I really like to hit a barbecue right off peak hours...this is what separates the men from the boys in the smoked meat world.Any boss can roll good meat during the rush but off peak takes the careful hand of a seasoned veteran.
Elroy,Texas is just south of Austin in a large swath of land near Austin Bergstrom Airport.It is in the heart of unincorporated Travis county in a neighborhood that brings Steinbeck to mind:Rusted hulks of cars scatter the bare winter fields,Roosters strut around occasionally walking right up to the blacktop of Hwy 812 as cars whizz by.Goats scamper about feeding from the grass in the muddy ditchlines.
It's a nice scene.
The Elroy Sausage Company has the look down.The outside of the building is veering toward ramshackle...it shares its' structure with a small quick mart, a Mexican fruit stand is off to one side and half off in the dirt.The whole affair looks promising.
Walking in the front door feels good.The floors are ancient,checked tile,the walls have all sorts of Terlingua Cook-off posters on them and the smell of smoked meat is in the air.In retrospect this would've been a good time to stroll right on back out and hit a quick detour to Alexander's Barbecue in nearby Cedar Creek.I get a little queasy right off the bat when I enquire about the price of a pound of brisket.
Instead of rolling over the counter and drygulching the guy over such usurious behavior I calmly nod,go through some inner relaxation tricks the children at the reservation always recommend in those great Billy Jack movies and continue to peruse the menu.I don't see a smoker so I ask about this peculiarity and am informed the meat is smoked off premise on a nearby farm.The off premise problem is nearly solved by the fact the meat is smoked on a farm...nearly.
I begin to converse with the counter man who forms half the team that opened the joint in April of 2007.John Brunson has been on the competitive barbecue circuit in Texas for awhile now and like a lot of itenerant barbecue cooks he figured it would be a good idea to open his own shop.I nod along at his sagacity and ask him about his sauce.My jaw becomes flecked with foam and drops to my chest as he admits he buys the sauce.
BUYS THE SAUCE.
Instead of storming out and rounding up a posse of old-school hard-ass barbecue fanatics and tearing the joint to the ground,I place my order.I ask for a pound of outside slice brisket with plenty good fat and he frowns."We trim the briskets",he admits.I couldn't have been more incredulous if he'd broken into a can can dance sporting a couple smoked half chickens as earrings.I'm damn near broke down at this point but manage to moan for a half pound of smoked Ham[common in the Deep South but something you just never see out around here]and finish off the order with a couple links of Pork/Beef Sausage.
The food comes out in a couple of minutes and is a dismal affair.I had a bad feeling when I asked him where all the trophies from the Brisket competition circuit were.He kind of vaguely gestured south and said down there.
The worst of the lot is the "ham".It's the pressed and formed ham-loaf served in elementary school cafeterias all over the USA.It's bad and made worse by the meat cutter who's decided to cut off a half pound chunk and kind of leave it at that.The Brisket is dry as dust,has been cooked,refrigerated and then brought to temp per order.So many things are wrong with this equation I get a little emotional.Which beats me doing what I want to which is recreate the scene in Hooper where Burt Reynolds and Terry Bradshaw DESTROY a restaurant over some minor quibble.The Sausage is the star of this dog and pony show and by that I mean it's good.Merely good sends it to the top of this culinary mess.
Over riding my better judgement I squeeze a droplet of the sauce on my finger and lick it off.It's corn syrup with some red food coloring in it.It's disgusting.My running mate,who makes melt in your mouth,fatty brisket in his backyard quiets me down like he's riding a mean horse"Easy....easy"he breathes."let's not do that".We package up a big batch of leftovers for a quick stop by the homeless center on 7th St back in Austin and split.
On the ride back I make lots of mental notes on all the Carts and roadside cook shanties along 812 and 183.I curse quietly as we pass the shuttered Taqueria Diego[which was getting a thorough scrub down for the sale].I've made a lot of bad runs over the years seeking out deliciousness in the scrublands outside many an American city but this one ranks right up there.
The sky is starting to streak yellow and red as we motor back in to Austin proper.Ol Hank is on the stereo and the conversation is flowing right and good.The memory of the bad barbecue starts to fade as I plot my next food run deep into unincorporated Travis County....something tells me there's some good eating afoot out in these parts and I'm excited by the prospect.