Reluctantly heading to San Antonio for a holiday weekend work conference -- woo-hoo! - I stopped by the famous, original City Market in Luling, Texas (not to be confused with the barbecue joint in Houston). I was shocked how packed the joint was on a Friday at three. Though much of the traffic was from road trip travelers, there were many townies as well. I thought people in small towns were more apt to eat at decent lunch hours, between eleven and one.
Luling City Market looks more like a convenience store than a restaurant. Patrons were directed to head to the very back of the store, where they entered a small partition to get their meat fix. Customers stand in a line, and when it's your turn, you tell the big Texas men in aprons whether you want sausage, pork ribs or brisket. My first pass though, I was told that the next batch of brisket wouldn't be ready for about 30 minutes, so I asked for a portion of sausage and ribs. Meat is served up on a big pieces of butcher paper, and you pay for it right then and there. If you want some beans or potato salad (pretty much your only side options), you go back up front and purchase those separately.
As it turned out, I was lucky that they were out of brisket for the moment, because it forced me to try the other offerings. And though I'm not usually a big rib person, these were some of the best ribs I have ever eaten. Joe, the big barbecue daddy, described them as "medium style" pork ribs that were cooked dry and mopped with sauce afterwards. They were intensely tender, with a nice crispy skin. My fellow diners and I were oohing and aahhing.
The sausage had a thick crunchy skin and flavorfully moist meat within, but it was nowhere near as mouthwatering as the ribs. The pinto beans were freshly homemade and very simple, but tasty. The potato salad was served in a pre-portioned Styrofoam cups and though not bad, it certainly wouldn't be winning any flavor contests. It needed a punch of flavor or textural contrast if it hoped to compete at all with the meat. But then again, I don't think it was supposed to compete. This is a place where you enjoy big slabs of barbecue made on the spot. There wasn't even much sauce on the meat, but you could add your own from the squeeze bottles filled with the sweet, tangy, slightly vinegary concoction found on each picnic-style table.
Before leaving, I went back in the meat area to see if I could sample the brisket. Sure enough it was ready, and Joe sliced me off a piece to try. It was so fresh, hot and tender that I thought I was in heaven. The meat had a nice outer layer of crusty, crunchy flavor and the fatty meat within was melt-in-your-mouth. My dining companions and I engaged in a friendly debate over whether the tougher end pieces or the ultra-moist middle section was better. I voted for the middle, but feel free to draw your own conclusions next time you find yourself heading out I-10 West, hungry for some barbecue.