BBQ City Limits: Black’s Barbecue

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Black’s Barbecue
3110 Guadalupe St. (map), 512-524-0801,
Hours: 11am-9pm daily
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 01.15.15

The Black’s Barbecue that opened last summer on Guadalupe is a separate enterprise from the Terry Black’s Barbecue that opened on Barton Springs Road earlier in the year. Which is to say that it springs directly from the original Black’s in Lockhart. Which is both good and not so good. Good in the sense that Black’s on Guadalupe does a better job with the family trade than Terry Black’s on Barton Springs, run by another branch of the family. Not so good in that it’s the original Black’s, once removed. That means they smoke the barbecue in Lockhart, then ship it to Austin like a giant mail order.
Now, Black’s makes some internet hay with its nationwide shipping. So why not “ship” to Austin and sell it from a storefront here, like a branch of the U.S. Post Office? One reason: Because I like to smell a barbecue joint before I see it. I want locals to point me to the place by getting me within a few blocks and saying, “You can smell it from there; just follow the smoke,” the way they did in Greenville, S.C., with Henry’s Smokehouse. You can’t do that on Guadalupe, because strong as it is on North Main Street in Lockhart, the smoke doesn’t drift that far up Interstate 35.

Native smoke or not, Black’s did a decent job making the old Boomerang’s location look like a barbecue place at least, with a weathered black and red sign and a barbecue rig for show in the lot across the street. Inside, the serving station is cased in splintery weathered wood, and the walls call out the Black family’s legacy through photos of the old place. Where I expected a line, there was none for a weekday lunch, and I got the same kind of small-town hospitality I get at the Lockhart shop, even a taste of turkey on the house to supplement a tray already groaning with every other meat on the menu. Long communal picnic tables invite country-style seating, and a shaded patio out back evokes an air of city picnic just far enough off the noisy clutter of the Drag.
That picnic included brisket with soft accordion folds of fat and lean beneath a lean tan sub-layer that supported another layer of meat gone rosy in the smoke, topped with yet another layer, the bark. Here, instead of the salt-and-pepper spike of big-time Austin brisket, the bark was caramelized, like the fat had bubbled up over time, then settled and cooled into a black shell. Brisket that rises to geological event status is the kind we tell our stories about, and Black’s has a decent enough story to tell, even if  the pages have faded a little through the mail from Lockhart to Austin. My order was cut into tile-sized brisket bites both times, an oddly civilized touch in this faux-country environment. I like my brisket by the crosscut slab so I can break it down by hand.
The better story was the beef rib, with even more layers of color and texture, as many as a canyon rock face in a John Ford sunset rideaway. The fat was rendered to caramel above and below the meat, seeping even to a center as richly fibered as brown shag carpet. Outside, the rib was a volcanic floe of folds and wrinkles with a roasted, fatty glow. The effect was the proper alchemy of rough roast and smoke that separates the beef rib from the more civilized cuts around it. Shaggy, but disciplined enough to balance fat and lean and keep it together on one long bone.
I realize that the little rings of sausage that decorate the pits like strands of horseshoe lights are a part of Black’s magic. But these were dry and stiff, riding a safe middle spice line with some smoke on the finish. It was a side dish, not a main attraction at the Austin station. Surprisingly, turkey was more than a sideshow, with juice and smoke and a respectable backbone of color and bark on the outside.
Pork ribs had a kind of leather strop patina on top to sharpen my appetite for the strata of fat and lean below. The meat held fast to the bone, with a grip bordering on tough. If the texture didn’t hit the sweet spot, the flavor sidestepped it by having no sweetness of its own, a guilty pleasure that distinguishes the best ribs at other places. This was just smoke and salt, like eating bacon on its own, lonely without the breakfast, lunch and dinner trimmings for which we lionize it.
Prices: Sold by the pound: Brisket $16.50/lb, beef ribs $14.50/lb, pork ribs $14.50/lb, turkey $14.50. Sausage $2.49 a ring. Sides $1.99/single. Desserts $2.39.
On the side: Black’s in Lockhart doesn’t judge you for wanting something on the side the way its Lockhart brethren Kreuz and Smitty’s do. Mac and cheese with thick elbows of pasta and a broiled top was an argument for sides all by itself, joined by salty beans in thick brown liquor with a little bit of meat and a lot of trail-rider spices. The potato salad was as sweet as banana pudding, a blend that was half whipped potato, half potato chunks the size of pearl onions, the lone underachiever among the three sides.
Dessert: I might have been influenced by the big shard of sweet, toasted, pecan-studded shale that landed in my bowl, but the pecan cobbler here was a warm invitation to give banana pudding a rest. The crust was like country biscuits and the filling held a greater percentage of pecans than the syrupy goo we associate with pecan pie. A winning hybrid of a Texas staple and a Southern delight.
Sauce: This picnic-table red had a dash of exotic spice in a half-sweet ketchup base, a middle of the road sauce that could have stayed behind in Lockhart while the meat made the roadtrip to Austin.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits