With all the talk about Franklin’s BBQ in the national news, Austin is quickly becoming the new BBQ capital of Texas. Sound a little premature? When Lockhart was declared the official Barbecue Capital of Texas during the 1999 House regular session, the little town of 12,000 seemed untouchable. And Lockhart is still famous from coast to coast for its BBQ, with visitors topping 250,000 per year. So it seems a little bold to proclaim Austin the New BBQ Capital, right?
Before we backup our assertion about Austin’s place in Texas BBQ, a little about the 4 distinct styles of Texas BBQ:
1 – East Texas BBQ: typical Southern BBQ (chopped meat, predominantly hickory smoke in a sweet tomato BBQ)
2 – Central Texas BBQ: “meat market style” (the meat is dry rubbed and cooked over pecan or oak, sauce is thinner and served on the side, served sliced on a tray with sides and condiments)
3 – West Texas BBQ: “Cowboy Style” with mesquite wood an direct fire
4 – South Texas BBQ: BBQ sauces made with molasses, barbacoa and cabrito
East and Central Texas styles represent the most widely known types of BBQ nationally, with West and South Texas enjoying more recognition at the regional level.
So is it even possible to knock Lockhart off the top of the chart? To understand just what the Austin BBQ scene is up against, let’s look at the 4 BBQ joints that made Lockhart famous:
Blacks Barbecue: opened in 1932, Blacks is the longest running Texas Barbecue restaurant to be owned by the same family. They offer lean and fatty brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, turkey and chicken. Their brisket is their number one claim to fame, and they are consistently on the “Texas Monthly Top 50 Texas BBQ” list. Look for the opening of Terry Black Barbecue here in Austin in early 2014. Mark and Mike Black will be bringing authentic pit smoked BBQ to Barton Springs Road. Oh yeah, and this was cause for a family dispute:
Kreuz Market: (pronounced “Krites” Market) opened in 1900 and changed hands in 1948, and then again in 1984. They have a ‘no sauce’ policy, as they feel it covers up the flavor of their meat. They serve fatty brisket, lean beef clod, beef ribs, and prime rib, sausage, turkey, pork chops, pork ribs, and pit hams. They sold their original location in Lockhart due to a family dispute, and moved to a different location outside of town. They are a current “Texas Monthly Top 50 BBQ winner”.
Chisholm Trail Barbecue: a lesser-known and less established BBQ joint that opened in 1978. They have a cafeteria-style line and brisket, ribs, turkey, chicken, and sausage.
Smitty’s Market: Owned by one of the members of the same family that runs Kreuz Market, they took over the building that Kreuz had been in since 1900 They serve brisket, beef shoulder, pork chops, pork ribs, prime rib, and sausage. They were last in the “TMT 50 BBQ” list in 2008.
So let’s talk about Austin BBQ: it is making a gigantic splash on the National BBQ scene. The current grand champion of BBQ in Texas and the US, Aaron Franklin’s brisket is no joke. But when you look at the impressive list put out every 5 years by Texas Monthly (May 2013) you cannot help but notice: 5 of the Top 50 are right here in Austin. That is to say a full 10% of the list is devoted to the BBQ of Austin. Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio can only boast 2 BBQ joints each, and they are all bigger markets than Austin.
So let’s take a look at what makes Austin, TX BBQ so special:
Franklin’s BBQ (pitmaster: Aaron Franklin): His BBQ brisket is so good, that Bon Appetit named it the best BBQ in the country for 2011. After that, well, the rest is history. Then this year, Texas Monthly gave it the top rating as well (5.0). Considered the new king of BBQ, Mr. Franklin has confirmed expansion of his establishment, with the addition of a full-blown smokehouse. His espresso BBQ sauce can be found at local grocer HEB here in Austin. Fans of his BBQ rejoice: you may not have to wait 4 hours ever again, once the smokehouse is built…or maybe you will…… Rating: 5.0
John Mueller Meat Co (pitmaster: John Mueller): Ironically, Aaron Franklin got his start with BBQ under the tutelage of John Mueller. Mueller, of the Taylor Muellers (Louie Mueller BBQ of Taylor is in the Top 4), is infamous for his rather unconventional lifestyle, and recently opened John Mueller Meat Co, after a disagreement with his sister. (She reopened their former joint venture as the newly renamed La Barbecue). Best thing on the menu? Beef ribs and fatty brisket. Rating: 4.5
La Barbecue (pitmaster: John Lewis): owned by LeAnn Mueller, the joint gets its name from an abbreviation of her first name. She hired John Lewis, who worked previously at Franklin’s to helm the pit after a spat resulted in John Mueller’s exodus. Lewis uses a mixture of pickle juice and yellow mustard for his wet rub for better flavor penetration. Rating: 4.5
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (pitmaster: Zach Davis): its claim of “Fancy Barbecue” may leave you with a little concern, but the upscale environment does not detract from the interesting combinations of meat. Pork ribs with fennel and coriander, yep. Achiote and Lime chicken, sure thing. Although cooking with a gas-fired smoker is not BBQ in the most traditional sense, they still receive high marks from Texas Monthly. Rating: 4.25
Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew (pitmaster: Lance Kirkpatrick): Lance got his start under Bobby Mueller of Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor (those Mueller’s hold a lot of influence) and opened Stiles Switch with the backing of Shane Stiles. Again the specialty here is brisket and beef ribs.
So if you were to say who is the most influential BBQ family in Austin and the surrounding towns, it would be the Mueller family. Whether they are working the pit, or teaching the next generation of BBQ genius, they are the family we all need to watch.
In late November, I started to hear buzz on the internet: a lot of buzz. A place called Kerlins BBQ, off the 1700 block of Cesar Chavez on the East side, was getting rave reviews about its brisket, pulled pork and pork ribs. Located right next to Vera Cruz All Natural, and owned by Bill Kerlin, and his wife Amelis Paz-Kerlin, the setup includes a separate smoker trailer, a serving trailer, several picnic benches, and games while you wait. With nearly 2 decades of restaurant experience between the co-owners, the truck started out like many do: cooking really good BBQ for friends.
From there Mr. Kerlin entered his very first BBQ competition in Wimberley, TX. With a smoker made from a 55-gallon drum and another $50.00 smoker that he borrowed from a friend, his team garnered the sympathy of the neighbor who lent them a string of lights for their BBQ setup. That may have been a mistake, as Mr. Kerlin’s team took 1st in pulled pork, 1st in chicken, and an overall grand champion. A rookie earning the G.C. is something rarely seen on the BBQ circuit. Then a call to come to the American Royal Invitation 2013 would have to wait: there was a food truck to tend.
Ascribing to the same “serving until sold out” mantra common among other “meat market” style places, I knew I had to show up early if I was going to sample the good eats. I was there by 11:30 and all the desserts were already gone. I would need to come back another day to sample the pumpkin flan and banana pudding (all desserts are made by Amelis). Everything is made at Kerlin’s except of the sausage, but don’t worry, there are plans in the works to update the equipment and start making their own.
Do you see that? That’s some seriously delicious brisket. The fat rendered perfectly was reminiscent of bacon with a nice 1/4 “ smoke ring. The Kerlins use pecan wood where others use post oak, and you can taste the difference.
The pork shoulder is slightly smoky, slightly sweet with tons of moisture from the fat. The ribs with a brown sugar and molasses rub were fall off the bone tender with a hint of pepper on the finish. Sausage from Smokey Denmark down the street, is tasty, but it does not have the signature flavor of the others house meats. House-made pickles are large cut, tangy and slightly salty with a small amount of heat. Blue cheese coleslaw is proper ratio of slaw to dressing with real blue cheese notes. It’s a little unconventional, but pairs well with the brisket, and pork shoulder.
So are you hungry?? I know I am!