TEXAS IS SO flat that a group of subtle swells in the earth is significant enough to merit its own geographical identity. This rural area just south of Austin is called Hill Country, but we think of it as something else. To us, a group of 12 Philadelphians on a mission, it’s the Barbecue Trail: four towns, linked by highways, that some think serve up the best barbecue in the state.
[sidebar]We turn off single-lane U.S. Route 183, through the well-kept but desolate town square of a place called Lockhart, and head toward our next stop, Smitty’s. It’s August, in the low 90s and arid — fairly comfortable by Texas standards. We’re thankful for this, given that Smitty’s will be our third barbecue restaurant of the day, and the ninth of the trip. Like a lot of the spots we’ve been to, Smitty’s looks closed. There’s a well-used screen door, a weathered wood porch, a swinging sign, and no indication of life whatsoever. But we know better. It’s a look we’ve gotten used to.
We tumble out of our two vans and SUV as obvious tourists. The large group — some in Phillies gear, all but one of us with Northeast accents — is headed by restaurant owners and chefs Steve Cook, Michael Solomonov and Erin O’Shea. They’re here to sleuth out the taste of Texas barbecue for Percy Street, a restaurant they’re opening on South Street this month. It’s going to have two big wood-fired smokers, and it’s going to serve some finger-licking ’cue. The rest of us are basically along for the ride.
Inside, Smitty’s isn’t much livelier. The air is thick with smoke, and the room is windowless and dark. The walls used to be white — there’s an old photo of the once-gleaming room near the entrance — but 60 years of smoked meat have stuccoed them with purplish-black ash. The look, in other words, is just right.
Steve, Michael and Erin are pinning Percy Street’s success on serving the right brisket. Erin lived in Houston for 10 years, and she knows what Texas brisket should be. “If the food is good enough, and it’s the only food like it in the area, I’m hoping that will be enough of a draw,” Steve explains. They’re searching for a benchmark, a taste and feeling to aim for when Erin starts recipe-testing in Philly.