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Terry Black’s Barbecue struggles to find its footing

Austin’s barbecue scene has exploded into an oak-fired frenzy the past couple of years. Elite new players have redefined what we expect from Austin barbecue. My top 10 list from this summer featured only one restaurant (Lambert’s) that’s been slinging meat for more than five years. So where does Terry Black’s Barbecue — the new kid with the familiar name — fit into the scene?

Let’s pull back and look at how we got here first. Austinites didn’t suddenly fall in love with smoked meat. For years we wore out the roads between Austin and Lockhart (and Taylor and Llano, et al.) for a taste of classic Central Texas barbecue. We batted our eyelashes at places like Kreuz Market and Louie Mueller Barbecue, hoping one of the families from the country would set up shop in the city. But they did plenty of business right where they were, thank you very much.

It took Aaron Franklin, John Mueller, John Lewis and those who followed to highlight that Austin was missing the kind of barbecue that made those small towns such a draw: unapologetic, unhinged, fatty, flavorful, smoke-packed beef.

Those guys ignited the flame that has been attracting meat-moths around town the past few years. Other cooks have ridden their ascendant smoky waft, hoping to puff up their businesses on the backs of the men who helped reset the bar for Austin barbecue. Not a bad business model.

But it reminds me of a recent trend in Americana pop-rock over the past decade. One band set a template, had success, and then a bunch of others rode the collective enthusiasm. What seemed like a fresh reframing of roots music 20 years ago has become a tired formula. Now all you need is a three-chord strum, a foot stomp, a choral shout of “hey,” and you’ve got yourself a Toyota commercial.

If Black’s Barbecue of Lockhart is the Band with Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, and Aaron Franklin is early Wilco, some of these newcomers are cranking ’cue that sounds like the Lumineers.

Michael and Mark Black may be young guns, but they’ve been around the firing range all their lives. Their great-grandfather founded Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart in 1932. The twins tried to open a restaurant of the same name earlier this year, but the family balked, and the boys added their father’s name, Terry, to the restaurant. So Terry Black’s Barbecue isn’t affiliated with the Lockhart restaurant but does share some of the same DNA.

Meanwhile, the boys’ uncle, Kent, opened Kent Black’s Barbecue in San Marcos last week and will open Black’s Barbecue (an offshoot of the Lockhart original) later this year on Guadalupe Street. Clear as smoke, right? Sometimes tracking the family tree of Central Texas barbecue families can be more difficult than diagramming a William Faulkner sentence.

The brothers are a unique piece in the expanding Austin barbecue puzzle: They’re young, and this is their first restaurant. But barbecue runs deep in their family, and Michael spent three years working the pits in Lockhart.

When I ran into them last fall as they put up a banner announcing their impending arrival, they spoke with confidence about cooking “old-school” and making all sides from scratch. With the (slightly) altered family name, excellent location (its tortured recent history as South Austin Bar & Grill and Pesos and Bucks not withstanding) and confident talk, the brothers garnered significant attention. They also opened with some lofty expectations.

Barbecue is a tough business, especially when you’re cranking out enough food to stay open until 9 p.m. daily. It takes years to hone your methods and master quality control. To answer a question I’ve been asked by many: After a couple of visits, I wouldn’t put Terry Black’s Barbecue in the same league as the restaurant in Lockhart.

We’ll start with the (somewhat) positives. Beef ribs will never win a barbecue beauty pageant, and these weren’t any exception. They were ugly, but they could sing. Charred accordion folds of gelatinous fat suitcased velvety shards of fragrant ruby meat that pulled apart in long strands. Tender meat clung to the brittle bones of pork ribs that were lacquered with a tangy glaze that stretched over bubble-gum fat.

We weren’t asked about our choice of lean or moist when we ordered brisket one visit, but it turns out it might not have mattered. On another visit, when we asked for some of each, it was hard to differentiate between the two. The mangled moist pieces ran fatty at one end, with unrendered ochre marbling running up against a torched smoke ring, and dry and crumbly at the other.

The brisket, with its chewy caramelized bark, lacked smoke flavor, and the trio of thick and oily sauces did nothing to help. The original sauce tasted like Campbell’s tomato soup with sugar added.

Barbecue fiends seek snap casings on sausage, but the leathery sausages at Terry Black’s barbecue snapped less than a Slim Jim. The sausage was peppery but dry. That wasn’t a problem for turkey that seemed impossibly juicy. And I don’t mean that in the hyperbolic praise sense. The meat, ringed with rubbery skin, was so moist it deteriorated to wet strands when rubbed between my thumb and forefinger.

You grab the aforementioned sides from a cafeteria line before picking up meat served by the pound, and it would be hard to favorably compare the dishes to cafeteria food. Macaroni and cheese was soupy, green beans lacked crunch and the creamed corn tasted like canned corn tossed in a horchata mixture. The best of the bunch, baked beans, tasted mostly of chili powder. In a town with La Barbecue’s chipotle coleslaw, cabbage at Brown’s Barbecue and Kerlin’s blue cheese coleslaw, industrial sides won’t cut it. And it wouldn’t even be fair to compare the banana pudding at Terry Black’s to the buttermilk pie at Micklethwait Craft Meats.

I’m holding out some hope for Terry Black’s Barbecue, maybe in the way I’d want to see Levon Helms’ grandkid’s band (if he had one). The Black brothers grew up listening to the music they’re trying to recreate on Barton Springs Road. They know the feel of the instruments and can recite the notes without looking at the sheet. But trying to headline on such a big stage for so many fans has proven an early burden.

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