The Brisket at This Gas Station in Texas Is Probably Better Than the Barbecue Where You Live
In the center of a cavernous and crowded convenience store on the fringes of New Braunfels, Texas, a young woman in a cowboy hat, barely of legal drinking age, wields a double-handled cleaver. With gusto, she tears into a fresh cut of brisket, beating the giant slab of blackened barbecue into utter and complete submission. Within a minute or two, the formidable thing has been entirely deconstructed, transformed into a small mountain of chopped meat. The brisket, it turns out, never stood a chance.
The barbecue bonafides of Central Texas are well known, and things have only gotten better here in recent years, as a wave of new pitmasters seeks to drive the time-honored tradition forward. As noted by the people who chronicle these things religiously, it is a terrific time for Texas barbecue. The rest of us are left trying to keep up; you will often come across hopeful dispatches from places as far-flung as New York, or even London, talking about how the barbecue at this or that place is almost as good as Texas, and you have to wonder just how many times the people saying such things have actually eaten Texas barbecue. Barbecue is in the air here, quite literally—on any given day, an amble around East Austin, or a visit to the small town smoked meat meccas not all that far from there, will leave you smelling faintly of the most beautiful kind of secondhand smoke. Access to barbecue is all but a birthright in these parts, and the generously portioned brisket sandwiches you can buy for $5.49 at Bu-cee's are something like point proven.
These sandwiches, made from the aforementioned meat that has just been chopped up in highly theatrical fashion (you can also typically get it sliced, if chopped bothers you), are hardly living at the height of the genre, but that's not even the point. A pile of brisket stuffed into your average bun with white onions, pickles, and a sauce made from ketchup (hold your fire), Worcester sauce and liquid hickory smoke isn't going to be winning the national awards any time soon, but it doesn't have to—this sandwich, and other sandwiches sold here at Bu-cee's, particularly the chopped smoked sausage sandwich, are a taunt, a tease, a warning to arrogant pretenders in other places: We're so good at barbecue, even our basic gas station brisket could probably take yours out, at least on a good day. If you find yourself on the open road in Texas, look for a Bu-cee's (the billboards will alert you, they're everywhere), go inside, and see for yourself.
Brisket (chopped or sliced) and sausage (also sold wrapped in a tortilla, and served up on a stick) are just two of the reasons to make a Bu-cee's pilgrimage—in fact, first-time visitors might not even get so far as the barbecue, which is just one of many prepared food options. This is no mere gas station, not just another chain of convenience stores.
As Wawa is to its many fans on the East Coast, Bu-cee's is a destination, a happy place, a port in a storm for the traveler, a place you stop to eat.
The first store opened in 1982, in the company town (Dow Chemical) of Lake Jackson, about an hour south of Houston near the coast; today, there are more than 30 Bu-cee's locations, strategically located along the highways and byways of the heavily populated, eastern part of the state. And while it is not necessarily true that everything is bigger in Texas, Bu-cee's is well-known for being completely over the top—the New Braunfels store is considered the largest convenience store in the world, bragging a nearly 68,000 square-foot building, sitting on an 18-acre pad, with more than 120 fueling positions.
Here in New Braunfels, as in most of the newer stores, the shop floor alone is larger than that of your typical supermarket, and the number of good things you will find to eat here handily puts the offerings at most other convenience stores to shame. Part of the Bu-cee's charm (it's pronounced Bucky's, as in beaver, as in co-founder Arch "Beaver" Aplin, if you were wondering) is just how much of its own-brand product you will find among the various walls 'o stuff (candy, jerky, dried fruit, rubs, hot sauces), the acres of shelving, and myriad tempting product displays. Pecans every which way, camouflaged caramel corn (it's exactly what it sounds like), mini-loaves of jalapeno cheese bread, pickled quail eggs, freshly kettle-fried potato chips, jars of ghost chili salsa, cups of deconstructed key lime pie, tubs of pimento cheese, tamales wrapped in corn husks, mini-buttermilk pies—it's all sold under the Bu-cee's brand, and if you're not judicious in selecting your road snacks, you will very quickly find yourself dealing with a sky-high tab.
There's beer, there's wine, there's an entire gift shop, like the lobby of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, calling out to the figurine collectors; at the opposite end of the store, there's an entire section just for home grilling and smoking, with everything from expensive gear to pecan logs to Aaron Franklin's cookbook. For many people, however, a Bu-cee's stop is a relatively straightforward affair—a quick visit to the award-winning, very clean bathrooms (yes, there are awards for bathrooms, that's a thing), maybe a soda from the fountain (76 cents for 44 oz., how could you not), and a bag of beaver nuggets ($3.99 for 13 oz). With two chief ingredients—brown sugar and cornmeal—this grievously addicting, deliciously rustic puffed corn snack is one of the things Texans are most likely to bring up if you mention Bu-cee's in their company, and for good reason. As with the empty-calorie'd cereals of your childhood—assuming your childhood ended back before helicopter parenting had been invented—you'll probably wind up begging for more.