Friction. Man, what a drag! Seriously, though, friction is great for starting fires and sanding surfboards, but can really grind away at a relationship. My lovely wife the Rock Star and I have been married quite a few years, and even the best of couples need to get their batteries recharged every now and then. Sensing the need for some certified Central Texas BBQ and good times therapy, my bride and I scheduled a roadtrip and on the appointed day set off down the well-worn path (Interstate 35, a path that in some places is just a little too well-worn for my taste) toward New Braunfels, a town I must admit I can never remember visiting, although, as I was born in San Antone, I'm sure I've been there before. After a brief pause at Starbucks for some caffenated refreshment (aren't drive-thru windows great?), my wife and I headed first to an old friendly place where we could break our fast.
THE CZECH STOP (REVISIT)
Despite other food lovers insistence that there were better kolaches to be had in the thoroughly Czech town of West, when push came to shove, my spouse and I proceeded straight to that old reliable bus-and-tourist magnet that is the Czech Stop. Luckily, we were traveling mid-morning on a Friday, rather than a Saturday afternoon, so the expansive bus lot was almost empty. The lack of lines also meant that we could enjoy our modest but oh-so-wonderful fare in one of the few tables inside the bakery itself. (Last time, we had to eat on the road as all spots were occupied.) This time, at my wife's urging, I tried the smoked sausage and cheese kolache. Excellent quality and thoroughly smokey, but not quite as good as my usual breakfast sausage and cheese option. (A breakfast sausage patty works much better texturally that the oversize link of the smoked option.) My bride, of course, got her usual pecan rolls, as she is quite fanatical about this most Texas of nuts, so much so that you debate with her on this point at your peril. I tried a bite in the interest of journalistic accuracy: delightfully sweet, as always, rather than cloying, making for the perfect frontier Continental b'fast. Website is www.checkstop.net. Since this visit, I have since learned that Gerik's is the name of another great czech stop in this blessed hamlet (thanks, Soulslinger!) and I vow to czech it out myself next time thru.
Our first experience of the trip having resolved itself into a smooth conclusion, we putt-putted back on the highway on the way to Austin. Since it was late morning when we finished breakfast, we felt we could safely bypass the Capitol City and wondered aloud where in San Marcos we would like to stop for lunch. Suddenly, the perfect opportunity presented itself: while stopped for traffic at Hwy 183, we noticed a sign which read Lockhart: 30 Miles. Lockhart! Of course!! We had planned to visit this genuine Barbecue Mecca on the morrow; why not try it for lunch today? After a quick stop for gas, we did just that, arriving at the lovely burg within half-an-hours time, determined to eat at one of the Holy Mosques of 'cue.
SMITTYS MARKET BARBECUE
A couple of months ago when first planning this trip, I posted a thread on Chowhound (www.chowhound.com, an absolutely essential site for All Things Food) requesting feedback on the best Lockhart/Luling BBQ places. The clear winner of my informal poll was Smittys, so my wife and I determined that we would lunch there. Set right on 183 at the opposite end of a gravelly parking lot, Smittys is without doubt one of the most atmospheric of joints: A brick-lined pit room with fire-darkened walls attached to a large, utilitarian dining room with long tables. My wife and I duly placed our orders at the pit and paid, the 'cue looked and smelled delicious, and the pittmen were helpful and eager to please. We proceeded to the dining room, where friction unexpectedly began simmering souplike under the surface of my spouse's disposition. You see, the Rock Star, though a very hearty gal (she is a Texas native, like myself), she does have her dainty side, and Smitty's is truly a no-frills place. Translated: Butcher paper plates (no problem there), eating communally at long tables (a practice that helps you make friends quickly), and you had to ask for such amenities as sauce. All very Texan, and to her way of thinking, all good. Then, the detail that killed her serene mood: NO FORKS. SMITTYS DOES NOT, AND WILL NOT, GIVE YOU FORKS FOR YOUR MEAL, EVEN IF YOU ASK! My wife promptly put on a very sour face as if she had swallowed a whole lemon, and refused to cheer up, even though she readily admitted that Smitty's had some of the best sausage she had ever tasted. I must agree. Served in short links with the tail still attached, this sausage was perfectly balanced in taste and texture, pure hawg heaven, with just enough spice to provide a nice finishing kick of delight. For my money, the brisket was almost as good, incredibly moist and tender, but proved too fatty for the Rock Star, who prefers Louis Mueller's brisket just up the road in Taylor Texas. Still, Smitty's is stellar stuff to be sure, and I can say they deserve their hard-won accolades for the most part. (In closing, I feel I must add that perhaps Smitty's could keep a box or two of plastic forks behind the counter in case patrons ask, as I feel it's not an unreasonable request at all. I'm sure other diners don't like getting their hands dirty as well.) URL is www.smittysmarket.com.
Thus sated, we drove the rest of the way to our digs in New Braunfels, a Hampton Inn right on the Interstate. My wife is a member of the Hilton Honors program, and loves the comfortable beds and complimentary breakfasts at Hampton Inn, so we often stop there. After a couple of errands and a few hours of rest, we headed out to dinner to a place recommended by one of our colleagues.
LOS CUCOS MEXICAN RESTAURANT
Sporting almost two dozen stores in Houston and Central Texas, Los Cucos is a warm, convival place, the kind of place where Girl Scouts pitch their tents (so to speak) in the front foyer and sell their famous cookies. Unfortunately, the Rock Star and I had trouble locating the place, and it took us some forty-five minutes to make the ten-minute trip from our hotel. Thus, the stew of our friction soon reached full rolling boil, and greatly diminished our enjoyment of an otherwise excellent meal. For myself, I chose the El Bonito Mixed Plate from their wonderfully expansive menu (if you can't find something to like on Los Cucos menu, then, brother, you just may not like Mexican food atall). Fully half a chicken breast breaded and topped with sauteed poblano peppers and shrimp creamy sauce, served with a beef fajita taco topped with queso and tortilla soup. The soup was delightfully fresh, the fajita meat tender and spiced perfectly by the queso, and best of all, the chicken breast meticulously prepared and executed, the fire of the poblanos cut nicely by the slightly sweet creamy sauce. For me, a very satisfying meal, although in all honesty, the salsas weren't all that great, particularly the very bland salsa verde. My wife was frankly disappointed by her fajitas, finding them quite unexceptional, although it must be noted that she is a true fajita expert, and has rather exacting standards for them. Still despite our waiter's and the kitchen's best efforts, they could not break our mood, and at length we decided to call it a night. Website is www.loscucos.com, and I for one would love to give them another chance someday. For now, we motored quietly back to our hotel, feeling that a night of rest would be the best cure for what ailed us. The next day would be much better. Please read the next installment soon, and remember:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!