You newcomers to Austin: Did you know there are barbecue places in town other than Franklin Barbecue? Barbecue joints where you don’t have to stand in line for two or three hours to get to the brisket?
Take House Park Bar-B-Que, at 900 W. 12th St., just east of Lamar Boulevard. House Park has been smokin’ it up since 1943, and it smells like it.
Joe Sullivan, who has owned the place for 34 years, says that after a student interviewed him, the teacher called up to check up on her work.
“She said, ‘I know she interviewed you because her stuff smelled like barbecue when she turned it in,’” Joe recalled.
“That’s our thing: If you don’t smell like it, you ain’t right,” said Matt Sullivan, Joe’s son and the handlebar mustache guy manning the pit these days.
The pit, ah yes, the pit: It is perhaps the greasiest barbecue pit in creation. The lid on this pit has more meat fat hanging on it than Chris Christie. This pit has been fired up since House Park opened in 1943. This pit is so old that it qualifies for Social Security. Joe says it’s the oldest barbecue pit in Austin.
You’ll smell like a sausage link when you walk out the door, and the neighborhood dogs will try to jump in your car. Here’s the irony: Because of city regulations, a “No Smoking” sign is posted on the door to the pit room. It’s a bit late for that, right?
Matt and Joe admire what Aaron Franklin has done with his barbecue place on East 11th Street. Franklin Barbecue has become a Texas landmark, rubbing elbows with the San Antonio Riverwalk, Big Tex and the Cadillac Ranch. Drop by at lunch and people will be lined up like they’re hoping for Bruce Springsteen tickets.
It would be interesting to know if more out-of-staters know Austin as the capital of Texas or as the home of Franklin Barbecue.
Joe thinks people who wait in line for hours for barbecue have mutton for brains. “I thought that was a Texas IQ test, and they failed,” Joe said. “Franklin is a good cat, and he deserves this stuff. But it’s gettin’ kind of old.”
“In my opinion, no true Texan should wait in line for Texas barbecue,” said Matt, who started running the business two years back. “But I’d be lying if I said I’m not envious.”
I’m certainly no food critic for Saveur, but my taste buds tell me that Franklin, and La Barbecue at 902 E. Cesar Chavez St., have the best barbecue this side of the planet Zarcon. That said, there are plenty of other barbecue spots in Austin that are worth a try. And when it comes to true barbecue joint ambiance, House Park has Franklin and La Barbecue hammered flat.
The sign up on the pole out front claims you’ll “Need No Teef to Eat My Beef.” Having teeth, I can’t verify if choppers are necessary. But the brisket is tender, the ribs are spicy and tasty, and the walls inside are covered up in Austin memorabilia.
And every so often Karl Rove, the GOP guru, drops in for lunch, Matt says. “Even Republicans have to eat,” Matt says. Who knew?
The little restaurant is a family affair. Son Matt started helping out around the place when he was learning his ABCs at nearby Pease Elementary School. “They’d say, ‘Matt, don’t go. You’ve got to stay in child care,’ but I’d jump the fence and come down here to see my dad,” he said. “I was pretty much born in that pit.”
Joe bought the business in 1981 for $22,000. At the time he had only $100. So he borrowed $15,000 from his brother, who he calls “Mike the Genius.” (All four of Joe’s brother were, or are, Austin firemen.) Then Joe paid off the rest of the $7,000 at 10 percent interest.
Joe said he figured that was a heckuva deal: “Interest rates back then were higher than Charlie Sheen.”
Still, Joe probably wondered what he had gotten himself into, since his first day of business coincided with the horrific 1981 Memorial Day weekend flood. It was a great time to own a boat, not a barbecue joint. Thirteen people drowned. Torrential rains increased Shoal Creek’s flow rate from 90 gallons a minute to 6 million gallons a minute.
Shoal Creek is a rock’s toss from House Park’s pit.
“The Memorial Day flood was my first day, and I had water up to my ankles,” Joe said. So he didn’t open the doors, although he did sell barbecue. “We made $900 in the parking lot in less than a day.”
So if you people over at Franklin get sick of standing in line, check out House Park. Not only will you get something to eat. You’ll see a chunk of Austin history along with your lunch.