A Wood Smoked Guide to Austin

If you’re a first time Austin visitor and consider yourself a carnivore, it's time to listen up.

Do at least two of the following apply to you?

  • Are you attending SXSW 2012?
  • Have you so far never visited Austin (or, gasp, Texas) before?
  • Do you immediately flip to the “food” section of a travel guide upon arriving in a new city?
  • Are you are a committed consumer of fine, humanely reared meat products?
  • Have you have ever enjoyed a slow-cooked, smoked cut of a cheaper part of an animal and contemplated whether or not a cuisine could ever be considered “life changing”?

Still reading? Chances are, you’re the kind of chap/chapess who likes barbecue food. So with that established, let’s get down to business… First up, you’re visiting central Texas, home to a very specific type of barbecue cooking. Here it’s beef-first and hold the sauce. Specifically we’re talking brisket, the fibrous cut of cow that resides in the lower chest and responds like magic to low temperatures, long cooking times and plenty of aromatic smoke. Characterized by melt-in-the-mouth tenderness and a propensity for producing long, silent mealtimes punctuated only by satisfied grunts, this is a cut of meat that can form a meal in itself. With that out of the way, you’ll either be wanting to find out more about this most American of cuisines, or you’ll be getting impatient, hungry and wanting to know where to track this wonderstuff down. In either case, here’s what you’re going to do:

  1. Pick yourself up the latest copy of Texas Monthly and digest (no pun intended) the cover story, start to finish. You’re in Texas, you’re wanting to spend a week living Texan and eating Texan, so spend a few minutes and read Texan too.
  2. Back? OK. Now, do you have time to get out of town in order to fully indulge your barbecue senses? If not, skip directly to (3) below. If however you have time to roam, consider direction. Heading north? Get on up to Louis Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. East? That would be Snow’s in Lexington. South you say? Well that’s the epicenter of close-proximity BBQ action, Lockhart where you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t manage to sample Kreuz, Smitty’s and Black’s all in one long, greedy lunchtime.
  3. Back in Austin? Or maybe you never left. Either way, as per Texas Monthly’s article you still have what some claim to be the best barbecue in the state (and even the the country) ahead of you, all within the city limits. Here are your best bets:

Franklin Barbecue – East 11th Street

“Because I have a whole morning to spare.”

Franklin is the current king of local barbecue. After moving from food trailer to bona fide restaurant and with the “Best BBQ in the USA?” question hanging over owner Aaron Franklin’s head (courtesy of Bon Appetit magazine), the infamous round-the-block lines for Franklin’s signature brisket and meltingly tender ribs have only got longer.

This is a morning wrecker (or during SXSW even possibly a day spoiler) of an occasion once you factor in the potential 2 hour wait time, frenzied meat consumption and inevitable afternoon nap. However, I am one of the many in Austin who swear that it is a cause well worthy of the endeavor. Fall-off-the-bone pork ribs that you can eat happily with either greasy digits or flimsy plastic forks; Brisket that will have you closing your eyes in rapt satisfaction (get at least a little of the fatty cut); Fantastic un-sauced hunks of pulled pork; Gleaming slices of tender, rub-encrusted turkey; and shining links of house-made sausages with nothing missing apart from a “Danger: Squirting Juices” warning sign. Yes, it’s a long line, yes it’s hyped more than perhaps any other dining experience in Austin, but worth it? Absolutely.

JMueller BBQ – South 1st Street

“Legendary pit-master turned trailer-bound upstart.“

If you’ve read, skimmed or even glanced at the Texas Monthly cover story mentioned above, you’ll be fully aware of the current Austin city limits barbecue battle. When word gets round that you’ve visited both, the same question gets poised again and again, usually with bated breath and fervent anticipation: Which is best, Mueller or Franklin? Unfortunately, the answer comes down to a mixture of personal preferences, ranging from taste through eating environment and on to the inevitable kicker – wait-time. Unquestionably, JMueller wins out for convenience. Unless you have a perverse love of working up one hell of an appetite, a wait time of approximately 20 minutes on a busy lunchtime is always going to beat Franklin’s 2 hour outdoor shuffle. Once you’ve placed your order, graciously accepted John Mueller’s complementary hunk of “thank you for waiting” brisket and found yourself a picnic bench, the waters muddy somewhat.

Here’s the rub (pun ever-so-slightly intended): Everything here is good – really, really good. With tender, fall-apart spears of pork ribs fighting flaky, fat-veined brisket and dark, peppery beef short-ribs for your attention, you’re going to be in barbecue heaven – that’s a given. But is it the BEST? What will you relay to your meat-appreciating friends when they raise the Franklin conundrum? Well, from this particular carnivore I can tell you that for consistency across the entire menu, Franklin might just edge it. But if you have a love of spicy, peppery rubs, long to find a beef short rib that can defeat the all-conquering might of Texas brisket and want to sample some of the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth turkey you’ve ever encountered, it’s got to be JMueller. So what’s the takeaway? All you need to know is that JMueller turns out some of the best barbecue you’re ever likely to sample. If you like a more assertive, peppery and spicy rub to your BBQ, have a distinct preference for cows over pigs and don’t like waiting around in line, you will leave South 1st Street a very, happy camper.

Live Oak Barbecue – East 2nd Street

“Out of the way underdog. Uncompromisingly Austin.”

What makes Live Oak Barbecue such an Austin kind of eatery? Maybe it’s the dive-bar-esque breeze block walls, or the bearded, tattooed (but friendly) pit masters behind the counter? Or perhaps it’s the canned beer, Mexican Cokes and unswerving dedication to quality meats served sauce-less, glorifying not just the animal but the painstaking preparation. Whatever it is, Live Oak has that Austin feeling. Buried deep on E. 2nd St. and off the radar of all but the most energetic of east side strollers, you’ll find bang-on tender brisket, salty but well-turned out ribs and ludicrously meaty sausage links waiting to be washed down with your frosty drink of choice. Miss out on the refreshing cucumber salad side at your peril and dine happy in the knowledge that you won’t be seeing a parade of out-of-towners swinging open the door, fists gripping tattered copies of rolled-up dining guides. With very solid Texas ’cue and wait times likely to be a fraction of those at Franklin and even JMueller, Live Oak could be the smartest barbecue move you can make this SXSW.

By Joel Parr.