Traveling all over the state I have learned certain truths about Texas…the best chicken fried steak comes from Zapata and is covered in queso…people in Austin like to wait in line for food…the best Asian food is found in Houston…and you don’t eat barbecue from south of San Antonio. Well, I recently had to reevaluate one of these truths. Evidently genuine Texas barbecue has seeped its way down to the border and can now be found in Mercedes, Texas of all places.
I recently had an overnight trip to the Rio Grande Valley to look through 50 banker boxes of road construction documents (awww…the exciting life of an insurance defense attorney). Being a devotee of the paleo way of eating, the Valley poses a special challenge for me. There are plenty of solid Mexican restaurants, a handful of decent Asian restaurant, but a dearth of even mediocre steakhouses or barbecue. Oh…there’s one or two places that are passable and on a good day can be above average, but I have never found a place that is a consistent home run. This trip I was bound and determined to find a suitable restaurant to meet my paleo needs. As I was researching possible venues, I stumbled across something called the Smoking Oak. The information was limited, but the comments I could find were all ecstatic in their praise of this barbecue hideout. It was only open at lunch and only open Thursday through Sunday so it had a small window of opportunity. While no one I talked to in the area had heard of the Smoking Oak, I decided I needed to give it a try.
The Smoking Oak is hidden away in a residential area which heightens the sense that this restaurant is a secret hidden gem. However, the flood of cars parked in the lot, the street, neighboring driveways and the alley show that its really not that big of a secret. I got there shortly after the lunch rush so i was able to walk right up to the counter to order. As I ran through the menu, the pitmaster was cutting the meat for the customers in front of me. It gave me a nice look at the options for my carnivorous desires. The smells were so good I was literally chomping at the air. The pitmaster kept looking at me as I bounced around in anticipation of my coming chow down. After perusing the options briefly, I quickly settled on the brisket and pork ribs. Seeing my obvious appreciation for his art, the pitmaster suggested I try the beef ribs…evidently he sold my favorite dinosaur ribs off menu on Thursdays…thank you very much. By the time I was done, I’d ordered nearly 2 1/2 pounds of meat and no sides. As a result, my meal was over $50 out the door.
I quickly made my escape to my truck. I opened the platter of meat as I sat in the parking lot. What started as a quick sampling of my meaty treasures turned into a full out feast curbside. I never made it out of my parking spot as I downed a 1/2 pound of “fatty” brisket, a 1/2 pound of pork ribs and a 1 1/2 pound monster of a beef rib. Every last bite of these smoky treats was moist (read fat) and tasted of smoke and bark and a wee bit of heaven. My only hesitation between bites was to lick the grease and bits of barbecue bark from my fingers between courses of meat. I may eat with my fingers but I am not uncouth. I refuse to let my brisket cross contaminate my pork ribs or my pork ribs to cross contaminate my beef ribs. Each delicacy is to be enjoyed in its own unique way. As I gnawed the last little bit of beef off my dinosaur rib, I slowly came down from my meat fueled mania. I looked around my truck to see if any passerbys had seen my shame. I never was so thankful for tinted windows as I was during that three minutes and 23 seconds it took for me to put down that 2 1/2 lbs of meat.
When you find a treasure like the Smoking Oak, it must be shared. Therefore the very next day, I took my enemy, the dastardly Plaintiff’s counsel and his co worker to my secret honey pot. When I walked in the pitmaster gave me that knowing look the drug dealer gives his addict. He knew his smokey little masterpiece had hooked another. I pushed my guests to try the beef ribs knowing they would OD on that meaty monster as they were clearly lightweights without sufficient storage to properly handle the dinosaur. But no amount of wheedling, pleading or shaming could make them take the challenge. Still they ordered the pork ribs and brisket along with sides of cole slaw and potato salad. I downsized as well going with the brisket, sausage and pork ribs. (I’m glad I did as that dastardly Plaintiff’s counsel picked up the tab). I’d always believed the best sausage in the state came from Southside Market in Elgin. The Smoking Oak, in little ol’ Mercedes can definitely give it a run for its money though. The brisket was amazing…though the pork ribs were merely four stars that day. Most importantly, the dastardly Plaintiff’s counsel and his co-worker found the Smoking Oak to be as amazing as I did. There is nothing better than the thrill of revealing good food to people. Knowing I made their world bigger, knowing I gave them the knowledge of the Smoking Oak, knowing they experienced great barbecue in THE VALLEY…this is my great joy in life.
The Smoking Oak is legitimate great barbecue. No qualifiers…none of this good for the Valley. It’s good for any place. It’s Lockhart good. It can go toe to toe with the sultans of smoke like Killen’s, Pecan Lodge or Franklin’s. It is a must visit next time you are in the Valley.