LOCKHART, TEXAS — Just past the wooden tables with the knives chained to the wall, it hits you square in the senses. The aroma of wood smoke and grilled beef. The blazing heat from two indoor barbecue pits. The sudden aching desire for an ice-cold bottle of Big Red soda.
This is Kreuz Market, a veritable shrine for Texas carnivores.
This summer, Kreuz (pronounced "krites") was rated one of the top three barbecue joints in the state by Texas Monthly magazine. And it wasn't talking ambience.
At Kreuz, you won't find chilled salad bars, blaring honky-tonk music, or cutesy signs that read "Our cows were out standing in their field." You won't even find silverware. Visitors use plastic knives. Regulars bring their own pocketknives.
Such simplicity has kept Texans loyal since 1900, when the one time butcher's shop started smoking leftover meat at the end of the day and selling it out the back door. And for almost a century, the menu has remained basically the same: beef brisket, prime rib, pork loin, hand-tied smoked sausages, and precious little else.
"You're not going to have any two-alarm stuff smeared all over it, it's just meat" says Bob Elder, a lifetime Austin resident who drives 40 minutes to get to Kreuz. "I'm talking real barbecue. If you wanted to run a Gray Line tour full of tourists, you'd go to the Salt Lick [a popular Austin restaurant with its own catalog], but if you want to feed your roofer, you go to Kreuz."
In this state, where barbecue secrets are handed down from father to son, that's high praise indeed. But for the owners of Kreuz, success has a simple, if secret, recipe.
"We don't use barbecue sauce, we don't have knives and forks, and we don't give out recipes," says Leeman Schmidt, the friendly, carrot-topped general manager of Kreuz. But when pressed, he reveals some of the ingredients. "We just use a dry rub of salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper, cook it fast over high heat, and let the smoke flavor the meat."
A place like Kreuz has its own culture and its own rules. Ask for a fork, and you'll get one of those looks they reserve for strangers.
"You eat with the fork God gave you - your hand," says Leeman's brother, Keith.
But don't think this no-frills, hands-on attitude scares away the chi-chi crowd.
Every day except Sunday, you'll find long lines of out-of-towners in suits and workers in bib overalls, sometimes waiting an hour to place an order in Kreuz's blazing hot kitchen.
Fairly typical are three lawyers who have just driven 45 minutes from San Antonio to do a power lunch. With each step, they draw closer to the indoor barbecue pit. Their eyes focus on Roy Perez, a kitchen worker with impressive sideburns, who slices meat with a foot-long knife and sells it by the pound.
"I'm gonna have prime rib and a Big Red," says one, referring to Texas's supersweet national soda.
"I'm going for the sausage and root beer," drawls another.
The third mops his brow with a shirt-sleeve and laughs, "I think I'm gonna die."
For the uninitiated, the heat of the barbecue pits can be fierce, but the science is fascinating. At one end, close to the feet of customers, there's a glowing fire of post oak wood.
At the other end, a large metal flue draws the smoky heat sideways through the red-brick pit and out the tall brick chimney. On the grill tops in between, the meat is smoked, not grilled, for as long as five hours. This is not your father's charcoal grill.
"Some people spend a lot of time, working to find the perfect sauce, and they cook their brisket for 12 to 24 hours," says Keith Schmidt. "Our brisket cooks for four hours and we don't try to mess it up with sauce." He pauses. "I kind of like the taste of the meat itself."
He's not alone. A slab of Kreuz prime rib would make John Wayne proud. The smoky flavor of post oak penetrates deep into even the thickest of prime ribs, which are always cooked medium rare. And the meat is so tender that even a plastic knife can do the job (although no self-respecting Texan would use one).
Step inside the dining hall, and you'll gasp at the glory of central air conditioning.
At a counter, you can buy condiments, such as jalapeo peppers, slices of raw onion, whole tomatoes or avocados, and of course, bottles of cold soda. Then you join the hungry masses at the long cafeteria-style tables.
At one table, two ranchers are talking shop.
"Mimi, she's a different kind of horse," says one in a Stetson, sprinkling a salt-pepper-cayenne mixture on a hunk of pork loin.
His companion nods. "Well, I'm sure she has her redeeming qualities."
Nearby, a middle-aged couple are treating their teenaged grandsons to a feast of sausage, pork loin, and slices of cheddar cheese. The boys have just spent the morning clearing poison ivy vines from the trees in their grandmother's pecan orchard.
"That was hard work," says one of the boys, reaching for the Louisiana hot sauce. "But this makes it worth it."
When you consider how much business Kreuz does on a given Saturday - 600 pounds of shoulder meat, 12 whole briskets, and seven barrels of sausage - it's astounding that Kreuz does very little advertising.
"We have two billboards on family property, and Dad keeps threatening to tear them down," says Leeman. "He says, 'That's too much.' "
Keith agrees: "[Last week] we were on the CBS 'Morning Show'. Every time that sort of thing happens, the next week business increases 30 percent. We're doing better than we should."