Recently, I got to hang out all day with the MacGyver of Austin barbecue.
I suspect when he reads that sentence, John Lewis, the 34-year-old pitmaster of la Barbecue, will have three letters (and the words they represent) float though his head. W, t, and f. He's a nice, unassuming guy, and the comparison may seem a little off in some ways. But I stand behind this characterization, and I mean it as a compliment in every way. He may not be rocking a spiky, feathered mullet (definitely a good thing) and his daily life may not involve a series of secret and deadly missions (well, as far as any of us know), but this was my biggest take-away from my time spent with John. Three words floated through my head as I drove home that evening.
Inventive. Resourceful. Clever.
I asked if his parents and family were foodies and if that was where his love for good food and cooking spawned, and he shrugged slightly and told me not really.
John is a problem solver. He's a problem solver with high standards. He doesn't strike me as one to merely put a band-aid on a problem, but to actually improve upon it. He could have popped some Totino's party pizzas into the oven, like most teenage cooks might be apt to do, or he may have even slathered a pre-made crust with all varieties of ingredients, but nope. He was making crust from scratch with fancy flour and modifying his equipment with whatever materials he could get his hands on to raise the bar.
Once John moved to Austin after high school, he worked for a while at The New World Bakery—owned by master baker Reinhard Haltermann and his brother Bernhard—a time that John said was influential in his development. But after a few years, he developed an allergy to flour dust and moved on to working at several other local spots, including Central Market, Texas French Bread, and El Chile. That last place is where he met Stacy Franklin, and ultimately, Aaron Franklin. And that's an important part of the story… of John's story, and without having talked to Aaron, I would imagine his as well. The Texas barbecue world, and especially the Central Texas barbecue world, is filled with fascinating connections, some family, some friendship. It's a small community. Paths have crossed. Influences and cross-pollination have occurred. Nothing in barbecue or life happens in a vacuum, but what's interesting and impressive is how distinctly individual each of the branches in this complex flowchart of interconnectivity have all become, each with notable stylistic differences.
In those early years, John started becoming interested in barbecue after reading Robb Walsh's Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook and Paul Kirk's Championship Barbecue. He was eating barbecue maybe once a week—his favorite being City Market in Luling—and he built a series of smokers in his backyard, but none that quite delivered the kind of result he was hoping for. Eventually, he moved to Denver and felt the effects of the cold void of good barbecue. He started making his own more often, trying to fill the gap. He got into doing competitions, which he says ultimately ended up informing his style in some key ways, especially in terms of ribs. Then Aaron Franklin started talking about opening a place in Austin, and the dominoes fell in the pattern in which they fell.
John moved back to Austin and began working at Franklin Barbecue about one week after the trailer opened alongside I-35. He stayed there a while longer, well into the brick and mortar days, until finally in 2012 it was time for him to move on. He got back into competing for a couple of months, while toying with the idea of moving to California and opening up a Texas barbecue joint there. And then he got a phone call from John Mueller, who invited him to come work with him at the trailer on S. 1st, the one that still sits where la Barbecue is today (for a short while longer, see note at bottom). John saw it as an opportunity to expand his knowledge and skill set. Little did he know just a few weeks into that arrangement, John Mueller and his sister LeAnn would arrive at that fork in the road where they would go separate ways as business partners.
LeAnn then offered John the job of pitmaster. I imagine that scene as one of those points when the universe drops a choice in your lap yet allows little to no time to weigh the options. John saw it as an opportunity, the rest was none of his business, and he took it with hopefully no hard feelings. He had three days to prepare before they reopened as the newly branded la Barbecue (the la stands for LeAnn but is pronounced "la" like the note to follow "so"). As he put it, "Those first few months were rough, not knowing will this work or will we go out of business." He had no trained help, and he had no firm experience running the show on his own. In those initial months he slept in a camper on the lot for a couple of hours at a time, then would get up and get back to it. There was no other viable choice if he was to see it through.
November 4 marked the one-year anniversary of la Barbecue. In that time, they were included on the the Texas Monthly list of the top 50 barbecue joints, something John said was "pretty cool having only been open for seven months." John has filled in with a trained and able staff, he's made marked changes to many of the recipes, and he's built a new smoker to his own specifications. After working with the pit left on site by John Mueller, attempting to modify it and still not getting the results he hoped for with the brisket, John decided to build his own (the old smoker is still there and is used for cooking all the other meats). I asked John about a comment he'd made in an interview with Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, in which he said, "Some people say it’s the cook and not the cooker. I think it’s the opposite. Taking into account the product that you're starting with, having the right kind of cooker that does what you want it to do makes all the difference." He elaborated on that a bit, clarifying that a person definitely has to know what they are doing, but that without the right equipment for the right job you won't ever get the results you hope for (flashback to the terra cotta tiles versus the cookie sheet). I was completely intrigued by the idea of someone designing their own smoker in such a way that allows for such an even flow of heat through such a large vessel. John pointed out a few areas he considered to be proprietary information and asked me not to photograph those spots, then he demonstrated exactly how it worked. I'm not revealing that information here, but what I will tell you is that I was impressed. I've gazed into a fair amount of smokers at this point, and this one appears to be the most efficient one in terms of heat transfer. There were no gratuitous details and next to no heat loss. Every design element served a purpose, and that purpose is to evenly distribute heat and smoke across a broad expanse, with the result being some highly delicious smoked meats, all evenly cooked.
Indeed, there's very little waste. For those strictly on the eating side of the barbecue table, it may not be obvious that this line of work does not have a high profit margin. People complain often about the price of barbecue, but the ingredients are not cheap. And there is a level of quality in their product that good barbecue places will uphold. They aren't going to put a slice of dry brisket onto your plate. It's not to their satisfaction, they know it won't be to yours, and if they are smart they also know the strong power of word-of-mouth in this industry. When working with equipment that does not evenly distribute heat, the results will clearly be inconsistent and some of it may not meet the standards of the restaurant. Any waste eats into an already slim profit, or for some cuts such as beef ribs where restaurants essentially only break even, it amounts to a loss. With an understanding of the impact of too much wasted product, John's new smoker was not only the means to get the type of product he wanted to make, but it was also a way to improve cost control.
The quality of the barbecue being produced has improved as well over the course of this first year, and it started out in a pretty sweet spot to begin with. The new smoker was the first big change, then John switched to serving prime meat, and since then the brisket has evolved into something that could reasonably be described as decadent. It has a rich, deep, meaty flavor with just the right amount of smoke, and the network of connective collagen marbled throughout has essentially just melted away, allowing the surrounding tissue to become completely succulent.
John has made other menu changes as well, most notably to the hot guts (that's sausage, for the uninitiated). His recipe was inspired by the meat-market style sausage he first came to love and respect, but John decided that if something is called hot guts it should actually be hot, so he amped up the spiciness. It is without question some of my favorite sausage out there, perfectly executed technically, beefy, and power-packed with flavor while still feeling respectfully traditional to Central Texas barbecue. And for people like me who like a hearty kick in their food sometimes (or, okay, often), the heat level is much appreciated. I have almost stopped believing people when they warn me that something I am about to bite into is spicy, but this one lives up to it's name, and not in a painful way, in that beautiful, balanced way that peppers can round out the myriad of other flavors. John has plans to introduce a new sausage special in the not-so-distant future, most likely on weekends only, that will be pork-based and chock full of green chiles.
The beef ribs have gone through an evolution as well. John had not been happy with the results, until he read about the beef ribs at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor on TMBBQ.com. John told me he got in his car and drove out to Taylor to try them himself. He asked Wayne Mueller, LeAnn's brother, who has spear-headed the restaurant since their father Bobby passed away, to give him the very best one. After that, John said he understood what they could be, and he started altering his method accordingly. Now, he says, the results he's getting are very close to what he wants.
The sides at la Barbecue have trended towards very traditional, with the exception of the chipotle slaw, which is LeAnn's contribution to the menu. It seems to be the most polarizing item offered here. People like it or they don't; I have not yet met anyone who was just sort of "meh" about it. Personally, I am fan, but I've already revealed I like spicy foods (and this one does actually get slightly too spicy at times, though I still gobble it up), and I also like to have a bit of roughage to balance my meat-meal. The mustardy-potato salad may be going through some changes soon. While people like it, John feels it can be pushed farther, and is working on developing a recipe likely using red potatoes, herbs, and some fancier mustard.
The conversation morphed into that ever-on-going dialogue about what defines barbecue. For such a seemingly straight-forward type of cuisine there is definitely a lot of discourse these days about its identity: what is barbecue, what isn't barbecue, what's traditional, what isn't, what's an acceptable deviation, and what's going to cause an uproar (forget the whole conversation about what is "best"). I had a professor in college who would have dismissively called this phenomenon "navel-gazing," but I think it reflects something else. I asked John how people generally reacted to the food at la Barbecue and whether or not anyone ever challenged something as not living up to their expectations of what barbecue is supposed to be. He said that overall people are very positive, but there is a rare occasion when someone comes to the trailer expecting to get Texas barbecue from ten years ago. This is an important distinction that many people still do not acknowledge or may not even be aware of. With the exception of a handful of barbecue joints that have ended up being very influential, most of people in Texas grew up eating something significantly different than what can be found at the places that made that highly controversial top 50 list. It is true that brisket has long been considered at the top of the Texas barbecue pyramid, but in the still very memorable past, that brisket was usually served as thin slices from the lean end. It was often dry, and sauce—regardless of the story that is so frequently told these days—was not considered optional. A half-inch thick slice of brisket from the point (or fatty end) with a considerable chunk of fat still attached rarely would have been served in the past, except as chopped beef, because the brisket would not have been smoked in a way or for a length of time that would allow that fat to render into something pleasant to eat. That type of barbecue is still found all over the state, and for many, that's still the expectation. As John pointed out, "food has gotten richer and fatter in cuisine in general." The fact that this trend is occurring in barbecue as well seems only natural to John. "Cuisine's been evolving since… forever," he said, "Why shouldn't barbecue?" It's an excellent question, and one that gets back to that whole idea of the navel-gazing that seems to occur so often among barbecue enthusiasts these days (although that too often comes across from many as chest-thumping posturing while asserting that their opinion is the one truly right opinion): we are in the midst of a significant evolutionary jump in terms of this particular cuisine.
There are those long-standing barbecue establishments in Central Texas that inspired a new generation by exposing them to a different style and level of quality generally not experienced elsewhere. There is that new guard, both with culinary school chops and without, but all with the same interest in food culture that has risen up in general as of late. There is the perfect storm of economic circumstance and generational underpinnings that drive more and more people to become entrepreneurs. There is the slightly-weird crush that so much of the rest of the country seems to have on Austin, coupled with that age-old mystique of Texas (and the age-old love-hate for it), plus the tendency of human beings to adopt traits from others that they like. There is the media attention and ensuing hype that has been poured onto particular restaurants (yes, I mean for that to be plural). There are a lot of things. What they all amount to is a dramatic increase in both activity and interest in making Central Texas style barbecue, or something derived from it… all over the world.
And here we've got this fairly quiet guy named John Lewis, who has worked with members of one of the most influential families in the Central Texas barbecue world, the Muellers, and who from essentially the beginning was right alongside the person with the biggest name-recognition in barbecue today, Aaron Franklin. Here's John, and he's had plenty of attention directed his way. But I walked away from my day with him feeling in my gut that he has not had the attention he deserves. Possibly he suffers from the curse that many unassuming people suffer from. He does not require a spotlight. I'm not sure if he would be comfortable in one or not, but I do know that often times we do not always notice the good work of people who are not screaming for us to notice them, or when a crowd is not already gathered around making it impossible for us to not notice them. So, here's John, and he is making fantastic barbecue. Some of the best out there. And it's his doing. The cross-pollination and being in the right place at the right time is important to his story, but in talking to him and listening to him describe his experiences and history, the thinking process behind the barbecue he has produced was glaringly obvious and unmistakably his own.
Credit where credit is due.
John mentioned that he's recently joined ranks with a team of about 30 people that will be competing in the Austin Rodeo BBQ Cook-Off in the Spring. I asked what the draw of competing was for him, and he said it's just for fun, that there is a sense of community and camaraderie that he really enjoys. At this early stage, the plan for his role on the team is to oversee the brisket, which he intends to make the way he thinks it should be made, not injecting it with a million flavor-enhancers like is so often done in barbecue competitions. Then he mentioned that he was building a new smoker for it and that he'd be cutting into an old propane tank that very afternoon… and my ears perked up. I asked if he'd mind if I tagged along to watch, in hopefully not too pushy a way, and he graciously said yes. (More on this topic at a later date.)
Before heading out east of town to the old farmhouse where the work would be occurring, we sat down at the picnic tables and had a late lunch of lobster rolls and tater tots from Dock & Roll across the street. John was describing a cold smoker he once made while he was living in Denver using an old fridge he found and various items picked up from the aisles of Home Depot. I listened, impressed with the ingenuity of it, and watched the happy expression on his face as he described how he attached this to that and that to this, and I observed, "You're very inventive." A modest look flickered across his face, and I instinctively followed up with, "You seem to be to me at least."
He responded, somewhat shyly, "Sometimes there are just things I want or need that don't exist so I have to make them myself."
And I think that pretty much sums it up.
la Barbecue is currently located at 1502 S. 1st Street until December 1, but will be moving to E. 6th at Waller, opening on December 4.