The Austin BBQ Top 10
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 2014
You go to print with the barbecue you've got, not the barbecue you wish you had. A year and a half ago, Austin’s Top 10 BBQ was that kind of list: a strong core unit with places bolted on to make an even 10, built to celebrate barbecue in Austin. Not Taylor, Lockhart or Llano, but the actual Austin city limits, marked in gray on maps only cubist cartographers could love. Eight of those Top 10 are gone from this list. The top-ranked JMueller trailer closed; so did Texas Rib Kings. Although Stiles Switch and Franklin Barbecue are back, the others have been overtaken by a cadre of new barbecue believers, all but one of whom opened in the 18 months between the machinations of the old Top 10 and the wishes of the new. The BBQ City Limits series has covered 52 Austin barbecue shops and trailers and counting. These 10 are the best of that series up to now. At least until Cooper’s of Llano and the extended Black family of Lockhart open their Austin branches this year. But we’ll save that list for another campaign.
1. La Barbecue. Pitmaster is such a TV word. John Lewis is more of a foreman at La Barbecue. He’s in the trailer window at lunch, cutting velveteen brisket and sunburned shiny ribs. He’s there at night, seasoning pork shoulder for the city’s best pulled pork or laying out beef ribs or making sausage, both of which won their categories, too. He’s also there welding firepits, chopping wood and ordering prime brisket for its waterfall gloss. This might be Leann Mueller’s trailer, and before that her brother and former Top 10 champion John Mueller’s domain. But it’s John Lewis’ world now. And Austin’s best barbecue. 900 E. Cesar Chavez St. at the Good Life Food Park (map), www.labarbecue.com
► Category rankings: #1 beef rib, #1 pulled pork, #1 sausage, #2 brisket, #2 pork rib, #4 sandwich, #13 side
► Intangibles (because it's not just about the food): Consistency. The barbecue you get on Wednesday is the barbecue you get on Friday is the barbecue you get on Sunday. At this level, that's remarkable. They'll need that consistency to soften the harsh intangibles of the lines that lie ahead.
2. Freedmen’s. Evan LeRoy was doing the haute barbecue thing before it was a thing, first at that house of game called Hudson’s on the Bend, then at Hill Country Barbecue in New York. In the half saloon, half icehouse atmosphere of Freedmen’s, he’s restless still, making old-man barbecue with husky salt-and-pepper bark but with something extra: sauce made from smoked bone stock, ribs with a jalapeño glaze, aromatic sausage cased by hand, pulled pork with Asian accents. Freedmen’s has just switched from by-the-plate to by-the-pound ordering, standing them among equals to anyone on this list for value. 2402 San Gabriel St. (map), www.freedmensbar.com
► Category rankings: #2 pulled pork, #2 sandwich, #3 pork rib, #3 sausage, #3 dessert, #3 side, #3 sauce, #4 brisket, #6 wild card
► Intangibles: The only shop versatile enough to have a ranked player in every category except for its excellent beef ribs, which weren’t on the menu at press time. They are now, as a three-bone pre-order. Also: good cocktails.
3. Brown’s Bar-B-Que. At a time when Arby’s can make the news with 13-hour brisket, Daniel Brown is riding along at 20 hours in his trailer, and his Certified Angus brisket holds up to more robust caramelization and crust. He’s cornered the market on pork ribs cut as fat as bantam turkey legs, and on chicken thighs improbably juicy in their crispy skins. His sweet sauteed cabbage with bacon marks him as a true son of the South. South Austin. 1901 S. Lamar Blvd. at the Corner Bar (map), Facebook page
► Intangibles: Value. A three-meat plate with two sides runs $12. On Sundays, barbecue is free with a $10 purchase at the Corner Bar next door.
4. Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew. Idea for redirecting unsold Lance Armstrong merchandise: Lance Kirkpatrick. First, he manages the smokers at Stiles with an agility that lets them sell meat all day long. Second, he brings a solid Central Texas sensibility to brisket with deep smoke and sturdy bark, something he picked up in nine years with Bobby Mueller at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Shane Stiles and crew fill the space around him with good pork ribs, spicy sausage and one of the best groups of side dishes in Austin: corn casserole, mac and cheese and lemon vinaigrette cole slaw. #SmokeStrong. 6610 N. Lamar Blvd. (map), www.stilesswitchbbq.com
► Category rankings: #2 dessert, #3 brisket, #4 beef rib, #4 sauce, #5 pork rib, #5 sandwich, #5 side
► Intangibles: Barbecue without the bulls**t. A nice building with air-conditioning and parking. A line seldom more than 15 minutes long even when it's out the door. Cold beer. Food that lasts through lunch and dinner.
5. Franklin Barbecue. Hit the line at 9 for 11 a.m. opening. Food at 2:15. I wouldn't recommend standing in a food line for five hours unless it involved disaster relief. Here's why we do it anyway: tender-hearted brisket with velveteen bark, killer espresso barbecue sauce, blushing red hotlinks, pulled pork like savory custard and crumbles, the best barbecue sandwich in town, people who're not just friendly, but conciliatory. And to say we did it. 900 E. 11th St. (map), www.franklinbarbecue.com
► Intangibles: We share 96 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. You can have 96 percent of the Franklin experience at any of the places on this list. Is the extra 4 percent worth five hours in line? Your call, monkey man. Evolution might be faster.
6. John Mueller Meat Co. John Mueller's former trailer ranked No. 1 on this list last time, and this incarnation could still be No. 1 if the brisket and ribs rose to their full softhearted, hard-barked glory every time. Or if the sausage were jolly as a fat baby every time. But the food is as mercurial as the man who makes it. Which for better or worse is part of its agonizing beauty, because when John Mueller is on, few people can touch his work. 2500 E. Sixth St. (map), www.johnmuellermeatco.com
► Intangibles: Inconsistency. In John Mueller’s Thunderdome, two men enter, one man leaves. What happens in-between is a spin of the wheel.
7. Micklethwait Craft Meats. Tom Micklethwait and his crew run a full-service tin can of a trailer, casing each link of sausage — kielbasa, lamb chorizo, bratwurst — before it heads to the smoker, where it shares space with journeyman fatty brisket and pork ribs and a beef rib at once lush and lean. Barbecue side dishes are traditionally lazy players, but here they work hard: lemon poppyseed slaw, cucumbers in creamy dill dressing and jalapeño cheese grits. The double-decker chocolate moon pie is Austin's best barbecue dessert. 1309 Rosewood Ave. (map), www.craftmeats.com
► Intangibles: A fully rounded experience with pleasant surprises: fresh-baked bread, homemade pickles, buttermilk pie, finding out which sausages are on the menu today.
8. Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ. Miguel Vidal says it best: "I’ve always wanted to bring my family’s style of cooking here. When I visited my parents and my Dad was barbecuing brisket all day long and then my Mom was making rice and beans and homemade tortillas. I wanted to share that with people.” He makes the best brisket taco in Austin, but there's full cowboy barbecue in the form of twangy mesuite brisket by the pound, smoky pulled pork for tacos or sandwiches, and Wednesday nights are for pork ribs. San Antonio represents with guacamole, red and green salsas, smoked corn and Mom's rice and beans. 600 W. Sixth St. behind Star Bar (map), www.valentinastexmexbbq.com
► Intangibles: Perfect union of Central Texas' favorite cuisines. Who knew barbecue and Tex-Mex needed each other so badly? Also one of the few full-mesquite operations. Downside: West Sixth Street is a bropocalyptic parking house of pain at night.
9. Kerlin BBQ. (03/24/15 UPDATE: The Kerlins now sell barbecue Fri-Sun from 11am until sold out. They've shifted their weekday energy to kolaches, sold from 9am until sold out Wed-Sun.) Barbecue done in the same Young Man Old School style that makes craft beer cook these days. And like a craft brewer, Bill Kerlin brings dsicipline to work, trimming pork ribs to lean St. Louis blocks with bark like a leathered fruit rollup, letting beef ribs loosen up without getting sloppy and insisting that brisket be soft and agile whether it's fatty or lean. Good blue cheese cole slaw, creamed corn and pork pulled to order. Amelis Kerlin checks on her picnic-table clientele like a veteran server, a role she plays at Sway when the trailer closes after lunch. 1700 E. Cesar Chavez St. (map), www.kerlinbbq.com
► Intangibles: Low volume means a quick sellout some days. Veracruz All Natural Tacos next door just in case.
10. Blue Ox BBQ & Pancake Cabin. Coffee-rubbed pork tenderloin is what you want from a trailer next to a 24-hour coffee shop. Chase Palmer also lends his experience at Louie Mueller to brisket with real bark and recessive smoke and a beef rib like a long-handled roast. Pulled pork is a Valkyrian event, all blond and blowing free. Excellent hot German potato salad. 1505 Town Creek Drive at the Buzz Mill coffeeshop (map), www.blueoxbarbecue.com
► Intangibles: Another Mueller connection. The option of getting coffee or something stronger from the Buzz Mill next door. Or atonement at the neighbor's Rockin' Vegan Tacos trailer.
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(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)