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Barbecue Joints I Have Known

by John Raven, Ph.B.

Here in Texas, a place where you buy barbecue is a Barbecue Joint, not to be confused with a Beer Joint, where you buy beer. If both Texas treats are served, the item that produces the most income determines the joint prefix. If the establishment has a jukebox and a dance floor, it becomes a Honky-Tonk.

The first barbecue joint I remember is the one operated by Grandma and Grandpa Veselka on South Main Street in my hometown of Taylor, Texas. When times were good in the early Fifties and we had an extra couple of dollars, Daddy would take one of our cooking pots and go to the Veseakas joint and get barbecue for our Sunday dinner. As best I remember, there was no brisket. The beef of choice was chuck roast, slow smoked to a turn on the brick pit. Daddy would bring home a sample platter.

Chuck roast, smoked sausage, known as hot guts and, for himself, a portion of mutton or goat, if it was on the menu. The chuck was slow smoked until the outside fat turned crispy; this was the most delicious part. The hot guts were wrinkled, and full of grease and red pepper. The Veselkas sauce was mostly Worcestershire, but to die for. A day with barbecue at our house was a day to remember.

When I got to be a teenager and started to run around with the gang, we patronized the Taylor Café, also on South Main Street. For a quarter you could get a hot gut, a handful of crackers and some onion and pickle. There was a little screened-in hut out back where you could sit and consume the goodness. If you had an extra nickel, you got an RC cola to wash it all down with. I know of no one who was there who does not have fine memories of the Taylor Café. Its still in operation under the same management after all these years.

When I moved to Temple, Texas in the early Sixties, the place to get barbecue and hot guts was Clem Mikeska's joint by the hog pens in downtown Temple. Yes, they kept hogs in downtown Temple at that time, for what reason I don't know. Clem had good brisket and hot guts. We always got take-out. The barbecue and hot guts, along with some of Mama's whipped potatoes, was as good as it got. Clem later moved to his present location on the corner of 57th Street and Avenue M in Temple. The quality of Clem's barbecue declined when he moved, probably due to the introduction of gas-fired smokers in place of the traditional wood-fired units. Hot guts don't care how you smoke them, and Clem's potato salad became a favorite of mine, so he still got a lot of my business.

There was a café on West Adams Avenue in Temple. The name escapes me. They had really good barbecue on the menu and the hottest salad peppers I've ever met. Benner and I used to go there for barbecue and cold beer frequently.

A fellow named Al put in a joint on Ave M at 25th Street in Temple. Al had barbecue and hot guts that were okay -- not special -- but would satisfy a craving for barbecue.

Along about the early Sixties, I started learning how to make my own barbecue. There was not enough money to experiment and to eat bought barbecue both, so I had to eat my experiments. Some were not really that good. I joined forces with a couple of cousins to perfect our barbecuing technique. The ritual was to put on the barbecue early Sunday morning and then consume it while watching the Dallas Cowboys in the glory days. We got pretty darn good at barbecuing.

I went through an economic downturn and didn't get to patronize many barbecue joints for a long time. What barbecue I got came from my smoker or the judging tables at the Taylor International Barbecue Cook-Off.

In the past few years, things have gotten better with the personal economy. I've started checking out barbecue joints that have a good reputation or just look interesting. Right now, my favorite in back in the old hometown. Louie Muller's Barbecue in Taylor cant be beat. Bobby Muller, son of the founder Louie Muller, still operates the place. Bobby's son, John, has opened up in Austin. It's hard to say what makes the Muller barbecue better than most. It might be the hint of cayenne on the meats. The meat is served on butcher paper. The side dishes come in little individual bowls. On each table there is a bottle of vinegar and chili powder mix that is a whole lot better than it sounds. I've never seen that anywhere else except at the first mentioned Grandma and Grandpa Veselka's joint.

West Texas Barbecue Joints

Cooper's Barbecue up in Llano puts on a mighty fine feed, too. You select your meat from the big, wood-fired pit outside the building. (Try the pork chops. Just one will feed a family of four.) You take your selection in, and the inside people will slice it for you, and you can select your side dishes and drinks. The beans, bread, onions and pickles come with the order, but you dish up what you want. Seating is at big picnic tables. At noon, any day, the place will be jammed, so go early for a good seat.

Here in Johnson City, Uncle Kunkle's on Highway 281 is my choice. The brisket and sausage is great, and I hear the ribs are very good, too. Best thing is your meal is served on a real plate. You don't have to eat off the table through a hole in a piece of butcher paper. You really have to look for Uncle Kunkle's. Its on the west side of the highway.

A new joint opened in the Grape Creek Mall just West of Stonewall. It serves like Cooper's in that you pick your meat off the smoker, but the smokers are inside. The place is unusual for a barbecue joint in that it is spotlessly clean. No smoke stains on the walls. Maybe that will come with time, but it's refreshing now. You still have to eat off the butcher paper, but there is a roll of paper towels on each table to mop up the mess and your chin. In the cool months, try to get a seat near the giant fireplace. It's really comforting.

We're out of space and I still have a dozen or more joints to tell you about. Stay tuned and I'll get around to them when I can.

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