BBQ City Limits: Texas Rib Kings

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Texas Rib Kings
9012 Research Blvd., Suite C4. 451-7427,
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.26.12
2014 UPDATE: Texas Rib Kings has closed. 
Outside Texas Rib Kings stands a life-size concrete statue of a black-and white hog. A real-life black-and-white chihuahua is barking at it. Next to that a black barrel smoker with Disney-red handles puffs away like a cartoon character chewing up oak logs, waving smoke like a carnival barker’s double dream hands. It’s a Monday, and that means you can pack away all the barbecue your inner caveman can handle for just $13.99, a special that runs on Tuesdays, too. It’s a $5 break from the regular price, and for the money there’s no better barbecue value than Texas Rib Kings on those two days.
Let me be clear: I don’t need the rose-colored glasses of a bargain deal to see the talent at work here. It’s clear in the burnt end of a brisket with a rippled ebony crust that sinks down almost a quarter-inch, giving way to the coral-color red that suggests a low-and-slow ride through real oak wood smoke. You can taste the wood, toasty and tannic as a wine barrel, a flavor and color that sinks through the rest of the piece. The traditionally shaggy-rimmed fatty pieces had lost most of their visible fat cap, suggesting they were overtrimmed or that the fat had been cooked most of the way down, rendered into the meat below. It made for richer meat, but I like some of that caramelized fat left intact to remind me where I am on the food chain.
The cutter working the counter saw me taking pictures, and he came outside with a new cutting of lean brisket that he said represented their work better. That’s the picture at bottom right. The original cut is in the photo at top. I think he knew that the first pass had crumbled and begun to lose its form as a slice. The replacement slices were in fact a lesson in how to handle lean brisket: leave some of the fat on the top, give it a solid dry rub of black pepper and let the wood do its work. Do it right and the fat will cleave together just enough to keep the meat from drying out without melting away and defying any notion of “lean.” Jack Sprat has only to peel the top layer away, its flavoring work done.
The shop doesn’t make its own sausage, but it buys a spicy all-beef link from Taylor that will save you a road trip. Pork ribs at the Rib King carried some candy to the party, a glaze whose sweetness pulled my head out of the smoke before I was ready. They were cooked to that state of unstable detente between shiny fat and fibrous lean, with only the saw-edged crust to keep the peace. They weren’t as fully realized as the beef rib. The cutter and I talked about how hard it is to cook beef ribs, about how the shorter ribs on one end of the rack carried more meat while the long ribs on the other side had less. To cook the shorter ribs just right means burning the long ones unless you find the right temperature balance in the smoker. The Rib Kings kept their balance with a full-figured rib that pulled from the bone with just enough canine-tooth exertion.
Two sides: The all-you-can-eat line, which is usually just a regular line, carries cowboy beans, razor-cut coleslaw, corn on the cob, even a tri-color cold pasta salad. But for me it’s a kids’ dish of mac and cheese, gloopy and sticky and suspect — and good with barbecue. Even better is a more adult choice: green beans stewed with long strands of yellow onion. It’s as salty and saturated as you’d expect, but the trick is to pull out those onions and drop them on everything else. The meat, the mac and cheese, the apple cobbler. Everything’s better with soft-stewed onions.
Dessert: It’s included in the $13.99 buffet special. I’d have grabbed peach cobbler and banana pudding, too, but decorum calls for one dessert here, and the apple cobbler does its job, with full apple sections and pie-style pastry in a plastic tub.
Sauce: If you were to consider using it — and here’s a case where none of the meat calls for it — you’d analyze this sauce for its thick, ketchupy density and more-than-average heat, and you’d appreciate that it’s not eye-squinchingly sweet. But you’d leave it alone just the same.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)