BBQ City Limits: The County Line

 
 
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
 
County Line on the Lake
5204 RM 2222. 346-3664, more locations at www.countyline.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday. 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 04.07.12
 
When I finished loading my barbecue board with County Line’s All You Can Stand platter ($28.99), a woman from Seattle came over to take a picture. It was a tourist moment in a barbecue place that feels like a tourist attraction even to the people who live here. From the patios and decks, you can watch ducks and turtles on the shallow green waters of Bull Creek. Upturned minnow buckets double as sconces to light up rows of duck decoys and framed fishing lures. There’s so much hunting and fishing paraphernalia you could open a Field & Stream barbecue head shop. Smoke on the Water, we’d call it. (Thank you, folks. Don’t forget to try the ribs.)
 
Ribs. Hard to argue with the County Line’s beef ribs. They’re the best thing coming out of the smoker here, sturdy bones flanked by meat that’s the closest we get to a beef version of bacon, striated with layers of fat and fibery lean. It’s underslung by a tough semi-translucent membrane called the periosteum, and it awakens a primal joy to work through it after you tear through the spice rub on the blackened crust. That rub is my only bone of contention with the rib, and in the places where it’s heaviest, it makes me think about the way an old bowling alley smells. Not altogether unpleasant, just lingering tobacco like a lost pack of Chesterfields. That outsized buffet platter is the only way to get all the County Line meats on one plate: beef ribs, pork babyback ribs, sausage, chicken, peppered turkey, ham and brisket. The price includes three sides, dessert and tea.
 
I suppose you cheat the barbecue gods when you do babybacks instead of longer pork ribs. They’re cut into compact blocks, with each rib backing up the other to keep it from getting overcooked and dry. County Line’s are tender and packed with meat for their size. They’re a gradient shade of coral inside, with a shiny lacquer of pepper grains and caramelized sugars.
 
County Line cuts brisket two ways: original lean and fattier “second cut.” The lean version cuts and eats like grilled steak. Not a sin for beef in broad terms, but for barbecue I want more smoke, more color and some kind of char outside. The fattier cut is strong and stretchy, with archipelagos of meat in an ocean of fat. Both cuts come off like nicely executed but thoroughly homogenized brisket for a high-volume clientele that might object to more rustic brisket.
 
In that same homogenized vein, the sliced ham and turkey are examples of why you didn’t see much turkey or ham in this series. They’re dry and salty, a waste of two choices on a seven-meat plate. Sausage is a little better if you’re comfortable with kielbasa-style, and the chicken is another step up. I got my favorite cut, a thigh, with the skin and bones fully intact, conveying decent smoke in a juicy matrix free of barbecue sauce.
 
Two sides: Three in this case. The carrot and cabbage slaw is cut in big, fresh pieces with more mayonnaise than I like, so my attentions went to traditional chunky potato salad with onions, paprika and lots of mayo, which I do like in this case, a contradiction I can’t fully explain. Best of all were pinto beans in a base almost as thick as chili with chopped brisket. The plate also comes with a big loaf of thick-crumbed white or wheat bread that’s baked in-house.
 
Dessert: The platter price includes cinnamon-strong hot apple cobbler with a flaky, strudel-style crust and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with the rough-crystal texture of hand-cranked.
 
The sauce: It’s a slightly sweet, warm tomato style with spice at the back. Fine, commercial-style sauce. But if you don’t speak up, they’re inclined to cover your plate with it before it leaves the kitchen. I tell you that because I like my sauce on the side, if at all.
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
 
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Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits