“In Central Texas, Barbecue is more than a way to cook meat –
it’s a way of life, a path to salvation, and
a sure-fire way to start an argument at the dinner table.”
~Central Texas Barbecue
Texans hold certain truths to be self-evident: everything is bigger (and better) in Texas, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team (who can argue with that), George Strait is the king of country music, Nolan Ryan was the greatest baseball pitcher who ever lived and the best barbecue in the universe is pit-smoked along the Central Texas Barbecue Belt. Although Texas may be “like a whole other country,” the rolling plains of Central Texas are like a whole other world when it comes to barbecue.
That’s not to say pit masters at Texas’s three other barbecue regions–East Texas, South Texas and West Texas–don’t prepare great barbecue or that they don’t regard barbecue as practically a religion. In fact, pit masters from each Texas barbecue region will defend the honor and bragging rights of their respective regions with the same vigor shown in 1836 by a small group of volunteer soldiers at The Alamo.
While conceding that there is great barbecue to be found throughout the Lone Star state, purists and aficionados almost unanimously agree that the state’s best barbecue is to be found in Central Texas with Austin as the region’s epicenter and pockets of barbecue excellence nonpareil found in such small towns as Lexington, Lockhart, Driftwood and Taylor. Historically, it makes sense. The Central Texas region was settled in the 19th century by German, Polish and Czech immigrants carrying forward their old country traditions for making sausage and smoking meats.
Central Texas barbecue has a number of distinguishing hallmarks. First and foremost, beef is king. That means moist, smoky brisket. Secondly, barbecue means spice and seasoning rubs (heavy on salt and pepper), not sauces. Some of the best bastions of barbecue serve their meats naked–no sauce. Others will give you sauce on the side if you request it. If you’ve got to have it, sauce is typically tomato-based complemented by vinegar and Worcestershire. Thirdly, barbecue means low and slow cooking over Texas post oak wood or pecan woods, both of which impart mild smokiness. For best results, the wood is “cured” for nine to twelve months which creates very little soot when it burns.
June, 2014, saw the launch in Albuquerque of a new barbecue joint brandishing the name “Marley’s Central Texas Barbecue.” Located on the northeast corner of Montgomery and San Pedro (at the former home of the beloved Tickles & Snooks Wings & Things), Marley’s has a pedigree which promises authenticity. It starts with pit master Gene Woodson who cut his barbecue teeth in the Texas Hill Country. Woodson lovingly tends to the smoker, slowly smoking meats anywhere from 15 to 18 hours over post oak obtained from an Austin area source.
Restaurant employees sport shirts emblazoned with the slogan “we smoke the good stuff.” For the most part, the “good stuff” comes from the Lone Star state. The restaurant’s Black Angus beef is sourced from trusted Texas suppliers and sausage comes from Elgin, the self-proclaimed “Sausage Capital of Texas.” Even pecans for the restaurant’s signature dessert, pecan pie, come from another central Texas city, San Saba which purports to be the “Pecan Capital of the World.”
Texans treat their flag with such reverence, respect and esteem that it’s not uncommon to see the state flag used to accent a home’s decor and furnishings. The flag of the great state of Texas has a place of prominence in the dining room. Other Texas accents include looped lassos and cowboy accoutrements on the walls as well as other stereotypical trappings. One of my favorite Texas accents is Big Red soda which, not coincidentally, is bottled in Austin. I believe it’s a Texas state law that Big Red should be served with barbecue.
The menu is relatively small. Meats–sliced brisket, chopped brisket, Elgin sausage (regular or “hot”), pork spare ribs and pulled pork–are available by the half-pound. Sandwiches and plates are also available. Sides include pinto beans with fresh herbs and New Mexico green chiles, coleslaw and bacon potato salad. Your best bet is a combination plate, your choice of any two meats served with two sides. Plates include sweet Vidalia onions, pickles and slices of white bread (often considered a veggie in barbecue circles).
3 August 2014: The sliced brisket is moist and tender with a faint smokiness, a very pronounced smoke ring and a good amount of marbling around the edges (off-putting to some, absolutely necessary for others). It doesn’t have the thick, peppery crust characteristic of some legendary Central Texas barbecue establishments, but for taste, tenderness and appearance, it’s a very good brisket. Procured from the world-famous Southside Market in Elgin, Texas, both the regular and “hot” Elgin sausage live up to their reputation. They’re succulent, smoky and delicious with a natural casing that’s easy to bite through, but not cut with the plastic utensils provided.
28 August 2014: There’s yet another way to enjoy brisket at Marley’s and that’s in the form of a chopped brisket sandwich. When the menu reads “chopped” it’s not “chopped” as in the Carolina style “hack” job done to pork. In this case, the brisket is cut into very small cubes. If anything, the brisket seems even more tender prepared in this fashion and a caramelization not as apparent on sliced brisket is readily discernible with the chopped brisket. This sandwich is served with onions and pickles.
28 August 2014: The newest (as of August 28th) way in which Marley’s showcases its brisket is in tacos. An order of brisket tacos yields three beauteous tacos made on housemade corn tortillas. The tacos are engorged with chopped brisket and a pico de gallo. The corn tortillas are quite good and are formidable enough to hold up against the moistness and volume of the brisket and pico. The brisket is moist, tender and smoky. Alas, the pico de gallo (tomatoes and green peppers) is rather insipid, lacking any heat. Fortunately the barbecue sauce has just a tad of heat to lend.
3 August 2014: Although beef may be king in Texas, Marley’s pork spare ribs are no jesters. While the menu describes them as “fall-off-the-bone tender,” they have just a bit of “give” on them as you pull them off the bone. That’s the way it should be. Far too often, fall-off-the-bone denotes overdone. The ribs are tender and juicy with the spice and seasonings rub more pronounced (you’ll discern a bit more sweetness) than on the other meats. None of the meats needed sauce to make them palatable, but Marley’s sauce is good for dipping bread into. It’s sweet, vinegary and has a pleasing bite.
3 August 2014: Sides are no afterthought. The bacon potato salad, made with in-house cured bacon and a spice blend with personality, is very different from most potato salad served in New Mexico which tends to have a surfeit of mayo or salad cream. Shawne Riley, a long-time friend of this blog, called the potato salad the “closest to my Texas grandmother’s I’ve ever had.” We agreed the coleslaw was wonderful. Even with New Mexico green chile, the pinto beans have the flavor of Texas beans with sundry spices which detract from the natural flavors of the Land of Enchantment’s “other” official state vegetables (pinto beans and chile).
3 August 2014: As a proud native New Mexican well acquainted and enamored with our state’s fantastic pecan crop, try as I might it was difficult to remain impartial about our pecans, especially when a Texas city has the audacity to declare itself “the pecan capitol of the world.” Alas, the pecan pie was rich, decadent and absolutely mouth-watering. Nary a disparaging word can be said about it even though it wasn’t made with New Mexican pecans.
Having visited about a month before I did, Shawne apprised me about an ordering process I might otherwise have found confusing. Shawne observed that “everything about this place says, “order and pay at the counter, seat yourself and get your drinks, eat and throw away your trash afterward.” Instead, a very pleasant and friendly wait staff will take care of your every need–even refilling your Big Red though the soda fountain dispenser is mere feet away.
Marley’s is the next best thing to eating at a barbecue restaurant in the Texas Hill Country of Central Texas. Within the air conditioned confines of Marley’s, we were especially grateful not to be waiting in line for two hours for one of Austin’s famous pilgrimage barbecue restaurants to open even as oppressive humidity sapped our energy and mosquitoes the size of helicopters consumed us as eagerly as we would the barbecue. Give me New Mexico enchantment and Marley’s any day.
Marley’s Central Texas BBQ
6219 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 August 2014
1st VISIT: 3 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Big Red, Pecan Pie, Sliced Brisket, Pork Spare Ribs, Elgin Sausage, Bacon Potato Salad, Coleslaw, Brisket Tacos, Chopped Brisket Sandwich