Chow Town

Hays County Bar-B-Que preserves a central Texas tradition

Hays County house made links, turkey, pork spareribs, brisket, pork chop and fantastic sauce.
Hays County house made links, turkey, pork spareribs, brisket, pork chop and fantastic sauce.

Barbecue excellence requires three key ingredients: meat, fuel and a skilled pitmaster.

The majority of Chow Town barbecue establishments today use a wood and gas combo to smoke meat. Not so in central Texas, where meat fires are fueled with 100 percent hardwood.

Anyone who has traveled the Central Texas Barbecue Trail will tell you that all wood, no gas is a rock solid barbecue rule. Anything less is blasphemy.

Wood is essential to preserving the central Texas tradition. You’ll find all-wood barbecues in other parts of Texas, but not everywhere in Texas. In central Texas, wood-fueled meat fires are non-negotiable. Sauce is optional. Beer is optional. Plates and forks are optional. Wood is not optional.

The meat at Hays County Bar-B-Que in San Marcos, Texas, is cooked with a combination of mesquite and post oak. Michael Hernandez, Omar Serna and Aaron Hernandez do a stellar job of adding the key ingredient of skilled pitmasters to the Texas Monthly Top 50 barbecue at Hays County.

Husband/wife co-owners Michael and Asenette Hernandez take wood-fired barbecue so seriously that “Preserving Central Texas Tradition” is their motto. Doing his share to assure that the tradition continues into the next generation, Michael proudly points to his son, Aaron, age 19, the youngest professional pitmaster in Texas.

“Aaron started working the pits at the age of 14,” Michael said.

My first taste of Hays County sauce was a shot of joy.

“Wow! This tastes as good as one of my all-time favorites, Luling City Market!”

Michael smiled. “A customer gave me some sauce one day and told me he wished I’d make something like this.” Michael developed a recipe that is now the house sauce.

The mustard/tomato base laced with vinegar, sugar, pepper and a dash of hot sauce, when combined in the right proportions, serves as a perfect complement to barbecue meat of any variety.

Hays County barbecue — slightly rubbed, smoked to perfection with a crusty bark on the outside and tender juicy meat on the inside — easily stands alone without sauce, but I can’t leave sauce that good alone.

Hays County sausage is house-made. It is so popular that a separate building on the property is dedicated to the sole purpose of sausage making. The sausage crew performs like a symphony orchestra, no conductor needed.

Prepping the beef and pork, grinding it in proportion to Micheal’s recipe, mixing it with a combo of secret spices, setting it aside in stainless steel tubs before extruding it into casings and twisting to link-size, may not be music to your eyes, but when that smoked Hays County sausage hits your palate, your mouth will sing.

Hays County has earned its place among the Top 50 in Texas. Will they make the cut when the new Top 50 is released in 2018?

I don’t know how they would say it in Little Cedar Lick, Tenn. birthplace of Hays County’s namesake, Colonel John Coffee Hays, but I say “Yes!”

Hays County Bar-B-Que is located at 1612 South IH-35 in San Marcos, Texas. Its telephone number is 512-392-6000.

Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, His most recent release book is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”