BBQ City Limits: Freedmen’s
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
2402 San Gabriel St. 512-220-0953, www.facebook.com/Freedmens.
Hours (updated 3/1): 4pm-midnight daily. Sunday brunch starting in mid-March.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.28.13
Fresh from the wilds of Hill Country Barbecue in New York City, Evan LeRoy might have joined the barbecue trailer parade when he moved back to Austin. But as he trolled Craigslist for equipment, he saw an ad for a job cooking barbecue at a saloon in a Civil War-era building at 24th and San Gabriel. The place was Freedmen’s, a project from the owner of Cuatro’s, the burgers-and-beer hangout next door. By late December, it opened with LeRoy’s barbecue and a line of speakeasy cocktails that Freedmen’s gave away like free samples of street drugs until the liquor license came through a month later.
But LeRoy wanted to do more than watch over a barrel smoker, so he makes his own charcuterie and sausage, his own pickles, jams and a barbecue sauce reduced from beef and pork and turkey stock. He smokes beets for a side dish, fortifies beans with offal. It’s the kind of no-fear cooking you’d expect from somebody who worked alongside Robert Rhoades at the wild-game vanguard Hudson’s on the Bend.
It’s a different kind of barbecue experience. First, the shotgun-shack of an interior is dressed more for drinking, dominated by a massive wooden bar with lights like a burlesque dancer’s makeup mirror. A long banquette is covered in tall buttoned upholstery, and the tables are the size of antique sewing machines. In a former life, my table was a crankwheel jack of some kind, overcrowded from the minute the first plate arrived. The real eating is to be done outside, in a beer garden covered in pea gravel and set with tables like a picnic in Valhalla.
In this larger-than-life setting, the barbecue was more like ornamentation. A three-meat plate was $14 for one pork rib, four tiny slices of sausage, four modest slices of brisket and a burnt end, plus good pickles and bread. Single-meat plates start at $6 for sausage, $8 for ribs, $9 for brisket and range on up to $12 and $16 for BBQ exotics like quail and duck. For $5, you can add a meat, which is how I got to try some robust, skin-on turkey and peppered pork belly suspended in that zone between roasted and crisp, like pork loin on a high-fat diet.
As parsimonious as that sausage was, I enjoyed every bit, especially the slices made from beefheart, brisket and pork belly, but also the more adventurous turkey with apple and rosemary.
The brisket, even from the fatty end, was dry on one visit. On another trip, the fatty cut was a sloppy, amorphic mess. Even given how much I like brisket fat, I’d have left this one in the trimmings bucket. In both cases, though, the oak smoke profile was precise and thorough. It created a band of red as pronounced as an Acapulco sunburn over meat the color of Freedmen’s weathered wooden doors. The bark went from peppered velvet to blackened, oaky armor.
Freedmen’s pork ribs had a bite that would impress a Kansas City judge, with just the right push me-pull-you tension. They’re lacquered with jalapeño jelly, LeRoy said, which gives them a cracked candy finish and more than a token degree of heat.
I was perplexed by the beef short rib. First by the price: $14 for a single rib. Second, it was laid in slices next to the bone, which shone alabaster white like a sun-bleached Arizona desert prop. For those of us — and we are legion — who like our ribs still acquainted with the bones that brung ‘em, this isn’t so much a Peter Luger-style spectacle as it is a camouflage for overcooking. There are neat slots in the meat, so I know it’s from the rib, but why pull the bone all the way out? It’s not a shish kebab spike; it’s part of why we like ribs: the primal canine engagement. With a salt-and-pepper rub and ribboned layers of fat and lean and blushing red, this could have been a star under the right conditions.
On the side: I fell hard for Freedmen’s $5 charcuterie snack boards, some of the best starters in the city. First, a creamy chicken liver pâté with pickled onions and bacon jam more savory than sweet to turn the ironclad volume up a notch. Then a smoked headcheese like a cross-section map of a fault line, a rabble of tan and brown and mahogany held fast in fatty union, all smoke and mystery. I like this style of headcheese, veering toward a firm terrine instead of mystery meat in aspic. It’s served with razor-sharp beer mustard and sweet jalapeño jam with big garden green flavors and slow-building heat. The pickles here are the perfect vinegared foil for the meat, from sour dills to half-sweet slices, spiced green beans, herbed okra and carrots.
Off the beaten barbecue track, smoked beets brought an earthen campfire sweetness offset with creamy goat cheese, served in an iron skillet for $6. Freedmen’s gives sweet baked beans a twist, fortifying them with offal like sweetbreads and beef heart for $5.
Dessert: Smoked banana pudding isn’t really big on smoke, but it’s creamy, fresh, layered with care and whipped cream in an 8-ounce Mason jar. The novelty here is peanut brittle with bacon. Lots of bacon. So much bacon that guys in bacon T-shirts are wondering where it all ends.
Sauce: Evan LeRoy is a serious cook, and this is serious sauce: beef, turkey and pigshead stock, reduced and fortified with cider vinegar and the other things that make barbecue sauce what it is.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: Smoked beets; turkey and beef heart sausages; pork belly; barbecue sauce; pork rib; smoked banana pudding; turkey; fatty and lean brisket; offal beans; housemade pickles. FIRST INSET: Beef rib, cut from the bone; the beer-garden courtyard; chicken-liver pâté. SECOND INSET: Freedmen’s is carved from a Civil War-era building at 24th and San Gabriel; bacon peanut brittle; the vintage bar pours a good Daily Muddle cocktail. Mine had smoked apple, lemon, whiskey and sassafras. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)