Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Road Cue: City Market in Luling

So on the same day we were doing some reconnoitering in the greater Moulton-Flatonia Metroplex, on the same trip where we had kolach at Weikel’s Bakery, we had planned to stop off in Lulling for some prime barbecue on the way back. On the older strip that constitutes downtown in Luling, near the 183 S. side, sits City Market, the anchor that holds that whole downtown business area together. Technically, if you look at the old sign over the door, it’s the Bar E City Market, named after the Ellis family’s ranch north of town. The Bar E is where the cattle that were once butchered and smoked in the barbecue and beef part of the market were raised. It followed the trend which led to the development of the Texas-style meat market barbecue joint: a rancher wants a diversified retail market for the meat he’s butchering from the cows that he’s raising in his pastures; he also needs a way to use the unpopular cuts and the trim, and they become smoked sausage; ditto with hogs, except they reproduce much faster than cows. It’s a formula that’s worked for City Market for over 50 years.

The perfect pork rib......

The Ellis family hailed from Lockhart, just 15 miles up the highway to the north, and Howard Ellis got into the BBQ game while working at Kreuz Market in Lockhart. He learned from one of the best, and had a great example of barbecue joint-meat market to pattern his place after. Manager Joe Capello started working for the Ellis’ when he was 12, went off to join the service, and after his discharge, came back to the Market to become the successor to Howard.

The style of cooking at City Market is more of a hot style, similar to Smitty’s, Kreuz, and John Mueller’s. They start the meat out on the hot part of the fire and then move it back to slow smoke, but not for 12 or 15 hours, like over at Franklin’s. The old, original pits are now used as warmers and the newer larger steel pits, which date from the 80’s, are where the real barbecuing happens.  The fuel is post oak and the seasoning is a liberal dose of and salt and pepper. You enter through the front door and head towards the back, where there is a second door anointed with many smoke-stained signs warning you away from transgression and social embarrassment. It is the entrance to the sanctum-sanctorum, where the smoke permeates everything, and the wooden walls are covered with a smoky bark from years and years of smoking.

When you get to the counter, you tell the gentleman what you want: pork ribs, sausage, and/or brisket, and the lads commence to tearing off numerous pieces of brown butcher paper, slicing juicy smoky meats, and placing the meats on the stack of butcher paper, folded canoe-style to contain any juices. You pay for the meats right there, and exit the smoky inner sanctum to grab a place at one of the rows of tables. You pay for your sides and drink out in the dining room, where you also request some BBQ sauce (unless there is some on the table). Howard’s mom Thelma came up with the sauce recipe and they are a little sensitive about it. Leave it on the table when you’re through, and don’t even think about swiping a bottle. If you need it that bad, they have some for sale, and they sell a lot.


It’s a simple tasting recipe, but rock solid and loved by all. If I had to guess, I’d say that it contained Louisiana-style pepper sauce, plain yellow mustard, coarse ground black pepper, brown sugar and a little vinegar, and ketchup (or some other tomato sauce).  It’s a little on the orange side, nicely balanced twixt sweet and sour, and has a spicy two-layer kick. If I had to speculate further, I’d guess that this sauce is also the light glaze that’s laid down on the pork ribs when they cook. Most folks get Big Red, but we opted for Root Beer. No sides, but some onion, pickle, and a wad of white bread.

Pork ribs and sausage, my brisket slice is underneath....

We got a couple of links of sausage, ordered “dry”. Back in the day “dry” sausage were the ones that had gotten poked or exploded, and lost some of their fat. They still taste as good, but there’s a little less grease to deal with. I love the sausage here: coarse ground beef, amply seasoned with black pepper, a smidge of cayenne, some salt, a touch of garlic, and loosely stuffed into a snappy hog casing. The smoky flavor comes through clear and strong, and for “dry”, these links were still well-lubricated (and delicious).  We got a full rack of ribs, which were as amazing as they always are. Cooked enough for the meat to gently pull from the bone, but not the least bit mushy. A caramelized spicy glazed bark with tons of smoke lies outside, while juicy, porky, richness lies within; these ribs did just enough time in the smoker. I got one slice of fatty brisket from the point; homeboy just wanted ribs and sausage. The brisket was really good, with a smoky, crusty bark, a penetrating smoke ring, unctuous rendered fat, and nice juicy, beefy flavor. Not as good as the most recent Franklin’s or John Mueller’s brisket that I’ve had, but definitely no slouch.

 Some critics have pooh-poohed City Market lately, lamenting a decline. I disagree, finding our visit just as satisfying as it ever was. And whatever you do, don’t ever confuse City Market in Luling, with that reprehensible, name-stealing Luling City Market in Houston. The latter is a shameful, piss-poor copy of a great Texas institution.

Bar E City Market (BBQ)
633 E. Davis St.
(830) 875-9019
Mick Vann ©

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