- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
People think Austin, they think barbecue and Tex-Mex. Been like that for years. But our dirty little secret here in the capital is that for decades if you wanted the best barbecue in Central Texas, you had to get in your car and drive to Lockhart or Taylor or Luling. Austin was near some of the best barbecue in Texas, but it wasn’t home to it.
That’s changed. Just as the greater culinary scene has exploded in recent years, barbecue also has flourished, fueled by the ascendance of Aaron Franklin and the reappearance of John Mueller. Propelled by an army of trailers and entrepreneurs, Austin’s best barbecue joints have earned a place at the table with some of the best in the state.
Below I offer my list of the 10 best barbecue spots in Austin, all of which have opened in the past eight years. The group doesn’t include esteemed places in Hays or Llano or Caldwell counties. Because you no longer have to leave town to find the best barbecue in Austin.
1200 E. Sixth St. 512-605-9696, labarbecue.com
Background: They say you should never trust a skinny cook. Rail-thin John Lewis shatters that cliché. The bespectacled and granite-jawed cook, who looks like he’d be equally comfortable behind a 1958 Fender Stratocaster or a welding torch, joined Aaron Franklin one week into the lauded cook’s trailer operation in 2009. He left in 2012 with the intention of moving to California before getting the opportunity to run the pits for LeAnn Mueller, who hired Lewis to run La Barbecue after firing her brother, John Mueller.
Lewis, who grew up in El Paso and received his first smoker as a birthday gift when he was a teenager, ran the trailer on South First Street for a year before moving it to East Austin in December. The lanky cook modified the smoker left in the wake of John Mueller’s dismissal and welded his own from a 1,000-gallon propane tank, from which he cranks out some of the best barbecue in Texas.
Setting: A few rows of picnic benches sit beneath tarps in the lot behind the vacant Uptown Sports building on East Sixth Street. Get there around 10:30 a.m. on weekdays to avoid being at the back of the line, and at least an hour before the 11 a.m. opening time on weekends.
Blue ribbon: Listen up, amateur pit bosses. In a world of super-secret recipes passed down through the ages, Lewis willingly offers his knowledge. He sprays his briskets with a 50/50 mixture of pickle juice and yellow mustard, applies a rub composed of salt, pepper, season salt, and granulated garlic, and then smokes with post oak. It’s that easy. Except that it’s not, of course. If it was, anyone would be able to make broad cuts of beef relaxed by the elusive alchemic arithmetic of time plus smoke divided by fat.
The beef rib takes a less aggressive posture than others around town, and the pork ribs shine with a honeyed glow, the freckles of pepper diminished with Lewis’ most recent adjustment to his recipe. Considerable heat from cayenne and turmeric bursts from the snap of hot guts sausage made with beef liver, beef heart, ground brisket and fatty brisket trimmings. The juicy strands of pulled pork, tossed in a tangy sauce, are the best in town.
A bone to pick: It’s been hard to find flaws on my last two visits to La Barbecue.
Prices by the pound: Beef ribs ($20), brisket ($17), pork ribs ($15), turkey breast and pulled pork ($14), sausage ($3.25/link).
Something on the side: Crunch and heat from chipotle cole slaw ($1.99).
Cherry on top: La Barbecue recently started serving homemade cookies, with flavors changing daily. I’ve yet to try one, but Lewis does hand out free Lone Star on weekends, and that’s pretty sweet.
2. Franklin Barbecue
900 E. 11th St. 512-653-1187, franklinbarbecue.com
Background: One of Austin’s first trailer phenoms, Aaron Franklin had folks lining up for an hour just months after opening on the Interstate 35 feeder road in late 2009. That success led to the brick-and-mortar Mecca in the home of the old Ben’s Long Branch BBQ. Raves soon came from Bon Appetit magazine, which called it the best in America, Texas Monthly, and many more. Franklin worked for a brief period chopping vegetables under the gaze of John Mueller on Manor Road, and his laid-back personality lies in sharp relief to his steely old boss.
Setting: This is where we talk about lines, because the gargantuan one at Franklin is the fine dividing line between the top spot and runner-up on my list. What was once a two-hour commitment can now stretch to a five-hour marathon. Some consider the convivial line — full of local die-hards and barbecue pilgrims from around the world — a ritual … an experience in and of itself … a culinary tailgate party. I call it unbearable. And that’s not Franklin’s fault. On my last visit, I paid a friend $20 to get in line at 8 a.m. early in the week. We were eating by 11:15. A few weeks later, another friend of mine got in line at 9 a.m. and didn’t eat for five hours.
Every barbecue lover should try it once and make up his own mind, but with other great barbecue just blocks away, I can’t bring myself to spend all morning reading a book in a folding chair while I wait for lunch. To their credit, most of those waiting keep a pretty good sense of humor, and Franklin rewards every customer equal time at the cutting board, slicing off burnt ends and making sure the line experience has a smooth landing.
Blue ribbon: Why the line? In addition to the fact that lines (and endless media) beget lines, it’s the brisket. Soft, rich, sumptuous, it’s the red velvet cake of beef. A crimson smoke ring separates the sweet bark from the rippled meat that unpacks itself like an accordion when you pick it up with your hands. It has few equals, but nobody consistently does it better. It doesn’t need sauce, but Franklin has created the perfect enhancement – a tomato-based blend braced by the dark roast of espresso. The pulled pork has nice salt-pepper balance, but you’re going to want to toss it in the vinegary sauce that doesn’t get as many headlines as its espresso-fueled sister sauce.
A bone to pick: The outsourced sausage, made of beef and pork, cracks open with a blast of oily fat but lacks complexity.
Prices by the pound: Brisket ($19), ribs ($16), turkey and pulled pork ($15), sausage ($3/link).
Something on the side: Not much to see here you can’t find other places, so I usually default to classic mustardy potato salad.
Cherry on top: The creamy wobble of a banana bourbon miniature pie with graham cracker crust ($4) from locals Cake and Spoon.
3. J. Mueller Meat Co.
2500 E. Sixth St. Johnmuellermeatco.com
Background: The King of Second Chances (though he may prefer the Prince of Darkness), John Mueller has rebounded more times than Charles Barkley. He grew up a member of barbecue royalty, learning to cook from his grandfather and father at Louie Mueller’s Barbecue in Taylor. His restaurant on Manor Road in the first half of the last decade was the best in town. But things ended on a sour note and the former high school athlete spent a few years wandering the state, from Bastrop to Amarillo, before Austin’s growing scene pulled Mueller back to town.
He opened a trailer on South First in the fall of 2011 and served an immediate reminder of why his food had always been loved and why he had always been, if not feared, at least given a wide berth. He snarled and grinned at customers and put out exceptional brisket and beef ribs, developing a loyal following until his sister exiled him from the operation. After a few months away, Mueller opened with a new name in East Austin in February 2013.
Setting: The spacious lot offers shaded and sun-splashed tables behind a small bar on East Sixth Street. The line can be anywhere from four to 40 people by opening time. The mercurial Mueller is just as likely to be shaking hands as shaking a (playful?) fist at first-time and longtime customers.
Blue ribbon: When the brisket is on point, it’s hard to beat. Fittingly, the old dog knows how to create a fierce bark, a caramelized crust bolstered by coarse black pepper that shields meat that splays out like a spider’s web. And the crunchy beef rib can hold its own with any in town.
A bone to pick: Consistency has hobbled Mueller. One day the brisket wiggles and falls at the touch of a fork, another it’s too dry or the fat hasn’t rendered properly.
Pricing by the pound: Brisket, pork ribs, beef ribs, and turkey ($14); pork shoulder and beef sausage ($10).
Something on the side: You’d get kids to eat a lot more squash if you mixed it with the amount of cheese Mueller uses on his peppery concoction.
Cherry on top: Ask Mueller what he serves for dessert. The answer will likely be a treat unto itself.
4. Micklethwait Craft Meats
1309 Rosewood Ave. 512-791-5961, craftmeats.com
Background: Tom Micklethwait put down the guitar and the stage name (Tom Kodiak) to leave Austin garage punks the Hex Dispensers and the late nights of rock ‘n’ roll for the early mornings of barbecue last spring.
Setting: When the warmer months come, it’s a game of movable chairs at the picnic tables, as guests shuffle around looking for the shaded spots in front of Micklethwait’s DIY 1960 Comet trailer.
Blue ribbon: A rotating roster of homemade sausages features craggy pork-and-beef kielbasa seasoned with garlic, mustard and mace one day and a fierce pork jalapeno sausage the next. Pork ribs fade from auburn to light brown, and the meat departs from the bone without a fuss. Pulled pork eases from a blushed cap into moist strands.
A bone to pick: The beef rib, with its volcanic porcupine surface, had a flow of unappetizing ochre-colored fat spilling from the center.
Prices per pound: Beef rib ($19), brisket ($16), pork spare ribs ($16), specialty sausages ($16), sliced pork shoulder ($14.50), pulled pork ($13), and chicken ($13).
Something on the side: Jalapeno cheddar grits that lean as much on the cheese as the pepper, with a fluffy consistency like milky scrambled eggs.
Cherry on top: William Ankney, a former pastry chef at Vespaio, delivers creamy buttermilk pie and chocolate-drenched moonpies layered with gooey marshmallow.
5. Brown’s Bar-B-Que
1901 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-517-8520, Facebook.com/brownsbarbque
Background: Austin native and Bowie High School graduate Daniel Brown’s father grew up around the barbecue joints in Lockhart, so the young pit boss has smoke in the blood. He’s passed the knowledge of barbecue down to his son, Daniel Brown Jr., who works the trailer with his dad and aunt outside the Corner Bar.
“We put love in our food. Everything we cook we’ve been raised on,” Daniel Brown said.
The trailer started as a pop-up at Barton Springs Saloon during the Austin City Limits Music Festival a few years ago and then spent a couple of years in front of the Genie Car Wash up the road before dropping anchor near South Lamar Boulevard and Mary Street at the beginning of the year.
Setting: Picnic benches sit in between the Corner Bar and Brown’s fire-engine-red trailer with his name splashed in a sunburst on the side.
Blue ribbon: The brisket carries impressive depth of smoke in its patchwork weave of sinew and muscle. I was surprised to find impossibly tender chicken meat on thighs wrapped in a wavy armor of burnished skin.
A bone to pick: Pulled pork slumped into a tangled, fatty mess.
Prices by the pound: Brisket and beef ribs ($14); chicken, pulled pork, and sausage ($13).
Something on the side: Macaroni shells in a creamy cheese sauce reinforce something Brown told me about his trailer days later by phone: “I didn’t want it to be a tourist attraction, just good home cookin’.”
Cherry on top: Buy a drink at the Corner Bar between 3 and 10 p.m. on Sundays and pick up a ticket for free barbecue. Sweet marketing move by the bar.
6. Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
6610 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-380-9199, stilesswitchbbq.com
Background: Owner Shane Stiles and cook Lance Kirkpatrick rode a wave of speculation and anticipation into Austin from Taylor in late 2011. Kirkpatrick had worked at Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, and with that résumé highlight comes considerable hopes and expectations.
Setting: Part smokehouse and part sports bar, Stiles Switch blends the old and new, with customers loading up the butcher-paper lined trays before sitting down beneath the glare of a few flat-screen TVs. The Violet Crown Shopping Center location gets Austin “cool” points for being situated at the other end of the strip from the “Emporium,” the fictitious pool hall cruised by Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused.”
Blue ribbon: Kirkpatrick doesn’t brag about his time at Louie Mueller, but his beef rib (a Mueller staple) does plenty of talking. A peppery crust like melted jerky layers the edge of a massive hunk of meat that slips into a pile of velvety shards from a giant bone big enough for every dog in Crestview to nibble on. Pork loin is tender and smoky and doesn’t require a knife.
A bone to pick: On my last visit, the brisket was lean and dry, divided by a tough burgundy strip, and the peach cobbler had the sticky consistency of bottled syrup.
Prices by the pound: Brisket ($16), spare ribs, turkey breast and beef ribs ($14), and pork loin ($13).
Something on the side: Sweet and creamy corn casserole ($2.25), like warmed cornbread batter.
Cherry on top: Imagine a kid crunching up Oreos into his mom’s banana pudding ($3.50). Sounds like a sin, but it works.
7. Kerlin BBQ
1700 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-412-5588, kerlinbbq.com
Background: Bill Kerlin moved to the Austin area three years ago, and after toying with a few competitions, opened this trailer with his wife, Amelis, last summer.
Setting: The trailer and its shaded picnic benches sit adjacent to the original Veracruz All Natural taco trailer, making this combination destination one of Austin’s best one-two punches.
Blue ribbon: Brisket woven with just enough fat to make the slivers of meat cling to each other for dear life, and pecan-smoked pork ribs with supple body and a sweet edge.
A bone to pick: Homemade pickles need more depth, and the turkey looked unappealing, pocked with patches of snowy fat.
Prices by the pound: Brisket ($16), pork ribs ($15), pork shoulder ($14), sausage ($3/link).
Something on the side: The veggies for cole slaw have the uniformity of bagged shards, but tossed in blue cheese any lack of prep work is forgiven ($3).
Cherry on top: Satiny banana custard.
8. Blue Ox
1505 Town Creek Drive. 512-537-2047, blueoxbarbecue.com
Background: Chase Palmer opened his pitch-black trailer tucked away off Riverside Drive in spring 2013.
Setting: All plaid and wood, the Paul Bunyan theme stands proud at this complex that houses Buzz Mill Coffee and the Blue Ox.
Blue ribbon: Fatty brisket with a sweet bark and a giant beef rib with plenty of give.
A bone to pick: They use a plastic claw to wither the pork butt to shreds, but what was left was a dried mophead of meat.
Prices per pound: Espresso-rubbed pork tenderloin ($18); brisket and beef ribs ($16); pulled pork and spare ribs ($14).
Something on the side: Both the mac-and-cheese and the German potato salad came studded with housemade bacon. It’s almost cheating.
Cherry on top: The bitter perk of espresso from neighboring Buzz Mill Coffee to keep the meat coma at bay.
2402 San Gabriel St. 512-220-0953, freedmensbar.com
Background: Former Cuatros owner Cuatro Kowalski and Longbranch Inn owner Jim Stockbauer teamed in late 2012 for this upscale saloon and restaurant that feels like it could be located 300 miles from its West Campus address.
Setting: A gorgeous wooden bar and buttoned leather banquettes give roughhewn elegance to the building originally constructed in 1860. My lunch date one afternoon said, “It feels like you’re in Texas.” What more could a barbecue joint ask for?
Blue ribbon: Savory sausage made with brisket and pork belly, and brisket with a caramelized bark and lazy center.
A bone to pick: The pulled pork suffered from too much salt, and the high prices made me long to get on the tenure track.
Plate prices (which means about a 1/2 pound of meat, a few homemade pickles and a slice of bread): Pork spare ribs ($14), brisket ($13), sausage and pulled pork ($12), extra meat ($6).
Something on the side: Tart citrus goat cheese and a sweet balsamic glaze counter the earthiness of smoked beets.
Cherry on top: After a meal of smoked meat, I don’t need smoke on my banana pudding or chocolate mousse, but I will take a balanced rye Manhattan from the bar.
10. Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue
401 W. Second St. 512-494-1500, lambertsaustin.com
Background: When it opened in 2006, Austinites didn’t realize that Lambert’s would foreshadow the trademark style and polished design we’d come to expect of Larry McGuire. The nascent restaurateur opened the “fancy barbecue” establishment with name partner Lou Lambert and others in a part of downtown that could not yet be classified as sophisticated.
Setting: The restaurant has the exposed-brick bones of the 19th century Schneider Brothers Building it once housed, dressed up with green leather banquettes and warmed by globe-like light fixtures. Getting a table during the dinner or happy hour rush can be a challenge any day of the week.
Blue ribbon: Tender pork ribs with the pop of fennel and coriander lacquered to the bone with a maple glaze.
A bone to pick: The lean and mean brisket played it safe, despite the outward appearances of an impressive bark that turned to mush under closer examination, and the “house” sauce relied too heavily on cloying ketchup.
Prices: One meat ($14), two meat ($16) or three meat ($18) plates at lunch come with two sides. Order a one meat plate from the bar menu for half off during daily happy hour (5 p.m. to 7 p.m.).
Something on the side: Jicama and carrot slaw with a sweet tang from honey, lime and red wine vinegar.
Cherry on top: Try the bittersweet coconut cream pie with shaved dark chocolate, or take advantage of the complete dining experience by ending with a glass of cognac from Remy Martin. Let’s see a trailer pull that one off.