Most sane people go watch a movie or find a happy hour when they get bored on a Saturday. Me? I drive 200 miles for lunch. Yes, seriously. That’s my idea of fun. And hey, it makes for a humorous “you did WHAT?!?!?!?!” reaction when I tell people about it. Well, I’ve found myself a little bored the past few weeks as I wait for tax season to get going, and that’s given me an excuse to scour Interstate 35 for the country’s best barbecue. And some good old interstate rivalry, to boot.
In one corner, from Lexington, Texas – Snow’s BBQ. Until June, 2008, Snow’s was an obscure BBQ pit in a small Central Texas town of around 1,100 people. But then, it became an overnight sensation following being named the #1 BBQ joint in the state by Texas Monthly magazine (it has since lost that title to Austin’s Franklin BBQ). Since then, it has become a magnet for BBQ lovers and curiosity seekers from across the country, some who (like me) drive long distances to snag a piece of their prized beef brisket before it runs out.
In the other corner, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Leo’s Barbeque. Leo’s has been around since 1974, but rose to prominence after being featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. The speciality here, though, isn’t brisket – it’s ribs, a specialty usually associated with OKC’s neighbor to the north, Kansas City. When a co-worker, a long-time OKC resident before moving to Dallas, found out about my plan to visit Snow’s, she insisted that I also check out Leo’s. And thus, this interstate BBQ grudge match was born.
Grab your bibs and paper towels, it’s time to settle this brawl in the kitchen…
- 516 Main Street, Lexington, Texas
- Hours: Saturdays only, 8 am until the meat runs out
- Price: $10-20 per person (alcohol not available)
Directions: way out in the country. Closest major city is Austin, about an hour to the west. From there, take US 290 east to Bastrop, then SH 21 east to Lincoln, then finally US 77 north to Lexington. Turn left on Loop 123 to enter town. Turn left on First Street, then right on Main Street; Snow’s is on the right. Park anywhere you can find a spot, either in the lot, or along the sides of Main Street.
This was a tough trip to make work. As mentioned above, Snow’s is only open until the meat runs out. Reliable sources told me they’re completely cleaned out by noon, with brisket availability being hit-or-miss after 11, sometimes even earlier if someone places a big order early. Lexington is a roughly 3 hour, 15 minute drive from Plano, and I’m not the type that can get up really early in the morning. You see the problem. I managed to get going by 7:10, but was sweating bullets the entire way down, wondering if I’d drive 204 miles and come up empty handed. We got there at 10:25, and much to our relief, there was still plenty of everything available. If you’re planning to visit from Dallas or Houston, unless there’s a special event of some kind in either Austin or College Station that weekend, contrary to what you might read online, no, you don’t have to leave at 5 am to get to Lexington by 8 to guarantee a taste of meat. Get here by 10:30 and you’ll be fine, though you’re pressing your luck past about 11. They started running out of things just as we were leaving.
Anyway, Snow’s isn’t about big city fancy. This is the town it’s located in, the sleepy Central Texas town of Lexington. (I’m from a small Texas town of about 5,000 people, so this made me feel right at home.)
It’s not in a fancy new building, and as for menus? It’s on a dry erase board at the ordering counter.
What a place like Snow’s IS about is meat, specifically, the signature dish of traditional Central Texas barbecue – beef brisket. I kept the order simple, a half bound of brisket, and a half a link of jalapeño sausage. Accompanying the meal were sides of potato salad and pinto beans (no extra charge for the pinto beans). The award winning meat was served in traditional Central Texas style, on butcher paper. Sauce is available at the table.
I’ll get straight to the point. This was quite possibly the best beef brisket I’ve ever had, certainly in the top three. The hearty reddish-pink smoke ring around the sliced beef gives away the significant amount of time this meat spent under the smoker, and indeed, the meat has a deep smokey flavor. It is incredibly tender, with just the right amount of fat to give you melt-in-your-mouth feel. The crust was also very nicely done, featuring a crunchy black with just the right helping of salt and black pepper – simple, yet well executed. The sausage was also very good, with a good snap to the casing, a healthy kick thanks to the pepper, and a firm, lean texture inside, and the smokiness meshed well with the heat level. The sides kind of take a back seat, though largely because the meat is so good. The potato salad was tender and creamy, though it lacked much in the way of flavor besides potatoes and mayonnaise. It could have used a little something else, maybe some relish or pimentos. The beans were good, featuring a nice, thick sauce, thought when they’re coming out of a big communal pot, there’s only so good they can be. In this case, I think I got the bottom of the pot, as the beans themselves were a bit overdone. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the BBQ sauce, which I found a bit vinegary by Texas standards. But really, I’m nitpicking. This was darned fine BBQ.
As far as the restaurant itself, we ate in the small interior dining room as it was cold that day, though there is a larger outdoor dining area.
Contrary to the sign, the long lines were nowhere to be seen this day; we waited maybe 3 minutes to order. Oh, and if you’re a University of Texas partisan, beware that this is an Aggie stronghold.
And when I said earlier that people from all over the state, from all walks of life, flock to Snow’s for a piece of brisket, I meant it. Someone even drove all the way down here in their Aston Martin.
Anyway, if I had one legitimate complaint about Snow’s, it’s the service. You would expect friendly Texas hospitality in a little town like Lexington, but it wasn’t on display the day of our visit. The counter staff weren’t rude, but weren’t particularly warm or inviting, either. They seemed very harried, and didn’t exactly give off that “we’re happy you’re here” vibe. Disappointing, especially since they didn’t appear to be that busy.
So how would things compare to the challenger from the Sooner State?
- 3631 N. Kelley Avenue, Oklahoma City, OK
- Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 am-8 pm; Friday & Saturday 11 am-9 pm; closed Sunday
- Price: $10-20 per person (alcohol not available)
Directions: From I-35 or I-40, take I-235 north and exit at 36th Street. Turn right, and the restaurant is on the right (you’ll have to watch carefully for the sign). NOTE TO ROUTE 66 TRAVELERS: though listed in some Route 66 guides as a Mother Road attraction, the restaurant is technically NOT located on Route 66, which follows Lincoln Boulevard through this stretch of OKC (a couple of blocks to the west). If following Lincoln through town, head east on 36th Street to get here.
In some ways, Leo’s is a very different experience from Snow’s. For starters, Leo’s is smack dab in the middle of the bright lights of the big city, standing in the shadows of the Oklahoma State Capitol about a mile or so to the south.
And there are actual menus here, though of the simple, laminated variety.
Plus, though OKC is pretty much the same distance from home as Lexington, Leo’s operates during more traditional lunch and dinner hours, so if you want to sleep in a little and arrive between 12 and 1, you don’t have to worry about there not being any food left.
Aside from that, though, the two joints are remarkably similar. For starters, like Snow’s, Leo’s is definitely a dive, located in a converted gas station. People come from all around to eat here. And of course, the specialty is meat, though in this case, beef ribs, and – wait for it – barbeque bologna. Wanting to get the full experience, I ordered the “Leo’s Special Light”, which features 1 rib, 1 hot link, small portions of chopped brisket and bologna, and two sides, for which I chose macaroni salad and baked beans.
Yes, it’s a lot of food. The star of the meats was the rib, which was thick, rich, and tender all in one, with a delicious dry rub and smoke flavor as added bonuses. While perhaps not quite to the level of the legendary Pappy’s Smokehouse in St. Louis, the ribs definitely rank in the Top Three. The brisket was mediocre. The meat was overdone, and really tasted more like steak than brisket. The sausage, though the casing was rather limp, was really tasty, with a creamy, fatty texture and a decent amount of heat. Perhaps the most surprising item was the bologna. At first blush, you’d think it would be heinous, but this thick cut, smoked variety was actually pretty good, especially on a DIY sandwich. I also liked the sauce here better than Snow’s, as it was the tomato-based variety I’m more used to. Beware, however, of the hot version in the red bottle. It’s downright diabolical, and will have your mouth burning for several minutes afterwards.
As for the sides, I was a big fan of the baked beans. I can’t put my finger on what was in the sauce – paprika and a little cumin, maybe? – but it was rich and meaty, and downright addictive. The macaroni salad, though a bit dry, had good flavor, with just the right amount of sweet relish.
But wait, there’s more! I’m not sure if this was included as part of what we ordered, or if the waitress was just being nice since we told her we’d come all the way from Dallas, but she brought us each a slice of Leo’s signature strawberry banana cake..
Wow. That cake is something else. It’s a very rich butter cake drizzled with icing, with banana mixed in the batter and strawberries on top. It’s kind of a cross between a plain butter cake, banana bread, and strawberry shortcake. Honestly, this cake is the last thing you need after stuffing your face full of barbecue, but hey, you know what mom always said about wasting food…
As mentioned earlier, Leo’s is definitely a dive, in this case consisting of two simple dining rooms, with kitchen visible in the back. Surprisingly, it wasn’t busy at all at noon on a Saturday, though my co-worker who recommended this place said it’s typically much busier on weekdays, when state employees from the capitol drop by for lunch.
I found the service here to be much better and inviting than Snow’s. Leo himself runs the register, and I believe it’s his wife that’s the waitress. She did a great job, taking our orders and bringing it to us promptly, and ensuring that our lemonades were full throughout our stay. They were also both amused that we’d driven 200 miles to come eat there…
So who wins this grudge match? It’s a little difficult to pick a “winner”, as both restaurants specialize in different things, even though they’re both BBQ joints. I’d say both are worthy of 5-star ratings based on the food alone. Snow’s probably has the single best barbecued meat you’ll find anywhere – that incredible brisket – and I have to appreciate their sticking to one of the oldest Texas traditions, BBQ for Saturday breakfast. But, Leo’s has the most unique offering, the bologna. And the service was better at Leo’s, at least on this one visit. For those reasons, though it pains this native Texan to declare Oklahoma the winner at everything, I’ll have to declare the challenger from north of the Red River the winner of this contest.
Photo at top: a smorgasboard of meat from a third BBQ joint, Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano, which will be featured on a future restaurant review.