BBQ City Limits: House Park Bar-B-Que

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
House Park Bar-B-Que
900 W. 12th St. 472-9621,
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Closed Saturday-Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.20.12
UPDATE: The first version of this story said House Park doesn't sell pork ribs. They do. I missed the cardboard sign by the register. House Park called to let me know they added ribs in November, that they're not on the big menu board yet and that a rib plate with beans, slaw and potato salad is $8.99. I'll update again when I've had one of those plates. My apologies for the oversight. — Mike
Daniel Vaughn is a barbecue snob. Except that he isn’t. It’s the persona he cultivates via Twitter through @BBQsnob. That rowdy feed is just an entry point into his broader barbecue world. His Full Custom Gospel BBQ website is where you’ll learn about smoke lines, parboiling and meat caramel. You’ll read about pork roll at Prause’s in LaGrange and burgoo from Moonlite in Kentucky. At Gerardo’s in Houston, he found old-school barbacoa pulled from foil-shrouded cows’ heads. His six-year journey through the haze will culminate in “Prophets of Smoked Meat,” a sprawling Texas barbecue book coming out in spring 2013 from the line of Ecco books curated by Anthony Bourdain.
Yes, that Bourdain, the one Vaughn introduced to Franklin Barbecue during South by Southwest. The sardonic “No Reservations” host and former chef praised Franklin for its “indescribable awesomeness” and further went on to drop the F-bomb in its honor. We’ll assume he meant F as in Franklin.
Vaughn came through Austin on March 12 on his way back home to Dallas, where he’s an architect in real life. The Austin pitstop came at the tail end of a West Texas trip that took him to 30 places in seven days, part of the 8,000 miles he’ll travel to feed the book. Besides that Franklin visit with Bourdain, Vaughn and photographer Nicholas McWhirter came to House Park Bar-B-Que, and that’s where this story picks up.
House Park — just east of the Tavern off North Lamar — is the other place in town that declares “Need No Teef to Eat My Beef.” Sam’s on the East Side has a variation of that motto. House Park has been at it since 1943, smoking meat in a brick pit using oak, and the smoke has painted everything sepia like an Old West photo booth at a carnival, including a sailfish mounted on the wall with a Krispy Kreme hat stuck to its sprawling blue fin. They’re only open for lunch Monday-Friday. A two-meat pate with brisket and custom-blended sausage from the Texas Sausage Co. is $9.89 with all three sides.
I listened to Vaughn talk about the fatty cut of brisket here. The fat was there in plain view, and it brought up two issues. One was how can a piece with this much fat still be as cottonmouth dry as a tannic red wine? Vaughn offered the notion that it started too hot, and the heat caused the fat to contract like willowy fingers around the lean parts and squeeze out the juice like Fritz Von Erich in the ring. The other issue was the color and consistency of the fat. You’re looking for translucence, Vaughn said, not opacity. Amber glass as opposed to cultured pearl. And it shouldn’t give much resistance when you squeeze it. Resistance is a sign the fat hasn’t rendered to a silky solid-liquid balance. Both the lean and moist cuts shared that dry character. What they did have was a respectable prehistoric black bark and deep smoke like the toasted barrel you might use for that red wine. The fat just below the bark hit the magic midpoint Vaughn was talking about.
That’s what we’re looking for in barbecue, really. Some kind of magic. Because most places ride the center line, and when you ask where he’d recommend barbecue in Austin beyond Franklin and JMueller, Vaughn has to go to his archives for more options. Lamberts comes out. Stiles Switch, Ruby’s. He wants to say Sam’s but can’t find the words to praise it as much for the food as the mythos.
Vaughn and McWhirter both saw promise in House Park’s sausage, and it was that day’s platemaster, bringing black pepper aggression and smoky beef and pork in good fat-to-lean ratios. On another plate, a few slices of pork loin were like thin crosscuts of pine, starting with a toasted bark and a few age rings fading to parchment white. But they over-carried that metaphor with wooden stiffness. House Park uses its golden oak smoke to fullest advantage with chicken ($7.99/half), where it can airbrush the meat with the graduated glory of seashell and tint the skin like caramel.
Oh right. If you were wondering about meat caramel: “After gratuitous amounts of smoke are applied, and liquid rendered fat has come to the surface of the meat to mix with the applied rub, a chemical rendering takes place that creates a sweet sticky layer.” That’s the Full Custom Gospel according to Vaughn, who by the way came back a few days later to walk Bourdain and crew through the JMueller BBQ experience, too. Look for them on the next season of “No Reservations.”
Two sides: Three, really. The plate carries flat-cut slaw with carrots along with potato salad spiked with onions and good ranch-style beans.
Dessert: The signs say “Bar-B-Que” and “Beef,” not “Patisserie.” Cool your sweet tooth with RC Cola, because a barbecue joint is one of the last bastions for that Southern curiosity.
Sauce: Tart, vinegary red with flavors of ketchup, red pepper and garlic powder. It’s hydrating, and that’s something you’ll put to good use here.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)