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My friend and smoke master Jim Shahin had been planning this taste-off since last fall when he smuggled four briskets back from Texas following a business trip. Not just any briskets, either, but slabs from four of the five top-performing smokehouses in Texas Monthly‘s most recent survey. (Registration required.)
His cache of meats included deckle cuts from Louie Mueller in Taylor, Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, and the surprise winner of the magazine’s ranking, Snow’s in Lexington, which then got the Trillin treatment a few months later in the New Yorker. For those who don’t dab liquid smoke behind their ears before going on dates, the deckle (or point) is the fattier section of the brisket, the stuff usually tossed in the trash (or chili) here in the fat-fearing East.
Jim had been storing these briskets until he could gather the Shitheads — and a few non-Shitheads, including Texas native Joe Yonan, perhaps better known as the food editor at the Post — for a taste-off. That day turned out to be Saturday.
If you want to know how obsessive Jim was about the contest, consider this: He had no intention of putting these previously smoked briskets on his own smoker. That would ruin each Texas pitmaster’s finely tuned approach to his slabs. No, instead, Jim planned to reheat them in the oven for an hour, at 250 degrees, so that the flavors would remain essentially the same from each brisket’s tour in a Texas smokehouse.
Well, that was the plan anyway. Until Jim’s oven broke.
Plan B: Jim wrapped those four briskets in heavy-duty aluminum foil and put them on his smoker, hoping and trusting (praying?) that the silver wrap would keep his own wood smoke off those precious briskets. He strategically placed each wrapped brisket on the grates of his Brinkmann and rotated them during the reheating to make sure none received more smoke than the other.
The problem with the approach, as Jim explained with Shiner Bock in his hand (or was it a homemade margarita?), is that the wrapped briskets will steam in on themselves, softening what could otherwise be a firm and textured bark. Which is why he unwrapped the briskets for the final 15 minutes: to tighten that bark back up.
Which, of course, exposed them to Jim’s wood smoke. It was an imperfect solution to an unfortunate problem, made more acceptable with each passing margarita. We were feeling good, even if Jim wasn’t.
Jim recused himself as judge so he could administer this blind tasting to the judges’ table, one plate of sliced brisket at a time. My first bite and I knew this was going to be a difficult, if not impossible, assignment.
I hadn’t tasted brisket this good since the last time Jim smuggled Texas meat back to D.C. I felt like a starving mongrel given a platter of random scraps: It was all A+ stuff!
But soon my (and the table’s) professional demeanor took over and we got serious about judging these slabs. One was too dry and reminded us of roast beef without jus. Another was smoky and moist, but the bark was off. The third was coated with pepper (I knew this Mueller brisket in my sleep!), which some judges couldn’t taste, and the final slab tasted, believe it or not, of rich, smoky olive oil.
Jim tallied our scores and announced our own surprise winner: Smitty’s! That was the smoky olive oil brisket.
Here were the final ratings: 1) Smitty’s 4.5, 2) Snow’s 3.6, 3) Mueller’s 3.59, and 4) Kreuz’s 3.4 (or 3.5; it’s a figure lost to smoke and alcohol).
Jim almost felt betrayed by his gathered troops. I’ll let him explain why:
Yes, I was surprised. I ate at all the places I got the briskets from on the day that I bought the briskets. (I should add that I have eaten at Mueller’s and Kreuz’s scores of times each, probably at least 100 times each; at Smitty’s about 20 times, it having opened relatively late in the bbq game; and Snow’s twice.)
Here is why I was surprised: The day I was at Smitty’s, the brisket I had was downright bad. It had an odd flavor, a kind of sweetness, almost as if it had been glazed. When I bought the deckel cut to take home, I naturally assumed it would taste the same as the one I had. But it didn’t. Somehow, it tasted more like an actual smoked brisket. No odd flavor. I can’t explain it.
Setting that very weird experience aside, I also didn’t agree with the results because, to me, Smitty’s had a relatively uninteresting overall character. I think there is something of a terroir aspect to smoked Texas brisket. That isn’t to say that it tastes of the earth in which the cows were raised. It is to say that there is a characteristic flavor and sense, embedded somewhere deep inside, an essence, that when you eat it, it says central Texas smoked brisket. Kreuz’s has that quality, brawny, if you will, a little chewy, never falling apart like roast beef, and yet moist. Even though I have taken my shots at Kreuz’s over the years, I kinda felt that it wasn’t getting a fair shake or maybe that, because it was by far the most physically large brisket, maybe it didn’t get the same warmth through and through that the others did. I also felt a little bad for Mueller’s. Yes, I have a sentimental attachment to it, what with Jessica [Jim’s wife] being from Taylor and all. But it isn’t that. It’s that I was stunned that some folks couldn’t taste the black pepperiness. It is its very pepperiness that helps propel you to like or dislike it.
Some folks, like me, are drawn to the pepper. Others can’t stand it. But to not taste it is, to me, to not taste the brisket itself. You mentioned that you felt the last brisket, Smitty’s, had a sort of olive oilness to it. I thought that was good description of a certain flavor characteristic of some very good briskets. I thought that Mueller’s had that flavor characteristic, too, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it had come last if the palates would have been groomed to recognize that flavor. (Kreuz’s lacks that characteristic, but I don’t think it matters – that quality, which is spectacular, one to which I myself am drawn when I make my own briskets, is not, I don’t think, in and of itself a requirement in great briskets; in other words, a brisket can be great – as I think Kreuz’s is – for reasons all its own.
As for Snow’s, I have had it twice at its place in Lexington and loved it both times, but this time I thought it was over-cooked (strands of meat fell like thin sticks) and bland. It was the only one of the four that was purchased frozen – which Snow’s does for mailing – and I couldn’t help if that made a difference. But it received by far the highest group grade. So, there ya go.
In the end, we were talking about the best of the best. Me, I’d be happy to eat any one of ’em anytime – which is good, since I had some for lunch Sunday, dinner Sunday, and plan to have some for lunch today.
The bad news here is that you can’t exactly replicate this taste-testing yourself, not without smuggling briskets on your own. Of the four Texas smokehouses, only Kreuz Market and Snow’s does shipping.
The wrapped briskets, with some spare ribs to boot.
The unwrapped briskets getting a little bark tightening
The judges’ table, with butcher paper “plates,” just like in Central Texas
Jim announces the scores, trying to conceal his disgust.
Once the judging was over it was really time to eat, courtesy of the best pit man in D.C., Jim Shahin.