It's an age-old question that persists even today in the dark art of Meat Alchemy: Does the wand make the magician or does the magician make the wand?
At least today and at least here, we have an answer: John Lewis, head pitmaster of La Barbecue, spent more than three months toiling in his backyard to create the ultimate dream pit from scratch.
With the help of his retired father, the junior Lewis cut, shaped, and assembled the pieces of his new pit with exacting precision. This was no trial-and-error hobby build, as it was actually the fifth pit-building project completed by the Lewis family. John used his previous builds to learn as many lessons as he could, testing each apparatus and pushing its limits on the competition barbecue circuit.
What you are about to read is not a joke:
There are actually parts of the new La Barbecue pit that were off-limits to our cameras, having been deemed trade secrets.
So, rejoice, Austin barbecue enthusiasts: We now have our own Area 51.
It's easy to understand the pitmaster's wishes to keep the public – and his competition – guessing about what makes this pit so special. After all, just about anybody with a welding rig and some scrap material can slap a firebox on a cooking chamber to fashion themselves the classic horizontal off-set style pit that is emblematic of so much Central Texas barbecue. "Keep your fire in the lower box, keep your meat in the upper box, and never the two shall meet directly." The old barbecue adage sounds so simple.
However, the devil is in the details when it comes to the complexities of fire dynamics. In an open fire pit, heat always rises. In a compartment, though, heat will travel like spilled water somehow turned upside down – first up, then across, then down. In some circumstances, heat will even stratify – creating thermal layers with distinct boundaries that can cook – or not cook – meat at different rates, a sure problem for anyone seeking consistency.
To manage those complex issues, some fancy barbecue pits on the competition circuit employ fans and mechanical baffles that can manipulate the heat flow from fires. Some even use automatic gas systems to rocket-blast firebox temps based on the settings of digital thermostats.
Back at the La Barbecue proving grounds, there may be secrets and design breakthroughs, but you won't find anthing "fancy." On the new pit, there are no fans or baffles, there is most certainly not any gas, and the only thing digital is the iPod Nano that serenades patrons with outlaw country classics.
"Just throw a log onto the fire, and this pit does the work for you. It's actually kind of relaxing." Lewis joked, referring to the ease he now enjoys relative to the usual frustrations of tending a constant fire that even backyard pit bosses can understand. "She's efficient, reliable, and, well, just smooth."
While those words may never make for a winning Valentine's Day card, in this case, they are most definitely an expression of love. This pit is exactly what John Lewis has been working towards for years.
Originally drawn to his profession by way of passion, John got his first taste of cooking barbecue for money in contests all across the nation. In fact, many of the regular characters that can be seen on TV shows like "BBQ Crawl" often drop by La Barbecue to eat and visit with the pitmaster, and Lewis always takes time to leave the pits and sit with his former rivals. "When you spend that much time together, tending the pits through the night, even though you're competing, everyone becomes family out there."
After getting hooked on the judged meat scene, John convinced longtime friend and fellow barbecue enthusiast Aaron Franklin to join him on the road. After a few official contests together, and a lot of unofficial backyard barbecue brawls, Aaron returned the favor and tapped Lewis to help him open the now world-famous venture in a trailer alongside I-35 in 2009.
Late last year, John Lewis finally struck out on his own again – intent on heading for California where he planned to use his expertise to build a pit and open his own barbecue joint in the heart of wine country. He left Franklin BBQ and headed to the JMueller BBQ trailer, hoping to learn even more tricks of the trade from another man named John.
Just a few weeks later, a series of unexpected events left journeyman John Lewis standing at the center of a business that was in financial disarray and in need of complete restructuring. "JMueller BBQ" became "La Barbecue Cuisine Texicana" (mercifully shortened to "La Barbecue" by employees and regular customers alike), social media users and bloggers speculated and argued about the many changes at the trailer, and the young establishment's impressively long lines all but disappeared with the previous pit boss in a cloud of drama and uncertainty. At that moment, leaving on the scheduled trip to California may have seemed like an easy out – but it was not even an option for John Lewis.
While Lewis took over the pits, another mainstay of the establishment, Ali Clem, took over as general manager. Together with the owners, they created a plan to reboot and save the business.
Social media and marketing were the first things to get some attention, thanks almost exclusively to Ali. The young GM has that rare talent for performing as an exuberant, genuinely cheerful cutter in the window during serving hours and as a no-nonsense business person the rest of the time. Much of the rapid financial turn-around of the joint is owed to her laser focus on sound business operating principles, and she's quick to be honest: "It hasn't been easy. Most restaurants start with at least a base-level reputation and can build from there, but we had to start from a place where we had to prove that we're even worthy of being here. Once we did that, we earned some trust, and we got to have more fun making a case for ourselves as the best."
In the Austin barbecue scene, though, social media and friendly service with a smile are not enough to make that case. This city's diners are completely spoiled by the riches of our barbecue culture. If a new joint's meat can't speak for itself, the place isn't likely to survive.
It is to this end that the last six months of hard work and determination by the La Barbecue staff really shows. Valuing superb quality food above all else, they are consistently delivering meats that are worthy of being considered among the best in the city right now.
Among the positive changes made, few are more obvious than the in-house crafting of their sausage at La Barbecue. Instead of buying pre-made links as the joint always had before, Lewis and his team now hand-grind, mix, and stuff their own hot guts. The recipe has evolved as customers requested more spice and less fat, and today's result is a medium-grind meaty smoke bomb with a kick, just begging to burst from its snappy, sweating, deep red casing. Before the new pit was born, John Lewis even made some modifications to the joint's original smoker to handle the high-maintenance demands of these delicate fresh links.
Arguably, the most specialized traditional Central Texas barbecue meat is the beef rib. Though it is managing even now to grow in popularity, only a few places in the Austin city limits even offer what some old-timers call "steak on a handle." With the reopening of Japan to Texas beef markets this year, beef rib costs for restaurateurs have soared, and profits have plummeted. No matter. The beef ribs at La Barbecue are being cooked to finger-shred tenderness. The peppery crust and unavoidable bone may be the only things that separate this dish from barbacoa in texture and richness.
Of course, brisket, the crown jewel of Texas barbecue meats, may be the most crucial element in the formula for barbecue success, and even there, John Lewis had the courage to change literally everything. La Barbecue now uniquely cooks only prime grade, Black Angus beef briskets. The rub recipe was changed, and, of course, there is the matter of the new pit. Lewis revealed that "It's the only place our briskets cook now – we're keeping the old smoker online so that I can do that, actually. Ribs, sausage, pork butt – almost everything else, comes from the old smoker, but the brisket is all cooked on the new pit."
While "moist" may be an option at other joints, it's the first word that comes to mind when describing every single bite of La Barbecue brisket. The new rub recipe is much more subtle than the former pepper-based mix, yet the bark still provides a mouthful of smoke and salt with each chew. The choice of higher-grade beef presents a richer, smoother palette of meat and fat layers beneath the soft bark crust, with a delicious, genuine umami that seems to be absent in so much brisket elsewhere. There is nothing flat or boring about the flavor of this brisket – it is eyes-rolling-back-into-your-head delicious and irresistible to the last butcher paper speck. There simply is nothing better in town right now.
With the rebirth of the business complete, new dedicated help on staff (John Lewis is quick to give credit to Chris McGhee, his "co-pitmaster who does just as much work;" Ali is equally proud of the guys that help her in the serving window), and now a super-secret self-built dream machine helping to crank out twice as much meat at its highest quality yet, it's clear that the future is bright for the double-pit operation on South First Street.
La Barbecue Cuisine Texicana
1502 S. First, 512/605-9696
Wed.-Sun., 11:00am until sold out
Editor's Note: Along with being a serious barbecue aficionado and backyard meat man himself, Chronicle contributor Kenny Pailes is also a former career firefighter, hence his knowledge of the dynamics of fire.
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