Photos and text by Robert Sietsema (@robertsietsema)
We like to think of Texas barbecue as a collection of ancient pits—some over a century old—where the meat is long-smoked in picturesque enclosures whose cunning sluicing of the smoke through multiple twisted passageways seems a tribute to 19th-century engineering. But there are many modern BBQs that do their meat in pits that look like giant Webers covered with gauges, where the smoke-ringed product stands up just as well. So says the recent barbecue issue of Texas Monthly, under newly appointed barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, who rubs those brand-new places in your faces, mofos!
Indeed, of the top four seeded establishments in the 50 Best BBQ Joints rankings, two are located, not in rural areas as is often the case with great barbecues, but in the frenetic metropolises of Austin and Dallas (Franklin Barbecue and Pecan Lodge, respectively). Both are fewer than five years old: So much for soot and antiquity. Even one of the seeming old-timers on his sainted list, Snow’s BBQ, originated in 2000. Vaughn delights in shaking things up.
But the Texas Monthly list has long been that way. In fact, it shocked BBQ aficionados five years ago when it published the last top-50 list, and rated Snow’s in tiny Lexington, Texas as number one. Not that it didn’t deserve it, but nobody I knew had been or even heard of it. Nick Schonberger and Liz Barclay chronicled the excellence of Franklin’s in Austin on this website, one of the the magazine’s current top four barbecues in the state. So I decided to one-up them by making a pilgrimage to Snow’s.
Snow’s serves only on Saturdays, beginning at 8 in the morning and staying open until the ‘cue runs out around noon.
Located in East Texas on the edge of the piney woods, in an agricultural area that’s sparsely populated and arrived at by narrow state roads that tack back and forth across the drought-stricken fields, Lexington boasts a population of about 1,200. Most are ensconced on a handful of shady streets in small frame houses with front porches and in double-wide trailers with the sort of lived-in look that might cause you to mistake them for frame houses. There are some rusting grain elevators, and a handful of small stores that include a Dollar General, a funeral home, a skydiving center, a cattle auction, a hardware store, three restaurants of little note, and one that serves what was once celebrated as the best barbecue in Texas.
Snow’s occupies a small red shack on Main Street made of wood and corrugated tin, with a ramp leading up to it and an American flag flapping in front. It serves only on Saturdays, beginning at 8 in the morning and staying open until the ‘cue runs out around noon. Precisely at 8, barbecue sojourners, many from Austin, Houston, and other places bigger than Lexington, begin to line up expectantly, some chatting with strangers who happen to be in the same line, others texting their triumph to friends just crawling out of bed. The line moves slowly. The flies buzz. The sun beats down and the temperature rises. At a certain point a girls’ softball team from the local high school sets up a table and begins to sell two-dollar lottery tickets to help send them to the state finals. The prize? $50 of barbecue at Snow’s.
Next page: The moment of truth…
The procedure for acquiring barbecue involves waiting your turn in line, then entering the shack (a sign warns you to close the door), then filing past a short steam table whereon the smoked vittles are displayed: brisket, pork ribs, chicken, locally made sausage, and—the place’s one novelty—something called pork steak, which turns out to be sliced shoulder. You get bread and dill pickles and canned jalapeños with it, and there’s a free reservoir of pinto beans on the sideboard.
You can eat the ‘cue among the handful of tables inside the shack, but you can also take it out back to a shaded area next to the meat-holding pits and the actual smoker itself. Though it gets in your eyes, the drifting smoke tends to keep the flies away.
Another advantage of eating out back is that you get to watch the pitmaster, 78-year-old Tootsie Tomanetz, who flies between holding pits like a person half her age, gray bun on the back of her head wagging, poking out briskets and racks of ribs that are then transferred to the tubs in the shack by owner Kerry Bexley. Read the Texas Monthly interview with Tomanetz.
The brisket was spectacular—crumbly without falling apart, and as smoky as a smoke jumper’s helmet.
Some friends and I sat with a tray of barbecue, smoke blowing around us, in the back yard at a picnic table. The brisket was spectacular, with a thick red smoke ring, crumbly without falling apart, still slightly fibrous, and as smoky as a smoke jumper’s helmet. The sausage, a large grease-glistening ring, was flecked with black pepper, firm in its natural casing and mild-tasting compared to the brisket. The ribs were nicely done, a little smaller than some we’d had lately, but worth licking clean. The pork steak was fine, too, but a bit rubbery that day (though a Dallas friend proclaimed it one of the best things there). Didn’t bother with the chicken, and forgot to even taste the sauce.
Would I go there again? You bet! There’s no more picturesque spot for barbecue (though many in the state equal it), and it’s only an hour’s drive from Austin. (Though once you step out of the car in Lexington, you feel like you might have traveled half a day to reach the spot, and the earliness of the hour doesn’t help.) Does the carnival atmosphere detract from the experience? No, and remember it only happens one day a week, giving Snow’s a rarity edge.
On the other hand, one of the dirty secrets of barbecue is how much it varies from day to day at a given pit, due to all sorts of factors: fattiness of the meat, how long it’s been held since smoking, humidity, mood of the pitmaster, idiosyncrasies of the wood and amount used, and where on the cut your ‘cue is carved from and how long it’s been sitting out. And that’s among other extraneous factors—including your own willingness to be delighted at any particular time. Which undermines the Texas Monthly list somewhat. But doesn’t make it any less fun.
Can’s wait for Vaughn to throw down the gauntlet again in five years, but I’m betting he’ll do so sooner.