Table Of Contents (all h2's added automatically)
The central core of Austin now boasts a half-dozen or more great barbecue spots, with opinions on the pecking order subject to furious debate. To help visitors and locals alike, we’ve assembled a primer on Austin’s barbecue past, a guide to current frontrunners, and a glossary to help you understand what you’re seeing and tasting. Dig in.
A BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF AUSTIN BARBECUE
Modern-day Austin barbecue may be the stuff of legend, but much of the city’s past dovetails neatly with its more laid-back roots. Among the still-standing old-guard crowd pleasers, Sam’s BBQ in East Austin dates to the late 1950s, The Salt Lick to 1967, County Line to 1975, Iron Works BBQ to 1978, and Ruby’s BBQ to 1988.
As perennially popular as those were, Austin’s barbecue obsessives always recommended barbecue road trips outside of Austin for a truly transcendent experience. The experts were mostly in alignment on where to go. The town of Lockhart and its trifecta of Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market, and Black’s Barbecue was the most popular pick, along with Taylor’s legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue. All remain open today. It should be noted that the current Smitty’s resides in what once was the Kreuz Market location since 1924—the new Kreuz down the road dates back to 1999. While rumors of "the best barbecue in Texas" were heard from all corners of Texas, Mueller and the Lockhart trio were only really given a run for the money through the turn of the century by City Market in Luling.
A seismic shift in Central Texas barbecue lore began in the early aughts with John Mueller’s spot on Manor Road 2001 (yes, related to the Taylor Muellers). He opened the restaurant with little fanfare, but drew loyal crowds and acclaim for five years despite battles with personal issues and middling profits. Mueller also famously employed Aaron Franklin at the register (not on the pit) and the prep station, leading to Franklin’s $1,000 purchase of Mueller’s old pit for what would become the Franklin Barbecue trailer.
The late 2009 opening of Franklin’s modest trailer heralds the beginning of Austin’s modern barbecue renaissance. Brentwood saw Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew appear in 2011. After a five-year absence spent in Amarillo and Taylor, South 1st’s JMueller BBQ brought John Mueller back in the fall of 2011, in temporary alliance with his sister LeAnn. Micklethwait Craft Meats, Freedmen’s, and Brown’s Bar-B-Que both followed with prominent openings in 2012, while Kerlin BBQ and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ each made a splash upon arrival in 2013.
In the interim, LeAnn and John Mueller parted ways, with LeAnn redubbing her operation La Barbecue under the helm of John Lewis, and John Mueller taking time away before reemerging in East Austin with John Mueller Meat Co. in 2013. In nearby Bee Cave, Lockhart’s famous Schmidts (of Smitty's and Kreuz Market) opened Schmidt Family Barbecue in late 2013. (A second Schmidt Family was opened in Lakeway, but will close this fall.) Fellow Lockhart residents Michael and Mark Black (grandsons of Edgar Black) also arrived in the summer of 2014 with Terry Black’s Barbecue, Sensing a market opportunity, satellite outposts of Lockhart notables Black’s BBQ (2014) and Llano’s Cooper Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (late 2015) have also opened in Central Austin. For more Austin barbecue history, check out Texas Monthly's piece from 2012.
AUSTIN’S BARBECUE BREAKDOWN
900 East 11th Street, Central East Austin
Strengths: Everything but sausage
Weaknesses: Lines, side items
1906 East Cesar Chavez Street, East Cesar Chavez
Strengths: All meats and sides, dinner hours
Weaknesses: Lines, doesn’t accept cash
Micklethwait Craft Meats
1309 Rosewood Avenue, Central East Austin
Strengths: Side items, sausages, beef ribs, desserts, somehow still underrated
Weaknesses: Line can be slow, limited seating
John Mueller Meat Co.
2500 East 6th Street, Holly
Strengths: Beef ribs, bark, legendary pitmaster
Weaknesses: Can be closed at times without notice
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
7612 Brodie Lane, Far South Austin
Strengths: Brisket, tacos, and beef fajitas
Weaknesses: Non-central location
2402 San Gabriel Street, West Campus
Strengths: Indoor seating, pork ribs, pulled pork, dinner service, sides, cocktails are generally underrated
Weaknesses: Challenging parking
Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
6610 North Lamar Boulevard, Brentwood
Strengths: Beef and pork ribs, spicy sausage, indoor seating, dinner service, craft beer taps
Weaknesses: Non-central location
1901 South Lamar Boulevard, South Lamar
Strengths: Brisket and pulled pork, South Lamar location, cabbage side
Weaknesses: Limited seating
1700 East Cesar Chavez Street, East Cesar Chavez
Strengths: Beef and pork ribs
Weaknesses: Limited service hours (it’s open Thursday through Sunday only)
Other notable spots
Black’s Barbecue (West Campus)
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (Downtown)
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (Downtown)
Terry Black's Barbecue (Barton Springs)
Schmidt’s Family Barbecue (Bee Cave)
Hays Co. Barbque (San Marcos)
Salt Lick (Driftwood)
QUICK BARBECUE GLOSSARY
Bark: The dark, flavorful outer crust of a brisket.
Beef ribs: These are the large, caveman-style short ribs of legend. Traditionally the most expensive item on a barbecue menu, a single rib can weigh over two pounds.
Burnt ends: Trimmed and cubed pieces of point brisket covered in bark.
Casing: Cleaned, salted, and rinsed animal intestines or stomachs used to make sausage links, which provide the classic sausage "snap." Hog casings are the ones most often used in Texas.
Fat cap: A layer of fat atop both pork shoulders and brisket. These are trimmed prior to smoking to provide balance between flavor and moisture.
Fatty or moist brisket: The darling of barbecue orders, the more moist and fatty portion of the brisket (from the point) is the popular choice for most.
Gassers: Smokers that use gas rather than wood to generate cooking heat. Often employed derisively.
Glue: A liquid (often yellow mustard) used to attach the dry rub to smoked meat prior to smoking.
Hot guts: A coarsely-ground Texas German-style beef sausage in a natural casing, usually seasoned with salt and pepper, and then smoked.
Indirect heat: A method of cooking that does not place the meat over open flame, but with an offset/adjacent fire or heat source. The preferred method for larger meats (brisket, pork butts, and shoulders) to keep meats tender, impart more flavor, and avoid burning.
Lean brisket: The flat portion of the brisket provides the lean cuts of brisket. Many shun the lean in favor of moist/fatty brisket, but a good lean cut is the mark of a great pitmaster.
Mesquite: A prolific tree in Texas that remains a popular wood choice in most of Texas, though not in Austin. Imparts a stronger flavor that post oak to most palates. Common to most Texas barbecue joints outside of Central Texas, including the world-class Pecan Lodge in Dallas.
Offset smoker: A backyard barbecue staple, these smokers have a long, horizontal area for smoked meats, and an offset firebox for burning the heat source.
Point brisket: The top section of the brisket including the point muscle. This is the fattier, more marbled portion of a whole brisket.
Pork ribs: The smaller, fattier, and sweeter style of ribs. Impossible to confuse with a beef short rib due to size, flavor, and texture.
Post oak: A type of white oak wood prized by pitmasters and favored in Central Texas for smoky flavor and little residual soot. Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, and Stiles Switch all use post oak.
Rendered fat: An essential component of good barbecue, fat renders (cooks down) in the slow and low method, imparting moisture and meshing with the rub.
FOR MORE BARBECUE NEWS
Lead image: Black's Barbecue Austin/Facebook