Somehow, magically, I lucked into getting to review in-town BBQ for the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance 2013 City Guide. BBQ occupies a huge chunk of the pie chart inside my brain that depicts what type of food I think about for what percentage of the time I am already thinking about food (which is a lot). It would without question be my death row last meal, if ever I inexplicably go completely nuts and kill someone and then get caught before I can make it across the Rio Grande (because there's that whole Texas and the death penalty thing). Not only do I frequently daydream about eating BBQ, but I have spent a fair amount of time seeking out the greats, reading up on their methodology, and analyzing it in the split second after I am blissing out on the beauty of that first bite. I've tried my hand at smoking meat myself, with varying results, and I have a deep respect for both the skill and the artistry that goes into it. And I really do believe good BBQ is a combination of both.
The BBQ featured here falls within the Central Texas style, and let's be specific about that. There is more than one style of BBQ within the state, just as there is more than one type of geography. It's those differences in geography that are responsible for the variations in style, defined by the people who inhabit(ed) an area and the resources that have been historically available.
Central Texas style, though, does tend to dominate, and it is what most people are talking about when they say "Texas style." This region (which, by the way includes more than just the Hill Country so the term Hill Country style is a misnomer as well) had a strong Central European immigrant presence, largely German and Czech, who brought with them their techniques for smoking meat with a dry rub over an indirect heat, typically using the most readily available wood, oak. The meat takes center stage and should have a distinct but not overwhelming smoke flavor. Sauce should come on the side, to be used at the discretion of the eater, and should only enhance the natural flavor of the meat, not mask it.
East Texas style is more influenced by the styles predominant in our neighboring states to the east and owes much of its origins to African-American populations. I see it as sort of a blending of the styles of the Southeast and of Central Texas. You'll find various cuts of pork more common and the sauce often pre-applied (a.k.a. "sauced").
There are also regional differences in South and West Texas. Mesquite is more commonly used with the heat source being more often direct, and other meats such as cabrito (goat kid) and mutton (adult sheep) are often included. The influence of Mexico is more keenly present, with barbacoa being prominent.
Yet, there are commonalities too, especially these days. Texas is cattle country, and brisket reigns. When most Texans think "BBQ," it's a visual image of brisket that pops into their minds, and it's often the defining factor in whether or not it is considered "good" BBQ. Along with brisket, sausage and pork ribs make up the all-holy Texas Trinity. These are the basics that have to be good. Of course, specific restaurants have other cuts of meat that they may specialize in... a pork chop, whole chicken, or a beef spare rib, for example. If you can smoke it over a fire it's fair game.
I'm telling you all this because, A) I've got the conch, and B) it's relevant. There is skill involved in every cooking style that exists in the world, unmistakably, but eating is a subjective experience. We all bring our own preferences to the table based on experience, taste, and personality. And that's a good thing. I was raised in a transition zone between the Hill Country and South Texas, and while Central Texas style dominated and shaped my preferences, I also have a deep, deep love for good barbacoa (and for most things with Mexican roots). I later spent 14 years in North Texas (not to be confused with the Panhandle)—which has a larger African-American population—and I spent a considerable amount of time eating BBQ that had more in common with East Texas style (oh what a sad day it was when Steve's BBQ in Denton burned down). Many times, BBQ is judged solely against the expectations for Central Texas style, which is too narrow and discounts a large portion of our populace and history, I think. So, I've tried to focus the reviews on the defining features of this region, but I've allowed for flexibility if a particular restaurant offered items with other regional influences and for experimentation in its own right (because we live in a world where we influence each other, and we make changes and decisions based on our own desires, as it should be). Any judgements made about a restaurant were measured against the restaurant itself, and not in comparison to others.
Some restaurants are flagged as "recommended," but that doesn't necessarily mean the others should be avoided or aren't good... just that the recommended places stand out from the crowd as particularly memorable. These are in alphabetical order, it was too hard to do it in order of preference:
- The Blue Ox
- Blue Ribbon Barbecue
- Franklin Barbecue
- John Mueller Meat Co.
- La Barbecue
- Lambert's Downtown Barbecue
- Micklethwait Craft Meat
- Stiles Switch
Regardless of any strongly held opinions, you can argue till the cows come home about which BBQ is the BEST. It's a bit like arguing about religion or which way the toilet paper roll goes. No one's convincing anyone of anything, so doing it is only done for the joy of arguing, if you are one to derive pleasure from such things. Personally, I'm not, though I do like to blather on excessively about certain topics (BBQ included). When the chest thumping starts though, I get bored and wander off (I feel the same way about football). You may disagree with some of my reviews, and more power to you. Eat what makes you happy.
The reviews are organized by location:
- It had to be unique to Austin, so, no chains. This excluded The County Line and Rudy's and quite a few others.
- It can not have ever been busted for buying stolen meat (google it to see who it excludes if you are so inclined). Sorry, but my trust in the quality of the food being served there has been irreparably broken, and come on, that's just poor behavior. For shame.
- It had to be within the confines of Austin proper. Lines have to be drawn somewhere, although unless you have been hiding under a rock you are probably aware that there is super-dooper-awesome BBQ to be had just a stone's throw from town. Notes From Maggie's Farm has some recommendations for BBQ East of Austin.
DOWNTOWN519 E 7th Street
Wed–Sat 4 P.M.–4 A.M.
This trailer conveniently sits across the street from several bars on Red River, so if you happen to stumble out of one of them feeling ravenous for BBQ, well, here it is. Hopefully you will be so drunk that by the next morning you won't remember most of the bad decisions you made, like kissing that guy/girl (or both!) you just met and eating here.
Texas Trinity: If the photo above looks unappetizing, imagine that feeling being tripled when actually eating it. The brisket was almost unrecognizable as brisket and was hard and dry. Even if my visit occurred on an off-day, the fact that I was served something like this is inexcusable. The pork ribs were just... ugh. The sausage was better than the other two, but that's not saying too much. All of it came doused in an unremarkable sauce. I tasted each and then packed it up, walked around the corner, gave it to a homeless man, and then felt slightly bad for being so judgemental about the food. Then I got over it.
Other Stuff: There was some other stuff, yes that's true. I didn't try any of it.
Sides: The beans were from a can. The potato salad was from a plastic container. The end.
RECOMMENDEDBlue Ribbon Barbecue
DOWNTOWN120 E 4th Street
Daily 7 A.M.–9 P.M.
I was not at all sure what to expect in terms of the food when I walked into Blue Ribbon Barbecue. There were a lot of negative yelp reviews, but I tend to create a mental snapshot of the reviewer based on their comments to determine if I trust their taste or not (I'm sure most people do this, and that's part of why I am being so verbose in all of my reviews, to provide enough of my background and personality to allow people to decide if they think I'm bunk or trustworthy). I dismissed a lot of the reviews for things like suggesting that the brisket be marinated in a sauce like a pot roast (wtf?) or that the sauce was too thin (pssst, this is Texas). And many of the reviews griped about the expense... however, after eating at 18 various BBQ restaurants in the last month, I found the pricing pretty much in line with most other places. But there were some that described the meat as dry or lacking flavor, which gave me a bit of pause. There could be a consistency issue here—I have only been once, so I can't speak to that—but my experience was quite different. It's true that the building lacks character. Located at the bottom of the Frost tower, the interior looks as though it were decorated by a dude. Not The Dude (who knows how to use a rug to tie a room together), a dude, as in the kind that would look at you funny if you suggested perhaps he might want to take the decor into account. But I've sparred with so many dudes in my lifetime, I don't mind offering a friendly jab... dude, you might want to take the decor into account. It's also true that they smoke the meat in nearby Taylor, and then bring it to downtown Austin, so it's not straight off the smoker and the crust has lost its crispness. But it's also true that these guys have BBQ in their blood, and that counts for something. It's run by Bobby Cavo of the Mikeska family, and if that last name means nothing to you, then I humbly suggest brushing up on your Texas BBQ history (wait, I'll help). The Mikeska family first made its entry into the BBQ world in the 1950's, transitioning from small meat markets, when five brothers each opened their own restaurant in different towns: Taylor, Smithville, Temple, Columbus, and El Campo. Bobby is descended from Rudy, the owner of the Taylor store. His mother is Mopsie, who took over that store and established the catering side of it. This rich history alone makes trying the place worth it, but in my experience, it's not the only reason to go.
Texas Trinity: I tried both the lean and the fatty brisket, and both were top tier. The brisket was the deciding factor in my decision to add this place to the recommended list. Both were moist and tender with just enough smoke and highly flavorful. The fat had been caramelized into a lovely amber, a rarity and the mark of brisket that's just been plain well-executed. The beef-pork blend sausage was finely ground with a snappy casing and mild seasonings that complimented the flavor of the meat without overwhelming it. The pork ribs were a low-point, however. They weren't bursting with flavor and were slightly on the gamey side. There wasn't much evidence of smoke by taste or by sight, and the rub was sparse and unnoticeable. They were very wet, as opposed to moist or juicy, which leads me to suspect they'd been either finished off in an oven or left to sit in foil while condensation created a water bath for them... it was a watery wetness, not a meat juice wetness, which is not so good. I do love a good, thin sauce, but I have to disagree with the yelp reviewer who felt it was watery. The sauce sits on the table in the same type of containers that maple syrup is poured from, and without being syrupy, it had a similar viscosity (this equals thick by my measure). The flavor was right between sweet and tangy and was just good, old-school Central Texas style sauce.
Other Stuff: Chicken, turkey, and pulled pork round out the meat offerings. You can get any of them on a plate, sandwich, or loaded on a baked potato. They also have breakfast tacos which you can get with BBQ or without. I tried the banana pudding for dessert, which was fresh and so sinful I halfway suspected it of having marshmallow fluff mixed into it (in a good way).
Sides: The ranch-style pintos were quite nice, above average for sure. They had a perfect texture and a subtle seasoning. The greens beans lacked any seasoning at all, however... and I have to ask, dudes, did these come out of a can? They tasted like they did. These need a bit of work (along with the pork ribs). There is also potato salad, hot red potatoes, cole slaw, sweet corn, and salads on the menu.
DOWNTOWN100 Red River
Mon–Sat 11 A.M.–9 P.M.
Iron Works delivers on atmosphere in a way few can compete with. The old, red building—which, yes, was an iron workshop—is a state historical site with a great story behind it. It has a wonderful, old-school BBQ joint feel as well with a nice deck along Waller Creek. It's so much the quintessential idea of a Texas BBQ joint, in fact, that if someone were to ever make a BBQ theme park (now there's an idea), I'd gander much of it would be modeled after the Iron Works (and hopefully Sid and Marty Krofft could be coaxed into designing all the animatronics just like in the golden days of Six Flags). The smoke aroma fills the air (and will linger on your clothes and hair afterwards) to whet your appetite. Being smack-dab next to the Austin Convention Center, there are plenty of people in business attire, many of whom are from out-of-town. After a stop here, they should end their visits to Austin with a decent impression of Texas barbecue... with high marks for the setting and fair marks for the food. It's a good representation of the baseline and has an average flavor—nothing that would leave someone with a bad impression, certainly—but it is not going to knock anyone's socks off either.
Texas Trinity: The brisket had a good smoke line and flavor, and the fat was well-rendered. It was solid, but will probably never inspire poetry. I spotted the guy working the smoker brushing sauce onto the ribs, so I asked for mine unsauced and was glad I did. There are two sauces available, spicy and regular, though I could not taste much of a difference between the two. They smack of being poured from a bottle, and since Iron Works sells their sauce bottled (as well as their rubs), that is likely the case. Both on the thick side, the sauces weren't bad per se, but I wasn't really a fan of either (did I detect Liquid Smoke in there?). The ribs had been sauced before going on the smoker (or while on it), which opens up the whole debate about mopping (and I generally fall on the dry rub side of that argument) and were on the chewy side... though there were some nice blackened bits. The sausage had a fine grind, good snap, and was plenty flavorful, but it often comes down to the seasoning, and in this case it was just okay.
Other Stuff: They also offer beef ribs, chicken, ham, pork loin, turkey, and chopped beef. So, basically, the whole array. My friend had the chicken and had the same reaction I did, good but not exceptional.
Sides: I tried the potato salad and the green beans; both were very traditional. The potato salad had a better flavor balance between the two. The green beans were okay; they just lacked seasoning. A little salt fixed the problem though. Also available are pinto beans, cole slaw, french fries, baked potatoes, and salad from a salad bar.
RECOMMENDEDLamberts Downtown Barbecue
DOWNTOWN401 W 2nd Street
Lunch: Mon–Fri 11 A.M.–2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Sun–Wed 5:30–10 P.M.
Thurs–Sat 5:30–10:30 P.M.
Brunch: Sat & Sun 11A.M.–2 P.M.
Bar: 7 days 11A.M.–late
Texas Trinity: The sausage had a slightly coarse texture and perfect snap, and it was both sweet and spicy. It was an unexpected combination of flavors, and my friend and I spent a small amount of time trying to figure out exactly what was in it. I actually liked it dipped in the mustard sauce, which is a rarity in Texas, though it was plenty flavorful sans the sauce. The brisket was some of the best I've had, very moist and the crust (which was nice and crisp) complimented the beef well, letting it shine in its own right. No sauce was needed, but both the traditional and the hot sauce were nice on it. The ribs were perfectly prepared, just the right level of tenderness while still clinging to the bone, and they had plenty of meat on them. The rub was also really flavorful, but maybe a tad sweet for my taste (though, please note, I lean towards savory over sweet almost always). But I did feel it was nice with the pork and again, it enhanced the natural flavor of the meat.
Other Stuff: BBQ is the emphasis here, but there are plenty of other things to be found on the menu. So if you have a friend with you who isn't craving BBQ, they'll be okay. My friend got the Smoked Chicken Salad BLT. Chicken salad comes in two categories in my mind, completely repulsive or great. This one fell into the latter category. The table next to us ordered the crispy wild boar ribs, which they devoured so I assume they were good... I liked the Lincoln Log presentation on those. Maybe a tad fussy, but I fully support playing with food and will likely try those on a future visit.
Sides: I had the mac and cheese, which was decadent and worth going just for that. Underneath the crispy top was just creamy loveliness. The beans were baked bean style rather than ranch style pintos. These stood worlds apart from the canned version that you get in other places and were fresh and tasty. My friend ordered potato salad, which was of the light and creamy mayo variety. I like a little more zing in my potato salad usually, but I can't argue that it was well-prepared.
DOWNTOWN801 Red River
Mon–Thurs 11 A.M.–10 P.M.
Fri–Sat 11 A.M.–11 P.M.
Sun 2 P.M.–9 P.M. (Gospel Brunch seatings are at 11 A.M. & 1 P.M., reservations recommended)
Ah, good ol' Stubb's. This part of downtown can be a real pain, especially at night or during SXSW, but if you are there already for work or for entertainment, Stubb's guarantees a very Austin-y experience. The old rock building is funky and undeniably cool without feeling pretentious, and on any given day or night the people watching alone is tons of fun. You might spot a table of guys decked out in full hip-hop style (complete with a high-top fade if you're lucky), sitting next to a bunch of frat boys in their Longhorn t-shirts and caps, sitting next to some tourists who are speaking a completely unidentifiable language, sitting next to a bunch of mustachioed guys with skinny jeans and their girlfriends who are also wearing skinny jeans but in a wider range of colors, sitting next to some people who would normally be completely unnoticeable except that in this context they stand out. There could quite possibly be a celebrity in that mix as well. Oh, and over by the bar are several hoochie mamas of various ethnicities all clearly concentrating very hard on balancing in those heels and painted-on dresses. This is why you go to Stubb's, for the experience, regardless of where you fit into that whole scene. Oh sure, it's handy to eat there first if you are catching a show, and there's the gospel brunch every Sunday (another category besides BBQ, friends). As for the food...
Texas Trinity: The house sausage is mild with fine grind, good snap, and very traditional. Overall it's good but not remarkable. The brisket is tender with well-rendered fat, but it's a perfect example of how sometimes the smoke can overwhelm the meat. The smoke should be a discernable flavor, but only just, lest it start to be the only thing you can taste. Unfortunately the brisket tipped past that point and even left a slight oily residue on the tongue, not a very pleasant after taste. The pork ribs have a nice tender-yet-firm texture and a good flavor, but the rub is a little bit overpowering. The sauce, which you can buy at most grocery stores, is on the thick side, and only okay.
Other Stuff: The smoked chicken was the best meat on my most recent visit, very juicy and flavorful. The regular BBQ menu includes turkey, pulled pork, and chopped beef as well. They also have daily specials ranging from smoked quail to beef ribs to pork tenderloin.
Sides: The serrano cheese spinach stands out as the crown jewel on the sides menu. Just beautiful. The collard greens are also very tasty and fresh, the slaw crisp with a sweet mayo taste that isn't too mayo-y, and the beans are average. There are plenty of others to chose from, along with a sizable appetizer menu.
CENTRAL2402 San Gabriel Street
Mon–Sat 11 A.M.–12 A.M.
Sun 11 A.M.–3 P.M. (brunch), 3 P.M.–5 P.M. (cocktails), 5 P.M.–12 A.M. (dinner)
Added on May 17, 2013.
Freedman's opened in December of 2012, and I hadn't yet heard the buzz when I created this guide in February, despite rigorous digging around. I first tried it at a release party for the The Austin Food Blogger Alliance Cookbook. I felt like a dining experience where they were preparing food for dozens of people who were clearly going to go home and blog about it was an unfair advantage—and also not representative of the typical experience a person would have there—so I went back for an incognito round two. It's been important to me to do these reviews as a regular diner, sitting down to eat the entire meal rather than do a quick taste test. It's about the experience of eating there too, and flavors gel (or don't gel) over the course of a meal. So after two visits, my take-away is that there are some inconsistencies, and there are some things that can be improved. But despite that it stands out and is still worthy of recommendation. Apart from the barbecue, it's worth going just to sit in the great building and enjoy one of their signature cocktails. The stone building was built in 1869 by a former slave (thus the name) and has been a residence, church, publishing house, grocery store, and now a bar and smokehouse. One of the co-owners also owns the Longbranch Inn in east Austin, and if you like the atmosphere there you'll love this as well. It's a respectful homage to the building's history, yet has clean lines that modernize it without being stuffy or uncomfortable. The inside has a gorgeous refurbished period bar, and a large patio area has plenty of seating for large groups. Prices are on the higher end of the barbecue spectrum, but not off the chart.
Texas Trinity: I tried all three of the trinity meats on both visits. Both times I felt the brisket was a touch watery. On visit one the fatty cut had a slight roast beef flavor, but that was thankfully absent on visit two. The wateriness left the crust soft rather than crunchy, and the rub overwhelmed the meat, especially on the tips where the salt was so prominent is was somewhat unpleasant. But on the center cuts, this was less of an issue, and the tender meat had an understated quality to it. Not a lot of smokiness, but not absent of flavor either. The fat was not caramelized but had been rendered well enough that the marbeling melted into the brisket. The pork ribs also had a slightly too-potent rub, which was a shame because underneath it was a lovely piece of meat, great smoke penetration and tender while still clinging to the bone. It was lovely enough you could get around the rub issue. The sausage is coarsely ground, and I enjoyed it more on my first visit. It comes sliced for your convenience (and I suspect for presentation reasons as well), but on visit two it didn't hold together well. The casing lacked snap and was a bit chewy, though the flavor of the sausage itself was good. Again, it was subtle with coarsely ground black pepper distributed throughout. Their sauce was good, but not particularly memorable.
Other Stuff: In addition to the trinity, there is also chicken, pork belly, and even smoked and grilled veggies for the vegetarian friend who might be tagging along. Charcuterie and cheese boards, head cheese, bacon peanut brittle, and brisket tamales round out the appetizer menu. The banana pudding was good but too heavy on the whipped cream. The banana got a bit lost in there.
Sides: House-made pickles made me a very happy camper. Bread and butter + dill cucumbers, spicy carrots, jalapenos, green beans, and okra were all great... nicely crisp and not overly vinegary or sweet. A dense but fresh white bread was served alongside the pickles. The slaw was my other favorite side and kept with the theme of subtlety. Caraway seed gave a nod to the Czech branch of the family tree of Texas barbecue. The German potato salad, however was disappointing. I tend to get really excited about German potato salad, but this one did not have a lot of flavor (one area where subtlety doesn't work so well). Big chunks of house-made bacon were dry and did not enhance it. Roasted beets and onions went over well with the crowd on visit one. I mostly tolerate beets, so I'll leave it to the positive reaction of others to speak to it.
CENTRAL900 W 12th Street
Mon–Fri 11 A.M.–2:30 P.M.
House Park has been around since 1943 and has the feel of a real BBQ joint. The walls are lined with a random array of memorabilia, and everything has been tinted by decades of smoke to the same sepia tone. The scent of smoking meats fills the small interior, and you will definitely leave smelling like BBQ. There are picnic tables out front where you can enjoy your food with less smoke penetration. The service is not necessarily gregarious, but is friendly... friendly enough that when I ordered a "Mixed Plate" and then asked for 3 meats, they let me know that normally it only comes with 2 meats, but they threw on the third at no charge. Across the board, the flavor was just average, but it was so definitively old-school that I found myself scarfing it down regardless.
Texas Trinity: Their slogan is "No need teef to eat my beef," but ironically the brisket was slightly tough. I was served a lean cut (when going to a place that's new for me, I often like to refrain from specifying and see what I end up with in order to get a feel for how they think it should be served), and it was a bit dry—as lean cuts often are—and somewhat on the bland side. The pork ribs were a little chewy, with a flavor that was satisfying for a hungry gal but certainly not memorable. The beef sausage was slightly gamey with a medium grind and a good snap. It was okay, but there is better sausage out there. All three meats came sauced, but in this case I didn't mind. Since they all were somewhat lacking in flavor and juiciness, I did feel like it was needed. And the sauce was really good, some of my favorite of all I sampled in this month-long BBQ binge. It was nicely thin and didn't cling to or coat meat, and there was a clear hint of the meat drippings with just enough tanginess but not a distinct vinegar taste. This style of sauce is not for people who grew up eating mass-produced, bottled sauce or who measure everything against Kansas City style BBQ, so I imagine some people out there will think I'm nuts. Those people will likely find it as off-putting as I find a thick ketchup-based sauce. But this is about as traditional as it gets for this region, and by my measure, it's good stuff.
Other Stuff: There is also pork loin and chicken available, and of course sandwiches made from any of the meats.
Sides: The mixed plate came with beans, potato salad, and cole slaw, which, along with chips, covers the entire sides menu. Like the rest of the menu, none were exceptional, but they were adequate. The beans had a slight sweetness to them, and the potato salad was of the very traditional mustard-mayo combo variety with flecks of pickle relish. It was clearly fresh with variously sized chunks of potato. This style of mayo-based slaw is not my favorite, in fact after having been exposed to a soggy version from Bill Miller's as a child I spent most of my life believing all cole slaw—and all cabbage—was repulsive. This stuff however is nicely crisp and fresh, and while the style is not what I personally prefer, it certainly was far from repulsive. It was a bit on the bland side, but that only seems consistent with most of the menu.
CENTRAL512 West 29th Street
Sun–Thurs 11 A.M.–11P.M.
Fri–Sat 11 A.M.–midnight
Ruby's can be a bit inconsistent, but I like it. It's easy to get in and out of, and it's got a very Austin-y vibe to it with plenty of outdoor seating. It's also what I consider to be the most kid-friendly of the places on this list, which for single moms like me is a big deal. The atmosphere is just laid-back, and there's enough room that I can relax and not worry about whether or not we'll bother other people. So, there's that too... if that is a factor for you. Kids or not, you are guaranteed a good, pleasant experience here, but don't expect to be wow'ed.
Texas Trinity: I've had the brisket when it has been just spot-on, and I've had it when it's been just good. On my most recent trip it was somewhat in between, very moist and not roast-beefy at all, but it could have used more smoke flavor, the crust was fairly insignificant, and the fat could have been more fully rendered. It was still pretty fatty. Still, it was not bad. The baby back pork ribs are tender, but I find their flavor disappointing. Like many other places in the area, Ruby's serves Elgin sausage, which is good, but I wish they'd push the envelope a bit and make their own. The sauce is nicely tangy, but a bit thick.
Other Stuff: The smoked chicken is juicy with a crisp skin and has just enough smoke; it's one of the better prepared meats available. The Carolina Pulled Pork sandwich is actually one of my favorite items on the menu, and the chopped beef is good too. The smoked turkey is okay but could stand to be a tad juicier, and I think the ham is a more flavorful choice (my kids eat both so we usually end up with some on our plate).
Sides: Their pickles rock. Love 'em. The vinaigrette cole slaw has a sweet/sour base that tips more to the sweet side. The mac and cheese comes in spiral form (which oddly acts as a pasta repellant to my very finicky children) and is adequate but certainly not a creamy-cheesy delight. The mustard potato salad is very traditional and fresh. And I know salad is not really something most people think of when ordering BBQ, but I sometimes get one to offset the heaviness of all the meat (especially when I am binging on BBQ like I did for this post). It's basic, but no soggy iceberg lettuce here, and their salad dressings are all homemade. The ones I have sampled have all been tasty.
RECOMMENDEDThe Blue Ox
EAST1505 Town Creek Drive (at The Buzz Mill)
Tues–Thur 11 A.M.–10 P.M.
Fri–Sat 11 A.M.–2 A.M.
Sun 1o A.M.–6 P.M.
Added on June 14, 2013.
The Blue Ox is yet another fairly recent trailer start-up and shares a back patio with The Buzz Mill on E. Riverside, right across from Emo's and Antone's. Rows of condos in various stages of construction line the riverbank just to the north, and while this spot on Austin's map still has a slightly gritty and unselfconscious feel, everyone knows where that's heading. In the meantime, it's a slightly weird little bubble, definitely cool and self-aware (a stuffed porcupine peeks out of the wall of the bar inside The Buzz Mill, great music drifts out of the speakers inside and out, and they pour some of the greatest and most respectable drinks in town, which you can buy to accompany your meal), but it has an appreciation for its surroundings. It feels like it fits. The Blue Ox cozies up to that, offering up some truly tasty barbecue for those waiting for a show across the street, a weekday lunch escape from the daily grind, or just a low-key afternoon of coffee, beer, and meat. Like Micklethwait Crafts Meats, the Blue Ox is a great example of how the food trailer scene can be an incubator for those learning the craft of running a restaurant, which includes far more than just being an amazing cook. Between two visits I was able to sample all of the meats except the sausage. Owner and pitboss Chase expressed some dismay at this fact, having recognized me from my first visit. He'd like to be able to offer all the meats all the time, which shows his commitment to providing a quality experience and to honing his trade. Visitors should not necessarily expect to have a full menu on each visit at this juncture (but as a trade-off there are no lines), but personally, I'm okay with that. This is not a place for the uptight. This is a place for people to relax, to enjoy a great meal and great beverage (or two), and to relish a little bit of a bridge between that "old" Austin feel with the new... and all that that entails.
Texas Trinity: As mentioned earlier, I was able to try everything except the house-made sausage, so no reports on that at this time, though I look forward to going back to give it a try. The fatty brisket was incredibly moist with well-rendered fat, and while the edges with the bark attached were loaded with flavor, some of the center pieces didn't pack as much punch. The brisket was held in foil, which could be a contributor to some flavor loss. It did not go so far as to be roast beefy, but it was a little too watery and fell apart a bit too much. The lean on the other hand, was possibly some of the greatest lean brisket I have had in a long time (and reminder, I eat a lot of barbecue... at some great places). Perfectly juicy, it had just enough smoke flavor to compliment the flavor of the meat itself, and that bark... damn that bark. It's beyond good. Crisp and seasoned to just the right degree, each bite of the smaller lean slices included a bit of this loveliness. The pork spare ribs are trimmed St. Louis style (with the meaty tips removed). Again, these are really well-seasoned and they hung to the bone nicely without clinging to it. They had plenty of flavor, but they could have been a bit more tender. The sauce resembles ketchup on first glance, but the orangish tint and flecks of pepper give it away. Thicker than most Texas sauces, it's very much on the sweet side. It was too sweet for my preferences, and I didn't feel it necessarily complimented the meats, but for those who want sauce and prefer a thicker, sweeter one than what is normally found in this area, this might do the trick.
Other Stuff: Chase is very proud of his Buzz Mill Espresso Rubbed Pork Tenderloin, as well he should be. Many people will scoff at pork and its place within the world of Texas barbecue (well, except for pork ribs, irony of that aside) as well as the fact that a loin cut is not as challenging to make as a brisket (the latter being very true, but I've definitely had some bad pork loin in my time too). As far as I'm concerned, that's narrow thinking. Brisket is the measure, there is no question about that, but barbecue is a cuisine as much as a technique, and within that cuisine falls pork (of various cuts). Plus, Chase hails from East Texas, which has a stronger pork tradition that elsewhere in the state. While my roots are in other areas (I get a little claustrophobic surrounded by pines, unless there is also a vista), I totally respect honoring that tradition. East Texas may seem like another planet sometimes to those outside of it, but it just as legitimately deserves its place in one of our state's greatest cuisines. That said, try the pork tenderloin. Scoff if you must, but you'll be depriving yourself of a thing of pure beauty. Pulled pork rounds out the menu. Tender, flavorful, but missing the boat slightly on the amount of smoke flavor, it's another good choice if you happen to like pulled pork a lot. The apple cider reduction (found on the table next to the pickles & onions) brings it to life by activating more than just your taste buds for sweetness. And, if you are a pancake fan, you can get all-you-can-eat pancakes on Sundays to go with your build-your-own Bloody Mary.
Sides: Only two sides are available, beans and German potato salad. The beans have a nice tenderness to them and are the epitome of simplicity, with the only discernible seasoning being the perfect amount of salt. Sometimes simplicity is underrated though, these work. I have a strong bias towards German potato salad—when it's done well—and this version made me happy. Just enough vinegary zing with bits of bacon, onion, and celery seed, it is served warm as is proper. If it were served hot it would be even more proper, and I'd be even happier about it.
EAST1814 Harvey Street
Mon–Sun 11 A.M.–9 P.M.
There is a slight identity crisis in signage going on at this little BBQ shack off of east MLK. There are signs that read both "Ed's" and "Danny's." I jokingly asked the guy working about it, and he joked back but didn't actually answer me. So I'm sticking with Danny's as that seems to be how it's known. The service was super friendly, the outdoor, no-frills atmosphere in a working class neighborhood appealed to me, and I wanted to like this place more than I did. It just didn't feel like what they were producing was a labor of love. I issue a challenge to up the ante... I like the vibe of this place and the people and want them to do well, but they need to clean up their game.
Texas Trinity: The brisket had a lot of unrendered fat and was tough from not having been smoked long enough. It wasn't very flavorful, though any flavor that may have been there was likely disguised by the pool of sauce that all three meats came swimming in. Even for East Texas style, it was too much. Luckily, it was was actually pretty good, but it was the only distinguishable flavor. The pork ribs were on the chewy side, and Elgin sausage was served rather than a house-made variety, which is usually good but not distinctive since you can get it even at the grocery store these days.
Other Stuff: The menu was pretty small, but they do offer whole smoked chickens on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as mutton... neither of which I tried during my visit.
Sides: Potato salad, beans, and chips were the only sides available. I am suspicious that the potato salad came straight out of a store-bought plastic tub. It's the kind I had as a child that lead me to believe I didn't like potato salad for many years until I finally decided to actually try some of the fresh stuff, and then I saw the light. The beans had no seasoning and were very bland (go figure).
EAST900 E 11th Street
Tues–Sun 11 A.M.–sold out
So, let's get this out of the way, if you are grouchy about lines, then don't. Just don't. (Unless you enjoy having something to complain about, which is so much fun for all the people around you, so really, don't.) However, if you are one to get excited about food enough that you are okay with waiting for an hour and a half to three hours to sink your teeth into what many consider to be meat gold, then do. And let's be clear, standing in line at Franklin's is so very much unlike standing in line at the DMV. I like to take a book, relax, enjoy being outside, people watch, eavesdrop on conversations around me, maybe actually participate in some of them... and smell THAT smell. It's a little bit of a zen thing. I've heard tales of unpleasant people making it unpleasant for others (see my previous note re: don't), but my experiences have been good, communal even. Everyone's just so damned happy they are about the eat at Franklin's. No, you can't just run down and pick up some 'que, but it is worth the wait every now and again. Because really, I feel the need to use the letters "OMG," which I don't often do (and certainly not in this blog, the horror!). Meat gold, people.
Texas Trinity: The brisket. The pork ribs. The sausage. Yes. The words... what are they? Words? Remember how I said earlier that in the split second after blissing out on the first bite I am analyzing the meat? Well, sometimes something comes along in life that just sucker punches me and renders the left hemisphere of my brain unable to function. Once a piece of that fatty cut brisket hits your tongue, it just starts dissolving—much like a sugar cube laced with LSD—and you start seeing pink unicorns leaping over double rainbows leaving a sparkle trail in their wake. There are no words. Smoke ring? Crust? What? Who cares when there are leprechauns cavorting with mermaids along the glitter seashore and iridescent dolphins with kittens riding on them cresting in the surf? We may someday find out via an Oprah Winfrey interview that Aaron Franklin has been doping all this time, or doping us, because this stuff seems way too good to be true.
Other Stuff: All three sauces, Texas-style, vinegar, and espresso, are heavenly, but completely optional. Soon you'll be able to buy them bottled at H.E.B. or online, so you can just pour in some Tito's vodka, make it a cocktail, and call it a day. The pulled pork tastes a lot like ecstasy, or it at least has the same effect. Then there is the bourbon banana pudding pie, which I am partially convinced only exists in my mind. Just order everything on the menu.
Sides: There are beans, cole slaw, and potato salad... these actually do exist outside of my mind, sans the rainbows. They are still really, really good though (especially the beans, with the slight kick and the brisket chunks), just not necessarily hallucination-inducing. I want them to be just as crack-like as everything else on the menu, because why shouldn't they be? I also triple dog dare the good folks of Franklin BBQ to start making their own pickles (if they happen to read this)... because we all know good pickles are totally crack-like.
See my June 2011 review of Franklin here.
RECOMMENDEDJohn Mueller Meat Co.
EAST2500 E 6th Street
Tues–Sat 10:30 A.M.–sold out
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
And so John Mueller's fire shall burn again. Whether or not it is ever more brightly remains to be seen and whether or not he deserves the title of king is of course hotly debated over both beers and tweets, but no one can argue that John is the stuff of legends... in various ways. His newest venture has only been open since February 23rd (it was postponed a few days from the target date of February 20th), just in time for me to review it for this guide (how handy). I like a bit of hoopla every now and then, so I decided to jump in feet first and go opening day. I had this idea about going early, and then I saw this:
So, say what you will about the man, but he makes freaking insanely good BBQ. And how can anyone not be entertained by comments like the one below?
That's good stuff. And what the Hell business is it of mine (or anyone else) what went on with him and his family? I wish them all well, and for my own selfish purposes just hope they keep cranking out such amazing food.
Texas Trinity: By the time we got up to the window they were out of sausage, so I did not get to sample any this time around. I'm going out on a limb though and declaring that the pork rib is my absolute favorite that I have had. It was just so perfect I don't even know how to begin to describe it... flavorful and tender and moist and all that, yeah, but it's just something that needs to be eaten and left at that. I tried the fatty and the lean brisket, and both were also wonderful. The lean was a tiny, tiny, tiny bit (as in just a TINY bit) dry, but I feel like I am splitting hairs even pointing that out. The fatty cut was masterfully executed and it comes through when you take a bite. This is the mark of someone who knows what they are doing. The sauce is perfectly thin, vinegary, peppery, with chunks of onion, and definitely one of my favorites.
Other Stuff: Since they were out of sausage, I also tried the prime rib. There wasn't a lot of smoke flavor on it, but it was a beautifully prepared piece of meat. My friend got the pork shoulder, which I actually loved more than the brisket. Subtly smokey, moist, great crust. Yum. There is also his famous beef rib available (we may have forgotten to order this in all the excitement, or maybe they were out... yeah, that's it) as well as smoked turkey.
Sides: I tried the beans and the cole slaw this time. The beans had a nice, slightly smokey flavor but could have used a tad more salt, and the serving size seemed a bit small (there was more of the soup than beans in my bowl). The creamy cole slaw lacks that over-sweetness that I find many creamy slaws have. It was crisp, fresh, and had a great peppery kick to it. Lovely. They also serve potato salad and baked squash.
Live Oak Barbecue
EAST2713 E 2nd Street
Daily 11 A.M.–8 P.M.
No need to wear your ringer t-shirt with the iron-on, fuzzy letters that says, "Hey y'all, I just ate some BBQ." Everyone will know. Your new Eau de 'Que scent will be with you until your next shower, but don't worry, this is much more socially acceptable than Eau de Cheap-but-Kick-Ass Tex-Mex, which can sometimes be mistaken for B.O. They have gotten the ventilation more in control than it was on my first visit shortly after they opened, but there's no hiding where you've been. Regardless of that, I really love the atmosphere here. It rides the line between hip and total dive nicely and has personality to spare. The quality of the food across the menu is a bit inconsistent, with some things being outstanding, some being good, and some just sort of meh, but there is enough good stuff that it is definitely worth a drive over to the far East side location.
Texas Trinity: The pork ribs topped the trio for both overall flavor and preparation. They were nicely tender with a strong pork flavor and a subtle rub that complimented it. The sausage is custom made by Texas Sausage Co. and has a fine grind and good snap. The all-beef links are plenty juicy with a better blend of seasonings than many beef sausages out there. The brisket had most of the crust removed for some reason, and the fat was unrendered making it a bit chewy. While it did not have a roast-beefy taste at all, the smoke flavor wasn't very distinct and in general, it was a disappointing example of brisket. The sauce has a lovely smokiness to it from the meat drippings with a strong chili flavor.
Other Stuff: Their Saturday specials are a big deal. They clearly put a lot of love into them, and they usually sell out (they start serving the special at 2:00). On my visit, to celebrate Mardi Gras, there were Southern Louisiana dishes offered: smoked duck and andouille gumbo, coonass porchetta (a pork loin wrapped with pork belly and smoked), and king cake, with an optional andouille link. My friends and I tried all except the extra link. The gumbo was very traditional and satisfying. The chunks of sausage and duck were really flavorful and added nice texture. The porchetta had been cooked a bit unevenly, as there were bites that were moist and wonderful, and bites that were on the dry side. Overall though, the special was good, and we all agreed we wanted to come back to try future ones. We also tried the pork steak from the regular menu, which had good flavor but was too dry. There is also chicken and Frito pie available, neither of which I have sampled yet.
Sides: There are some seriously good side dishes available. We tried the cucumber salad, borracho beans, collard greens, and vinegar slaw. The cucumber salad was just a thing of beauty with a nice balance between tart and sweet. I'd had the beans before and made a point to order them again... tons of flavor, big chunks of meat, and perfectly prepared with the right amount of firmness. The collard greens were also a stand-out menu item, fresh and just tender with bits of onion and sausage. The slaw was the only one that was disappointing. It was fresh and crisp, but lacked much of a vinegar flavor and was somewhat bland.
See my September 2011 review of Live Oak Barbecue here.
RECOMMENDEDMicklethwait Craft Meat
Wed–Sun 11:00 A.M.–3:00 P.M.
Update: As of March 27, Micklethwait will be open for lunch only with brisket available at every shift.
The name of this new food trailer is a little bit like when Texas BBQ meets Portlandia (if only someone would have put a bird on top of that acorn in the logo!), but they clearly are putting a lot of care and love into their craft, so they deserve a pass. (And P.S., the "th" is silent.) This place brings to life much of what I love about the whole food trailer explosion: the fact that it provides an opportunity for people without the means or experience to invest in and run a brick and mortar restaurant to have a laboratory for honing their skills. It encourages experimentation and innovation, and I am a strong supporter of small-scale entreprenuers, both because I admire their will and determination but also because of the economic value of supporting small, local businesses. This is a small operation, no mistaking it, and the menu changes based on whatever they happen to be making that day. Sausages are a specialty, and the various offerings are made fresh (and it shows). Brisket is not served at lunch, only during the evening hours since it takes longer to prepare and I'm guessing they just aren't staffed up to support smoking it through the night. This probably wouldn't fly in a traditional restaurant, but it feels completely okay in this kind of experimental setting. There are some kinks to work out if they hope to grow their business, but I feel pretty confident we'll be hearing about these guys a lot in the future. This place feels like it has integrity in every way, which just really endears me to it. And for out-of-towners seeking an Austiny experience, it would provide one for sure. Sitting at the picnic tables under a big tree and listening to the conversations around you feels a little bit like you're in a 2013 remake of Slacker. That can be highly entertaining sometimes (even to those of us who live here), but this is part of who we are (and damn if there aren't a lot of really smart people in this town, a lot of smart people with a deep appreciation for downtime and for stream-of-consciousness musing on a vast array of topics).
Texas Trinity: I went during lunch so I was not able to try the brisket... sorry. But I have heard good things from people I trust and will be back for sure to try it out. The day I went they were serving Andouille sausage, which had a mix of coursely ground and some big chunks of meat, but it all held together well and was seasoned nicely. The casing had a perfect snap, and the freshness was glaringly obvious. (It's hard to compete with fresh sausage.) The pork ribs were a little dry on one end, but the rest was very tender and clung to the bone. The pork itself was just really flavorful with just enough smoke to it. The crust was nice and crisp with a strong salt and pepper taste. Their sauce is a lovely, thin vinegar-style sauce that is slightly sweeter than it is tangy.
Other Stuff: I also tried the pork shoulder, which did not have much smoke taste to it, but it was juicy and tender had plenty of flavor. Also on the menu the day I went was chicken, and I overheard the people at the next table remarking about how good it was.
Sides: Two big thumbs up with 5 stars on the pickle spear, which had to have been homemade (I didn't ask). Why don't more restaurants make their own pickles? The homemade variety is just galaxies better that the flourescent green store-bought kind (even though I will eat the heck out of almost any kind of pickle). The cole slaw was crispy and had a lemon-poppyseed vinaigrette. It was a subtle flavor, but there was a lot going on there and was one of my favorites I tried. The rutabaga and turnip greens were the other side offered on the day I visited. Again, they just tasted fresh and were simply but nicely prepared. For those who think they don't like rutbaga or greens, this item might be a good way to put that conviction to the test.
WEST3563 Far West Blvd (faces Wood Hollow Drive)
There is an additional location in Central Austin at 907 W 24th Street.
Mon–Fri 7 A.M.–7 P.M.
Sat 11 A.M.–3 P.M.
Bert's is pretty straight forward and simple. While good, it is certainly not in the BBQ top tier, but it resonated with me in a very sentimental way. This is the kind of BBQ I grew up on in Po-Dunk, Texas. There weren't many places to go eat, and certainly not without a bit of a drive. When I was a kid we had Ferdie's Barbecue, which later became Casey's, but honestly I was a little too young to recall the food properly. Next came Mouse's, and Bert's was right in line with what I remember their food to be like (later, after Mouse's closed, we had to drive all the way to the original Rudy's location, before it became a franchise). And despite the fact that in 2007 Bert's had to move from its original location near UT to a nondescript shopping center due to a fire, the fact that there was a line of pick-up trucks out front and rows of taxidermied deer heads along the walls inside just felt so cozily familiar. These are people I understand. This is BBQ that speaks to my rural Texan soul, right smack-dab in our capital city.
Texas Trinity: The low-key but friendly man working at register seemed slightly surprised yet impressed when I ordered a three-meat plate with brisket, pork ribs, and sausage with sauce on the side and white bread, letting me know I was doing it right. I can only assume that the surprise was due to the fact that I was one of the only women in the place, and I'm fairly slight, so maybe he didn't expect I could put away food the way that I can. I assured him I'd been doing this for a long time and knew how it was done, which he liked. The pork rib was my favorite of the three meats. It clung to the bone, but was tender with a simple rub that did not detract from the pork and had turned into a nice crust when smoked. It did not have a ton of meat on it however, and only one rib came on the plate. I was given lean brisket, and like much lean brisket, it was slightly on the dry side, though not terribly so. Again, the flavor was very basic, but there was a distinct and subtle smoke flavor with a thin crust and a good smoke line. The sausage was my least favorite, but still, it was not bad. It just could have used a bit more seasoning, but the fine grind held together and it had a good snap to it. The thin sauce was a good balance between sweet and tangy. It was not the best I've had, but it was the kind I like.
Other Stuff: Chopped beef and chicken round out the meat offerings. There are a few specialty items like Frito Pie and what they call the T-Man—cubed brisket, sausage, beans, and sauce all served together Frito Pie style—and the Turbo, which is a combination of the two. And there are of course sandwiches as well as wraps available.
Sides: The beans are about as simple as you can get. No meat chunks, ranch-style or frijoles charros seasonings, just water, salt, pepper, dried beans, and some time. I imagine some people would find them a bit boring, but I thought they were adequately seasoned with salt & pepper so as to not require adding any more. And they had a perfect texture. Beans are easy to neglect and as a result they can get mushy, or close to mushy. These were perfectly tender, yet firm... and besides, they tasted exactly like the ones my mom always made, so I had no choice but to love them. The potato salad is of the traditional mustard-mayo variety, with flecks of pimento, but it was nicely fresh with big chunks of potato. For this style of potato salad it was quite nice. There is also cole slaw available, however, I did not sample any on my visit.
SOUTH1400 Barton Springs Road
There is an additional location in South Austin at Southpark Meadows.
Daily 11 A.M.–10 P.M.
I'd somehow managed to never eat at Green Mesquite, despite it's highly convenient location right next to Zilker Park. I'd never really heard any word-of-mouth about it, good or bad, and I will confess I have a bias against mesquite that was enough to keep me unmotivated (so, take that into consideration if you happen to love mesquite-smoked meats). The atmosphere is nice, and unlike most BBQ places, you actually order your food from a waitperson while sitting at your table. There's a sizable outdoor seating area in the back, and a complete lack of smokiness inside. It's got a very safe feel to it, just enough character (though not as quirky as Austin and/or BBQ places can be), and comfortable.
Texas Trinity: The beef sausage was my favorite of the trio... juicy, good snap, and very traditional with a slight peppery seasoning. I had mixed feelings about the pork ribs. They weren't without flavor, but they also were not as good as they could have been, and they appear to have had zero to minimal rub applied. Parts were tender, and parts were a bit chewy. I was served lean brisket (I didn't specify). It was too dry, and it had a layer of unrendered fat along the top that had to be cut away. And, here's where my beef with mesquite kicks in, I tasted more of the wood than the meat. It was not as overwhelming as some that I've had, but I definitely felt it was a distraction, and it left a slight aftertaste that I find unpleasant... and a slight oily residue on the tongue that I find even more unpleasant. For mesquite-smoked brisket, it could have been worse, but I just don't love that flavor. The sauce was highly sweet, too sweet I thought, and so was not a reasonable solution to the dryness.
Other Stuff: The menu is quite large. For BBQ, there is also pulled pork, smoked wings, chicken, turkey, and ham, and there are plenty of other options from burgers to jambalya to salads to Frito pie... something for everyone, except vegetarians. The peach cobbler with ice cream was lovely.
Sides: The beans had ample soupiness and were like a weird cross between ranch-style beans and pork and beans (sans the pork), but in a good way. The green beans were unseasoned, but after adding salt and pepper were fine... nothing to write home about, but fine. The potato salad was nicely creamy with chunks of potato and just had a really good, fresh flavor. Also available is cole slaw, fried okra, corn on the cob, and cajun rice.
SOUTH1502 S 1st St
Wed–Sun 11 A.M.–6 P.M.
There's been a lot of drama surrounding this little trailer on S. 1st that was formerly J Mueller BBQ... a lot of well-publicized drama that doesn't really need to be rehashed, although I am hopeful there will be a Richard Linklater film about it all someday. But in brief: in November, John Mueller was replaced by his sister LeAnn with a former Franklin Barbecue employee, John Lewis, and the name changed to La Barbecue "Cuisine Texicana." The silly name makes me slightly more sad than all the drama did, but thank heavens the food is still kicking ass and taking names. Judge for yourself whether or not you think it's as good as John's. I'm just happy to take advantage of the fact that there is more awesome BBQ to be eaten...
Texas Trinity: ...and in this case I do not use the word "awesome" lightly. I got a fatty cut of the brisket, and it was tender and moist (melt-in-your mouth, as their website claims), had a nice balance of smoke and beef flavor, and a lovely seasoned crust. The fat had rendered well, but was just shy of being caramelized, and overall it was a little bit greasy... though it still tasted great. I wolfed the pork rib down pretty quickly; it was one of the best I ate in this Austin BBQ quest. There was plenty of tender, juicy meat on the bone with a flavorful rub. The pork itself just shone as a high-quality piece of meat, as it should. Their in-house sausage has a somewhat coarse grind that held together well, a perfect snap on the casing, and a strong pork flavor again, but with a slightly spicy aftertaste. The sweet sauce was spot on, not too thick and not too sweet. The tangy sauce is boldly tangy. No, make that balls out tangy. Or possibly even "F--k you, we're from Texas" tangy. I was a fan, both of the sauce and the audacity of it. As I was scarfing all of this down, I realized I was singing in my head a little tune I hadn't thought of in a long, long time, but it was kind of perfect, "Mmmmm, how do you say delicious? Delovely? Delectable? Devine? How do you say deGORGEOUS? Dewith-it? Degroovy? Define? Ooo-la-la, la-la-la-la-la." And then I did the French part too, which, inside my head I did perfectly.
Other Stuff: Other smoked meats available are: a beef rib, pulled pork, and turkey. The pulled pork, brisket, and turkey can be had in sandwich form, and there is a specialty sandwich called "The El Sancho" [sic on the double article] which has sausage topped with either pulled pork or brisket and red onion slaw. You can also have it the "loco" way with all three meats (because that's cray-cray!). And oh hey, there's still free Lone Star beer (every day that they are open), if you actually like Lone Star.
Sides: There are three sides for the choosing: chipotle slaw, pinto beans, and potato salad. The smokiness and slight spiciness of the chipotle nicely offset the sweetness of the mayo. This is some of my favorite slaw out there. I was stuffed after eating all of the meat, but I finished it all off anyhow. The pinto beans are also up there with the best, perfectly tender and a good peppery kick to them. The potato salad is of the mustard variety. I did not try any on my visit, but it looked fluffy and fresh.
SOUTH (East of I-35)3502 Burleson Road
Mon–Tue 6:00 A.M.–7:00 P.M.
Wed–Fri, 6:00 A.M.–8:00 P.M.
Sat 7:00 A.M.–7:00 P.M.
Vic's is tucked away in a strip center on Burleson Road at Ben White, in an industrial/warehouse area devoid of any sort of character (at least in the traditional sense of that word). It's not the kind of place that bon appetit would pay any attention to, and likewise, I'd guess the friendly folks who run the place and who frequent it don't pay any mind to bon appetit either. This is a restaurant for people who eat to live, not the other way around.
And yet... you don't have to have money or spare time to have expectations beyond the bare minimum. Even little Charlie Bucket—at least the version of him from Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—who we all know as the sweetest, most unspoiled boy that ever existed (in fiction), proved he has taste buds when he declared in an uncharacteristic tantrum, "I'm tired of cabbage water!" Sadly, Vic's is sort of the cabbage water of BBQ. It can certainly sustain a human being, but it not likely to bring anyone any joy.
Texas Trinity: The brisket was very roast-beefy, with plenty of unrendered fat, and generally not a lot of flavor going on. The pork ribs were equally bland and did not have a lot of meat on them. The sausage was of the Elgin variety, and was the best of the three. But maybe it's just because I've eaten a ton of BBQ lately, I am getting pretty bored with Elgin sausage. The sauce was very syrupy... almost like pure high fructose corn syrup with some other stuff mixed in. It was super thick and the flavor was actually off-putting.
Other Stuff: There is also chicken available, which I did not sample, but it would be a surprise if the quality were much different than the other meats.
Sides: The sides are all presented in a self-serve buffet, complete with sneeze guard. All appeared to be canned and looked as though they had been sitting for a while. There was corn and green beans that had a distinct lack of color. The beans appear to have come straight from the most inexpensive can labeled "Ranch-Style Beans" on the shelf, and the potato salad triggered some bad childhood memories for me. One little taste was enough.
NORTH8624 Research Boulevard
Mon–Fri 11 A.M.–3 P.M.
Mann's was included on Texas Monthly's 2008 list of Top 50 BBQ places in the state. I ate there once years ago, and I didn't get it when the list was first published, and I still don't really get it. Overall, it's fair (at best) by my measure—with a few highlights—and certainly not of the level of quality coming out of many of the places on that list (I've tried a lot of them, but not all). It's got an old-school and completely unpretentious vibe to it, which I like, and the service is very friendly. And yet...
Texas Trinity: Mann's uses mesquite, which is likely the root of some of my issues with their brisket. Mesquite burns hotter, and it's also an oilier wood. The smoke can overwhelm the natural flavor of the meat and even leave it with an oily residue that coats your tongue (which is just nasty). To compensate, the smoking times are often shorter than with oak or other woods, foil is sometimes used as a heat/smoke barrier, and/or it's started in a smoker and finished off in an oven. I am not sure of Mann's methodlogy (though I have some suspicions), but what I got both years ago and recently was a very, very wet, but still somewhat tough piece of meat with a flavor that ranged from absent to roast-beefy. Also, they committed what I consider a cardinal sin where brisket is concerned and cut the meat with the grain instead of across it or on the bias, which results in stringiness. I got the fatty cut, which had tons of unrendered fat that I had to cut around. As a child I thought I was brilliant for inventing BBQ tacos by piling the meat onto a single piece of bread and topping it with sauce and pickles (and now onions, which I wouldn't eat back then). Imagine my disappointment on the day I discovered other people did this too... except with an actual tortilla. But it's something that stuck and that I still often do. However, when I find myself resorting to this way of eating the brisket because it is the only way I'll enjoy it (all those other flavors compete with the flavor of the meat), that's not so good. The sauce is quite good, thin with a nice tanginess, so it helped. The pork ribs in comparison were better, but they had a minimal smoke line and minimal smoke flavor. They also appear to have been put on the smoker sans any kind of rub or seasoning, and you could see the grill lines (a good indicator of a short smoking time), so, they had some issues as well. The sausage was my favorite of the three. It was totally old school, maybe not the greatest in the world, but it struck some sentimental chords with me.
Other Stuff: They also offer beef ribs, pulled pork, chicken, and turkey, but I have not tried any of these to attest to whether or not they are good. When ordering a plate, you are offered the choice of a roll or cornbread. I chose cornbread, which had been baked in a cast iron cornbread pan with the corn cob shapes (bonus!) and was fluffy with hints of sweet corn. Unfortunately, the vegetable oil that had been brushed onto the pan was obviously past its prime, and it penetrated the bread and ruined the flavor (I know this mistake well as I did it a few too many times in the early cooking days). On Tuesdays and Thursdays they offer complimentary brownies, which I have not tried because on Fridays—the only day of the week I have ever been—they offer complimentary homemade ice cream. The strawberry was just heavenly and exactly like my mom makes.
Sides: There are quite a few sides to select from, and it's cafeteria style so you can take a look at them before choosing. Based on looks alone, I went with the black-eyed peas and mashed potatoes. Some of the other choices had a colorless look about them that usually indicates being overcooked or, even worse, coming out of a can (I have strong feelings about this; if I am going to pay to eat something it had better be at least as fresh as what I can make at home). The black-eyed peas had a nice, peppery flavor, but had been cooked a bit too long and had passed that optimal point of tender yet firm. The mashed potatoes were an excellent pick, fresh and buttery, with a texture as if they'd used an honest-to-goodness ricer but with plenty of big chunks left. Total Southern comfort food. I had flashbacks of my paternal grandmother while eating these.
NORTH6610 N Lamar
Sun 11 A.M.–8 P.M.
Tues–Thurs 11 A.M.–8:30 P.M.
Fri–Sat 11 A.M.–9 or 9:30 P.M.
Stiles Switch is a recent addition to the Austin BBQ scene, located in the old Violet Crown shopping center on N Lamar, in the very spot where your favorites from Dazed and Confused once played a bit of foosball before heading out to the moontower (if only we could all have Bob Dylan's Hurricane perfectly cued as our soundtrack when entering a room). In keeping with the theme, I went with someone from my high school, and we caught up on 20+ years while stuffing our faces with some seriously high quality, straight up Central Texas 'que. Pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick has a resume that includes Louie Mueller in Taylor, but they are doing their own thing here... and are doing it right. This is welcome addition—with a relaxed, uncrowded, family-friendly setting—that fills a hole in the North Austin area.
Texas Trinity: Between my friend and I, we sampled both the fatty and the lean brisket. The fatty was better, but the lean was actually quite good as well. There was an ample smoke ring on both, and a nice crust, although I don't feel like the crust popped with flavor quite enough. Despite that one little flaw, both were up there with the top echelon. The pork ribs were perfectly tender, but they could have been a bit more flavorful. They have three kinds of sausage, all made out-of-house especially for them. I asked the guy working which was his favorite and he said the Thorndale, a mild, all-beef sausage. It had great flavor and good snap, but was not terribly moist. Next time I'll try either the spicy Switch original or the jalapeno-cheddar which include pork as well. None of the meats needed sauce by any means, but their vinegar-based sauce was good enough to put a straw into it and drink it straight, and I found myself dunking my food into it over and again.
Other Stuff: I was hard-pressed to finish my three-meat plate (not due to a lack of yumminess, the servings were plentiful) so I didn't get to sample any of the other meats, but they also have smoked turkey and chicken, a pork loin, beef chuck ribs, and of course, sandwiches. My friend ordered the peach cobbler with a little mini Blue Bell vanilla ice cream and gave a sigh of delight when she bit into it. I was equally happy with my homemade banana pudding.
Sides: I tried the corn casserole and the lemon vinaigrette cole slaw on my visit. The corn casserole was quite good (but you know what would make it even better? Roasted green chiles). The slaw was fresh but needed a little extra punch... of something. I sampled my friend's mac and cheese, which was average... slightly bland and it would have been nice if it were a bit creamier. So, good, but with some tweaks their sides could be top notch (pssst, that's another Dazed and Confused reference).
Additional BBQ Joints (Not Reviewed):
- Bee Cave BBQ
WEST 8414 Bee Cave Road
- Brown's BBQ
SOUTH 1311 S Lamar (in the parking lot of Genie Car Wash)
See review in Serious Eats by Meredith Bethune
- Chief's BBQ
SOUTH 7811 S 1st Street & 2701 W William Cannon
- Donn's BBQ
EAST 10003 FM 969
- Double Trouble BBQ
SOUTH 5300 S Congress
(This is a floating BBQ trailer; on the weekends it can be found on Lake Austin near Hula Hut.)
- Johnny T's BBQ
NORTH 1012 West Anderson Lane (North Austin Trailer Yard)
- Kerlin BBQ
EAST 1700 E Cesar Chavez
- The Pit Barbecue
CENTRAL 4707 Burnet
- SLAB Barbeque (formerly The Sugar Shack)
CENTRAL 2330 San Antonio
See review in Serious Eats by Meredith Bethune
- Texas Rib Kings
NORTH 9012 Research Blvd
- Valentina's Tex-Mex BBQ
DOWNTOWN 600 W 6th Street (attached to the Star Bar patio)
See review in Serious Eats by Meredith Bethune
For recommendations for BBQ places outside of Austin, see the City Guide for BBQ East of Austin.
Check out my other BBQ-related posts here.