We entered Taylor from the southeast, coming from Snow’s and headed to Louie Mueller, two “must” destinations on our second Texas BBQ Tour. Just as our post-brisket lull was converting into next-brisket excitement, one of us looked to the left and saw a simple but sturdy-looking building labeled DAVIS GROCERY AND BAR-B-Q. We made a mental note and drove on. We didn’t have space on the agenda, or in our stomachs, for an additional stop.
We spent the next 10 years wondering what was inside Davis Grocery.
We finally put Davis Grocery & Bar-B-Q into the “must” bracket for our fifth Texas BBQ Tour. Taylor is 30-odd miles from Austin, and sampling some barbecued mutton sounded like a perfect way to spend an afternoon between night shifts at The Continental Club.
Davis Grocery is closer to the rural outskirts of Taylor than to its downtown. With its corrugated metal siding and security bars, it could easily be mistaken for a barn or light-industrial workshop if not for that simple and declarative sign.
We found the interior to be exactly as advertised. There was a barbecue counter in front of a kitchen, and aisles of groceries further into the store. Behind the counter was the Reverend James Davis.
We said hello and chatted with Rev. Davis briefly. He was soft spoken, reserved, and kind enough to let us take some photos as he prepared us plates of mutton, sausage, jambalaya, Cajun cabbage, and corn.
Rev. Davis carved each of us a serving of mutton ribs, and these were a treat. Most of the mutton we’ve had in recent years has come from Kentucky where it is normally served either chopped or burgoo’d. Texas mutton is generally served on the bone, and this pushes the flavor-to-grease ratio into the eater’s favor. We tried to ask Rev. Davis how he prepared his ‘cue, but all he would reveal was that “It’s holy smoked.”
The sausage was sweet, hot, and yielded a satisfying crunch when cut. The cabbage and corn were prepared with healthy doses of heat and spice, as was the jambalaya. The latter is not normally found in Central Texas, and this made us ask Rev. Davis how it got on his menu. All he said was that the jambalaya was a family recipe, and that he was proud to serve it.
The man was a Sphinx.
Once we started eating, the grocery fell into silence. There was no music playing, and no chatter between the staff and customers. All we heard were the clicks of our camera shutters, the whir of refrigerator compressors, and the sounds of work being done in the kitchen.
We were just about done with our meals when one of Rev. Davis’s employees (who asked to remain anonymous) came over and asked how we liked the food and why we had so many cameras with us. This opened a floodgate of conversation that lasted for nearly three hours, replenishing itself as customers, friends, and family members were drawn into its currents.
And boy did those currents vary!
What started out as conversation about barbecue, art, and travel soon evolved into something else entirely. Here are a few of the things that we learned:
- Where the best tacos, craft beer, and pizza buffet were in Taylor.
- Where the best art galleries and music venues were in Taylor.
- Who to say sent us to these places.
- That we had come in on Davis Grocery’s 25th anniversary.
- Where to get a car detailed before the next local car meetup.
- Where the local car meetups took place.
- How often the local car meetups turned into drag races.
- That Rev. Davis was inspired by God to start his barbecue business.
- That someone in town had created their own car paint color.
- That the color was called Midnight Starlight and had a shimmering effect.
- The location of the house used in various Texas Chainsaw Massacre films.
- The location of Davis Grocery’s restroom.
- That a local psychic had helped area police solve unsolvable murders.
- That a local fire station had been turned into a brewery.
- That a local five-and-dime had been turned into a banquet hall.
- That a good coffee shop was in a mixed-use historical redevelopment project on Main Street.
This was our fourth trip to Taylor and the first time we had heard any of this. Taylor had always seemed rather quiet to us, but these Taylorites made it sound like there was a lot going on here that could appeal to a lot of different people.
We were intrigued. We were also cynical and guessed that this downtown investment boom was due to investors betting that the appeal of making Austin money while paying Taylor rent would increase with every building they refurbished and repurposed.
We thanked our hosts, said our goodbyes, and headed to the McCrory Timmerman Building, the location of that coffee shop. Based on all that we had heard, if we only had time to see one part of the New Downtown, that should be it.
A former department store, the McCrory Timmerman Building was now a mixed-use complex complete with lofts, brewery, coffee bar, and art gallery. It was nearing closing time when we arrived, but we had just enough time to grab a coffee and walk around the building.
It felt like a small-scale version of Memphis’s Crosstown Concourse, another new center of culture and commerce opened within a formerly vacant building. The comments we heard in Davis Grocery echoed the sense of pride and excitement our friends in Memphis have used when talking about Crosstown. (We’ll have much more to say about this another time.)
Both of these redevelopment projects were injecting new life into their cities, literally filling economic spaces that had been empty. They were places to go, destinations to recommend to others, and perhaps symbols of additional investments yet to come.
One of the Taylorites in Davis Grocery summed all this up while talking about the five-and-dime redeveloped into a beer-and-banquet hall: “They’re making Taylor come alive.”
Now, just one year later, COVID-19 has made the idea of two out of towners walking into a small restaurant and sitting down for a three-hour conversation with various locals, and then casually walking around a large mixed-use complex unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
And maybe it is.
But there are plenty of local groceries, restaurants, and shops who could still use that kind of business. Placing an order by calling these businesses directly — ideally via their actual phone numbers — may not be the same as exploring a new city, but it will help keep them open.
After all, while we enjoyed looking at the new businesses in Taylor, we never would have known about them if we hadn’t initially gone to a small business that has now been serving the local community for over twenty-five years.
And if you find yourself in Taylor, TX, you can reach Davis Grocery at (512) 352-8111. Despite the COVID crisis, Rev. Davis is still serving his “holy smoked” ‘cue at both his restaurant, and via the Texas Beer Company’s McCrory Timmerman taproom.
Essay by Dan Meade
Photos by Dan Meade & Rob Bellinger
Date of Publication: 8/06/2020
Date of visit: 3/04/2019