BBQ City Limits: Brown’s Bar-B-Que
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Address and hours updated 3/14: 1901 S. Lamar Blvd. at the Corner Bar (map). 512-517-8520, Facebook page.
Hours: 11am-11pm Tue-Sat. 3-10pm Sun (Free barbecue plate with $10 Corner Bar purchase).
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.07.13
Between the boxed-up traffic and the Genie Car Wash guys signaling the wipedown of another SUV, there must be more honking car horns on this stretch of South Lamar than anywhere else in the city. Here, beneath what feels like the only shade tree left on the boulevard of brokers’ dreams, Daniel Brown makes pork ribs as good as any ribs around which barbecue posses and snobs have woven breathless New Mythology.
Note: Since this report was filed, the trailer has moved to the Corner Bar at 1901 S. Lamar Blvd.
And he does it from a glossy red trailer with a screened-in smoker porch. Brown’s Bar-B-Que. Like so much at his trailer, there’s no secret to the ribs: He just asks Express Meat Service in North Austin for the biggest ones they’ve got. They’re worked into an easy glaze, with a steady, coral-shaded corona and soft-smoked meat like a pork chop on a stick. Smoke, pork, salt and pepper in time-honored balance. “We use salt and pepper on everything. That’s it. We don’t need all that other stuff,” Brown said.
The same simple formula informs the brisket. The taste is right, with microfiber brown bark and an easy ridge of fat on every slice — lean or moist — fat that holds the brisket together even when it’s a little overworked and falling apart. The smoke is lighter than the smokejumpers go for, a kind of bravado also practiced by people who insist that jalapeños are for weenies who can’t handle a ghost pepper. If Brown’s brisket were a pepper, it’d be an Anaheim or a poblano. Good flavor and balance, but not a Scoville chart celebrity.
Brown cooks with post oak in a smoker built from an old propane tank by a cousin in Lockhart. Welded to the side is an iron closet where he smokes the sausage he gets from the Texas Sausage Co. in East Austin. They make sausage for barbecue shops all over town, including Franklin, and this one’s a shaggy link of fat and lean dominated by black pepper in a thick casing that snaps and sometimes doesn’t know when to stop.
Sheltering beneath an everyday picnic bun, Brown’s pulled pork is hiding its light under a bushel. Think of it as a pork salesman’s sampler of textures and colors. Freckled white, backstrap pink, smokestack brown. Flossy, firm, crunchy. With slaw and a little sauce to sweeten the pot, the sandwich is a supporting player; on its own, that pulled pork could be a star.
Brown does two things right with chicken, one of the unsung meats of the barbecue canon. First he uses thighs, the best part of all the chicken parts. Second, he lets the skin do the work. “We cook it skin-side down. Because what happens is the skin gets hard and holds the juice in there,” he said. “It acts like a bowl.” That bowl is just starting to crisp on the outer rim, and the meat inside radiates juice and a little blush at the bone.
Brown knows Austin barbecue because he knows South Austin. He’s a native son, through and through. “I’ve been living in the 04 pretty much my whole life,” he said He’s been working the Genie location for a year and a half, but he’s been doing barbecue since he was 15, watching his dad and uncles. He took it on the road seven years ago, working the fringes of the Austin City Limits Festival, setting up at the Barton Springs Saloon.
The Corner Bar where he gives away barbecue on Sundays? He grew up with those guys. The day we talk, he’s wearing a hat from Martinez Brothers, the South Austin taxidermy shop (he was there for foxes, if you’re curious ... or worried). He brags on his football connections: Earl Campbell’s a regular. So is UT strength coach Bennie Wylie. He cooked for the coaches’ NFL draft party.
Brown gets help from his son, Daniel Jr., a brisket-fed kid who talks about replacing his VW’s front end the way the rest of us talk about changing a lightbulb, a knack he picked up from his grandfather, who has Zimmer’s Auto Repair just down the road.
Daniel Sr. wants to open a shop here. He’s looked for real estate across the street, further south at a former KFC, at the old Dorsett’s truck stop in Buda. The market’s tough. “I think I waited too long,” he said. But for now, the lot at Genie is working for him. The owner’s an old buddy. Another South Austin connection.
Back to work. At noon, Brown’s already started cooking the briskets for the next day. That’s 20 hours and change in the smoke, “slow and easy,” a waking-life cycle that finds him forever between naps. “I tell my wife I have one day. It starts on Monday, and it ends on Sunday.”
Prices: One of the best barbecue values in the city. Plates with one to three meats go from $6-$11, including two sides. Sandwiches are $5-$6, tortilla wraps are $2-$3.
Sides: I can go either way on sides with barbecue. If I don’t love them, I can live without them. Brown’s goes both ways. I can live without afterschool mac-and-cheese or pinto beans like waxed fruit (magical fruit?). If you like your beans with brisket, you’ll need to say so; they change the equation. Brown’s potato salad rises to dessert status in its custard yellow frappe of sugar and mustard, with pimientos like extra jimmies on your ice cream. The cabbage fills a spot in the Top 5 for best barbecue sides in Austin. It’s cooked down soft and sweet in the Southern style, cooked in the same pan as the bacon that flavors it. It’s a technique Brown picked up from his grandmother and aunts. He seasons it with black pepper and cayenne heat that hangs on after it’s gone, reminding you how much you already miss it.
Dessert: Word has it, and Daniel Brown will back it up, that there’s Dutch-oven cobbler most days of the week. Except the day I was there. He puts the cooker right in the firebox, chuckwagon style.
Sauce: Daniel Brown makes his own, and it’s as sweet, liquid-smokey and thick as most any sauce on the shelf. Which is where you should leave it when the barbecue’s this good.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Lunch from Brown’s Bar-B-Que trailer, clockwise from top left: A link from Texas Sausage Co., pork ribs, Brown’s own sauce, chicken thigh, beans, cabbage, potato salad and brisket. FIRST INSET: A pulled pork sandwich. SECOND INSET: Daniel Brown started his trailer outside the Genie Car Wash a year and a half ago. He gets his ribs from Express Meat Co. in Austin. THIRD INSET: Brown’s uses the best part of the chicken: the thigh. With plates starting at $6 and a three-meat combo with two sides at just $11, Brown’s stands among Austin’s best barbecue values. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)