We all sat in the truck. Wondering, how can that (the visit to Louis’ Mueller’s) be followed up? How can an experience like that one be equaled? Like the perfect song on an album, how do you follow it up? Its difficult, but record companies try, there is no choice. We did too.
A mere 6 blocks away from Mueller’s is the Taylor Café. The exterior gave no hint that this was the 21st century. Rustic, run down, and almost forgotten as it sits at the foot of the highway’s bypass. It’s a bar (we had been told that the beer was cold here). There were a dozen or so patrons sitting at the bar. Our stomachs were full, but our trek was more than satiating our appetites. We just set out to find BBQ experiences of Texas and this place has to be on the “must visit” list. What makes this place so iconic is their pit boss, Vencil Mares. And on this Friday, of course he was here.
We sat down, ordered up a little brisket, ribs, sausage, and some cold beers. Did find some humor in the fact that they don’t have imports there…”no Corona, no Shiner”, so we settled for Lone Star. The food came, and we all let the food perform the magic that it has for more than a half century. What makes Texas Icon BBQ special is the direct connection you have with the pit master who labored over these morsel hours before I even considered coming here.
In what seemed like a flash, Dave came to let us know that Mr. Mares would be happy to show us around. Like kids on Christmas morning, the 4 of us popped out of our seats scrambling for front row seats to take part in this Icon’s lecture. See he’s not just a pitmaster, but he’s an 85+ year old pitmaster. He’s been tending fires and cooking meat longer than any of us who were there had been alive. These are moments you take out your old fashioned reverence for your elders and come listen this man explain his approach.
The thrill of being granted the audience is quickly tempered with respect and a healthy dose of sorrow as you meet this feeble man. His hands and wrists are arthritic…he holds a twisted hand up for you to shake…you gaze into his steel eyes and genuinely thank him. Authenticity is easy to come by, the authenticity of these BBQ Icons is contagious. Fighting the urge to feel pity for this man, you listen to him, for you can see it in his glimmering eyes, hear it his voice, it is not pity he seeks, but just another opportunity to talk BBQ and share a story or two.
Vencil begins to describe how he prepares brisket. His voice is feeble, he pauses often to collect his thoughts about what he is going to say next. You find yourself straining to hear every word this man utters, he flashes a smile at you and you wonder why? Did he say something funny and I missed it? Is he finding humor in us? Is he just letting happiness out that might seem to impossible from such a feeble body? In the end it doesn’t matter, you smile back and get a knowing glace. “Lets go back and see the pits” he commands. Like soldiers, we rise and follow.
He leads us to the back through a narrow hallway holding on to his walker. “Briskets for tomorrow are in there” as he points to a cooler. Every movement he makes is a struggle. His assistant helps him undo the strap holding the lid tight. He opens the cooler and utters “hot…stay that way till ‘morrow”. A strange force comes over us all as we place our hands on the butcher paper wrapped briskets, and sure enough, they’re hot.
Every motion for this man is a monumental effort. So many years of hard work, work that one would only do for that long if it was a labor of love. And its then it hits me, he’s not just giving us a tour, he’s sharing his life with us. He’s sharing what he knows better than anything in the whole world, what he knows better than almost everyone else in the whole world. He senses his captivated audience; they’re not interested in his secrets, they crave to understand the story behind this icon. He turns to walk us out to the sausage room and you see it again, a wry smile.
We eventually make it back to his office that is closer to a closet. Every receipt he needs is stored in old cigar boxes whose only markings on the outside are the year of the receipts. Then someone sees the military medals on the wall. We ask. He tells of his service days with a gleam in his eyes. For a man of his age to have such vivid memories of experiences gained when he was 17 years old is priceless. He goes on…D-day invasion, but on day 4 or 5, medic, battle of the Bulge, Lieutenant says get the hell of here…”don’t have to tell me twice”, working next to a German medic...the two of them working on any injured man. We start walking back out to the bar, he pauses in the dimness of the hallway, turns, and casts those steel eyes our direction again…”sometimes ‘t was bad…real bad.”
Second place, second surreal experience. This visit left me riddled with tragedy. I was forced to wonder that when Our Father decides to take Mr. Vencil Mares, there is no heir apparent. This legacy is smoldering its last embers. I’m one of the fortunate ones to have had the opportunity to feel its warmth. “Sometimes it’s bad…real bad” haunting words uttered by a True BBQ icon.