The Texas barbecue roadtrip offers opportunities for all sorts of hangovers: it’s easy to have too much brisket, too many hours of ranchland driving, sometimes even too much alcohol. When you experience all three hangovers at the same time, often near the end of your trip, you don’t necessarily feel like doing much.
Maybe that’s why it took us until our fourth annual Texas trip to get to Zimmerhanzel’s. It was on the map every year, just an hour from our Austin hub. I don’t remember ever planning visits in alphabetical order, but Z’s was always to be the last stop, the trip’s grand finale. And every year, by that last Monday or Tuesday morning, we all had trouble getting out of bed.
It turns out we were actually missing out on something, and it was even closer to Austin than we realized. Z’s occupies an orange, corrugated steel shack in Smithville, a farm town that attempts to distinguish itself from the surrounding farm towns by publicizing its appearance in a Sandra Bullock movie. But all anyone from Smithville should really need to mention is Z’s, and that would be bragging enough.
In short, the place exudes both quality and atmosphere. It’s tough to do one authentically, but both? Great barbecue is an alchemist’s mix of art and craft, and the pitmaster at Z’s has clearly mastered his (or her) style.
But let’s start with the decor. A restaurant’s interior should reflect the personality of its clientele without pandering to the lowest common denominator or goading patrons to live beyond their means. When you’ve walked into Z’s dark dining room from a sunny January day and you’ve given your pupils a moment to dilate, what do you see? Plastic tables with tops of faux woodgrain, each one surrounded by orange cafeteria chairs. An entire long wall adorned with taxidermy. Ceiling tiles that easily (and visibly) predate any smoking ban. Yes, this is rural Texas, and you’re in for a treat.
You can’t compare any two Texas barbecue joints without comparing the styles and qualities of their brisket; that’s why brisket is always the cornerstone of our meals. As we approached the cafeteria-style ordering line at Z’s with a plan that included nothing but brisket, a faint recollection from the night before appeared hazily in our minds. Back in Austin, an older, baritone-voiced barfly named George had declared Z’s sausage the best in Texas. Since more than one of us seemed to share this memory, we decided we’d also sample the sausage. I’m sure we ordered some sides, and as is the norm for central Texas, we received about half a loaf of white bread alongside our meat (we now refer to slices of white bread as “napkins.”)
Z’s brisket places somewhere right between the succulent, pink-smoke-ringed fare of Snow’s and Franklin, and the darker, sometimes drier stuff from Kreutz and Smitty’s. Plenty of pinkish color, plenty of marbling, plenty of moisture, plenty of smoky flavor. There was even a good amount of “bark” — caramelized fat plus the leavings of any dry rub — which we love to see but don’t see enough.
Now, about that sausage: is it even possible for sausage to have a delicate flavor? We’ve tried a lot of links that could be described a lot of different ways, from greasy (Smitty’s) to chipotle-hot (Black’s) to cheesy (Burnet Feed Store) to coarse and spicy (City Meat Market). The weird thing about Z’s sausage is that you want to say it’s bland in comparison to other local options — but then you realize that’d be an insult. There’s plenty of black pepper (just have a look at the photos), and some sweetness, too, but maybe that’s it. Simple, rustic, well-smoked, and delicious. That’s exactly what barbecue is supposed to be.
Zimmerhanzel’s is more than just good eats, though. In contrast to the gradually-being-resuscitated barbecue scene in Austin, or the inauthentic character and contrived experience of going to the Salt Lick, it’s a welcoming window into rural life in Texas. Our long-planned visit was a great way to start the fifth day of our most recent barbecue binge, satisfying and deepening our addictions at the same time.
BONUS FREAKSHOW: As we were wrapping up our visit, a dude noticed our camera arsenal and asked if he could show us an image on his phone. He showed us a photo of three UFOs he claimed his buddy had just taken, and he asked us to keep an eye on the sky.
Essay: Rob Bellinger
Photos: Rob Bellinger and Dan Meade
Date of visit: 1/16/2012