SXSW: Barbecue and natural beauty off the beaten path
South by Southwest can be a terrific experience in many ways, but it has the effect of dropping a curtain between out-of-towners and the real Texas, which is a pretty mind-boggling place. If you can tear yourself away from the official showcases, panel discussion, day parties and show-biz schmoozing and drive out beyond Austin’s city limits, you will find a landscape and cuisine like nothing east of the Mississippi.
So I took Monday and Tuesday afternoons off from the conference to explore the Texas wilds. My Ellicott City friend Greg Timm and I are on a year-by-year quest to find all the great barbeque joints and all the best day hikes in Central Texas. On Monday we revisited two old favorites: Salt Lick Barbecue in Driftwood and Hamilton Pool in Dripping Springs. The first is an old ranch tucked away on a rural two-lane blacktop. The ranch’s old bunkhouse, a low-slung stone building, was converted into a dining area and then expanded as it grew more popular. Set amid redbud and live oak trees, the place has tons of atmosphere, and even though it keeps expanding to cope with growing crowds, the brisket was still tender and smoky.
Hamilton Pool is an ancient limestone cliff that got scoured out by the flooding Pedernales River, creating a long, curving wall with an equally long, curving overhang. Spring-fed water spills off the lip of that overhang, creating a shimmering veil of water dotting out an extended arc in the circular green pool below. Moss and stalactites hang from the lip as well. The trail descends from the cliff-top parking lot to the cedar-studded creek, goes upstream to the pool and then curls around behind the waterfall.
On Tuesday we went in search of the Luling Central Market, an hour south of Austin, one of the few places in the Barbercue Top Ten that we hadn’t yet visited. We drove down through the already-green meadows and cottonwoods that define East Texas, resisted the siren call of Lockhart’s Kreuz’s, our all-time favorite barbecue place, and found the depressed town of Luling. The Central Market, though, was everything it was cracked up to be: melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket and pork ribs that literally fell off the bone.
You walk past the tables when you first enter and go into a smaller, wood-paneled room where a huge oven glows orange with burning mesquite logs. On a huge wooden chopping block are various meats and as you call out your order a giant cleaver slices away brisket, ribs and sausage, which are then tossed onto butcher paper with some saltines, dill pickles and raw onion. You then fold up your paper and carry your meat to a table without dishes or utensils. It’s as primitive as eating steamed crabs and just as satisfying.
German immigrants settled much of Texas, and there’s no Texas town more German than New Braunfels on the Comal River. And there’s no shop more German than Naegelin’s Bakery, located on the town square, across from the stone-block courthouse and fountain. The specialty is a flaky cinnamon twist in the shape of a giant pretzel.
The interstate highway I-35, which runs through Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio, divides East Texas from West. When we crossed it at New Braunfels, the effect was pretty dramatic. The flat meadows disappear; the landscape begins to roll, and the rocky semi-desert is studded with juniper and live oak trees. We drove to Boerne, a half hour north of San Antonio, and visited Guadaloupe River State Park. This is another abandoned ranch, where the trail leads to the limestone cliffs along the Guadeloupe River, which slides broad, shallow and turquoise green between the walls of gray stone.
After that, revivified, we were ready to once again face the hordes at South by Southwest.