La Barbecue pitmaster John Lewis doesn't look like he spends all day smoking meat. Wiry and tall, Lewis's work attire includes argyle socks and bold framed glasses. He looks like a rising star in another industry Austin is well known for —the tech sector—rather than in the city's white-hot barbecue scene.
But rising star he is. La Barbecue was recently ranked the best barbecue in Austin by two separate critics; the line is routinely, at minimum, an hour long. How does a trailer maintain a quality product that continually exceeds the expectations placed upon it? Recently, Eater spent a Saturday with Lewis and his fellow cooks to find out.
3:00 A.M.-6:00 A.M.—Francisco Saucedo arrives to work. He handles the "day of" meats, as well as preparing the sides that require time to cook, like their pinto beans. After he gets the fire burning and the smoker up to temperature, he places the ribs in the smoker. "They need at least 5 or 6 hours, and they have to be ready for today," Saucedo says as he pulls a towel from his pocket to wipe sweat from his face.
Temperature control is paramount at La Barbecue and 'wood whisperer' is no understatement for the likes of Saucedo and Lewis. Both stop a conversation mid-sentence and, without a need to check their smoker's thermometer, head for their post oak wood stack and add a few logs to the burner.
6:00 A.M.-8:00 A.M.—The day's turkey hits the smoker, on the end closer to the fire pit to ensure exposure to plenty of smoke and so the turkey breast can "best absorb the flavors," Saucedo says. Along with the ribs and smoker's temperature, the turkey will be constantly monitored.
8:00 A.M.-9:00 A.M.—The rest of the morning staff arrives. They start to prep the kitchen for service, organizing the limited space that's offered within a trailer and cooking the other sides—chipotle cole slaw and buttermilk potato salad—that can be made closer to service.
This is also the time when the staff gets a sense for how busy service will be. On this Saturday, individuals started to line up before 8:30 a.m. Many of the early birds plan their day around securing a beef rib, which, according to manager Javy Leon, is almost always the first item to sell out, usually within 40 minutes of opening.
9:00 A.M.-11:00 A.M.— Saucedo is starting to pull meats from the smoker. With the ribs appropriately smoked and the turkey at that desired temperature of 158 degrees, the last "day of" meat to be cooked is the sausage. In Saucedo's estimation, this only takes about 45 minutes and is the most forgiving of any of the meats. (However this doesn't distract from their quality. All the sausage is made in house, and it's a special treat for customers when Lewis concocts a specialty sausage, like a recent a roasted hatch green chile and queso fresca pork sausage).
Next, Saucedo turns his focus to the next day's brisket. The much-revered brisket is covered in their peppery rub, which adheres to the brisket via a pre-rub lathering of pickle juice and hot dog mustard. The brisket is placed in the smoker and cooked until it's deemed ready to be pulled later that night or early the next morning.
Meanwhile, the line continues to grow. Today, it's around the block. Thankfully for customers, a St. Arnold's Brewing Company rep is set up near the entrance offering those in line a free Fancy Lawnmower or specialty porter (La Barbecue doesn't tap their free keg of Lone Star until 11:00 A.M.).
11:00 A.M.-Meats Sell Out—The music starts and the windows open. Lewis is serving meat and working the window, flanked by Franklin alumnus Will Schmidt (Lewis and Saucedo also worked there) to his right and line cook Miguel "Grandpa" Carbajal to his left. All three know their role in the operation and seamlessly offer a sample of brisket and slice, weigh, and deliver the meats and sides to the customer's tray within approximately 30 seconds of an order. The customer then rotates around the corner where Leon rings them up. All said, most customer transactions are completed in 60-90 seconds.
The beef ribs, indeed, are sold out within approximately 40 minutes of opening. Like seemingly every possible situation during service at La Barbecue, there's a protocol for dealing with this scenario: the lucky customer who makes the final order has to be the bearer of bad news and place the masking tape with a chicken scratched "sold out" over the menu item.
Meats Sell Out- Approximately 1:00 A.M.—Once service concludes, Lewis and the other employees continue to work. Whether it's trimming fat off pork shoulder (which is saved to be ground in their sausage), preparing rubs for meats or the buttermilk 'sauce' for their potato salad, or maintaining an orderly and cleanly kitchen and picnic area, the labor seems as much as, if not more than, that required at most restaurants.
Now that they have systems in place and workers that Lewis trusts, the work seems fairly distributed. That was not always the case. "When we first opened on South First," Lewis recollects, "We had a camper and I'd not even go home to sleep. I'd catch 2 hours of sleep there and get back to work."
La Barbecue recently relocated to Good Life Food Park on E. Cesar Chavez, in part to have more space for a third pit. While that will mean more work and meat to smoke for Lewis and Co., after spending some time in their kitchen, it's evident they are ready for the opportunity and haven't bit off more of their moist, tender brisket than they can chew.
· All La Barbecue Coverage [EATX]
— Tom Rosen