BBQ City Limits: Bert's Bar-B-Q

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Bert’s Bar-B-Q
3563 Far West Blvd. 345-2378,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.21.12
In the early ‘80s, I lived around the corner from Bert’s Bar-B-Q at MLK and Guadalupe. I always thought it was called Q*bert’s, because the 17th letter of the alphabet was the biggest thing on the sign, and the video game of the same name was having its red-hot minute. Weird that a honk-nosed walking kumquat had its own barbecue joint, but nevermind. That shop burned in 2007, and now Bert’s works the blind side of a Far West Boulevard strip mall. Even in this sterilized setting, I heard separate conversations about RV hookups at NASCAR races, Texas case law and bass fishing. A sample menu from 1970 reminds us that Bert’s has been in the business awhile, at least since the days when a combo plate was a whopping $1.65 and a chopped beef sandwich would set you back 45 cents.
A three-meat combo runs 11.95 with two sides these days. At its high points — especially at the ends and along the top ridges of toasted amber bark where the fat was like beef custard — Bert’s brisket tasted like it came from a joint with smoke pits in the dining room and a reputation to protect. At its low points, where the fat was barely warm and the dun-colored meat tasted like it missed the smoke party, that same brisket seems right at home in a strip mall. That kind of unevenness suggests the cooking process got ahead of itself, maybe ran too hot too fast.
I tasted the same sense of that in pork ribs cut like three little riblets. Sear marks on a steak mean one thing. On barbecue, they can be a sign of a grate that needs a scrapedown or heat that got out of control or in extreme cases a grill. What you’re left with is meat with good color and a cap like an artisan Slim Jim but a core as stubborn as pork taffy. A short, disciplined beef rib found a sweet spot, though, with an antique rose finish and beef in waves the color of a heritage Gerber daisy graduating from cedar-chest to melted amber glass.
Two sides: Sure, there’s loose-cut cole slaw in sweet mayo dressing and plain pinto beans. But I’m breaking my own rules and declaring Bert’s specialty a side dish for this report. It’s called the T-Man, and a $7 regular-sized order swamps a nacho-sized paper boat with beans, barbecue sauce, sliced sausage and cuts of brisket like Yahtzee dice. Most barbecue hounds would tell you it’s an end-run on the art, more like a barbecue stew. But the sweet sauce bounces off the stoic starchiness of the beans and wraps the beef in a swampy red embrace. The T-Man’s coup de grace is sausage from Austin’s Smokey Denmark company, an all-beef link packed smooth, almost creamy like a terrine, then sliced and rained over the top like poker chips.
Dessert: I’d like to see the rule book that says only half-blackened bananas can be used for banana pudding. “Tropical Rot” seems like the universal paint color for barbecue’s chosen dessert. Bert’s breaks that rule with perfectly ripe banana slices folded into simple vanilla pudding with vanilla wafers for $2. It’s a formula that works.
Sauce: The best destiny for Bert’s thin, sweet and vinegary red sauce is the noble role it plays in the T-Man.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)