BBQ City Limits: La Barbecue Cuisine Texana
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
La Barbecue Cuisine Texana
September 2015 update: 1906 E. Cesar Chavez St. next to Stay Gold (map), 512-605-9696, www.labarbecue.com.
Hours: 11am until sold out Wed-Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.08.13
You can’t tell the story of La Barbecue without a little bit of John Mueller sneaking in, because La Barbecue sprang from the same dusty granite lot as JMueller BBQ that came before it. From the same trailer, in fact, and the same offset barrel smoker with the same heavy iron lids. A young woman named Ali who could whip you at armwrestling still cuts brisket at the window. Meat is sold by the pound. Brisket/$15.98, beef ribs/$17.98, pork ribs/$13.98, pulled pork/$12.98. Sausage is $3.25 a link.
But everything else is different, and by everything I mean that John Mueller is gone, fired by his sister in a public spat last year. In his place at the pit is John Lewis, who made his bones at Franklin Barbecue. I’ll talk more about Mueller after his new John Mueller Meat Co. barbecue trailer opens Feb. 20 at Sixth and Pedernales. But for right now, it's time to consider Lewis' work on its own terms.
It’s been a short, strange trip for John Lewis and La Barbecue. But it’s fair to say they’ve both arrived.
La Barbecue's brisket is the colored of cured tobacco outside, lacquered with salt and pepper but with a bark as soft as oiled silk. Slices from the fatty end are a mahogany-to-khaki lattice of gradients with a river of whitewater fat through the middle like the Colorado carving its way through the Grand Canyon. In some of the places where the fat has come to rest, it’s a shade closer to opaque than amber, arguing for more time in the pit. At the harder edges, it goes salty and a little sweet, as if it had been caramelized in a seasoned iron skillet. I like the lean cut better, because it conveys bigger smoke flavor. That, plus it hides its lean nature under a more generous trim of fat than lean would lead us to believe, and it’s all the better for it. Both cuts are tender and robust, beef clearly of good provenance.
The beef goes on from there to short ribs the color of split wood scorched at the edge of a campfire. But that’s a disguise for layers underneath as yielding as a pot roast, if a pot roast were protected by a layer of candied beef floss and came with a handle. In the few months since La Barbecue opened, this rib has improved by a full degree, the marker of a pitman getting to know his rig.
The award for the most dramatic improvement goes to the sausage here. Whereas an earlier version was harder, drier and more dense, the latest handmade link popped with fat and life through a casing with a satisfying snap. It’s loose, like it’s limbered up a little, bringing in hot pepper seeds, white river rocks of fat and an even scatter of black pepper. Considering that the best sausage makers have had a lifetime to hone their art, La Barbecue has made impressive progress in just a few months.
Pork spare ribs are as high-gloss red as Chinese ribs, trimmed thin and lean, the meat all proper shades of white and pink. My first taste in January held to the bone for dear life, the second taste this week ran scared from the edges, coming closer to an ideal tension in the center, with some sweetness etched into the oak-smoked glaze.
But when it comes to pulled pork, let’s forget about qualifiers, timelines and mitigating circumstances, because this is about as good as pulled pork gets: tender, moist and so easy to pull apart you’ll look for perforation marks. They know to throw in some crust and fat, and you could scoop the whole show into a waffle cone and pretend it’s ice cream — a flavor of ice cream that folds in a twangy sauce puckered with vinegar. It’s a hit of acid for your pork-fueled trip.
On the side: For $1.99 each, there’s chunky, skin-on mustard potato salad, cole slaw with chipotle dressing and campfire beans so full of beef you could call it brisket stew.
Dessert: Do sweet-and-sour pink pickled onions count? They’d taste good on that pulled pork cone. Otherwise, no desserts.
Sauce: Save the Tangy sauce for the pulled pork, because it’s made specifically for that task. The bottles of the thin Sweet sauce on the table get too much of their personality from chili spices for my barbecue tastes. Doesn’t matter, because you don’t really need it.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: Potato salad, pulled pork, pork spare ribs, the Sweet sauce, beans, sausage, fatty brisket, chipotle cole slaw. Center: Beef short rib. INSET: Clockwise from top left: The oak-fueled firebox; Tangy and Sweet sauce bottles at the table; fatty brisket; the trailer, under new management; beef short rib. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)