Fed Man 55: Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (25)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 25: Lamberts Downtown Barbecue
401 W. Second St. 512-494-1500, www.lambertsaustin.com.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.02.12       
Must be tough for Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr. to settle on a place to eat: Perla’s, Fresa’s, Clark’s, Lamberts or Elizabeth Street Cafe? They own so many these days. But on a calm Thursday night this week, they picked Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, the first jewel in their crown. “This one’s kind of our baby,” McGuire told me in 2009, protective of Lamberts as the countdown to Perla’s marched on.
Lamberts is the Painted Lady of Austin barbecue, an object of gossip and hard judgment among the smoked-meat elite. 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 like Heinz 57. But they all work, fortified by oak smoke and appropriately indulgent fat-to-lean ratios. At lunch, a three-meat plate is $17 with two sides, chief among them salty, stemmy, bacon-braced collard greens and mac and cheese baked to a brindled brown.
The combo plates get put away for dinner, when the lights dim across the exposed brickwork and green leather banquettes and the seats fill at the bar. The barbecue moves to its own separate plates ($14-$16 each) and the knives come out for more kitchen-conscious dishes like a serious pork chop with a caramelized scatter of chopped cauliflower ($28). It’s a citizen of the oak-fired grill, striped and bronzed outside but fresh with possibility inside.
The pork is fine on its own, but it leans on sweet butternut squash and twangy capers to become something more refined. Refined in flavor rather than aesthetics, because most everything at Lamberts has a lumberjack’s sense of style, even the fish. A market special ($29) combined a precision-grilled piece of redfish with pearls of lump crab and the hard bite of fresh black-eyed peas. With rice and a mercurial egg-and-parsnip gribiche, the dish was a statement of Lamberts’ higher abilities, even if it was thrown together with all the finesse of a KFC bowl.
The high-low formula found a champion in an appetizer of fried shrimp on dense white Pullman bread layered with English cucumbers as if it were redneck pinky tea-time or something, except the rednecks are laughing at you for spending 14 bucks on four fried shrimp. They’re laughing at Brussels sprouts, too, but for a different reason. With fat pieces of salty, smoke-rimmed bacon and a sweet-hot sheen of brown butter and chile flakes, those sprouts are the happiest players in a suddenly sprout-happy market.
Among the best developments at Lamberts — besides Alexandra Manley’s vanilla bean ice cream with cocoa nibs — is the dissolution of its Sunday brunch buffet. Yes, $30 was a good deal for all-you-can-eat BBQ and eggs, but it was a bumper-car ride through a cramped serving line and a deal-breaker for whether Lamberts would make this list. Now brunch is a la carte ($14-$28 for entrees) and runs Saturdays and Sundays, working from a menu that includes barbecue, brioche French toast, deviled eggs and a Benedict made with grilled hanger steak and a craftsman’s union of slow-poached eggs and bearnaise. The beauty of table service is that you don’t have to arm-wrestle the customers for space or the last piece of bacon. Just your waiter. And at Lamberts, they always let you win.
(TOP: The interior is a mix of exposed brick, leather banquettes and wood floors. FIRST INSET: Clockwise from top left: Barbecue plate at lunch with collard greens, macaroni and cheese, pulled pork, a pork rib and brisket; trio of barbecue sauces; cornmeal-fried shrimp on toast with cucumbers; hanger steak eggs Benedict. SECOND INSET: Lamberts' back patio; pork chop with caramelized cauliflower; grilled redfish with rice and black-eyed peas; Lamberts occupies the rustic shell of the Schneider Building at Second and Guadalupe. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants