Austin restaurateurs lay claim to Lockhart: In the heart of barbecue town – Food
Kaye Askins with her dog Chicken at Best Little Wine & Books (Courtesy of Best Little Wine & Books)
We hope we don’t ruin Lockhart, but it has to be said, the barbecue capital of Texas has the makings of a diner’s paradise, distinct from the smoked meats the town is famous for. Just south of Austin, the county seat of Caldwell has quietly established itself as a haven for veterans of the hospitality industry looking to expand as Austin pushes beyond its own borders.
While it might have been ridiculous a few years ago to suggest that Lockhart would in any way have such close ties to Austin’s food and drink scene 30 miles away, he indeed has supplanted more populous suburbs like Pflugerville, Del Valle and Buda as a food and drink destination, regardless of their proximity. Lockhart, Luling and Taylor are all on what was once the Chisholm Trail, an old cattle highway, which could explain Central Texans’ propensity for brisket smoking and why some of the best smoked briskets in the world date back to one of these three cities. Historically, railroads, cotton and barbecue have made Lockhart what it is today. However, this latest wave of bars, restaurants and shops, along with a handful of niche businesses like Mill Scale Metal Works, will help define what Lockhart will be like tomorrow.
Pretty Cool in Pink: Best Small Wines and Books
Against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the faded red brick of the historic Brock Building (more on that story in a moment) creates a familiar triptych of color as I walk through the pink door of Best Little Wine & Books, which officially opened on April 15. Owner and wine guru Kaye Askins chooses a bottle for a first customer.
“It’s really just the little neighborhood bottle shop,” she tells me. “It’s 700 square feet, four tables, and a rotating selection of 150 wines from nearly every major region. The ambiance is all about comfort, relaxation, and accessibility.” Askins’ dog, Chicken, a local staple, climbs into my lap as I sip a glass of rosé and chat with Professor Sharon Evans, the woman Askins just turned on for a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia Valley .
Books fill a corner of the windows – mostly titles by female authors on wine and food. This complements Askins’ wine selection, which is sourced primarily from winemakers who are women, minorities, and/or practice low intervention.
Comfort, relaxation and accessibility embody what is happening at Lockhart as a whole. Askins, a pi. Worth, a Lockhart native, was commuting almost weekly when several locals asked her if she planned to open a wine bar in town. It inspired a light bulb moment. “Lockhart has such a foundation for authentic Southern hospitality and open arms for women business owners. You can’t kick a rock without it being in front of a bar, shop or restaurant owned by a wife,” Askins says. “I needed this community that believed in me enough to get started.
“My goal with Best Little is to take that torch and pass it on to the Lockhart community in a light, bright and joyful space.”
Love Letters from an Old Friend: Old Pal Bar
Only 1 year old, Old Pal Bar looks like it could have stood on the corner of West Market and South Main streets for decades. “It’s kind of like my love letter to old Austin, like before,” says owner Travis Tober. “Lockhart now kind of reminds me of East Austin, old Austin, that I fell in love with.” Tober is best known for the nationally acclaimed Nickel City bar in Eastside Austin; with his bar experience, foresight and restlessness, it would make sense for him to be part of Lockhart’s new vanguard.
Old Pal offers fried chicken, jojos (seasoned, breaded, deep-fried potato wedges), agave and whiskey spirits, and ice-cold beer. There is live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Shuffleboard and darts are free on Tuesdays. This is indeed a quintessential old school Texas bar, new school Texas cooler.
Tober, who is also co-owner of Best Little Wine & Books, has no illusions that the city will soon be drastically changed: “With Tesla opening 20 minutes from here, I think the damage is done. , so let’s get the cool people out here while we can.” Maybe in a decade or so he’ll open a love letter to Lockhart in Fentress, a quaint riverside town a few miles south that hasn’t yet felt the effect of monolithic changes. from Austin.
Courtesy of Commerce Café
Crowdsourced Edibles: Commerce Cafe
Sarah Heard, co-owner/chef of Commerce Cafe with partner Nathan Lemley, grew up in Lockhart. “Quiet,” is how she kindly put it, describing the town decades ago, when insurance offices and antique shops populated the square.
Heard and Lemley, who also own Foreign & Domestic in Austin, live in Luling. After many trips through the once somewhat closed square, they kept an eye out for a vacant restaurant space in the square’s oldest building. They did their homework, then signed a lease in the 170-year-old structure.
On March 19, 2020, Governor Greg Abbott officially limited social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, effectively closing bars, restaurants, and schools; The Commerce Cafe opened on May 29, 2020, when restaurants were allowed to open at 50% capacity. Undeterred, Heard and Lemley worked to make the Commerce Cafe the answer Lockhart restaurants wanted. Their menu was first guided by a local discussion board, and menu items were tested at Foreign & Domestic.
“We looked at what options Lockhart didn’t have and put them on the menu,” Heard says. Along with a bespoke chicken fried steak, the menu is complemented by fresh pasta dishes, sandwiches and a Monday night family meal with salad, protein, plenty of sides and plain bread. Tuesday offers an all-night happy hour.
“We want to be the super welcoming coffee shop on the corner where all the locals go … but I don’t know if we’ll open for breakfast,” Heard laughs. “Breakfast is no fun to run.”
Photo by Kelly Dugan/Little Trouble
Underground blues: small problem
Housed in the basement of the Brock Building (1898) – what was once a dirt boxing gym, among other things – lurks Little Trouble. A boxing glove hangs under the stairs, commemorating this story. Clandestine vibes and a strong sense of history persist in the architecture of the underground dining room and bar.
“I wanted the menu and everything else to reflect where we are in Texas and the vibe of the place,” says Casey Wilcox, chef and co-owner of Little Trouble. “Walking into this room kind of sealed that deal.” Wilcox, former chef at Justine’s, imported an equally sultry vibe to the square, though he adorned his corner with his unique aesthetic.
Fittingly, the menu centers around German and Mexican dishes, complemented by complex flavors from harissa, miso and chimichurri. This German Mexican influence is prominent in Texas tartare: raw beef, smoked cheddar, marinated jalapeño, cilantro and fresh tortilla chips, the smoked cheddar and cilantro cooling the spice of pickled jalapeños and the dressed and spiced raw beef, the fries contributing a textured crunch. Wilcox’s cuisine is cowboy chic, rustic yet refined with classic techniques, playful in its complexity while nodding to its surroundings.
Little Trouble persevered; a miracle, considering the restaurant opened a week before Abbott’s statewide shutdown order. “We opened on March 12, 2020; we had two big services and then we were only takeout. And for a minute we were the only place you could get a drink, beyond a beer, on Sundays” , Wilcox told me.
“Travis Tober would be coming down, and I hadn’t spoken to anyone in a week. I’m just upstairs getting ready, washing all the dishes and doing the takeout…so defeated he would have come in and deliver [a speech] like a WWE wrestler. “Lockhart get up!” You’ll get there, come on man! And I would go from being very low to, ‘Okay man, we got this, we got this,'” says Wilcox, who still works 90 hours a week when it counts.
Growth is inevitable, which means people are leaving Austin and coming to Lockhart, a city united in its uniqueness and lack of big-box stores. Instead, there are restaurants, bars, shops and nice people. “It definitely looks like it’s exploding. Every week it keeps growing, everything gets busier, someone here in the food and beverage business is doing something exciting every week, the community is kind of full excitement,” Wilcox said.
According to Wilcox, who also sees an older version of Austin on these small-town streets, Lockhart has embraced them. They are riding the wave together, working to recreate those moments that inspired them in spaces where people can sympathize, toast, break bread, and inspire other pioneering entrepreneurs who can carry this shared energy into the future.
New Lockhart Hotspots
Best Small Wines and Books
210 West San Antonio
Tue-Sat, noon-9pm; Sun-Mon, closed
old buddy’s bar
100 E. Market
Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am–12pm
118 S. Trade
Mon-Tues, 5pm-9pm; Wed-Thu, 11am-2pm, 5pm-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-9pm; Sunday closed
101 E San Antonio
Mon & Wed-Thu, 6pm-12pm; Fri. & Sun., 4 p.m.–12 p.m.; Sat, 4pm-1am; Tues, closed