Turning down Main Street in Lexington, Texas — population 1,177 — a tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it sign announces the town's one and only tourist attraction: Snow's BBQ, open Saturdays only.
Eater's senior critic Robert Sietsema vividly described the town in a 2013 review for First We Feast, saying, "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."
It may no longer be rated number one in Texas (that honor, of course, now belongs to Austin's hysteria-inducing Franklin Barbecue), but Snow's still has legions of fans who eagerly make the early-morning Saturday pilgrimage to get a taste of its transcendent smoked meats. The place is a solid hour's drive east from the state capital of Austin, much of which involves traversing a winding, narrow two-lane farm road with a 65 mile per hour speed limit.
Snow's is open just a handful of hours each week, beginning at 8a.m. on Saturday and closing when the meat's sold out. (Returning visitors know they'd best arrive by 9a.m. to avoid missing out on any of the meats.) Chowing down on a tray full of smoked meats, beans, and cole slaw for breakfast may seem odd to some, but Saturday morning barbecue is a long-standing tradition here in Lexington. The town hosts livestock auctions every Saturday afternoon, and for just about as long as anyone can remember, the meal of choice beforehand has been barbecue.
Snow's pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz has been cooking barbecue for nearly 50 of her 79 years on Earth. Standing just slightly over five feet tall with cropped silver hair and kind eyes that squint when she smiles, she wears a black apron with her name embroidered on the front; Norma Frances may be the name she was given at birth, but everyone knows her simply as "Miss Tootsie."
Tomanetz's barbecue career began in 1966 at City Meat Market, located in the neighboring town of Giddings — Tootsie's husband was working there at the time. "The market was short-handed and they had no one helping the gentleman at the pit, so they asked me if I would come in and help," she recalls. "I said, 'Well, I don't know nothin' about barbecue, but I'll do my best at it.' And I guess I made a pretty good hand because they kept me on 10 years."
In 1976, the Tomanetzes purchased their own meat market in Lexington, in a building located just a stone's throw from Snow's (it's since been turned into a Mexican restaurant). They butchered and sold meat during the week, and on the weekends they turned trimmings into sausage and smoked briskets for barbecue. Even after her husband suffered a stroke in 1996 and they sold the store, she stayed on to cook Saturday barbecue for the new owners, just as she had done for decades prior.
It was that same year that fellow Lexington native Kerry Bexley began getting in Tootsie's ear about coming to cook for him. Now in his mid-forties, at one time he worked as a rodeo clown; these days, he has a day job at a local coal-fired power plant and dabbles in real estate, rental properties, and livestock on the side. Bexley ate his fair share of Tootsie's cooking growing up and says he never imagined opening up a barbecue place with anyone but her manning the pit. "People in Lexington are not easy to please," he acknowledges. "You're never gonna have a perfect product every week, and if I served one bad one they wouldn't come back." He knew that with Tootsie's knowledge and reputation, he'd have a leg up.
But wasn't until several years later that Tootsie left the meat market to join Bexley's new venture. Bexley already owned the nearby patch of land he'd long thought would make a great location for a barbecue place. Though he now acknowledges it's a bit off the beaten path, proximity to the highway wasn't given much consideration at the time, since he never thought much beyond feeding the locals. Bexley constructed the restaurant's first pits to Tootsie's specifications, and in 2003, the duo opened for business under the name Snow's BBQ. Bexley explains the origins of the name with an anecdote he's no doubt told a thousand times: "When my mother was pregnant, an older gentleman here in town asked my brother, 'Do you want a little brother or a little sister?' He said, 'I want a little snowman.' So when I hit the deck, that's what I was called. Snowman."
The Turning Point
From the time it opened, Snow's did a steady stream of business in Lexington, cooking a couple hundred pounds of meat a week and selling out by noon most days. But it was a 2008 article in Texas Monthly that thrust Tootsie and the Snowman from relative obscurity into the barbecue limelight. Every five years the magazine goes on a tireless quest to rank the state's 50 best barbecue places; completely unaware of Snow's existence until receiving a reader tip, it took just a few weekend treks to Lexington for a team of writers to concur that Snow's barbecue merited a coveted five out of five rating. The thousand-word article began with the proclamation, "The best barbecue in Texas is currently being served at Snow's BBQ."
"The experience was otherworldly. The brisket was astonishingly tender, but it was actually topped by the pork steak. This was the best barbecue we had ever had. And the chicken, flavored with a mop sauce, was fall-apart delicious." — Texas Monthly's S. C. Gwynne, 2008
"When they told us we were number one, we just sat there and cried in each other's arms," Bexley remembers. "To me it was crazy and exciting, but for her it was amazing to get recognized for something she'd done all her life, and done well."
The story was published in mid-May, and the following weekend "is when all hell broke loose," Bexley says. "Before [the article], we'd go through a couple hundred pounds a week, and suddenly we were going through 1,200. They told us we were gonna get a rush, but we didn't have a clue," Bexley admits. "There were times in that first year that we'd sell out before 10 o'clock, no doubt. I had some mobile pits brought in here for a while to try and keep up with the quantity, but we wanted the product to be consistent and Tootsie was very conscious of that. She didn't give a shit if we cooked the same amount or twice as much, but we were damn sure gonna keep the same quality."
Shortly after the Texas Monthly-induced mania struck, Tootsie's son Herschel, now 49, joined to help out, an addition that Bexley says has been helpful in more ways than one. "They never communicated too much, and it's brought them closer together. Plus she can't fire him, so he's been a lifesaver for me," he chuckles. "Not too many [people] can work with Tootsie. I had my father-in-law in here once; that lasted about half a day. He was too damn slow for her and he talked too much." But even after the recognition, Snow's team "never really gave opening more days a second thought," Bexley says. "Everyone's got another job," Tootsie adds. For her, that's working weekdays doing maintenance for the public school system in Giddings, about 16 miles away from where she resides with her husband. The Tomanetzes also own 100 acres in Lexington where they raise cattle to sell at the local livestock auction.
"She didn’t give a shit... we were damn sure gonna keep the same quality."
Despite the growing pains that Texas Monthly's proclamation inevitably brought, Tootsie maintains her pit duties aren't much more difficult since the early days of Snow's; she's simply working with a greater volume of product. Her newfound barbecue celebrity status took some getting used to, though. "She didn't necessarily handle all the media well in the beginning," Bexley remembers. "Some days she was sweet, some days she was rough. She's just a hard worker, she never did it for the attention, you know? She's a people person, she always has been. But if she's got somethin' to do, don't mess with her."
A Visit to Snow's
A small wood and corrugated metal building, painted a rusty shade of dark red, houses Snow's serving line and dining room — though on a foggy, still-dark winter morning at 7a.m., it's all quiet on that front. Beyond that structure is a galvanized metal roof that provides shelter for the barbecue pits and a humble outdoor kitchen. The roof also covers a half dozen wooden picnic tables that will soon provide seating for Snow's hungry travelers.
One of Snow's favorite customers has been sleeping in his car in the parking lot since 11:30 the previous night. Looking not unlike an off-season Santa Claus with a snowy white beard and hair tucked under a green John Deere cap, for several years now he's been making a pit stop to Snow's twice a year, on his way back and forth between summers in Canada and winters in Mexico. "Mornin' stranger!" Tootsie greets him. "We were looking for you last week. We thought we might've missed ya."
The migrating regular says he heard about the place from the famous humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin, who wrote about Snow's in the New Yorker shortly after the Texas Monthly story came out. Realizing the place was only 10 miles off his regular travel route, he stopped in to sample the barbecue and has been coming back like clockwork ever since. "It was everything Trillin said it was and then some," he affirms.
"Reading that the best barbecue in Texas was at Snow's, in Lexington, I felt like a People subscriber who had picked up the 'Sexiest Man Alive' issue and discovered that the sexiest man alive was Sheldon Ludnick, an insurance adjuster from Terre Haute, Indiana, with Clooney as the runner-up." — Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, 2008
The way Bexley tells it, on an average Saturday, Snow's will serve customers representing at least 10 different states. The restaurant gets plenty of intrepid barbecue seekers from overseas, too: "We've had people in from France, Italy, Australia, Hong Kong, you name it. We never would've dreamed that people would travel so far to get here," Bexley says, shaking his head. "If you'd have told us that barbecue was this big of a deal, we both would've argued that you were crazy. We live in the sticks and we stay in the sticks. We just had no idea."
By 8:15 a.m. diners have begun to trickle in, as eclectic a bunch as one could imagine spotting in Lexington. A group of twentysomething white guys in University of Texas hats trickle in behind a very Austin-looking couple sporting flannel and facial piercings. They're followed by a tall African-American gentleman with waist-length dreads and a few minutes later, a trio of young Asian men in Texas A&M t-shirts and track pants file in. "You can always tell the first timers because they get out [of their car] with a camera," Tootsie declares. "The second and third time people come back they'll say, 'Remember me?'"
The humble outdoor area that serves as a combination open-air smoke shack and mail-order room is home to numerous pits that were installed at different times; the largest, devoted exclusively to brisket, is a black steel behemoth with three levels of cooking racks and an offset firebox. Snow's utilizes two different styles of cooking for its 'cue: indirect heat for the brisket, in traditional Central Texas style, and direct heat for everything else — namely, pork ribs, sausage, half chickens, turkey breast, and pork shoulder that's sliced into thick steaks.
Around the holidays, when Snow's mail-order business is especially booming, Bexley might cook all day Friday, in which case the fires will stay running through Saturday. Normally, though, Herschel will come in and get the fire going around 9:30 or 10 at night, depending on the size of that week's briskets. Tootsie makes the 16-mile drive over from Giddings and arrives at 2a.m., a weekly anomaly in her schedule that she says she really doesn't mind. "Over the years when my husband and I had our meat market I always got up at two o'clock, so it's just drilled into me I guess," she says.
"It’s hard work... Hell, a lot of men don’t even want to put up with it."
At Snow's they burn post oak, as nearly all barbecue places in Central Texas do. Bexley says they go through about half a cord a week. "Maybe a little less, just depends," he grins. "Our record keeping's not real good." Wood is continually added to the main offset pit that holds briskets; as it burns down, Tootsie periodically scoops up shovelfuls of the glowing orange coals and deposits them in the bottom of each direct-heat pit, where the ribs, chicken, sausage, and pork steaks cook.
Asked why she thinks there aren't more female pitmasters, Tootsie thinks for a second and then says matter-of-factly: "It's hard work. In the wintertime, it's cold out here. In the summertime, it's very hot. Hell, a lot of men don't even want to put up with it."
Snow's briskets will spend 10 to 12 hours on the pit at around 250 degrees. After the first six hours, they're wrapped in foil and left on the pit to continue their ascent toward perfection. Brisket is the crown jewel of Texas barbecue, and the version served here is quite different from that found at other acclaimed Central Texas barbecue spots like Louie Mueller or Franklin Barbecue. In the article that would propel Snow's to stardom, Texas Monthly restaurant critic Pat Sharpe wrote about tasting her first bite of Tootsie's brisket: "Good God almighty! Even six hours off the pit, it was perfect. Smoke permeated every morsel; the texture was pure velvet."
"We want our briskets to have a golden brown crust. Not that leathery black stuff."
In place of a blackened, peppery bark like you'll find at other prized brisket producers, a razor-thin layer of burnished mahogany crust clings delicately to the perfectly rendered, jiggling fat cap edging the moist and tender meat. "Some people like a real dark bark on it, a hard bark. If you want something so hard you can't chew it, then just pick up a piece of wood and eat it," Tootsie says with a small smile. "We're out for the flavor, the quality, the appearance of it, and so we want our briskets to have a golden brown crust. Not that leathery black stuff."
The brisket may be largely credited with making her a barbecue celebrity, but Tootsie will tell you the specialty of the house is actually the thick-cut pork steaks. The "steaks" hail from the shoulder of the pig, the same cut that's typically used to prepare pulled pork. They're cooked on the direct-heat pit for about six hours; the resulting specimens wouldn't look out of place at a fancy steakhouse. Cut into thick slices for serving, the pleasantly salty, caramelized crust gives way to tender meat shot through with generous ribbons of melted pork fat. The result will make you forget pulled pork even exists.
And while casual barbecue aficionados have a tendency to think ribs falling off the bone is a desirable quality, that's really a sign of overcooking. The meat on Snow's ribs clings firmly to the bone, a golden brown, pleasantly salty crust giving way to meat pink from smoke. Sausages procured from a local meat market are coarse-ground, mostly beef with a little pork mixed in; they cook at a much hotter temperature, around 375 or 400 degrees, and are ready to come off the pit in as little as 20 minutes. Ribs and chicken are treated in a simple mop sauce made by boiling onions in water until translucent and then adding margarine, dry mustard, and Worcestershire to the mix; besides that, the dry rub used on all the meats is as simple as it comes — just salt and pepper. "Probably a little bit more salt than pepper," Tootsie says, though she'll be the first to tell you she never measures anything.
Well-versed by now in each pit's hot and cool spots, Tootsie arranges the meats so they'll reach doneness at different times, ensuring a steady stream of fresh barbecue for each wave of customers. Proteins are held on a cooler part of the pit as they wait to be piled into a high-sided aluminum tub and taken inside, where they're sliced and served.
The Dining Room
By 10a.m., a line of customers waits patiently on Snow's porch, shuffling through the front door a couple at a time and making their way down the serving line. A dry-erase board overhead lays out the day's offerings. As patrons debate the merits of turkey breast versus chicken and wonder out loud whether a half-pound of brisket will be enough, the persistent whirring of an electric knife cuts through the buzz of conversation. Such a tool seems an odd contrast to the rustic setting at Snow's, but Bexley insists that due to "the way we cook it," that's the way it has to be done to ensure clean slices —otherwise it just falls apart. "[Texas Monthly barbecue editor] Daniel Vaughn hates it," he laughs.
Slices of white bread come with every plate, for sandwich building or for sopping any meat juices left behind on the butcher paper-lined serving trays. The sides are about what you'd expect from Central Texas barbecue, though decidedly homemade tasting. Cabbage and carrot slaw is dressed with a light, sweet vinaigrette, while potato salad coats sizeable chunks of firm spuds in a mayo-based dressing punctuated with bits of red bell pepper. Both are made by a local German woman named Mrs. Patschke who's "96 or maybe 97 years old," according to Tootsie. "She was in a car accident a couple years ago, and her seat belt bruised up her chest pretty bad, but that didn't stop her."
In the dining room, plastic bottles of barbecue sauce abound for those who want it, but many folks seem to ignore it altogether. Tootsie never really assigned much importance to sauce: When she and her husband owned the meat market, they'd buy it by the gallon from Dallas. "No particular kind, it was just called barbecue sauce," she shrugs. "It was thick, so we would dilute it by adding a little bit more water to it, and to make it richer I would add margarine, just a cheap margarine. When we got ready to start shipping, that margarine would separate out and rise to the top, so that's when Bexley got to working with a company that would make it as close as they could and bottle it for us."
Nowadays, 90 to 95 percent of Snow’s business comes from out-of-towners making a barbecue pilgrimage.
The bottled sauce, tangy and a little sweet — along with a newer spicy version offering a quick hit of chile burn — can now be purchased inside the dining room for five bucks, and the label's caricature of Tootsie and Bexley might be worth that alone for a take-home souvenir. Certainly none of the meat served here needs it; as Bexley puts it, "We don't push it, but it's available."
Snow's brisket is priced at $12.95 a pound, nearly 40 percent less than what you'll pay at many popular barbecue destinations in Austin and Dallas. If Bexley had his way, they'd sell it for even less, but thanks to the skyrocketing price of beef, the restaurant has had to adjust accordingly. When Snow's first opened back in 2008, Tootsie estimates they were paying $1.59 a pound for brisket; now, Bexley says he pays more than $4. Regardless of the cost of beef, high menu prices won't fly in Lexington: "When you're serving locals here you've got to be as cheap as you possibly can to get any business," Bexley remarks. Still, he estimates Snow's customer base at this point is 90 to 95 percent out-of-towners.
Next year will mark five decades in the barbecue business for Tootsie, and while most people would probably consider that a milestone deserving of retirement, she has no intentions of staying anything less than busy. "I enjoy my work here and at the school. I hope I don't have to retire anytime soon," she says, noting that the only real reason she'd quit working is if it interfered with taking care of her husband. "We can manage without her, and it might even be a little easier. She's harder to deal with than my wife," Bexley says affectionately. "But it definitely won't be as interesting."
Asked to define what it is that differentiates Snow's from the rest of the pack, Bexley insists, "There's no secrets." Indeed, there are no top-secret rubs or proprietary cooking methods at play here; Snow's success can more likely be attributed to the decades of experience Miss Tootsie has under her belt, and maybe to the fact that visitors who make the trek to the tiny town of Lexington often feel like they've discovered one of the best-kept secrets in Texas. "It's not just selling barbecue and taking money, it's the whole deal," Bexley acknowledges. "[Tootsie's] gender, her age, our small town, the way our little building looks. All of it's what makes it interesting. But we do have a great product."
Despite having once been heralded as the woman responsible for the very best barbecue in Texas — and therefore, as any true Texan would argue, the best barbecue in the world — Tootsie brushes off any suggestion that she might be a master of her craft. "When I worked at the meat market in Giddings and then when my husband and I opened up our place, it was either do or die," she explains. "I just had to take over and go with it. So I never really considered mastering it. It still surprises me sometimes. I do wish my parents could have lived to see this, though."