Saturday, September 20, 2014

On The Side: 2014 TMBBQ Fest

On Sunday, Texas Monthly held their 5th annual TMBBQ Fest.  There were 25 top BBQ Joints in attendance from all over this great state.  It was truly a Who’s Who of Pitmasters.

VIP Ticketholders gain admission an hour early to the festival.  This is called the “Golden Hour,” a time in which you are blessed with shorter lines, more talkative pitmasters and plenty of room to move around.  The VIP Ticket is worth the price just for this early entry.  The advised strategy for the Golden Hour is to maximize your stops by hitting as many places as you can without waiting in line.  This battle plan is definitely effective.  I prioritized the list of vendors in attendance and allowed plenty of wiggle room in my day (conversely my pants did not have much wiggle room at the end of the day).

A view of the lower level of TMBBQ Fest 2014
A view of the lower level, featuring 8 of the joints.  The area filled up once General Admission was allowed in.
I had previously visited 23 of the 25 joints in attendance so this event was like a meat mixtape.  I was familiar with the other two, The Granary and Buzzie’s, but had not had the chance to visit their locations.  I prioritized them high on my list and was excited to try them. 

At the bottom of my prioritized list was Snow’s.  Snow’s is one of my favorites but I am basically a regular there, I know exactly what to expect and honestly, I will probably be eating there again within the next few weeks.  I also expected them to have one of the longest lines at the festival and I was spot on.

The longest line of the festival was no surprise: Franklin BBQ.  It was evident that a lot of thought went into positioning the vendors to maximize space and traffic flow.  Wisely, Franklin was positioned to allow a lengthy queue to form without blocking entry to any other festival booths.  A line formed immediately at Franklin and lengthened through the day.  Impressively, Aaron was still reportedly cutting meat when the festival ended at 4PM.

Aaron Franklin cutting meat at TMBBQ Fest
Aaron Franklin was still cutting past closing time
John Lewis of La BBQ at TMBBQ Fest
John Lewis of LA BBQ stayed busy throughout the day
The booths that drew the longest of lines were (in descending order): Franklin, Snow’s, LA BBQ, Black’s and Louie Mueller.  I was surprised that Pecan Lodge and Killen’s did not have consistently longer lines.

We succeeded in hitting 22 joints in the first hour.  We managed to get to Louie Mueller early, before the line exploded, and skipped all of the other lengthy waits before finally circling back around to Franklin to cap off our day just before the first hour expired.  The wait for Franklin was about 20 minutes, but that was much shorter than it would be once General Admission was allowed in.  And even the General Admission wait was a better deal than you’d get on any given day at Franklin BBQ. 

Two Bros and Lambert's at TMBBQ Fest
The festival was laid out well, allowing lines to form without blocking other vendors
 Though we strategically missed 3 of my favorites in Snow’s, LA BBQ and Black’s, I counted it as a successful day.  Honestly, we could have invested the last 3 hours and definitely finished the list off, but by that time we were miserably full of meat.  If it was a struggle to eat Franklin’s brisket, nothing else stood a chance.

At most stops, you were given the standard Texas Trinity with a healthy cut of brisket, a selection of sausage and a pork rib.  There were stops that piled up the brisket with cuts from both the point and the flat and those that offered entire sausage links. 

Miller's Smokehouse at TMBBQ Fest
Miller's Smokehouse had some of the finest brisket of the day
Hutchins BBQ at TMBBQ Fest
A trio of quality meats offered by Hutchins BBQ 

Franklin BBQ at TMBBQ Fest
Franklin BBQ's spread included brisket, pulled pork and turkey
There was also a variety of other featured meats at certain stops, including pulled pork, turkey, and beef ribs.  Some of the more unique items being distributed were Smoked Pork Belly from The Granary and “Lamb Lollipops” from Louie Mueller.

Louie Mueller's offerings at 2014 TMBBQ Fest
Louie Mueller had Lamb Lollipops alongside their other meats.
Meats and Corn Pudding from Stiles Switch
Stiles Switch brought along some of their fantastic corn pudding
I say all of that to convey the point that there was A LOT OF MEAT.  I made the mistake early of trying to eat everything that was handed to me at each of the stations we visited.  You are not going to be able to keep up that pace and visit many spots.  After learning that lesson, I began splitting food at each stop with my fellow adventurers.  By the end of the day, I was still miserably stuffed but I made it to all of the spots I had wanted to visit.

Tyler's BBQ at TMBBQ Fest
The entire state was represented as joints like Tyler's and Pody's travelled from afar
 The most genius thing I observed (and filed away for future reference) were people that had trays ranging from large Tupperware lids to pizza boxes.  They collected each meat, labelled the joint it came from and had space for notes on the container.  After a wave of stops, they could return to a table to enjoy their spoils and discuss the selection of meats.

Overall, the joints met expectations with very few surprises.  The only wildcards were the two joints I had not had the pleasure of visiting “in the wild.”  Both Buzzie’s and The Granary were well respected and had lofty enough quality to be invited to this meat hall of fame, so there was no doubt they would be good.

Buzzie’s was intentionally my first stop of the day.  They offered the standard fare of brisket, sausage and ribs.  Unfortunately the brisket was underdone and was shockingly the only joint I encountered that served their meat smothered in sauce.  This is not a fair venue to rate their meat so Buzzie’s remains at the top of my “To Do” List.

Buzzie's BBQ at TMBBQ Fest
Buzzie's offered two types of sausage along with ribs and brisket.

Admittedly, this festival is not the ideal setting for what The Granary offers.  It’s notable that The Granary brought one of the more unique dishes as they served Smoked Pork Belly with Jicama Slaw.  I’ve had better pork belly at Killen’s, but I have admired The Granary’s menu for a while and look forward to my visit to their location in San Antonio. 

The Granary's booth at TMBBQ Fest
The Granary only offered Cue, no Brew.
There was an immeasurable amount of BBQ knowledge in attendance but the real purpose of the festival is to chow down on the smoked handiwork of these artists.  It is as much of a cultural experience as it is a celebration of gastronomy.

Overall TMBBQ Fest is a great time and should certainly be a Bucket List type of experience for Texans.  For other enthusiasts, it is an annual pilgrimage.


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*All Grades Are Based Solely on the Quality of Texas BBQ Offered at the Joint. We Aren't Looking for Burgers or Catfish!

My Grading Scale:

A = This is some of the finest BBQ you'll find anywhere. It is worth a roadtrip in itself along with any required wait.
B = This is very good BBQ, even if it is over an hour away, consider making the drive.
C = This is just average BBQ but it's worth a stop in a pinch.
D = This is a poor example of Texas BBQ. Even if it's the only place around, skip it. Apologize to any non-Texans that have eaten here.
F = This is not only a bad Texas BBQ, it is probably not suitable for human consumption.

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