BBQ City Limits: Artz Rib House
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Artz Rib House
2330 S. Lamar Blvd. 442-8283, www.artzribhouse.com.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.06.12
UPDATE 8/31/14: Artz has closed since this report was written, and news came Aug.30 that owner Art Blondin was found dead at his new barbecue place in Florence.
In one Saturday afternoon at Artz, I heard four of the singers who shaped my early appreciation of the Austin sound: Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. All in a row, on KUT’s Folkways. No matter that they came from elsewhere. Most of us did. In the mid-‘80s, their songs defined the way I felt about living here. The man who started Artz 20 years ago isn’t from around here, either. Art Blondin is a transplanted Vermonter who plays bass and cooks and gives local musicians a place to play. His restaurant almost closed for good in 2009, then filed for bankruptcy in 2010. But it’s still open on South Lamar under a half-rusted corrugated roof, and like those men on the radio did back then, Artz is shaping how I feel about Austin barbecue today.
Maybe it’s the color of the ribs. Long racks of pork spareribs, hulking beef ribs or country-style pork ribs. Each of them the backlit burley tobacco brown of my father’s square-toed Lucchese boots, the boots he handed down to me with whorled holes in the soles. The country-style rib ($3.99) is as supple as that goatskin leather. It’s a chop, really, held together by a strong T-for-Texas bone at the crown, and all you need are your hands and teeth to pick it clean of the mellow white meat with ribbons of fat that save it from a porkchop’s arid destiny. And a half-rack of spareribs ($12.99 for a plate with three sides) was so big I couldn’t fit the full mass on the cutting-board photo. The cap is covered by a resilient dry-rubbed, wood-smoked crust that protects the gloriously messy interplay of fat and meat underneath.
Even the most moving album will have its low spots, and Artz brisket ($3.50 for a quarter-pound that hit closer to a third) rings more like a filler song, half-conceived and missing a solid bridge. The fat hadn’t hit the midpoint between raw and rendered, and the color was more like a boiled cut than one from the smoker. But the place isn’t called Artz Brisket House, is it?
My young daughter commented on the poetry behind the Townes Van Zandt song we heard, unencumbered and amplified by a delivery both mournful and utterly free of self-pity. That’s the beef rib ($3.99), gouged rough at the edges with more bone than meat. This unglamorous cut is forever a work in progress, but I appreciated the sinewy journey nonetheless for its honest character, focusing on what was there rather than what was missing.
Two sides: I’ll move past a slaw of mostly untouched purple and green cabbage to give simple respect to the contributions of beans flavored with smoked meat and a scoop of gently mashed white potato salad with salt and pepper.
Dessert: Now I know what’s been missing from pecan pie: a base of sweet potatoes in place of that corn-syrup slurry. For $3.99, it’s a slice of Southern and Texas culture in a toasted crust that builds a bridge between the two with tentative layers that grow stronger when they work together.
Sauce: The waitress didn’t know what made the thin, twangy barbecue sauce sing. That’s Art’s secret, she said. But if you’re a fan of a mustardy mop style, you’ll find yourself singing along.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)