BBQ City Limits update: Freedmen’s

 
 
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
 
Freedmen’s
2402 San Gabriel St. (map). 512-220-0953, www.freedmensbar.com.
Hours: 11am-midnight Tue-Sun. Brunch 11am-3pm Sun. Closed Mon.
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.21.13

Gamechanger. Among enthusiasthmatic food bloggers, it’s a term sprinkled liberally on things like chicken wings and breakfast pizza. But when a barbecue player like Evan LeRoy takes an already solid game and moves everything up a full category, he’s changed the only game that really matters: his own.
 
After almost a year of steady rolling at Freedmen’s, LeRoy has found the Goldilocks Zone for brisket, landing it in that Just Right place between the hard lean and undisciplined fat of my first trips to Freedmen’s. Now his brisket carries its white-gold stripe of belly fat like a plus-size model, and across the top is a crystallized layer of fat and salt and pepper that coalesces into something like the rock candy of the wandering plains.
 
As much as the brisket has stepped up, the beef rib has taken flight. This summer, the meat was laid to the side like headstones beside a bleached desert bone. This fall, it was reborn in the alchemy of fire and flesh, crusted like a volcanic floe with a glowing magmatic red beneath. I wish it were on the menu fulltime, but it’s always worth asking for.
 
LeRoy could get by on the crusty-old-man style of barbecue. His brisket and beef ribs prove that. But his special gift is the swerve he brings to the pit, the subtleties of a barbecue man not content to wear the same nametag all the time. Pork ribs stayed just this side of sweet, with enough glaze to add a bloom of color and contrasting chew to the feathery white meat underneath. And he hit pulled pork with a little fish sauce and vinegar as it hit the plate. It worked, just a whisper of something exotic among the careful fibers and the contrast of toasted skin.
 
LeRoy also makes his own sausage, and while I like figs and apples and bacon as much as the next guy, LeRoy’s straightforward pork and beef variety was packed tight and built a slow vegetal warmth. More time in the smoke would have made it even better.
 
 
You’ll never confuse Freedmen’s with an old barbecue joint. Sure, the patio is set with gravel and picnic tables, but the inside is as self-consciously gaudy as a burlesque saloon. Cocktails are deliberate, crafty and expensive. So is the food. Barbecue starts at $10 for sausage, $12 for ribs or brisket, $14 for pulled pork. That’s just for meat. Maybe a half-pound, if that, with pickles and bread.
 
At $17, the “Holy Trinity” mostly left me praying for more food. Add coleslaw and potato salad at 4 and 5 bucks apiece, and your three-meat plate with two sides would be $26. Even at Lamberts — the poster child for overpriced Austin barbecue — that lunchtime set-up is $8 less.
 
Freedmen’s abandoned a lunchtime experiment of selling barbecue by the pound, and the small plates of charcuterie I liked so much are no longer on the menu. So Freedmen’s requires some resolve and more than just pocket change. Their Twitter feed this week mentioned a lunch special: sandwich, side and drink for $10. Not a bad place to start deciding whether Freedmen’s fits into your barbecue game.
 
On the side: We’ve talked about smoked beets and beans with offal already. Time to let some German potato salad come in, with vinegar, bacon and caramelized onion in equal strength through well-cooked potatoes that haven’t been mashed to death. They’re as Teutonically contemplative as the grilled coleslaw is blithely American, its crisp cabbage freckled with grill marks and the sweetness we can’t live without.
 
Sauce: Swirl and swish the barbecue sauce. Go ahead. It’s as darkly fruitful and tannic as the cabernet that goes into it. Until the pepper kicks in, then the sweetness, then the smoke that comes from a reduced stock of barbecue bones. Witty, but never ostentatious.
 
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Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
 
(TOP, clockwise from top left: Grilled coleslaw, German potato salad, pork ribs, sauce, pulled pork, beef rib, sausage, housemade pickles and brisket. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)