Austin is the sun at the heart of a solar system of great barbeque. Orbiting around it are a number of towns known for their unique barbeque, most notably Lockhart to the southeast, Elgin to the east, Taylor to the northeast and Llano to the west. Each of these towns has their unique style of barbeque and several good restaurants, and I find myself driving every so often to one of these points to try out an old favorite or experiment with something new.
This week I went for lunch at a unique spot that’s new to me, but very old and familiar to the people of Taylor, Vencil Mares’ Taylor Cafe. The cafe is a well-kept secret which I wasn’t even aware of until I chanced to see a sign for it from an overpass by the railyard in downtown Taylor. I noted it and made plans to come back later and try it out. Other Taylor barbeque restaurants have gotten a lot of attention in the regional and national press and through it all the Taylor Cafe has remained the preference of the old-time barbeque afficionados of the local population.
Taylor is one of the few still functioning industrial towns in Texas, a unique throwback to an older age, with factories and active train traffic and a lot of character. Vencil Mares started the Taylor Cafe almost 60 years ago when he got back from World War II. It’s right by the railyard, so close that the walls shake and you can’t talk on the phone when the freight trains pass through. Inside it’s dark and welcoming. There are a few tables around the walls, but the proper place to eat is the u-shaped counter that fills most of the room, leaving room for a pool table and an old Galaga game in one corner.
Authentic atmosphere doesn’t always guarantee good barbeque, but in this case some pretty marvelous things come from the smokers behind the building. The menu is limited to standard offerings, with the usual beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs and chicken. An interesting addition is the turkey sausage, and the sides are pretty basic, including pickles, onions, bread and crackers. You can get your barbeque in plates, by the pound or in several types of sandwich. They’ve got the usual drinks, but they also have beer, which seems to be a major attraction for a lot of the locals who spend time at the Taylor Cafe which seems to have an almost resident clientele for whom it’s a social gathering spot.
As usual I spared no expense and tried to get a little bit of everything on a customized plate full of goodies. The standout items on the menu were the beef brisket and the sausage. The brisket is what Taylor Cafe is most known for and it lives up to its reputation. It’s extraordinarily tender and flavorful. Apparently it’s cooked for much longer than brisket usually is and I suspect it’s also marinated before cooking. The result is a lot like a good quality pot roast, but with wood smoke flavor added. It’s truly excellent, certainly one of the best briskets I’ve tasted. The sausage is also very good. It’s a rough-ground big-link sausage remiscent of Elgin sausage, but not too greasy and loaded with black pepper which really gives it a memorable flavor. The turkey sausage is also good, though it lacks the character of the regular sausage. The ribs are the lowpoint. They’re tough and somewhat vinegary. I literally couldn’t eat more than a couple of bites. I’d also avoid the barbeque sauce which is heavy on the molasses and way too sweet. A small dab might be okay on a sandwich, but that’s about it.
So the next time you’re driving down Texas Highway 79 – which I’m sure you do all the time – pass by Hutto and take a left at the bizarre exit that says Granger but actually goes to downtown Taylor. Keep an eyeout for the Taylor Cafe on the left as you take the bridge over the railyard and stop in for a brisket sandwich and a sausage wrap and maybe stick around for a beer. There are few finer ways to enjoy classic Texas barbeque in a friendly small town smokery.