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Why’d the Chicken Cross the Pit?

Because Kreuz Market has perfected the once-scorned barbecued bird

The poor barbecued chicken.

The holy trinity of Texas barbecue consists of beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Other meats pulled from pits around these parts include prime rib, pork chops and giant beef.

Barbecued yardbird? Not so much. Even the generic turkey breast gets more ’cue love.

Traditionally, slow-smoked chicken has been regarded as too tricky to cook consistently, the end product either undercooked with too much red visible or overcooked to a dryness rivaling jerky.

Chicken, it would seem, is meant to be fried, roasted on a rotisserie or grilled in the Mexican style of the El Pollo Loco and Pollo Regio franchises.

For the past 10 years, however, the best barbecued chicken in Texas has been turned out quietly, as something of an afterthought—an almost under-the-counter thing—in one of the most obvious places on Earth: Kreuz Market in Lockhart, one of the temples of Texas barbecue.

Moist and tender, every morsel packs savory-sweet smoked flavor, enveloped by deep-bronzed skin that’s crispy, not greasy.

Full disclosure: “Best barbecue” is a loaded phrase, I know. But that’s how my friend Wyatt McSpadden described the whole chicken wrapped in butcher paper he brought me when I was bedridden following a hospital stay last year. I didn’t open the sack until about three hours after he left. When I did, bells rang and the lights started flashing.

Chicken!

Roy Perez, general manager and head pitmaster at Kreuz Market in Lockhart.

Wyatt McSpadden

I was part of the original Texas Monthly barbecue team for the magazine’s top-50 barbecue joints ranking in 1997 and 2003. Barbecued chicken was never part of the discussion on either top-50 quest.

McSpadden photographed some of the top-50 locations, and today he’s known as one of the foremost photographers of Texas barbecue, capturing pitmasters including Austin’s Aaron Franklin and Lexington’s Tootsie Tomanetz and sampling their esteemed meats.

I met him at Kreuz Market to gauge his assessment, and now I’m willing to stick my neck out and declare it’s the best.

Roy Perez chuckles when he hears that.

He says he started tinkering with yardbirds 10 years ago, after noting a number of customers—typically first-timers —asking about chicken. “It wasn’t on the menu for years,” he says. “We got tired of people asking, ‘You got chicken?’ and ‘You ain’t got chicken?’ In my head, I went, ‘You want chicken? We got Golden Chick, Chicken Express, all these chicken places.’ ”

But those are fried, not slow-smoked.

“There’s something about barbecued chicken that’s different,” he says. “It just came to me: ‘Can I do chicken?’ I thought: Let’s throw it on there and mess with it, see how it turns out.”

As general manager and head pitmaster at Kreuz and with 35 years’ experience, the mutton-chopped Perez is renowned for turning out top-shelf brisket as well as exceptional pork ribs, dino beef ribs and sausage.

But a hands-on approach to minding the pit and trial and error led him to consistently turn out slow-smoked birds that are moist and flavorful throughout. His favorite part? “I’ve always liked the thigh,” he says. “We’re old-school. As you can see, I’m sitting here keeping my eyes on this fire instead of sitting in an office somewhere.”

Perez says he learned the pitmaster trade from Rick Schmidt, one of the owners at Kreuz Market when he started, back in 1987. Chicken takes as much skill as any of the cuts that Kreuz is known for.

“You’ve got to stay on it, take care of it,” Perez says. “Keep an eye on it, twist on the leg to see if it’s still tender and still needs more cooking. It’s all visual. We don’t use thermometers.”

Still, most barbecue pit bosses don’t share his respect for the craft.

“These guys laugh when we’re cooking the chicken,” Perez says. “I’ll say, ‘Those are ready.’ ‘No, they’re not!’ I’ll say ‘OK, get a thermometer so we can check the internal temperature.’ Sure enough, they’ll poke it and say, ‘How did you do that?’

“With my years of experience, I don’t need nothing to tell me this is done or this is not done. You got to make sure how it all comes out because people travel from all over. Even the locals—you don’t want to let them down.”

His method emphasizes simplicity: about two hours of cooking time at about 300 degrees.

“Put it in the back, let it cook slowly. When you know it’s ready, take it off, put it in a container with the lid to keep the moisture in,” Perez says. “It’s such a little piece of meat; you have to keep an eye on it. You can’t walk away like you can with a brisket.”

Slow-smoked chicken at Kreuz Market.

Wyatt McSpadden

The wood that provides the heat in Perez’s pit is post oak. The seasoning, he says, “is no secret: just salt and pepper, a little cayenne, chili powder—same way we do our brisket.” But timing is everything. “You can’t sell it too early. If it’s got blood in there, people might get sick. You can’t sell it too late.”

Kreuz was famous for not providing barbecue sauce as a condiment; the establishment has never used sauce in the cooking process, no matter the meat.

“It’s cheating,” Perez says. “It’s a quick way out. Here we’ve always been, ‘Don’t put nothing on it. Eat it, try it before you start covering it up with sauce.’ Simple. With love. Everything else will take care of itself.” This is barbecue I can eat almost every day.

Hipster barbecue fetishists in search of the exotic tend to bypass the bird. Perez says it’s because most young folks don’t have the time or patience to slow-smoke chicken.

“They don’t want to cook something that you have to babysit,” he says. “They want to throw on a big brisket, a big clod, big rack of ribs, ring of sausage, pork chops. Then you get a little chicken—‘Man, I don’t want to sit here all day—it’s hot!’ ”

Only one of Kreuz Market’s eight pits accommodates chicken. The other pits, where briskets are cooking at 700 degrees, are too hot. Chicken sales have steadily increased, Perez says, despite a determined lack of emphasis on the product.

“We don’t cook much of it,” he says. “We’re not known for chicken. The old people who have been coming for years don’t order chicken. They don’t want something new or different. They’re set in their ways.”

For the rest of us though, there’s a whole other reason for making a barbecue pilgrimage to Lockhart: Roy Perez’s barbecued chicken.