There are articles in every reporter’s career they are not prepared to write – they haven’t done their homework, they don’t understand the issue, and they don’t know where to begin. Then there are stories the reporter has trained their whole life to write. This restaurant review is one of those.
In my 35 years on Earth and in Texas, I have tried almost every legendary BBQ joint in the central Lone Star State – the part of Texas where it was perfected. I’ve eaten myself into a stupor at Cooper’s in Llano, Franklin’s in Austin, and Kreuz Market in Lockhart. I’ve had the all-you-can-eat too many times at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, and for a few tragic months in 2003, I was the worst waiter in the history of the County Line BBQ on FM 2222 in Austin.
This past week, at the Ramat Hahayal district in North Tel Aviv I tried a new restaurant that claims to be the real deal, the first authentic Texas BBQ restaurant in the Holy Land. Based on my fact-finding mission I can say that while “Texas BBQ” might not be exactly the same thing or at the same level as the best places in the Texas Hill Country, it’s pretty close, and that’s saying a lot.
Let’s start first with what Texas BBQ doesn’t have. It doesn’t serve pork, meaning that you can’t get pork ribs, part of the “holy trinity” of Texas BBQ brisket, sausage, and ribs (beef and pork). The restaurant doesn’t have any Lone Star, Shiner, or Pearl on tap or in the fridge, nor is there, for now, any pecan pie available. The décor could also use some UT memorabilia or pictures of former Longhorn greats (or Texas A and M Aggie football players for you to point and laugh at while you eat), and maybe a picture of Willie Nelson or a couple pieces of Armadillo taxidermy could be a wise addition.
That said, it does feel a bit like home, and it certainly smells right when you walk in the door – that rich, smoky BBQ odor that is the smell of freedom. The décor is simple Texas BBQ joint or dance hall style - wood tables and neon signs, with a giant wall painting of the state and the words “Don’t Mess with Texas”, while “come on in” is written on the floor at the entrance. They also play country music, and during my visit I actually heard a Waylon Jennings track (“Ramblin’ Man”) something I’m not sure has happened before in the history of the state of Israel.
It may sound blasphemous, but I think if you moved the “Texas BBQ” to the Hill Country some people could actually be temporarily fooled to think it’s from those parts – though they may wonder why the blonde co-ed waitresses have been switched out with dark-haired Israeli girls (both probably well-trained with firearms, though for different reasons). Nonetheless, it’d feel kinda right, if a bit different.
Let’s get to the meat. The real gauge of any Texas BBQ place is their brisket, and at Texas BBQ they pass the test. Manager Yaron Fogelman says the brisket cooks at a low heat for 14 hours or more in the industrial-size smoker they have in the back kitchen, and it shows – theirs is a tender, flavorful, and lean brisket that doesn’t need sauce. It reflects the restaurant’s “Slow and Low” motto – printed on their menus and right below their sign.
The beef short ribs and spare ribs are rich, meaty, and fall off the bone and into your arteries. The beef sausage is a spicy, flavorful winner that might impress someone from Elgin (“The Sausage Capital of Texas”), though I found the chicken and cheese sausage to be not to my liking. The BBQ’d chicken was also well-seasoned and flavorful, though I’ve always felt ordering chicken in a BBQ joint is kind of a waste, and probably not what you came for. They also have a kids meal with corn dogs – not as massive or crispy as their Texas brethren, but tasty nonetheless.
The sides are also pretty spot-on. The Mac n Cheese is really great and they have a tasty potato salad that, like in Texas, uses a mix of mustard and mayo. The ranch style beans were too sweet for my taste though, and the cornbread, while moist and tasty, isn’t really my style. Now this is where a Texas BBQ purist would say “cornbread at a BBQ joint?”, and point out that really you’re just supposed to have some slices of white bread on the side along with a tall bottle of Big Red soda. Neither are available at “Texas BBQ”, though they do have an authentically sweet iced tea (as well as iced herbal and fruit iced tea), with – lo and behold – free refills for 10 NIS.
They also have something called a “brisket salad”. These two words should not be used together, but this is Israel, so I guess they get a pass.
The prices are a good bit steeper than in Texas, but almost everything in Texas, from groceries, to housing, to firearms, are cheaper than in Israel. Still, for Tel Aviv it aint bad.
A one meat plate with cornbread and two sides costs 58 shekels, while a two-meat plate goes for 69 shekels, both are 7 shekels extra for ribs. A small side order is NIS 9 and a large one is 15. Brisket sandwiches with a side are 53 shekels, and chicken and sausage sandwiches with a side go for 49 shekels.
They also have three combo meals - the “Redneck” with meat and sides for 3-4 people for NIS 225, the “Cowboy” for 6-8 for 425, and the “Rodeo”, which serves 10-12 (Israelis, probably fewer Texans) for 625.
The desserts are tasty too, and include a hefty slice of red velvet cake and a bread pudding, each for 22 shekels. Now, how in the name of high school football did this restaurant end up here? Well, Fogelman, a 29-year-old Tel Aviv native said it all started when his brother Tal paid a couple visits to Austin and fell in love with the local BBQ. Yaron later flew out to Austin and the Fogelman boys spent two weeks eating BBQ twice a day, a feat that could kill a professional steer wrestler.
They later did a week-long internship of sorts with pit boss and restaurant owner Kevin Bludso at Bludso’s, a Texas style BBQ joint with locations in Long Beach and Compton (neither of which are in Texas). When the Fogelman boys and their father Arie set upon opening a real Texas-style BBQ in Israel they ordered a custom-made smoker, which was built in Missouri and shipped to Tel Aviv, Yaron said. The smoker is massive and state of the art, and the entire kitchen and restaurant were built around it.
The smoker uses logs of oak shipped to Israel from a few different countries in Scandinavia. The beef, since you asked, comes from cattle raised up in the Golan Heights..
The Fogelman boys – Yaron, Tal, Yuval, and their father Arie - don’t have any Texas back-story or family connection to the Lone Star state. They simply fell in love with the state’s culinary treasures and decided to bring a piece of Texas to Israel. It takes real courage to try to recreate a regional food people are so fiercely passionate about, especially without a personal pedigree, but it seems they’re on the right track. They’ve made some concessions to accommodate Israeli tastes, but you won’t find any hummus or falafel on the menu and they seem to be very committed to recreating a stripped-down, authentic Texas BBQ experience.
A lot of Texans will tell you that the quality of BBQ declines the farther you go east of the Sabine River, north of the Red, or West of the Rio Grande. If you compare “Texas BBQ” to the best in the Lone Star state they’re gonna come up short, but maybe not by a country mile, and besides, is that a fair comparison? If you judge them at face value though, the meat and the sides are damn good and the atmosphere is laid back and feels like home.
So, to all those hardcore BBQ purists in the Promised Land (Texas), I’ll paraphrase Davy Crockett.
“Y’all can go to hell, I’m going to Texas [BBQ]”! Texas BBQ – HaBarzel St. 7, Tel Aviv. Not Kosher, open on Shabbat. 03-6768661 www.texasbbq.co.il