MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
Barbecue is religion in Texas. And every five years, Texas Monthly magazine goes on a quest to find the Holy Grail, the best barbecue in a state that reveres smoked meat. This year, the magazine dispatched 18 writers who traveled nearly 15,000 miles and visited 341 establishments. In an unheard-of upset, a tiny cafe in central Texas beat out the longtime favorites to snatch first place, then came the brisket-loving crowds.
And as NPR's John Burnett reports, the little barbecue pit that could is strained to the breaking point.
Mr. KERRY BEXLEY (Owner, Snow's BBQ): It's about 11:15 on Friday night. We've built a fire in the fire box about an hour ago. At this time, we've got good heat on our pits that we're gonna put our brisket on. Get them on and get all the lids closed and leave them alone for a couple of hours.
JOHN BURNETT: A bandy-legged former rodeo clown and prison guard named Kerry Bexley is the owner of Snow's BBQ. It's in the little town of Lexington, an hour's drive northeast of Austin. It only opens Saturday mornings. He and three employees arrive by 10 PM, Friday, to light the oak logs.
COTTON (Employee, Snow's BBQ): I want to keep my heat about 250, 275 in there on them briskets. If I ain't got that, I ain't doing no good.
BURNETT: Barbecue requires heat, smoke, salt and pepper, and time. The alchemist of these ingredients is known as the pit master. Tootsie Tomanetz has been cooking barbecue in central Texas for 42 of her 73 years. She shows up at 2:00 a.m. like a Texas tornado.
Ms. TOOTSIE TOMANETZ (Pit Master, Snow's BBQ): Are y'all just now putting them on the fat side down? I don't want them fat side down.
Unidentified Man: Okay. Do you want to leave them - flip them back?
Ms. TOMANETZ: Flip them back. I want fat side up all times.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Okay.
BURNETT: Ms. Tootsie — as she's respectfully called — tends the massive iron pits and hissing fireboxes like an admiral minding her fleet. Her gray hair is cut sensibly short. A blue apron is fastened around her waist. During the week, she works as a school custodian. On Saturday mornings, her strong arms turn short ribs and chicken halves, briskets and pork steaks with a practiced flip of the fork.
Standing before the pits all night, she's enveloped in smoke. But, like a beekeeper resistant to stings, it doesn't seem to bother her. She's all business.
Ms. TOMANETZ: It's 3:30, and we're thinking about getting ready to wrap them in foil. They've got a golden brown.
BURNETT: Time was when Ms. Tootsie coked mainly for locals. But then came the magazine article.
Mr. BEXLEY: We were named number one in Texas, and that - from that point on, our whole business has changed drastically. We've gone from cooking in the vicinity of 300 pounds to cooking in excess of 1,000 pounds. And last week, we sold out before 10:00.
BURNETT: Owner Kerry Bexley says people now routinely drive to Snow's from across the state.
Mr. BEXLEY: There's a gentleman who called in this week from Fort Worth and he ordered half a pound of brisket, one link of sausage and two ribs, and he's gonna drop from Fort Worth for that, and that just blows my mind. With $4 -a-gallon gas, that's just hard to imagine how far people will travel for barbecue.
BURNETT: Within Texas, the discovery of Snow's has been met with the excitement that elsewhere might greet the unearthing of an unknown Mayan city or the finding of an unfinished Hemingway manuscript. At Texas Monthly, executive editor Paul Burka is the magazine's final authority on the smoking arts.
Mr. PAUL BURKA (Executive Editor, Texas Monthly): My first reaction when I heard about Snow's was this is impossible, it doesn't happen. There are no unknown great barbecue places in Texas. We've been doing this for years. I've driven all around. And particularly, in the town of 1,000 people, it's just - it can't happen.
BURNETT: The most famous barbecue places in the state are well known. The perennial pantheon is Louie Mueller's in Taylor, Kreuz's and Smitty's in Lockhart, Cooper's in Llano, and City Market in Luling, and one of them has a century-old pit. So along comes Snow's, five years young. But they say the brisket that Tootsie Tomanetz smokes is almost indescribable.
Mr. BURKA: I wrote that it was as soft and sweet as cookie dough. That was how I felt about it. It was almost transcended meat.
BURNETT: The price of fame has been high. Snow's was unprepared for the onslaught. The question for anxious barbecue lovers here is whether Ms. Tootsie can take the pressure and maintain her quality.
Ms. TOMANETZ: It was a good article. It brought us into the daylight. But it has blowed our business out of proportion. There's no time for relaxation, I mean, I'm constantly on my toes to catch the next beat before it starts and here we go.
BURNETT: With the radio keeping them company, the employees have wrapped the briskets in foil to keep them moist. They've made liberal use of Ms. Tootsie's mop sauce - made of onions, mustard, butter, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. The sun has been up for a half-hour now.
Ms. TOMANETZ: It's going on 7:00. We have mopped the pork ribs again. We've mopped the chickens. Things will be moving pretty quickly now.
BURNETT: With only an hour until opening, the focus of activity shifts indoors to the tiny dining room. Bexley's daughter, Larisa, has driven in from Texas A&M University, and his neighbor, a beautician named Phyllis Rogers, has also come in to serve.
Ms. PHYLLIS ROGERS (Beautician): Yeah, we're a pretty laidback little town, and this is pretty incredible to have these people come in from all over the state and other states just to eat brisket. Of course, Ms. Tootsie does a good job, she's had lots of practice. Forty-three years is a lot of briskets.
BURNETT: By 7:30, there are already 22 people lined up outside, not at all intimidated by the prospect of barbecue for breakfast. Erin Blake(ph) and her friends have driven over from Austin.
Ms. ERIN BLAKE (Customer): We heard about it from a friend of ours who said it was the best barbecue in Texas. And we have to come out here and see if it's really true.
BURNETT: At 8:00, Kerry Bexley checks to be sure they have enough potato salad, coleslaw and white bread, and unlocks the door.
Mr. BEXLEY: Herd them in.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BEXLEY: Alright.
Unidentified Man #2: Thank God. Good morning.
Ms. ROGERS: Good morning. Good morning.
BURNETT: On this morning, Snow's BBQ will sell out in about an hour. Some frustrated out-of-towners will climb back in their cars and vow to return next week even earlier. Ms. Tootsie will worry that there's not enough barbecue left for her local customers, who she's been serving for decades. So, if you're curious about Snow's, do her a favor and forget you ever heard this story.
John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.