I'm staring at a meal I know I'm seriously going to regret later. Here at a rustic steakhouse with a "No Spittin' on the Floor" sign, is a pile of barbecued meat that would feed my family for at least six months. It's presented on a wooden board on a bare table: the plates styrofoam, the cutlery plastic. There's enough meat to prepare a polar bear for hibernation, and send a vegetarian to therapy for life. I'm sweating and I haven't even tried the food yet.
I'm not sure what's making me more nervous – being confronted with so much meat, or the fact that the owner of this revered ma and pop establishment, Roegels, is standing over me watching me eat (in an interested, yet slightly unsettling way).
It's our first day in Houston and so far the stereotypes you associate with Texans –conservative, republicans, cowboy hat and cowboy boot wearers – rings true, but none more so than the fact they love their meat. Texans take their barbecue seriously. The closest analogy I can come to is how Australians feel about coffee. There's fierce rivalry between barbecue houses and Texan barbecue served outside of the state is not considered to be the real deal. Amazingly, there are food writers who specialise in critiquing barbecue alone, and in Austin, Texas, people will queue for up to seven hours at Franklin Barbecue for its world-famous brisket.
Hungry after a tour of the Johnson Space Centre, we become like a pack of wolves devouring the smoked brisket with its heavily seasoned bark and thin layer of fat, succulent turkey and finger-licking beef ribs. We spoon the house-made corn and black bean salad, known colloquially as Texas caviar, loaded mashed potatoes and ridiculously good mac 'n' cheese into our mouths; paper napkins tucked into shirt collars just like I'd seen in the movies.
"In Texas it's all about who has the best brisket," Misty Roegels tells us. Roegels is known for its true central Texas feel and Houstonians can't get enough, with the place often selling out of its renowned brisket and ribs. After explaining the intricate details of Texas barbecue over lunch, we're taken out back to see the ovens where the meat, smothered in secret spices, is cooked on the barbecue pit. It's a hot, humid day and the heat from the ovens makes it feel like we're the ones being cooked.
"Do you want to compare barbecues?," our African-American guide Darren asks us when we're back in the comfort of our airconditioned bus. "I know this other really great place." "No!" we yell collectively, groaning in defeat.
Unbelievably, we back up for dinner that very night at the hip and cool Underbelly, a contemporary restaurant serving up Modern Texas cuisine, with the feel of Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar and Grill. The place is heaving. It's the complete opposite to Roegels, but again the main star here is meat. Chef Chris Shepherd focuses on locally sourced ingredients and whole animal butchery. Its billboard out front sums it up: "Eat red, drink red." Which we do, but at a price. Let's just say I pay heavily for my gluttony later and my husband's reprimand echoes down the line when I phone home looking for sympathy. "Why did you eat pork belly, for god's sake? You know it makes you sick."
I know he's right, but as they say, when in Texas ... We leave Houston a few kilos heavier and sure enough meat's on the menu again on our next stop, Austin. We dine at the Driskill Grill on its superb Dakota Farms American buffalo and melt-in-the-mouth prime dry aged filet mignon. I ask unnecessary questions from our attentive waiter who's the spitting image of Texan-born Matthew McConaughey, right down to the deep Southern drawl.
Another night we sample Lamberts Downtown Barbecue; an upscale yet relaxed restaurant set in the historic Schneider Brothers building. Here they serve up slow-smoked barbecue and modern Texas cooking. By this stage my less than cast-iron belly is out for the count, and I can only watch my fellow diners tuck into maple-and-coriander-encrusted pork ribs and the renowned brown-sugar-and-coffee-rubbed brisket, while I pick at a salad.
But it's Franklin Barbecue I'm most curious to see. This is where diehard meat lovers gather in the early morning, forming queues that can last all day, for the ultimate in barbecue nirvana – sweet succulent pulled pork, tender turkey and its revered brisket, considered to be the best in Austin (depending on who you talk to; Micklethwait Craft Meats is also considered the city's finest).
I take photos of the queues. It reminds me of the long lines for a new Harry Potter instalment, or Labour Day weekend at Disneyland. But no one's complaining. In fact they smile and wave as I stand across the road and stare in wonder. "Is it worth it?" I yell over the traffic to a man giving me the peace sign. "Hell, yeah," he yells back. In Texas, seriously good barbecue is worth the wait.
Air New Zealand launches new non-stop Auckland to Houston (America's fourth-largest city) flights up to five times a week from December 15 on newly refurbished Boeing 777-200 aircraft. Connecting flights are available from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See airnewzealand.com.
Roegels: 2223 S Voss Rd, Houston; roegelsbarbecue.com. Underbelly: 1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston; underbellyhouston.com. The Driskill Grill: 604 Brazos St, Austin; driskillgrill.com. Lamberts Downtown Barbecue: 401 W 2nd St, Austin; lambertsaustin.com. Franklin Barbecue: 900 E. 11th Street, Austin; franklinbarbecue.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.