BBQ City Limits: Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods

 
 
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
 
Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods
525 N. Lamar Blvd. 476-1206, www.wholefoodsmarket.com
Hours: Store hours 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Barbecue hours 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.03.12
 
At Whole Foods, the people who work there act like they own the place. In a good way, like they have a stake in what you buy and whether you come back. This was especially true about the lead cutter at Bowie BBQ inside the flagship Whole Foods at Sixth and Lamar. Seeing the line start to back up, he razored off a few luminescent bites of brisket fat cap to preoccupy us while he built plates and sandwiches with a small-town shopkeeper’s bonhomie.
 
The small-town parallel didn’t stop at customer service. This is barbecue you could taste blindfolded and you wouldn’t guess in 10 tries that it came from a grocery store, although the aromas of roasted coffee and fresh bread would give it away, and a peek under the blindfold would reveal that you’re sandwiched between the butcher counter and the barbecue shop. With a little further digging, I learned they smoke their barbecue onsite in a half-ton hickory-fed rig. One of the men who works that rig is a competition barbecue warrior and certified judge himself. That’s why Whole Foods belongs in any full account of Austin barbecue.
 
Bowie makes brisket, pulled pork, sausage and pork spareribs and babyback ribs, along with sides and good $3 beer on tap. I built a three-meat plate for $12.99, starting with a fuller taste of that fatty brisket. Before the cutting starts, it’s a hulking piece 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. It’s as good as all but a handful of the briskets in this series.
 
The Whole Foods cutting crew is hands-on enough that they shred pork shoulder to order from a primal piece, which means that even in its flossy disarray, it draws on moisture from its full-bodied former life. And you can see the blooming shades of pork even after the petals have been pulled apart into brightly smoked tangles. In case you think I was inhaling too deeply at the essential-oils bar before lunch, I’ll stop the lovefest by talking about babyback ribs that were mealy and soft but still somehow as clingy as a regrettable high school crush. And I’ll say that jalapeño-cheddar pork sausage made right behind me at the butcher shop (local enough?) is good sausage. But I won’t say it makes good barbecued sausage, because the cheese rattles around with what little smoke the casing absorbs for a star-crossing of high-low opposites that didn’t have a fairy-tale ending.
 
Two sides: You can roam the produce aisles or wish your way through the grilled, sauteed, stir-fried, fried and salad-borne vegetables from any of 800 (approximate) grab-and-go outlets in the side-dish mini-mall we call Whole Foods. But the Bowie stand lays down a potato salad that’ll make you stay put, like Peruvian-style huancaina potatoes in aji amarillo salsa. Which is to say it’s thick and mountainous and sunflower yellow and leaves a little heat behind along with skins, green onions and crunchy ridges of celery. Even a penne pasta mac and cheese shows off its WF tattoo with flavor like an Alfredo sauce that’s been told to man up, because barbecue is no time for candlelight and chianti. Well maybe chianti, or any other drink in the store, because the onsite consumption license says bottoms up. Maybe it’s time to try a six-pack of Austin-brewed Hops & Grain Pale Dog  Ale.
 
Dessert: Indecision is your only enemy here. The barbecue stand doesn’t have dessert, but the rest of the store is WonkaWorld. A dark-chocolate orange brioche roll at the bakery (99 cents)? Breakfast bread pudding with bacon from the fresh-food hot line ($7.99/pound)? Fudge-dipped potato chip clusters from the chocolate shop ($2.99)? Because barbecue is its own debauchery, how about just a little fruit tart with vanilla custard ($1.99)? I had to ask the cheesemonger what goes with barbecue. She broke out cheddars from Ireland and England, and that country makes an 1833 Cheddar ($13.99/pound) rich and pointy enough to work with ribs and brisket.
 
Sauce: The only part of this lunch that tasted like it came from a grocery store. A sharp and syrupy red with cracked pepper and smoke flavoring from a company called Austin’s Own. Available in the sauce aisle at $4.99 a bottle. I know this because the barbecue warrior walked me to the aisle for a five-minute conversation about shopping for sauce, treating me like I owned the place, too.
 
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Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)