BBQ City Limits: Kerlin BBQ
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
1700 E. Cesar Chavez St. 512-412-5588, www.kerlinbbq.com.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.25.13
(03/24/15 UPDATE: The Kerlins now sell barbecue Fri-Sun from 11am until sold out. They've shifted their weekday energy to kolaches, sold from 9am until sold out Wed-Sun.)
Kerlin BBQ has been open on East Cesar Chavez between Chalmers and Chicon for about two months, but the rustic pea-gravel lot feels like it’s been here awhile. Same with the barbecue, done in the same Young Man Old School style that makes craft beer cook these days. Bill Kerlin is the pitman, improbably young to be cooking at this level, impossibly young for that Grizzly Adams beard. And if tending a pecan fire at daybreak is an urban wildman’s redoubt, then he’s clearly in his element. His wife, Amelis, is the face in the trailer window, the presence ever-checking on her tables, the proof that trailer barbecue need not be a grim march toward credibility when it can be a picnic instead.
The little white trailer where they cut the meat by the pound or sandwich had opened at 11 on an October Thursday, and by 12:45 they’d been cleaned out of pork ribs and were taking the last brisket off the screened-in smoker trailer with corrugated steel sides. It’s a hard road when you miss the pork ribs by just one customer, a blow they softened with a taste of pork tenderloin they’re experimenting with, elongated sand-colored medallions with a textbook cloak of skin and fat and a dusky rub. If these were ambassadors for the ribs I missed out on, there’d be no more war in the pigpens.
(ABOVE: The menu board at Kerlin. A half-pound spread of pork ribs.)
No real barbecue report can run without ribs, so I called another day and reserved the day’s last half-pound ($7.50). They were a study in discipline, squared away in a neat carnivoral trim, every rib layered evenly with a sweet, oxidized crust bearing the uniform textural look of fine sandpaper but with a bite more like a fruit rollup. That is to say, a smoke-and-pepper-flavored fruit rollup for a grownup lunchbox. What they lacked in shaggy spectacle, these ribs made up for in taste, a concentrated smoke flavor balanced by toasted fat and a sorghum indulgence, like coffee and biscuits for breakfast.
The brisket ($7.99 a half-pound) trailed the steam and possibility you’d expect from a fresh-rested piece. In a Big Crust market, this bore a balanced dusting of pepper over the pearled white fat, in this case fat that hadn’t rendered down enough to let the meat reach its full juicy potential. My inner forest ranger kept looking for smoke, recessive in this piece save for a blushing corner. I like my brisket like I like my fire-preventing bears: Smokey.
Bacon comes to mind in Kerlin’s pulled pork ($6.99 a half-pound). Not the texture, but the rich mix of fat and lean, pulled in loose fibers and nuggets alike, with some sunburned edges and a saucy-sweet edge. The Kerlins are waiting for the right equipment to make their own sausage, they said. In the meantime, Smokey Denmark lends its loose and spicy weave and strong snap to the cause at $3 a link.
(ABOVE: Owners Amelis and Bill Kerlin opened Kerlin BBQ two months ago, smoking with pecan wood.)
On the side: It’s about time somebody looked at coleslaw and said, “You know what? To hell with acidic balance. Let’s make this as rich as the meat.” Kerlin’s blue cheese coleslaw is so full of mayo and mild blue that the carrot and cabbage might have roamed the same pastures as the beasts. A side of borracho beans has an Italian flair to it, propelled by tomatoes and green pepper. And black pepper to make it Texitalia. ($2 each)
Dessert: Banana custard is a good idea, the notion of working pudding into a higher state. But it was a pumpkin flan that won the after-lunch sweepstakes with a toasted sugar dryness that gave way to easy fall cinnamon-nutmeg and luxurious custard. Is this what all the fuss over those pumpkin-spice lattes is about? ($2 each)
Sauce: It’s worth mentioning that the Kerlins can their own pickles, fat coins of cucumber with a deep peppery vinegar bite. It’s the same aesthetic that fuels the barbecue sauce, a house blend with a strong pucker and a bite like Tabasco sauce.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP, clockwise from top left: Blue cheese coleslaw, housemade pickles with black pepper, Smokey Denmark sausage, banana custard, Kerlin’s sauce, brisket, pork tenderloin, pulled pork and borracho beans. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)