Barbecue Identity Theft
At 11:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, there's a line stretching out the front door and across the porch of Luling City Market, the barbecue joint on Richmond. At the end of the line is the guy who carves the meat. You tell him how much you want, and he throws your order on the scale. You pay by the pound. The meat is served on a piece of flat butcher paper, unless you're getting it to go, as I am, in which case it's wrapped up in the paper.
This unique method of service has its origins in the meat markets of Central Texas, which were originally butcher shops rather than barbecue restaurants. So why would a barbecue bar and restaurant in Houston that has never been a meat market adopt such an odd tradition? Because Luling City Market is patterned after City Market in Luling, Texas, one of the most famous barbecue joints in the world.
When my cookbook Legends of Texas Barbecue first came out, I scheduled a meeting with a group of barbecue hounds at the famous joint in Luling to sign books and talk about barbecue. I also invited a friend from Houston to join us. I told him to meet us at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Luling City Market. Unfortunately, he never made it. While the rest of us were in Luling, he was sitting in the strip center on Richmond. The confusion is intentional.
City Market is the legal name of the famous meat market in Luling, Texas, which was founded in the '50s. Luling City Market is what people who don't live in Luling call the place. You can't just call it City Market, since there is also a City Market in Schulenburg, a City Market in Giddings, a City Market in Gonzales, etc. "City Market" is what meat markets in Central Texas towns were called back in the day.
Luling City Market on Richmond appropriated the nickname. They also did their best to copy the sausage, the barbecue sauce and other aspects of the old joint in Luling. They did this by making a meat cutter and pit boss named Roy Jeffrey from the Luling establishment a partner in the business. Roy Jeffrey's photo appears in several of the magazine and newspaper clippings that hang on the walls there. Most of these articles came out in 1981 and 1982, when the place first opened.
Because of the air of legitimacy Roy Jeffrey brought, Luling City Market has long been described as a "transplant from Central Texas" in our own Houston Press Cafe Capsules. But unfortunately our listing wasn't quite accurate.
"We have nothing to do with them," an employee of the Richmond strip-center joint told me on the phone. And she corrected me when I called the Central Texas meat market Luling City Market. "We're Luling City Market," she said indignantly. "They're City Market in Luling."
The pork ribs were the most popular item on the barbecue spread that I set out in the Houston Press conference room. They had a crispy, dense texture on the outside with a juicy interior and a nice charred pork flavor. The brisket was moist and tender but had little smoky aroma. The sausage rings looked exactly like those you get in the old meat markets in Lockhart and Luling, but they didn't taste quite right. The meat was ground too finely, and the sausage was too lean, which made it cook up mushy. The tangy cole slaw was made from scratch. All in all, it was above-average barbecue.
The sauce looked exactly like the stuff you get at the original City Market in Luling. It's easy to recognize from its brownish color and the huge pieces of black pepper floating around in it. Barbecue restaurant owners make a lot of fuss about their secret sauce recipes, but they seldom make them from scratch anyway. This sauce seems to be made from ketchup, mustard, vinegar and cracked black pepper, though I have probably failed to detect a secret ingredient or two.
I returned to Luling City Market for a second visit one evening at around seven. It seemed like a completely different restaurant. There was nobody in line for food. Most of the action centered around the bar, where a crowd of sixtysomethings in cowboy clothing carried on loudly. A "Boycott France" bumper sticker was prominently displayed on the refrigerator.
When I got in line for food, I discovered that the meats were stored in a steam table. My hopes sank when a cloud of water vapor rose from the stainless-steel holding tank as it was opened. I could see how soft the ribs had become just by watching the carver's knife. The meat couldn't really be sliced; it just slid off the bone. I sat down at a table and picked at my dinner. The ribs, which had been so crunchy on my lunchtime visit, were steamed into mush. The sausage was soggy, too. The barbecue had become waterlogged.
At City Market in Luling, the meat cutter stands in front of the smoker. You watch the meats as they come out of the oak smoke and get carved. The old meat markets aren't open for dinner. And they don't have bars, either.
I bought a bottle of Luling City Market barbecue sauce and threw the rest of my dinner away.
Joe Capello has been the manager of City Market in Luling for more than 30 years. I called him up and asked him what the folks at City Market in Luling thought about Luling City Market in Houston.
"Buddy was pissed off in the beginning, but he got over it," Capello said, referring to Buddy Ellis, the owner of the Luling establishment. City Market in Luling probably hasn't lost any business to the Houston copycat. The real victim of the whole affair was Roy Jeffrey, Capello seems to believe.
"They took him from us and promised him the world," Capello said. Roy Jeffrey is Buddy Ellis's cousin. He risked the wrath of his family for a stake in the Houston restaurant. But it didn't work out for him. "He was just a country boy," said Capello. "He didn't make it in the city. He went back to his hometown, McMahan. I hear he has his own little place there now."
Roy Jeffrey was 36 when Luling City Market opened in 1981. Today he's 60. I reached him by telephone at R&G Bar-B-Que in McMahan. He's the only employee, although his wife, Grace (the "G" in R&G), helps out sometimes on Saturdays. His 94-year-old grandmother hangs around the joint, too. "She's like the Wal-Mart greeter," Jeffrey says.
McMahan is 11 miles outside of Lockhart. "It's a ghost town," he tells me. "There are four buildings downtown, and we're in the only one that's occupied. Some days we get ten customers." Most of his income comes from the stock he still owns in Luling City Market in Houston. He worked there for nine years, from the time it opened in 1981 until he left in 1990. The business was becoming more of a bar than a barbecue joint by the early '90s, and rumor has it that Roy Jeffrey had a falling out with his big-city partners. But I couldn't get Jeffrey to comment, probably because he's dependent on the money he receives from the place.
I get the feeling there are some lingering issues. Along with a connection to Luling, Roy Jeffrey brought something else with him to Houston that can never be reclaimed. "He took the recipe for our barbecue sauce," claims Joe Capello. And now the folks in Houston are marketing "Luling City Market barbecue sauce" in a bottle with a silhouette of a cute little oil pumpjack on the label, like the ones Luling is famous for. It irks Capello that people who buy this sauce might think it's coming from Luling.
Of course, the owners of the Richmond shopping center restaurant called Luling City Market aren't doing anything illegal. They're just smart businesspeople. But every time I drive by the place, I wonder: Are they paying homage to one of the greatest barbecue establishments in the world? Or are they cynically making money on somebody else's good name?
Is it possible to do a little bit of both?
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