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Black's Barbecue: 82 Years of a Texas Smoked Meat Legend

This is Smoked, a column that profiles barbecue restaurants of note

For such a small town — population roughly 13,000 — Lockhart, Texas is home to a mighty impressive lineup of time-honored barbecue restaurants that draws tourists from far and wide. Each one is famous in its own right, but at 82 years old and counting, Black's Barbecue in Lockhart's picturesque downtown is one of the oldest family-owned barbecue restaurants in the state of Texas.

And while Texas barbecue is a topic that inspires near-religious fervor and heated debate from its devotees, many barbecue die-hards can agree on one thing: Central Texas is the pinnacle of all the smoked meat meccas. And Lockhart is the capital. In 1999, the Texas House of Representatives adopted Resolution No. 1024 to make Lockhart the official barbecue capital of Texas and the Senate followed suit in 2003, confirming what many Texans already knew to be true.

A Central Texas Barbecue Legend is Born

Beginning in the 19th century, scores of Germans and Czechs emigrated to Central Texas, bringing along traditional foods like sausage and kolaches (both now Texas roadside staples). Many grocery and meat market businesses were established by these immigrants, and it was from these markets that the institution of Central Texas barbecue was born. As Texas Monthly's Katy Vine explained in 2012, "These pioneers [brought] with them a style of meat-smoking from the old country that involved salt, pepper, meat, and wood. Whatever fresh meat they couldn't sell, they would smoke and sell as 'barbecue.' … As demand grew, the markets evolved into barbecue joints, though the style of service didn't change much. The meat was still sliced in front of the customer in line and served on butcher paper. Sauce generally wasn't offered."

True to form, Black's Barbecue was originally founded as a meat market and grocery during the Depression after a poor farmer and cattle rancher named Edgar Black made a handshake deal with a friend who wanted to open a meat market. As was typical in those days, leftover meat was utilized to fuel a brisk side business of barbecue.

"My grandfather opened in 1932, and at that time my dad, Edgar Jr., was only seven so he was a little too young to be a pit man," third-generation pitmaster Kent Black laughs. "He was going to college at Texas A&M and when Pearl Harbor hit, he left to join the Navy. After he came back and finished his college degree he had a job lined up with Exxon but my grandfather said, Hey son, why don't you help me out at the store for a couple weeks?" Those two weeks turned into six decades, with father and son working side by side at Black's until Edgar Sr. died in 1962, at which point Edgar Jr. and his wife Norma Jean took over.

Fifty years after Black’s was founded, the barbecue part of the business had taken on a life of its own.

Fifty years after Black's was founded, the family got out of the grocery game, but by then the barbecue part of the business had taken on a life of its own. And while the barbecue sauce now flows freely, the smoked meats are still served up on butcher paper just like they were so many years ago.

"I started working here in 1958 when I was six years old," third-generation pitmaster Kent Black recalls. "I was selling snow cones out front before shaved ice was cool. I grew up working in the barbecue business and our grocery business, carrying out groceries, mopping floors. My parents, being the smart people they are, they told my brother and I to study hard in high school, go to college, have a career and if you're crazy enough to come back into the business you can, but not until you've done all that." Kent heeded his parents' advice and got a law degree, serving as a judge and then working as a state prosecutor on child and nursing home abuse cases.

All the while, Edgar Jr. and Norma Jean, were running the barbecue business back in Lockhart. "I'm really not exaggerating, they worked here every day for 65 years," Kent marvels. "I don't know how they did it." After more than six decades in the barbecue business, the couple was in their eighties and ready to retire. In 2008 Kent decided to retire, too, leaving the legal realm behind to make barbecue his full-time job.

Texas Hospitality, Eight Days a Week

For true smoked meat pilgrims, a trip through Lockhart often means hitting the triumvirate of the town's barbecue pillars: Kreuz Market, Smitty's, and Black's, all located within a half-mile of one another. (Of course, the mere four blocks between the latter two can feel like a hike of epic proportions when one's got a stomach full of fatty brisket, white bread, and potato salad.) After a stop at Smitty's, where a dark soot-stained hallway leads to an equally dark pit room with a menacing open fire in the corner, it may take a moment for eyes to adjust to the brightly neon-lit dining room at Black's. Wood paneling as far as the eye can see plays backdrop to a cavalcade of taxidermy, mounted newspaper and magazine clippings and black-and-white photos depicting everything from Lockhart High's 1942 football team to Edgar Sr. shaking hands with Lyndon B. Johnson.

Customers queue up in a narrow corridor that shuffles them through a salad bar where side items like deviled eggs, picnic-style potato salad and pinto beans are served up buffet-style. Seasoned barbecue trippers will save their stomach space for the meat counter, though, where glistening slabs of brisket and burnished sausage links are cut atop fifty-year-old wooden chopping blocks.

Pitmaster Kent Black roams the dining room like a cowboy hat-sporting barbecue ambassador.

Pitmaster Kent Black roams the dining room like a cowboy hat-sporting barbecue ambassador, greeting customers, shaking hands — but also refilling drinks and grabbing to-go boxes. "Y'all need anything else, just let me know," is a frequently heard refrain. Southern hospitality is alive and well at Black's, where every single employee, from Kent himself down to the busboys is as cordial as can be, always stopping to offer a smile, a handshake, an introduction.

To say that Kent is a strong believer in customer service would be an understatement. "When I hire somebody new I'll ask them, who pays your check?" he says. "And they'll always point at me and I'll say, I don't pay your check. I don't print money. Those nice people in the dining room are the ones that pay your check, and don't ever forget that. If you keep them happy, I'm happy and you'll have a job here. You gotta have great food and great service to be successful and I think that's why we've been able to be in a tough business for 82 years. I tell my staff everyday that without these nice folks, we're sitting at home watching Oprah," he chuckles. "Nothing against Oprah, but I don't wanna be doing that all day."

As a third-generation pitmaster, Kent seems passionate about carrying on the traditions established by his father and grandfather. He says he sees it not only as a familial duty, but also as a sort of higher calling: "I really feel a personal responsibility to carry on this style of cooking because it's disappearing from America," he says. "I'm not saying that out of an ego or anything, I believe in God and I feel like I'm here for a reason, and maybe one of my reasons is to preserve this style of cooking for future generations."

"This is the same way we cooked back in the 1930s, and my job is to keep those cooking traditions alive."

"This is the same way we cooked back in the 1930s, and my job is to keep those cooking traditions alive and those techniques that my parents developed. These types of pits are just pretty much extinct at this point. So we have a lot of people come here and call us a barbecue museum," he laughs. "It was a good way to cook in the 30's and we think it's a good way to cook now. I like to say I'm standing on their shoulders trying not to change what they did, but just make sure we stay the same and expand the business with more customers."

Black's may have one foot steeped in eight decades of tradition, but the other is planted firmly in the 21st century. Kent's 28-year-old son Barrett is responsible for many of the company's more newfangled ventures including the website, an impressive social media presence, an expanded line of bottled barbecue and hot sauces, and a ramped-up mail order program. But according to Kent, back in the pit room it's business as usual. "You know, we have a website so we market in modern ways, but we're never gonna change the way we cook," he proclaims. "Never ever."

Black's Pit Is Older Than Its Pitmaster

Many new-school barbecue places rely on freestanding custom-built barbecue smokers, often situated in a backyard or a smokehouse out behind the restaurants. At Black's, the pit room is just that; a small room situated just behind the front serving area where two adjoined steel and red brick pits, constructed in the 1940's by Kent's father, occupy three of the four walls. Two small fireboxes at either end burn bright with a couple small logs of wood.

As Kent explains it, the pit has three basic parts to it: The firebox, the middle part where all the meat goes, and the chimney. Cool air is drawn into the firebox through a screen door to burn the wood. As in a typical fireplace, the wood smoke is drawn up toward the chimney, which extends about 20 feet above the roofline; but first, it travels through the pit, where it slowly cooks the meat and imparts the telltale smoky flavor that defines barbecue. "It's called indirect heat. If there was fire under the meat, then we'd be grilling," Kent admonishes.

The pits can hold about 500 pounds of meat at a time; each of the solid steel doors that must be lifted in order to reveal the meat smoking within weigh about 400 pounds each, relying on massive counterweights that are fastened with steel airplane cable.

A small army of crock pots sit wherever empty space is available. Kent lifts the lid on one to reveal a bubbling cauldron of pinto beans."This is my mama's recipe she developed this back in the fifties and sixties," Kent says. "So we've literally sold millions of beans over the years. Almost all our sides are something she came up with or something she helped us develop."

Post Oak: Fuel for the Barbecue Fire

Back behind the restaurant, a sprawling parking lot holds a veritable forest of post oak — the preferred wood of Black's and most of its other famed Central Texas brethren — that will eventually become fuel for the pit fires. Dozens of cords of wood in various stages of curing are stacked waist-high; as the wood dries out, it becomes denser and darker in color. When cooking meat low and slow, sufficiently aged wood is essential; freshly cut wood burns at a considerably lower temperature and can impart undesirable flavors to meat.

"We age our wood for up to a year before we burn it. We don't think freshly cut wood puts off as good a flavor. I don't know all the chemistry on it, I just know it makes for better barbecue," Kent shrugs. "I like to say there's 25 million people in Texas, and there's 25 million barbecue experts. They all do it differently but nobody's really wrong."

Considering the massive quantities of meat that Black's is pushing out every single week, they work their way through wood relatively slowly: Thanks to the remarkable efficiency of their pit that uses only a couple small logs at a time, Black's burns through only about half a cord a week.

The Black's Trifecta: Brisket, Beef Ribs, and Sausage

A typical method of cooking brisket might involve 14 to 18 hours of uninterrupted pit time, but at Black's the meat goes through a more unusual multi-step process: Meat is partially cooked for approximately eight hours in a wood-fired rotisserie, then moved to the the cooler to chill down and rest for a day or two. The chilled meat then spends an additional four hours or so smoking in the massive brick pit before it's ready to hit the chopping block. Black's way of doing brisket might be wholly unorthodox, but clearly it's working for them: Deeply smoky with ideally rendered fat and a thick black bark, Black's consistently wins praise for its brisket.

At Black’s, brisket goes through a more unusual multi-step process.

"We just found that the brisket is such a big cut of meat that if you rush it, it's not as good than as if you let it rest for a little bit," Kent professes. "If you cool something after you've cooked it, all the juices go back into the meat. Seasoning needs time to do its thing. When you season brisket you're not just putting something on it for topical flavor. That seasoning also tenderizes the meat, so if you try to rush a piece of meat and sell it quickly, the seasoning doesn't have time to do its thing."

"These will cook 12, 14, maybe 15 hours but the way we tell when it's done is by touch," he explains, leaning over the intensely hot pit and gently prodding a burnished bronze slab of meat with his index finger. "You can start to tell when it's getting there by the look; the blacker they get, the more likely they are to be done. Of course, the trick is to get the whole brisket done without burning it."

Kent, who says he splits his time about half and half between the dining room and the pit room, explains that it takes him about a year to train new pit men. "We spend a lot of time with our staff teaching them our methods of cooking because if that's not right, well then nothing's right with our barbecue place," he asserts.

He demonstrates using a thermometer to check doneness on the briskets. He doesn't even glance at the temperature readout, instead just piercing the meat in several places with the metal probe. When it slides in and out with no resistance all over — think checking potatoes for doneness — it's ready to come off.

When it comes to Texas barbecue, brisket may be the king of meats, but in the hands of a skilled pitmaster, beef ribs are a dark horse threatening to overthrow the old guard. Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn explains the major difference between the two cuts thusly: "Unlike a brisket where there's a distinct fatty side and a lean side, the fat and collagen in a beef short rib runs evenly throughout the meat, producing that juicy, silken, slightly gelatinous texture." When it's spent just the right amount of time on the pit, a Black's beef rib is a carnivore's dream: a slab of rosy pink meat striated with glistening fat and edged with blackened bark, it clings to a nine-inch rib bone that could double as a weapon in a pinch.

"From what I can tell, I'm one of the first people in the whole state to start selling these about six years ago. They've taken on kind of a life of their own and now all the other barbecue joints copied me and started selling them," Kent says with more than a little hint of bravado. He says it took him nearly an entire year to find the right cut of meat that would become Black's signature beef ribs, but most barbecue aficionados trace the provenance of the beef rib back to 65-year-old Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Louie Mueller was serving a scrawny cut known as beef back ribs way back in 1946; in 1994, they began serving the much larger and meatier chuck short ribs, and finally in 2010 they switched to the even bigger plate short ribs that places like Black's, Franklin Barbecue in Austin, and Pecan Lodge in Dallas prefer. (The difference is nominal but significant; the chuck short ribs come from a cow's second through fifth ribs, while the plate cut is ribs six through eight.)

Beef ribs at Black's can range anywhere from a little under a pound to nearly two pounds. At $12.98 per pound that means patrons can snag one for as little as ten bucks, a veritable bargain considering the recent Texas droughts that have sent beef prices soaring to record highs.

"If you’re gonna have good barbecue of whatever kind, you gotta get a good cut of meat."

"If you're gonna have good barbecue of whatever kind, you gotta get a good cut of meat," Kent implores. "You can go to the grocery store and get some beef ribs for 99 cents a pound and cook 'em and guess what, they're gonna taste like 99 cents a pound. We're not magicians, we can't turn a junky piece of meat into a great cut. You just can't do it. It's a great cut because it comes from the belly of the cow and it's real close to where the ribeye steak comes from."

Black's makes four to five thousand rings of sausage a week, produced in hundred pound batches. Unlike many new-school pitmasters that will readily rattle off specific ingredients and temperatures to anyone curious enough to inquire, Kent Black plays his cards a little closer to the chest. While he's willing to disclose that Black's sources their meats from a few different purveyors including major distributors U.S. Foods and Sysco, when asked to pin down the specific ratio of meat to fat, he's purposely vague. (Of course, after eight decades of sweat and toil, it's not exactly surprising that the Blacks aren't chomping at the bit to reveal their recipes.) Made with somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 to 90 percent brisket trimmings and 10 to 15 percent pork, Black's sausage is a slightly leaner and beefier product than what you'll find up the block at either Smitty's or Kreuz Market.

Kent says the original sausage recipe hasn't changed a bit since it was perfected some eight decades ago. When Black's was first established as a meat market, the butcher would utilize whatever scrap meat was leftover to make sausage. "Some days it was really good, some days not so good," says Kent. "When my dad came back from college and took over the business, he came up with a great recipe and he convinced everybody to make it the same way every day."

Natural casings are stuffed by hand, and the end of each sausage is tied by hand with a cotton string, "so it really is made the way everybody made sausage back at the turn of the 20th century," Kent says. In addition to the original version, Black's also serves a spicy jalapeno-cheese variety as well as one that's spiked with fresh minced garlic. A fourth selection rotates quarterly or so; most recently, it was a Shiner Bock version, moistened with the ever-popular dark beer that's manufactured just an hour away in Shiner, Texas.

Family Secrets: The Rub and The Sauce

Kent's lips are similarly sealed when it comes to the rub, offering a polite but firm "no" when asked to share the recipe. "We've developed it over a long amount of time," he claims. "It's not real fancy, but my dad always had a saying because people would ask him, 'Mr. Black, what makes your barbecue so good? What do you put on it?' And he'd usually say, 'Sir, it's not what we put on it that makes it so good, it's what we don't put on it.' It sounds counterintuitive, but it's really true. Some people get too crazy with different spices and it goes back to if you have a good cut of meat, it's gonna have great flavor and you don't want to mask that flavor. You want to enhance it with everything you do."

According to the ingredients listing on the rub that's sold through Black's mail order program — which Kent says is the same one they use at the restaurant — it's a simple combination of salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and cayenne, in keeping with the Central Texas tradition of simple salt and pepper rubs.

In Black's early years, barbecue sauce wasn't on the menu. "Back in the fifties and sixties when a lot of people from up North started moving to Texas, they came in here and asked for barbecue sauce," Kent says. "So my dad told my mom, Norma Jean, you're a great cook, why don't you come up with a barbecue sauce we can offer on the side so they'll quit asking us for sauce?" After a year of experimenting on Kent and his brother, Norma Jean came up with the tangy, tomato-based sauce that's still served today at Black's.

"The sauce never touches our meat, we still cook with a dry rub only," says Kent. "We don't feel like our meat needs any sauce, but you're not gonna offend us if you want to use some on the side to get a little different flavor."

While Kent asserts that the sauce for the restaurant is still made according to his mother's original recipe — "otherwise my mom would be upset, and we gotta keep Norma Jean happy," he says — barbecue purists will likely balk at the bottled version that's for sale. Along with the expected ingredients (mustard, ketchup, spices) it also contains some things you wouldn't expect to find in the kitchen of a supposed old-school barbecue restaurant, including small amounts of red 40 coloring, high fructose corn syrup, xanthan gum, and hickory smoke flavor. Such are the perils of modifying recipes in order to make them shelf-stable, suitable for shipping, and storing at room-temperature. These days, mail order makes up a significant portion of the business: Somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, Kent estimates.

The Blacks even appeared on QVC and sold a staggering 1,000 briskets in just eight minutes.

Black's Delivers Barbecue From Coast to Coast

Back behind the pit room is a large brick-walled space that's known as the shipping room. While many old-school barbecue restaurants have zero web presence to speak of, Kent's son Barrett maintains frequently updated Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. There's also a website with an e-commerce division where folks all over the country can buy t-shirts, barbecue sauce, dry rub, and even sausage and brisket.

"I like to say I'm the pitmaster and Barrett is our virtual pitmaster," Kent says. "He does all of our social media, which is so important these days, and handles all of our shipping, which is pretty much a full-time job. It's a real big part of our business. I never dreamed we'd be shipping meats through the mail, especially to Alaska or Hawaii."

The mail-order business is burgeoning, but shipping their meats is hardly something new for Black's; they've been doing it for nearly 60 years. As Kent explains, "It used to be the only way you could ship something was by Greyhound bus. We would ship 30 boxes and only 20 would get there. We found out people had seen the label on the box and were taking them off the bus. So then we had to start shipping in unmarked boxes so people wouldn't steal it." These days, the shipping process is considerably more high-tech; orders are accepted 24 hours a day through the website, and can be managed via one of four computer terminals in the shipping room. To prepare them for mailing, briskets are first cut down to size (they can be ordered in two- or four-pound increments), then vacuum-sealed and frozen before being packaged in special styrofoam containers with dry ice. The Blacks even dipped their toes into the home shopping racket a few years back, when they appeared on QVC and sold a staggering 1,000 briskets in just eight minutes.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Black's also makes plenty of barbecue deliveries to Naval ships. "We get real excited when we see something going to the military guys," says Kent. "We'll always throw in some shirts and hats for them." Black's counts plenty of celebrities amongst their brisket-loving clientele, too; Martha Stewart and news anchor Diane Sawyer are two customers of note. "When I got invited to cook in New York by Texas Monthly, we got to serve lunch for her and her crew, and we got invited to the newsroom," Kent recalls fondly. "She wouldn't let me sit in that chair where she does the news, but I got to touch it," he chuckles. "She's a nice lady."

Black vs. Black: The Family "Feud"

Thirty miles north up in Austin, two fourth-generation Black's descendants have just opened up their own venture, and not without a considerable amount of controversy. Twin brothers Mike and Mark Black are Kent's nephews, who first began training at Black's under their grandfather, Edgar Jr.; after years of working behind the scenes, the duo decided to strike out on their own and open a barbecue place. They intended to use the family name and call it Black's Barbecue, but quickly found themselves on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist letter from Kent's corporate lawyer. They decided to name the restaurant after their father instead, calling it Terry Black's Barbecue. Eater Austin reported on the rift last December: "Mark and Mike Black don't intend to use the Lockhart restaurant's recipes; they left in part because they did not agree with the direction the kitchen was taking. In their opinion, Kent Black's cooking techniques have violated Black's Barbecue's 'old school' traditions. Mike learned pit-smoking from his grandfather, Edgar Black, Jr. He feels that under Kent's leadership, Black's has moved away from using the open pit concept and now uses rotisserie cookers as a major part of their cooking process. In addition, Mark Black tells Eater that he believes that the sides, once all made from scratch, now 'primarily come from a bag or a box.'"

In response to his nephews' accusations that Black's is straying from its original recipes and taking shortcuts, Kent just shakes his head. "That's not true, and I don't know why they'd say that. As you can see back there, we've been doing things the same way for 82 years. My parents worked 65 years for this brand and this reputation, and we really don't want anything to damage that brand. Especially something like their business which we don't have any control over."

Nonetheless, Kent insists that he wishes his nephews the best in their venture. "I wish them the best, I really do, and it's a free country, everybody can go do whatever they wanna do. I hope they're very successful," he says earnestly.

What the Future Holds for Black's

Terry Black's Barbecue won't be the only Black family venture in Austin, however. After 82 years of doing business exclusively in the small town of Lockhart, Black's is suddenly sprouting wings. Over the next few months, the barbecue legend will stretch its brand in a major way, opening new locations in Austin and San Marcos (approximately 30 minutes west of Lockhart) and even launching a food truck to cater to festivals and big events.

The San Marcos location will be a separate entity with a different name. As Kent explains it, his parents own the Black's Barbecue name, and he's chosen to dub his new place Kent Black's Barbecue to differentiate it from the original octogenarian in Lockhart. "I'm carrying on similar traditions but it's the next generation branching out," he explains.

Besides the same traditional Central Texas-style barbecue, there will also be a focus on live music as well as a full bar stocked with beers both local and imported, liquor and even cocktails.

"In San Marcos, we've had identical pits built for us," Kent explains. "Same type of pit, same dimensions, same wood, same recipes. Obviously it won't be as old. Everybody likes an old pit, but you can cook with a similar flavor profile real quickly as long as you do all those other things right. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The Austin location, on the other hand, will be a direct descendant of the Lockhart mothership, proudly bearing the original Black's Barbecue name. When asked by Eater Austin why they'd decided to take the plunge with an Austin location, Kent responded, "Customers have been asking us for many years to come to Austin. The Austin market has matured enough now that they're ready for some serious barbecue."

While it's certainly true that several years ago Austin's barbecue scene was less than impressive, these days Black's will be coming up against some mighty stiff competition, including of course Austin barbecue phenomenon Franklin Barbecue, which attracts three hour queues of customers on a daily basis for its wildly acclaimed brisket. Furthermore, Black's Austin branch won't be cooking its meats on site. Instead, they'll be trucking barbecue up from Lockhart, a 40-minute drive to the new outpost located at 31st and Guadalupe, just a couple blocks north of the University of Texas campus.

"We're going to be cooking it fresh in Lockhart and taking it hot off the pits to Austin, so our guests can still experience the Lockhart original even if they don't have time to make the drive. It's going to have a lot of the same look and feel and smell, just like the original," Kent claims.

It remains to be seen how Black's Austin expansion and subsequent food truck will fare amongst the city's already-crowded lineup of stellar barbecue offerings, but one thing's for certain: So long as the original Black's Barbecue keeps its doors open and its pit running "eight days a week," folks will keep on showing up in droves. Will the Lockhart barbecue brand live to see another 82 years? "I don't know, I hope we're still doing this in some form or fashion," Kent says. "Not to brag, but a lot of people would be disappointed if we weren't. It's a part of our family. Some families, everybody's a doctor or a lawyer or a carpenter. We do barbecue."