BBQ City Limits: Willie's Bar-B-Que
An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
4505 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. 926-9340, no website.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.19.12
The stolen-meat sting by the Austin Police Department that snagged Sam’s Bar-B-Cue last summer also grabbed Willie’s Bar-B-Que. The scandal shut them down for awhile, but time passes and the lights came back on behind the white-barred windows at Willie’s, which shares an aging mini-strip off East MLK with a barbershop and a convenience store.
Willie Showels himself takes your order at the counter, a stout man with salt-and-pepper gray hair and an easy lilt that sounds a little like Louisiana, but that turns out to be just an assumption based on the smoked boudin sausage ($3 a link). It’s a stoic gray-brown link with a snap casing and a soft, blood sausage-style mix of pork, rice, garlic and the same swampy spice as gumbo. In a town full of sausage, the barbecued boudin might not be king, but it holds court on its own.
A three-meat plate isn’t exactly on the menu, but start naming ribs and brisket and mutton and ... and Showels will turn the two-meat plate to three to make it a manageable $11.50 with two sides. A long pork rib carries the smoke and drawn skin of a good run in the pit with oak. The meat is reddish-brown through and through, its fat mostly rendered into the long, lean rib. Like every other meat on the plate, it’s harder to get an exact read on its full original flavor because the cutter hit it with a dusting of seasoned salt after he plated it, a lapse in protocol up there with ketchup on steak. James Michener said something about that in “Centennial,” relaying a scene from a cattlemen’s dinner: “To these men, putting catsup on sirloin was like dumping cigarette ashes in holy water.” Truth to tell, I don’t feel that strongly about it, but I admire people with that kind of singular passion. No-sauce barbecue people, for example, who likely have similar feelings about seasoned salt.
Mutton is turning into an East Side stunt meat for me, a squirrelly beast with multiple personality disorders – sharp, spiky, charred, gamey — depending on who’s doing the therapy. On Dr. Willie’s couch, it’s an amorphous strata of sturdy bronzed skin, slippery fall-away meat and unrendered ball-bearings of fat. I’m imagining a South American tree mammal as I work through the unusual cuts, and I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that it’s just a languid meadow ruminant.
Watching the brisket collapse into piles from the cutter’s knife, I braced myself for the dry, twiny texture sure to follow. It did, and the only redeeming bite came with the biggest, crustiest piece at the very end, a piece that stayed together like spiteful marrieds. You know, for the kids’ sake.
Two sides: Plain salty pintos and mustard potato salad with chopped sweet pickles and sugar, lots of sugar. If that doesn’t ring your bell — and it won’t — it’s better to order by the pound instead of the combo plate at Willie’s.
Dessert: Lemon is an underrated clean citrus finish to a barbecue feed. At Willie’s, it takes the form of lemon poundcake as moist as a birthday cake with lemon icing and zest. More than zest, really. Peels when you get down to it. But in the company of sugar and heat, those peels candy and caramelize for a cake like baked LemonHeads, packed in a sandwich baggie like a church bake sale for $1.85.
Sauce: There’s chili powder in this red sauce, plus garlic powder, pepper, tomato sauce, sugar and vinegar. No reason to bring chili powder to my barbecue party. Respect for barbecue means giving Tex-Mex flavors a wide berth, because it has parties of its own to think about.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits