Austin's Top 10 BBQ
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking
“Where can we go for good barbecue in Austin?” Until a few years ago, the best answer to that question didn’t involve Austin at all. Kreuz’s, Cooper’s, Louie Mueller’s, the Salt Lick, City Market. Not in Austin. Lockhart, Llano, Taylor, Driftwood, Luling, respectively. Then Franklin Barbecue happened, and John Mueller opened a trailer in South Austin. But the answers still fizzled out after those two and Iron Works. So I'm visiting every brick-and-mortar barbecue place in Austin — plus as many trailers as I can catch — for a series called BBQ City Limits. The actual city limits of Austin. Here’s my Top 10 barbecue places in Austin, at least for now.
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1. JMueller BBQ.
► UPDATE 1: JMueller BBQ has closed. In its place is a trailer run by by John Mueller's sister, Leann, with former Franklin Barbecue cook John Lewis on the smoker. Read about the new La Barbecue here.
► UPDATE 2: John Mueller is selling barbecue in Austin again, from a new trailer that opened in February. Read about John Mueller Meat Co. here.
There’s not much daylight between No. 1 and No. 2 on this list, but John Mueller’s trailer gets the edge for brisket bark, beef ribs, sausage and accessibility. Put the fatty brisket in the next Voyager space probe to show how the Earthlings do brisket in Texas, with the fat in a pearled state of suspension between liquid and solid, held together by a crusted layer of salt and black pepper that crunches like hard beef candy. Mueller makes his own sausage, all soft peppery shag in a sturdy casing, and his beef rib will make a convert out of diehard pork-rib devotees. If not the first time, then the second and third and double-digit visits after that. In real barbecue, sides are beside the point, but Mueller makes them count with chipotle slaw and baked squash, and his onion-and-vinegar red sauce stands like a fully stewed sentinel, ready when you need it. Lines are part of life in the short-supply, long-demand reality of anything this good, but I’ve never waited more than 45 minutes for lunch here. 1502 S. First St. (at top)
2. Franklin Barbecue. Aaron Franklin didn’t invent barbecue, but he’s credited with creating the barbe-queue, the line that forms two hours before his shop even opens. But it’s time to cut the man some slack — like it’s his fault for being too popular. It’s like waiting for Stones tickets in the ‘70s, and nobody blamed Mick for being too rock ‘n’ roll. Franklin rocks with brisket that ripples with velvet elasticity like a quicksand faultline with a crust like salted volcanic rubble. There’s a little sweetness on the pork ribs, a finish like Grade B maple syrup, and you know how good syrup tastes with pork. It’s telling that Franklin and Mueller have the two best sauces in town, even though their barbecue needs it the least. Franklin’s espresso barbecue sauce was born during the time his trailer sat next to Owl Tree coffee roasters, and the pedigree buzzes right at the surface. Order by the plate or the pound, but be sure to load up on pulled pork and sausage, because who knows when you’ll have three hours for lunch again. 900 E. 11th St. 512-653-1187, www.franklinbarbecue.com. (above)
3. Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew. If the distance between No. 1 and No. 2 on this list can be measured in smoke molecules, you need a map to find No. 3. That’s no reflection on Stiles Switch, just the reality of a market where your closest competitors stand among the nation’s best. There’s a Mueller connection at work here. Pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick worked for John’s father, the late Bobby Mueller, at the original Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. His training becomes abundantly clear in brisket like beef’s version of a chocolate birthday cake. The crust glistens like frosting, and just like a cake, it’s that thick layer where the flavor gathers in greatest concentration. Below that is a half-inch of rose-colored madness, followed by meat whose velvet, fatty character doesn’t drift far from the cake metaphor, either. Always ask for fatty. 6610 N. Lamar Blvd. in the Violet Crown Shopping Center. 512-380-9199, www.stilesswitchbbq.com. (above left)
4. Mann’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que. Barbecue doesn’t have to be an event. At Mann’s Smokehouse, there’s a line, but you can check the show at the door. People are here to eat, not make a scene. If you want to appreciate the difference between sinewy, fibrous carnitas and smoked pulled pork, Mann’s is the place to do it. This pork is so feathery and light it must have come from one of those flying pigs we hear so much about. The older gent at the slicing station will ask if you’d like lean or fatty brisket, and somewhere in-between is brisket with a long, tight grain and veins of fat. Pray for an end or a corner, where the fat wins the war and you get the full effect of smoke and the razor-thin crust. Must-try: Brunswick stew, like liquid meatloaf. 8624 Research Blvd. 512-459-5077, www.mannsbbq.com. (above right)
5. Live Oak Barbecue. This whitewashed place that opened in 2011 has the ready-made dive look that owners Randall and Donya Stockton have cultivated with East Side bars like Shangri-La and the Grackle. But the barbecue lies about Live Oak’s age. Pitmaster Tom Spaulding’s pork ribs carry most of the weight, with knobby fall-away caps and a fat-to-lean ratio that favors the former. He also smokes Boston butt pork steak to a radiant coral and white with earthy brown tops like a forest mushroom. My award for the most-improved meat at Live Oak goes to brisket for beef that pulls like a blacksmith’s bellows with the smoke to back it up. Their vinegar-and-dill cucumber salad stands among the best barbecue sides in town. 2713 E. Second St. 512-524-1930, www.liveoakbbq.net. (above left)
6. Ruby’s BBQ. As the north end of the UT campus has changed, Ruby’s has held its line as strongly as the bluesmen who used to come here when Antone’s was just around the corner. The brisket is the ancient brown of a standup bass, with a crust rubbed as smooth as the ebony fretboard. Babyback pork ribs and Elgin beef sausage fill the front of the stage, the babybacks as lacquered red as Chinese ribs. They cling to the bone for strength but fall away when the moment calls for it. For solid side notes, try twirled fusilli pasta with clingy cheese and vinegary collard greens folded over chunks of ham. 512 W. 29th St. 512-477-1651, www.rubysbbq.com. (above right)
7. Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods Market. Forget that you’re in the flagship of a national grocery chain. Barbecue comes down to people, and the people here feed a half-ton hickory smoker with brisket the color and texture of wet volcanic glass. The volcano runs deep into the meat with a flowing stripe of angry tannic red smoke and islands of lean the color of roiled loam tumbling along tributaries of near-molten fat. Pork shoulder is pulled and shredded to order, and you can decorate your lunch from the hundreds of options in the side-dish mini-mall we call Whole Foods. 525 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-476-1206, www.wholefoodsmarket.com. (above left)
8. Texas Rib Kings. 2014 UPDATE: Texas Rib Kings has closed. On Mondays and Tuesdays, all-you-can-eat is less than $15, and that’s the time to try full-figured beef ribs that pull from the bone with just the right amount of canine exertion. You can taste the oak, toasty and tannic as a wine barrel, in the burnt end of a brisket with a rippled ebony crust that sinks down almost a quarter-inch, giving way to the coral-color red that suggests a low-and-slow ride through the smoke. 9012 Research Blvd., Suite C4. 512-451-7427, www.texasribkings.com. (above right)
9. Sam’s Bar-B-Cue. Every list like this has a sentimental favorite, and Sam’s is it. Last summer’s stolen-meat scandal left a bad taste, but not enough to surrender memories that stretch back to college late nights. This is barbecue from the old school, with a campfire char on the brisket edges and mutton in its gamey splendor. Startle the pork ribs and they’d shiver their bones clean like a cartoon skeleton. Subtlety has no place here, but there’s plenty of room for you. 2000 E. 12th St. 512-478-0378, no website. (above left)
10. Iron Works BBQ. My first run-through at Iron Works for the BBQ City Limits series made me feel guilty that I’d pointed so many people here in the past. Beef ribs, pork ribs, and brisket suffered from a bland homogeneity I didn’t think was possible from a corrugated barbecue barn with so many years behind it. But a few weeks later, that thing happened that always happens with Iron Works: I had family in from out of town, we were stuck downtown and they wanted barbecue. Iron Works answered the call with sausage, brisket and a hulking beef rib I could be proud of. Everybody has bad days. It’s how they bounce back that matters. 100 Red River St. 512-478-4855, www.ironworksbbq.com. (above right)
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter's BBQ City Limits ♦ The Compleat List