The skies opened up last year in Austin Texas, the sun beamed down and the city welcomed barbecue that at last, finally, was as good as the heavenly smoked meat palaces of Taylor, Lockhart and Luling Texas.
Salvation came in a little blue trailer in a defunct Texaco parking lot on the Interstate 35 North frontage road on the western edge of the French Place neighborhood in East Austin.
After a year of hard work in his backyard building out a food trailer, pit boss Aaron Franklin was ready to make his mark on our city. He’d studied at the knee of John Mueller, the black sheep of the legendary Taylor Texas’ barbecue clan and was ready to show Austin that a young buck could smoke out as good as any weathered ranch hand out near San Angelo.
A year later with a fanatical customer base that regularly stand in line for an hour or more for his meat, he’s preparing to leave the cart and move into a brick and mortar location; the old Willy Greens Barbecue on E. 11th street in East Austin.
Pit boss Franklin should do well for himself as he truly does have the only brisket in town with a flavor profile similar to Black’s Barbecue down in Lockhart. If luscious, fatty brisket from well fed steers is your thing then this is the prime choice.
900 E. 11th St.
But Austin didn’t build an international reputation for barbecue on the shoulders of one man. While it’s true you historically had to go out in the surrounding counties to get superb smoked meat, we still acquit ourselves pretty admirably right here in town.
Berts Bar-B-Q narrowly missed the dirt road to psychedelia days of Austin in the 60’s [they opened in 1970] but they are most famous, unjustly, for their University of Texas location burning down two doors down from a fire station [the 911 operator told the emergency caller to simmer down Bert’s was probably just smoking some brisket].
Bert’s is seriously underrated. I like to get a quarter pound of brisket, a sausage link and a couple ribs. Quality runs high, they’ve had the same pit boss for a coon’s age and they won’t get so deep in your pocket that you can only visit as a special treat.
The room is nice, shabby and comfortable belying the suburban strip mall in which it resides. If Bert’s opened up anywhere other than central Texas there’d be barbecue groupies lined up like they were at a Ratt show in Charlotte in 1987.
3563 Far W Blvd
Willie’s Bar-B-Que in far East Austin is another decidedly under the radar joint.The menu offers all the standard barbecue options including Elgin Sausage, Mutton, Turkey legs and Chicken by the half.
Pricing is very fair ranging from $4.60 for the chicken and topping out at $8.95 for Pork Ribs. Standard sides offered: Potato Salad, Beans, Chips, Pickles, Jalapenos and Bread [light]. Since I don’t like to pollute my palate with non-meat when I’m at barbecue I can’t speak to the sides but the main attractions: Ribs and brisket are fine.
The ribs are big and fleshy with plenty caramelization on the exterior, the brisket has clearly come from a steer that was well nurtured prior to the slaughter. A good long smoke has been put on the creature to great effect.
Please be aware that Willie’s sauces your meat if not told otherwise. Some folks care, some don’t, just a word to the wise.
4505 E Martin Luther King Jr
Ray’s Bar-B-Q down in the Montopolis neighborhood of southeast Austin got famous nationally for being a location set for a few episodes of Friday Night Lights. Hereabouts, they’ve always been known for their brisket, a sandwich of which still runs under $4.
I hate that they discontinued the soul food on Thursday but apparently it was so successful it was running the staff ragged. The little building that houses Ray’s has been a barbecue joint since way back in the sixties and the history shows. It’s worn appeal is undeniable and the barbecue is fine indeed.
6301 Monsanto Drive
Ruby’s B-B-Q on the north end of University of Texas’ drag is one of the reasons I’m living in Austin. Back when I called Alabama home, a buddy moved to Austin to seek his fortune and Ruby’s was the first barbecue joint he visited.
He called me damn near apoplectic, not able to believe the wondrous Texas cuisine this little wooden meat house was serving. I listened carefully and took lots of mental notes. It was the first time I’d ever been regaled with stories of Texas barbecue lore.
Nowadays I don’t make it by Ruby’s too often. At $17 a pound they’ve about priced me out of their brisket market but anytime I’m feeling flush I like to run by and grab some top flight smoked meat and salad [!]. While it’s certainly true that you’re not supposed to profane your system with non meat when you’re at barbecue, in the case of Ruby’s you must make an exception and get a salad with their world class gorgonzola dressing.
512 W 29th St
When I prepared to make my initial voyage to Austin about two decades ago I had an itinerary. I’d read the gospel according to Stevie Ray and in it were written the words extolling the barbecue faithful to come to Sam’s Barbecue.
Indeed the ramshackle structure that contains Sam’s is a smoked meat shrine of sorts. This is the closest place, in feel, Austin has to Deep South barbecue. The old wooden house is nice and cluttered, there are Polaroids tacked up all over the walls and you stand a pretty good chance of getting panhandled at some point before, during or after you dine.
The smoked meat here is quite good. The half smoked chicken is a value for under five dollars. The brisket, when it’s on, is as good as any in the city. They source the sausage from world famous Elgin and they also offer sheep ribs, billed as mutton.
I love Sam’s. At the end of the month, they see more of my barbecue money than any single other joint in the city.
2000 East 12th Street
Welcome to Austin y’all.
Some of the places written about in this article are famous, others are not.
There is a thread however, that connects all these joints. They’re small, family run and are continuing a tradition that people from around the world hold in a reverence that borders on the spiritual: Austin Texas barbecue.