemade sauce, a nice peppery one with a bit of mustard, is loaded into old hot sauce bottles. Heavy paper towels fill the roll of napkins.

From the Salt Lick outside Austin

We both started on the our ribs first.…god…wonderful. Juicy, meaty, easily pulled off the bone, with a beautiful thin black crust, heavy on the smoke flavor.

Oil Field Art

Oil Field Art

My brisket was a bit on the dry side, which is unusual, but the pork sausage had a lovely crisp skin and spicy interior, juicy without being overly greasy. A shared order of potato salad, a few bites of pickled jalapeno, and all is right with the world.

The City Market was originally a grocery store and meat market in the early days of Luling, but has been only a restaurant for decades. Some of the employees have been there for 30+ years, and their love of good barbeque shows. The place is simple, with booths or picnic table seating, and old black and white photos of early Luling, mostly related to the oil field, are the only decor.  When you finish, and if you have any room left, you can order a cup of warm peach cobbler, or walk across the road to a farmer’s market. One July, I found juicy Fredricksburg peaches and fresh watermelon. This trip, they were offering spring vegetables and fresh pecans.

Everything in the pit room is covered with smoke

Everything in the pit room is covered with smoke

The City Market is located roughly halfway between west Houston and San Antonio, two miles north of I-10. If you drive into the two-block downtown, you can’t miss it. I’ve sent traveling friends here, and they have always loved it. You will, too. chips

* Not to be confused with Luling City Market located near the Houston Galleria. The later place acquired a former cook from the original City Market, and have pretty much used their name and somewhat duplicated their famous sauce. The Houston location once tried to tell me they were ‘affiliated’ with the original place. No true. The food is similar, but instead of reaching into the pit to slice off your sausage link or rib, they reach into a steam table. No. Just, no.

**This is an inside joke, of sorts. A few years ago I took three out-of-state friends on a death march across central Texas. Two of them are vegans, and I joked that in the entire state of Texas, the only thing they’d be able to eat was white bread and pickles. Heck, the beans have bacon and potato salad has mayonnaise. When we got to City Market…white bread and pickles. And a Coke. And  peaches from the market.


Categories: Food

11 replies

  1. I really enjoy your posts about dining Texas style. We have a massive BBQ culture here too, but it is something you do in the privacy of your own home or in a park. We don’t ‘do’ BBQ restaurants…..

    Fascinating, the similarities but subtle differences in our cultures!

    • Americans are mad about cooking outdoors, but what is often called ‘barbeque’ is actually grilling. Nearly everyone grills if they are able, but the equipment and time to slow-smoke meats isn’t quite as easy. I have a smoker made of ceramic, called a Big Green Egg, that will hold heat for 12-16 hours on a single load of charcoal, but many standard grills are made of uninsulated metal, and smoking a brisket for 12-18 hours or longer is a problem in most backyards. Only the hardcore have their own backyard pits!

      • Aha! That’s the true difference then! We are a nation of what you would call grillers. I wondered what the significance of the pit was, and all this talk about smoking the meat. Completely different thing!

  2. I feel a road trip coming on….

  3. Nice work. I found you while preparing to post on the same subject. I have not been to Lockhart either. It is only 17 miles up the road but I just can’t get out of Luling. I just noticed that TM no longer ranks BBQ markets. They list the top 5 alphabetically, then the rest of the best alphabetically – so City Market is now first.


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