BBQ City Limits: Sam's Bar-B-Cue

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Sam’s Bar-B-Cue
2000 E. 12th St. 478-0378, no website.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.15.12
Sam’s hasn’t changed much since my first trip here before marriage, before kids, before all the worry. Lately, Sam’s has had its own worries, hanging on through last summer’s police sting and health department shutdown over allegations they bought stolen meat. It’s a subject you don’t bring up. The fact that they’re back open is proof enough that Sam’s is ready to move on.
A two-meat plate is $10 with two sides, and brisket cut on the fatty diagonal is a good start. It’s lightly salted and as seasoned as the bottom of a skillet, an ironite char glistening with oil from fat that has melted half away but also stayed half-intact. The meat flakes away in big chunks like perfectly cooked fish, still managing to hold its dynamic moisture. But the slices farthest away from the fat cap fell into dry rubble.
Startle the pork ribs and they’d shake their bones clean like a cartoon skeleton. Smoking creates that unique state of being overcooked without being burned, and these ribs have the soft-shouldered feel of meat from a slow cooker.
For me, Sam’s twin draws are sausage and mutton. The former is a hulking beef link for less than $4 that gets enough time in the smoke to pucker at the edges as if it’d been in the tub awhile. The latter is the most mountain-man cut in all of Austin barbecue, an ebony haunch of meat Jeremiah Johnson might have torn from a mountain sheep. It’s untamed and unashamed, with needled shards of yellowed flesh beneath the burled veneer giving way to strong, rangy fiber. The taste puts me in mind of dark-meat chicken fried hard. It’s different from the Sam’s mutton ribs that showed up at our poker game one night, courtesy of Washington Post barbecue correspondent and former Austinite Jim Shahin. They were as shiny and thin as sticks of funky amber brittle. This mutton is nothing like that, and its curiosity factor is a big reason to visit Sam’s.
Two sides: The spartan menu just lists beans and potato salad, but it was my day for a special of thick, mustard-colored cabbage with onions and chopped barbecued sausage, cut with green peppers for color and flavor. It’s overcooked in the Southern style, concentrating the coy sweetness like a lyrical accent. Beans talked back with Texas chili powder muscle.
Dessert: This is the second spot on the East Side I’ve had this style of thick, swirled banana pudding with a pronounced dairy twang. Either they’re getting it from the same home kitchen or somebody’s feeding me a story about it being homemade.
Sauce: I taste minced onion, sweet pickle and garlic powder in this orange-red mop. I’d call it a hot-dog marinara, and it tastes great with sausage.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)