Snow's BBQ Is a Texas Adventure
It starts with middle-of-the-night journey
The weekend after this past Thanksgiving, I woke up to the sound of my alarm blaring at 1:30 a.m. It was two days after I’d stuffed myself with buttermilk-brined turkey, three different potato dishes, and numerous sides with various amounts of butter and seasoning. Yet, here I was, getting dressed in the middle of the night to drive two hours from where I was staying in Houston to eat a hefty meal, yet again.
The place that required so much effort was Snow’s BBQ, one of a handful of legendary eateries in the Texas dining community. As a food writer from Houston, I’d become embarrassed that I hadn’t been to the cult favorite, voted Best BBQ by Texas Monthly in 2008, and featured on the Chef’s Table BBQ series.
Snow’s is not just an eating experience: It’s an adventure. I decided to share the experience with my high school friend, Tina Tsang, who had some experience waiting hours for barbecue (frankly, among Texans, who hasn’t?). I picked her up, and we loaded the car with lawn chairs, snacks, water, and extra coffee while guzzling down pre-packed cold brew. We hit the highway in darkness, passing by food trucks lined with drunk patrons wrapping up their night. We drove on 290 West towards Lexington, under a sky that seemed to be an unyielding blanket of darkness.
In my defense, visiting Snow’s required a bit of planning. Since they won the coveted Texas award, the barbecue joint, located in the small town of Lexington, TX — population just over 1,300 — wasn’t exactly a direct trip. The restaurant’s popularity means that you can’t just walk up to the place: People begin lining up outside on Snow’s as early as my alarm (and often earlier), which is around the time its legendary, 88-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz arrives to get started. Folks wait hours outside ahead of opening — from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays only — just to make sure they get a taste of Tomanetz’s ribs, brisket, and other meats.
Snow’s opened in 2003 and is owned by Kerry Bexley. Tomanetz — affectionately known as “Miss Tootsie”— has long been preparing some of Texas’ most beloved meats here the old school way, by taking oak, burning it down to coals, followed by scooping coals herself and cooking meat over an open fire. (During the week, Miss Tootsie works as a custodian at a high school in Giddings, Texas.) The smokehouse uses indirect heat to prepare its brisket and direct heat for its other menu offerings, like pork shoulder, pork ribs, sausage, chickens, and turkey breast.
When Tina and I arrived just before 5 a.m. during a slow and steady downpour of cold rain, we grabbed our coats and sat outside the entrance until the sun came up while Miss Tootsie, dressed in jeans and an orange t-shirt, prepared our barbecue within eyeshot.
As the sun rose and we approached opening time, Bexley himself came out to count us off the line (Tina and I were number 68 and 69). While waiting, we met Louie, a kind barbecue enthusiast who was tasked with picking up barbecue for his wife and kids who were staying at a nearby hotel. As we made small talk with Louie, feet slowly descending into frostbite, I glanced at the line. Gruff, burly 60-something white men, Latino families, and West African immigrants gleefully awaited their chance to indulge. It reminded me of the Texas I knew as a kid — this amalgam of cultures and communities managing to find a sense of commonality through really good food.
In total, Tina and I waited for more than four hours before we finally made it inside the building at 9:16 a.m.
“Let’s see if it’s worth it!” Tina said eagerly.
I walked in and immediately sensed that it was. One of the servers was slicing brisket with a meticulous hand. Smells of smoke and sauce filled the tiny building, and I could see the meat just waiting to fall off the bone. I ordered a brisket sandwich, ribs, potato salad, and banana pudding, while Tina ordered brisket, smoked sausage, ribs, and some meat to take home. Hands trembling from the cold, we took our order outdoors, snapped a few photos, and took a bite.
And there it was: Meat, at its simplest. The brisket melted in my mouth. The ribs, seasoned with a simple mix of salt and pepper, were cooked to perfection. A bit of Tina’s sausage packed a spicy punch.
Tina and I ate in silence, a typical sign of really good food. After a while, we both laughed. Knowing each other for 15 years, traveling all over the world, and experiencing things we couldn’t have dreamed of in high school, it was amazing that we could still find adventure in our home state.
But then again, what can’t barbecue do?
I do appreciate a good road trip. Thank you for sharing yours. I actually felt the warm delicious air on my face when you finally got inside!
Nicely written piece.
We’re all free to live our lives as we wish but this adventure strikes me as truly nuts.
With a little practice and a very modest investment in a smoker you can make homemade bbq every bit as good. Let Bittman tell you how.