All fired up in 'barbecue capital'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOCKHART, Texas - Anywhere else, this would be a little family squabble, an insignificant daddy-always-liked-you-better spat.

But when you're talking Texas and you're talking barbecue, not much is little or insignificant. Particularly here, in the town that has been officially designated the Barbecue Capital of Texas, and where a family feud has split one of the state's most beloved barbecue joints in two.

The beef briskets, the spicy sausages, the ribs and the pork chops are still coming out of the smoky pits here much as they have since the days when old Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt himself was manning the fires at Kreuz Market, a perennial on the "Best of" lists that Texas barbecue fans and the state's media obsessively keep.

But after Schmidt died in 1990, his children got to squabbling and the upshot, at least as far as barbecue eaters are concerned, is that now there are two places claiming to be the rightful heir to Smitty's pit: His daughter holds forth at the old location, now called Smitty's Market, while his son has hauled up the road to open a new location that keeps the old name, Kreuz Market.

For the barbecue faithful who regularly flock to Lockhart, it's one more eating opportunity in a small town that already has a wealth of them. With fewer than 12,000 residents, Lockhart surely has one of the higher barbecue per capita rates: In addition to the Kreuz-Smitty's axis, Lockhart is home to several other famed restaurants, such as Chisolm Trail and Black's, the oldest Texas barbecue place still in the original family's hands.

Black's, though, has been overshadowed a bit of late by the Schmidt family feud.

"It's kind of a shame," says Terry Black, the third generation of his family to run the place. "They had a great thing going."

Most of the restaurants' business comes from outside the city, fans lured as if by the smoke signals from around the state, country and even the world. And everyone has an opinion on which of the local outlets is the best.

"This is the place. The pit's been here a long time, and it's all about the pit," says Will Fisher, waving a piece of brisket toward the glowing post oak embers in the back of Smitty's.

Fisher and his friend James Scott are here on something of a busman's holiday - Scott is a chef, as Fisher was before he switched careers and became a wine buyer for a supermarket chain. (He, by the way, recommends a nice tempranillo - a Spanish grape varietal - to accompany barbecue. )

They come to Smitty's about once a month, making the 30-mile drive down Highway 183 from Austin for a regular fix. They used to come here when it was called Kreuz Market and, after the split, decided to stay here rather than move up the road to the new Kreuz.

But if they agree on Smitty's in the which-is-better debate, they are on opposite sides on the other theological divide in the religion that is Texas barbecue.

"The sauce is boss," Scott declares, dipping his brisket into a puddle of barbecue sauce.

"It's an abomination," Fisher says, eating his straight up. "A ruination of barbecue."

It doesn't get more primal than this: fire and meat. Not only is sauce extraneous for many diners, so too is anything else that gets between the meat and the eater. You order the meat by the pound, it's slapped on a piece of butcher's paper and you head to a table to start gnawing - sans silverware.

There is beer (Shiner Bock, preferably) and soda (a Big Red, of course), and maybe a pickle, a pepper, some white bread or crackers. Anyone looking for the diet-balancing frou-frou of, say, coleslaw or a tossed salad should probably head north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Smitty's, or Kreuz Market as it used to be called, dates back to 1900 and looks every year of it: The walls around the wood pit are pitch black with the soot of the ages. Charles Kreuz, of a German immigrant family like so many of those who settled the central part of the state, opened a grocery store here that year that, as was common at the time, had a barbecue pit out back. With refrigeration so costly, it made sense to cook meat that hadn't sold in the market before it could spoil.

Smitty Schmidt began working there during the Depression, and ended up managing the place and buying it from Kreuz after the end of World War II.

As Schmidt aged, his sons took over the store and barbecue restaurant, buying him out in the early 1980s. When Schmidt died in 1990, though, there was a little surprise in his will: Although his sons, Rick and Don, already owned the business, the building in which it was located was left to his daughter, Nina Sells.

The business went on for several years much as it had, but the siblings began fighting over aspects of it. The squabbling escalated, and several years ago, Sells raised the rent on the building. Rick Schmidt, whose brother has since retired from the barbecue business, tried to buy the property from his sister, but she refused. Instead, he took the business up the road and opened a new place, calling it Kreuz Market.

It's a huge new building, but Schmidt believes his place is the truer link to his father's legendary barbecue. It too has its partisans, longtime fans who followed it on its move from the original location.

"We come here often," says Lupe Rodriguez, a maintenance manager from Austin enjoying some beef shoulder, sausage and pork chops at Kreuz with a friend, Virginia Gonzalez. "I know the other one's the real one, and we've eaten there. But this one's the best - just the way they cook the meat, and the atmosphere. It's just a little tastier here."

"There's really a difference," says Gonzalez, a truck driver who lives in Lockhart.

The difference is one perhaps lost on those who aren't bred-in-the-bone Texan. Both serve slabs of smoky meat and spicy sausages.

Any similarities between Smitty's and Kreuz, Rick Schmidt says, are not coincidental.

"Every time I change suppliers, they change too." he says. "I changed wood suppliers, which I don't often do because I'm real particular, and they changed to them too."

Schmidt, who worked at Kreuz Market since he was a child, said he believes his father was trying to make sure his sister would always have a source of income by leaving her the building. She was always his little girl, Schmidt says, and he felt sorrier for her than for his sons after their mother died when they were youngsters.

The split remains a painful one - brother and sister speak rarely, although they'll wave to one another on the street or when they find themselves at a family gathering, Sells says.

Terry Black, who is also an accountant, watches his rivals with a bit of sadness, remembering what good friends old Smitty and his father were, and how much the business has changed with the generations. He thinks they might be splitting business, noting that his own has done fine despite the attention the feud is getting. (Plus he thinks his sausage recipe, not to mention his entire menu, is better than theirs.)

"It's not the kind of publicity I'd want," he says.

Lockhart remains beloved among barbecue fans despite the simmering fight. Gourmet magazine visited the three restaurants in Lockhart as part of its sweep of the so-called Barbecue Belt of Central Texas, and had kind words for all in its November issue: It called Kreuz's "slabs of pit-cooked prime rib ... among the most carnivorously satisfying foodstuffs on earth;" lauded Smitty's "gorgeous sausage rings and big-flavored brisket;" and salivated over Black's "pork ribs, whose meat pulls from the bone in flavor-dripping strips."

But if Sells and Schmidt were hoping that their fight for bragging rights would be settled by Gourmet, here's how the magazine ruled: "The best barbecue in the heart of Texas, and therefore the best on earth," wrote Jane and Michael Stern, "is Black's Barbecue."

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