THE LULING CITY MARKET
“Never eat more than you can lift.”– Miss Piggy
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” — Julia Child
Most non-locals think it odd that the center of activity in Luling, Texas is the Luling City Market. But it makes sense; it is unique, even for central Texas.
Hard to even call it a restaurant. The first impression is the smoked meat smell that arrives when you open the ‘50’s aluminum door: pure smoked meat. The grizzled character of the place hits you next. Nothing has been altered for at least 30 years….the walls and booths are old varnished pine boards, the ceilings tiles are ancient vintage, and the tables appear to be cast-offs from the local high school cafeteria. Everything has a walnut color accumulated from 30 years of smoke from the meat room—it’s at the back with swinging doors. Orders can be placed at the counter, next to the warming pits and cutting table. The strangest part is that prices vary: a pound and a half of brisket with onions and pickle sides and several pieces of bread costs from $13.80 to $14.90. There’s a hand cranked cash register, and if you’re owed more than 50 cents in change, you invariably get a half dollar coin. Since it would be heresy to contaminate the meat room with other items for sale, a booth near the front offers soft drinks, pinto beans and cheese. Even the restrooms are unique; like everything else, nothing has changed in three decades, and paper towels are not furnished . . . just hand blowers. A line usually forms during lunch hour.
Also unique: the food and eating ceremony. Only beef is offered: brisket, ribs, or sausage. To keep matters simple, the order is deposited on brown paper sheets, with only plastic knives as implements. Hence the lines in front of the restrooms; since everyone eats with their hands, a post-lunch wash-up is mandatory. A not-insignificant number eat only sausage and American cheese chunks with crackers, a rather cholesterol-laden choice. The far out favorite drink is Big Red soda, which if never tried will offer a treat.
But the most compelling feature of the Luling City Market is its clientele. The rainbow of color and spectrum of age are nowhere else to be found. Since Luling sits only a mile or two north of the interstate between Houston and San Antonio, many travelers make a point to exit and partake of the local fare. Probably two-fifths are white (“Anglo”, in Texas parlance), about a quarter Black and the rest Hispanic. Or to cut the crowd another way, about a third are over 60 either on temporary or permanent vacation, a quarter are working people from the surrounding area, probably, another quarter are from the Interstate, and the remainder, young people just having a good time not having to abide by any particular table manners. Oil field workers, small kids, seniors, teenagers skipping lunch from the local high school cafeteria, college students from nearby San Marcos, toughened men in cowboy boots, well-dressed business men and women, families, groups out for a day of touring. Everyone congregates at the Luling City Market, an institution.