BBQ City Limits: Lamberts Downtown Barbecue

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue
401 W. Second St. 494-1500,
Hours: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.16.12
It’s hard for me to come back to Lamberts. A brunch here was one of my two or three worst restaurant experiences as a food writer. A cramped room with no logical traffic pattern for a buffet line. Snotty line cooks working the service stations. The most noxious cluster of self-absorbed clientele per square foot I’ve ever seen. But still, the food was undeniable. This visit was no different, except all the negatives were gone, replaced by calm, congenial table service in a space that’s charming when it’s not all a-holes and elbows.
At lunch, a three-meat plate is $16 with two sides and good jalapeño corn muffins. It’d be easy to get the impression that Lamberts doesn’t trust the meat to do its own work. The brisket is rubbed with brown sugar and coffee, the pork ribs have a maple-coriander glaze and the pulled pork is drenched in a sauce that will remind you of Heinz 57 in spite of yourself. But they all work. Whatever you think of the sweet lacquer on the ribs, you have to admit they’re cooked beautifully, strong enough to stick to your bones but smart enough to know when to let go of their own. The Heinz maneuver helps to cloak pulled pork that works the dry and rangy side of the street, but the underlying flavor is true, supported by the muscular flash of star anise. The rub makes the brisket a canvas on the outside, a red deepened by smoke and caramelization that doesn’t turn sugary over honeycombed meat that runs dry but shows a good honeycomb in the fattier pieces.
All is forgiven for now. But I’m watching you, Mr. Fancy Barbecue. There’s a lot to keep up with. The Lamberts team of Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr. have rolled into the empire-building business with seafood at Perla’s, Vietnamese food at Elizabeth Street Cafe and the upcoming Fresas shop, where they’ll do Mexican street-style chicken.
Two sides: You can tell Austin is growing up as a restaurant city when the Converse kids are doing collard greens. These are salty, stemmy and bristling with bacon. Those are all good things. Remember your better-off friends growing up? They had the boxed mac and cheese with cheese sauce instead of powder. Lamberts is one of those kids, only its grown-up mac tastes even better, baked to a brindled brown in its own dish.
Dessert: Sometimes simple is the best, especially when it’s half the price of the other $8 desserts. For $4, I got two scoops of Alexandra Manley’s housemade ice cream: strawberry lavender and pecan brickle. The first one jumps up and down for attention, shouting its floral credentials in frosty pink. The pecan is just biding its time, luxuriously lazy in its butterfat easy chair. Yeah, you might have a fling with the strawberry flowers, but you’ll always come home to pecan.
Sauce: The ribs are pre-coated with that sweet glaze, and the pulled pork has its own thing going. But if you need backup, the house sauce is a thick ketchupy red with sweetness, acidity and heat taking turns. You can tell it’s the house sauce because its glass apothecary bottle says “House.” The next-smaller bottle is an ochre-colored sweet-hot mustard that would send a hot dog into orbit. They saved the meanest sauce for the smallest bottle, a vicious capsaicin crimson with a scorched-earth mission. Save it for last, before the ice cream.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)