Live Oak Barbecue, Austin's newest BBQ joint on the East side, was "Have you tried it yet?" No one else I knew had, and the question was more from a curious standpoint than from a point of "Oh my God, you have to go!" So curiosity ended up being the driving factor on my visit as well.
It is farther east than the hub of urban renewal/gentrification near I-35—whichever way you choose to look at that hot button issue—and it is pretty much a dive, but that's okay for a BBQ joint in my book. There are many places that walk the line between dive and slick franchise operation, but it can be a delicate balance... a dive is definitely more promising for good BBQ than a franchise, generally speaking, of course. The interior has an intense smoke smell that, had we sat inside, would have penetrated every last pore of our skin and each individual hair strand. Luckily, there is ample patio seating, and it was a temperate 85° degrees outside (yes, I realize most of the world doesn't apply the adjective "temperate" to 85°, but this is not most of the world)... though the aroma did still linger for several hours regardless. So, there are ventilation issues, but like I said, it's a dive so that is sort of thing goes with the territory. There were 3 men (30's-ish) working there who were all incredibly friendly.
Everything is ordered by weight rather than plate, so my friend Red (who you may remember from this post, before I gave her a campy ranch hand pseudonym) and I ordered a quarter pound of pork steak, a quarter pound of brisket, 1 pork rib each, some of the vinegar slaw, and the borracho beans (I had read some Yelp reviews of the potato salad that were not positive so I stayed away from that). With our Big Reds, our total was just under $14, a fair deal.
So, sides first... Red and I both prefer vinegar-based slaws, so we were excited to try this one. But sadly, there was just not a lot of flavor going on. I am not entirely sure how that is accomplished where vinegar is concerned, but it was kind of like cabbage in a water brine, which was disappointing. The beans on the other hand were really good. They were sort of a cross between the more typical ranch-style beans served with BBQ and Mexican-style frijoles charros, just slightly soupy with big chunks of tender meat and good flavor across the board. The menu also offered cucumber salad, which I generally love and was tempted to try, but maybe next time.
Now the meat... the pork ribs were right in between dry and falling-off-the bone tender—not a bad place to be—and they had a good pork flavor and a nice, subtle rub. The pork steak was also quite good. I hate to do comparisons too often, but I feel compelled to say that we are not talking Cooper's pork chop kind of good here (which transcends "good" for me), but they were tender with just enough smoke flavor to notice but not overpower the pork. The brisket was the low point, but it wasn't necessarily bad either... just average, I'd say. It was slightly on the dry side and there was not a lot of smoke penetration. The crust was pretty nice though, maybe just a tad too heavy on the rub, but it had a good flavor. I ended up using the sauce on the brisket both to add some moisture and also because I just liked the sauce. It's vinegar-based, which I prefer over a tomato-y sweet sauce, and had some drippings in it as well. All that was missing was a bit of kick (a.k.a. get some peppers in there).
And last but not least, Big Red, yo! Kicking it old school. (Did that make me sound cool? No? Pfft, like I care.)
All in all, I am calling Live Oak an average BBQ joint. There was a range in quality in what Red and I tried, but there was enough good stuff that I am willing to try again to see if it was an off day... if not, it will just be one of those places where you get your favorites and that's that.