BBQ City Limits: Donn’s Bar-B-Que

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Donn’s Bar-B-Que & Catering
2617 S. Interstate 35. 512-382-6720,
Hours: 5:30am-9pm Mon-Thu. 5:30am-10pm Fri-Sat. 6:30am-9pm Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.15.13

I worry about Donn’s. Not for Donn’s sake, but for ours, for our reputation as a barbecue city. Standing on Interstate 35 next to the Motel 6, the sign for Donn’s is as big as a billboard addressing both sides of the highway, as if to say: “Come on in and try some of that Austin barbecue you’ve heard so much about.” Whether we like it our not, sometimes the hitchhiker with the biggest thumb gets the ride.
Which is not to say that Donn’s can’t ride just fine with many of the shops that dot Texas towns. Its own sister joint, the Donn’s 13 miles away on FM 969, is one of those. So is the Donn’s in Oak Hill, although that one’s not affiliated with the other two. They all work the kind of barbecue we grew up eating in most of Texas, which let’s face it, was fairly ordinary outside of Llano, Lockhart and Taylor until the rise of the New ‘Cue movement.
I’ll not hold the new Donn’s accountable for anybody else’s sins. They turned a rundown Kettle restaurant into a big, bright dining room with burnt orange booths and wood-slat six-tops with brushed stainless chairs. The brisket is cut to order behind a clean three-sided glass chamber for all to see, and there’s Austin Amber on draft at the full-service bar. And a three-meat plate with a beef rib, pork ribs and brisket and two sides is $13.99. It's a lot of food for the money.
But the brisket pulls off the neat trick of being greasy and dry at the same time, with firm ridges of fat and a tough outer skin burnished to an obsidian sheen. But there wasn’t a lot of smoke. That fell to the pork ribs, which went past smoked almost to mummified, with a shell firm and drawn and starting to yellow under its deep red lacquer. The ordeal left the pork dry and gamey, and one of the ribs was mostly skin and bones.
A big link of sausage had the familiar fatty firmness of a grocery store smoked link, filling to be sure, but salty as a Slim Jim. In that modest company, the beef rib surprised me. It was small, like a shrunken version of itself, as gnarled as saddle tack and just about the same color. The beef was a striated layering of fat and lean, and I enjoyed this best among the meats at Donn’s, at least until I caught a few bites near the rib’s center that tasted like the coffee at the bottom of the office pot with sugar already added.
One of the staff was telling a couple from California about the people from Germany and London and all over the place who’d been in during the Austin City Limits Fest, and I felt a blush of anxiety that I hadn’t done a better job steering them toward our barbecue all-stars.
On the side: For barbecue, I wouldn’t put Donn’s on the same Austin map as its stars. But two of the sides accounted well for themselves, one of them a whipped mayo-mustard potato salad with dill and pimiento, the other a tumble of golden fried okra with a heavy hand in the breading but decent pop left in the seeds.
Dessert: Donn’s banana pudding fits the model of workaday barbecue shops in a plastic tub with cosmetically enhanced vanilla pudding and half-crisp vanilla wafers, but refreshingly white-ripe bananas.
Sauce: Donn’s serves its sweet-sweet red barbecue sauce warm, which pushes the brix level even higher and adds extra force to what tastes like liquid smoke at its core.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Barbecue and sides at Donn's. Clockwise from top left: Potato salad, sausage, pork ribs, beef rib, banana pudding, fried okra and brisket. INSET: Donn's turned the decrepit shell of a Kettle restaurant into a big, bright dining room. The best of what I ate included fried okra and a beef rib. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)