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Ready, Set, Fire!

The young guns of Austin barbecue

Fri., March 9, 2012

Central Texas is the home of revered barbecue traditions, with knowledge, skills, techniques, recipes, and family pride often passed down through generations. Barbecue has always been good business in these parts, and never more so than in Austin over the last couple of years. Thanks to a group of talented and hardworking young men, capitol city barbecue aficionados currently have an embarrassment of riches where exemplary barbecue is concerned. Some of these men represent the second or third generation of respected Texas barbecue families, others put in years of apprenticeship in iconic Central Texas barbecue temples, and one is self-taught and proud of it. A couple of the places in this story have garnered so much national and regional acclaim lately that it could require plenty of patience and willingness to stand in line to experience their meats. Make no mistake, however – each of these young guns is part of the reason Austin is a great barbecue destination. – Virginia B. Wood

Pit master Lance Kirkpatrick of Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
Pit master Lance Kirkpatrick of Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
Photo by John Anderson

Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew

6610 N. Lamar, 380-9199
Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-8:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-9pm; Sundays, 11am-8pm
www.stilesswitchbbq.com

Local controversy about the origins of Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew was already full-blown well before the restaurant even opened in the refurbished Fifties-era Violet Crown Shopping Center in December. All it took was for some enterprising leasing agent to overinflate a quote taken from an enthusiastic blog post, and thanks to social media, a rendition of that old kids' gossip game went viral. To set the record straight, all three of the principals involved in Stiles Switch are from Taylor, Texas. Owner Shane Stiles is a longtime barbecue enthusiast who named his restaurant after a 19th century rural railroad stop and put together an experienced team to bring his vision to life in Austin. Pit man Lance Kirkpatrick worked for the legendary Bobby Mueller in Taylor from 2000 until Mueller's death in 2008 and is proud of what he learned as the master's right-hand man. "I answered an ad in the Taylor paper and went to work the next day. I chopped his onions, peeled his potatoes, fetched wood – whatever Bobby needed those first few years until he finally asked me to cook with him. He taught me how to cook brisket and a lot about how to treat people in business," Kirkpatrick recalls fondly. General Manager James Jackson did his barbecue apprenticeship at PoK-e-Jo's in Austin and at the venerable Southside Market in Elgin. Kirkpatrick and Jackson have every right to claim their own résumés, but they never intended to trade on anyone else's brand to give the new business a leg up.

Enough about the gossip already – "What about the barbecue?" you ask. Meats at Stiles Switch are smoked over post oak, sold market-style, and priced by the half pound: brisket, chopped beef sandwiches, three kinds of sausage, beef ribs, pork ribs, pork shoulder, chicken, and turkey. The five sides, potato salad, cole slaw, pinto beans, mac and cheese, and corn casserole, are sold by the serving ($1.75): by the half-pint, pint, and quart. Finish off the meal with warm peach cobbler topped with Blue Bell ice cream or creamy banana pudding ($3.50 each). The beer taps are stocked with local brews such as Live Oak, (512), Indepen­dence, and Thirsty Planet, and it's got a wide selection of domestics in bottles and cans as well. My favorite meats so far are the brisket, moist and tender under a thin black-pepper bark; the beef short rib, dense and beefy with a little caramelized fat under a crisp crust (ask them to cut the meat in half if you're sharing); and the house-recipe sausage (made by a friend in nearby Thorn­dale), with a snappy casing and nice notes of garlic and cayenne. The sides here were the only real disappointment. Either too sweet or too bland, they didn't come near the quality of the meats and could use some rethinking. The cobbler, on the other hand, was just dandy.

Stiles Switch offers good barbecue in a friendly setting with plenty of ice-cold beer and big-screen TVs on hand. It's just a short walk from the North Lamar MetroRail stop, so if the lines are too long at some of the central-city spots, hop on the train and give it a shot. Virginia B. Wood

JMueller BBQ

1502 S. First, 229-7366
Wednesday–Sunday, 10:30am to until the meat runs out
www.jmuellerbbq.com

I got my first whiff of the news that John Mueller intended to return to the local barbecue scene when I ran into him at the final International Association of Culinary Professionals Conference event in June. John was serving brisket samples from behind a table in the farm stand at Boggy Creek, and he assured me he'd be back in business near Airport and Shady Lane by late July or early Aug­ust. All my barbecue-loving Chronicle colleagues and I had been big fans of John's place on Manor Road, operating 2001-06. I was pleased to learn he was making a comeback personally and professionally. The summer came and went, but Mueller's big portable pit never appeared at the specified East Austin location. Then I began to see blog posts about his imminent arrival at a tree-shaded vacant lot on South First. It took a few weeks of false starts, but eventually John installed a shiny new barbecue trailer and a screened-in pit on the lot, along with some comfortable picnic tables. Lines quickly began to form. Many of the first folks in line were die-hard loyalists from that gone-but-not-forgotten Manor Road outlet, thrilled to see their favorite barbecue available once again. More recently, the line also includes folks who have busted out of the line over at Franklin, the other white-hot famous barbecue joint of the moment, owned by John Mueller's former employee and fellow Texas Monthly cover boy, Aaron Franklin.

The meats are the reason to come here, and they are indeed spectacular. John learned his trade working alongside his father and grandfather at the renowned Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. As someone who's been making pilgrimages to famous Central Texas barbecue towns since the early Seventies, I can say with conviction that John Mueller produces meat that would make his ancestors proud. His father and grandfather built their reputations on dry-rubbed brisket and their house-made sausage. While John's brisket is truly fine and the sausage he gets from Texas Sausage Company in East Austin is good quality, my personal favorite item on his menu is the beef short rib. Huge and crusty, with a melting layer of caramelized fat under the bark, the ribs are a marvelous wonder. I'm also partial to the thick-cut pork chops and the Friday prime rib, servings of which, like the big ribs, offer enough succulent meat for a couple of meals.

At the moment, John Mueller's potential for success is limited only by the finite amounts of refrigerated storage in the trailer kitchen and space on the pit. He's talking about some kind of expansion after our local version of March Madness passes, but for now, you'll stand in line outside in order to experience barbecue blissfulness or leave empty-handed if you don't arrive early enough on sunny days. If you don't have time for the camaraderie of standing in line with other serious barbecue lovers, call in your order before it opens and scoot right up to the checkout counter. Virginia B. Wood

Tom Spaulding of Live Oak Barbecue
Tom Spaulding of Live Oak Barbecue
Photo by John Anderson

Live Oak Barbecue

2713 E. Second, 524-1930
Daily, 11am-8pm
www.liveoakbbq.net

Just west of Pleasant Valley Road in the old Mis Amigos/Last Chance Bar and Grill location, owners Donya and Randall Stock­ton (whose pedigree includes Beer­land, the Grackle, the Liberty, and many others) and pit master Tom Spaulding have set up shop with a market-style barbecue joint. Jack-of-all-trades pit master, as well as barbecue competitor and judge, Spaulding had garnered a good reputation as an experimental but devoted fan of the meat-smoking and -grilling arts, performing acts like grilling whole, butterflied hogs on a custom metal frame and building cowboy pits just to smoke 100-pound batches of beef for parties. The Stocktons sampled his barbecue at an event, and after the usual chitchat, a partnership was formed. After devoted rehab and remodeling to the old bar, Live Oak was ready; they had the spot and the pit master to make it happen.

Two dining rooms inside, a deck on the west side, and a patio out back provide plenty of seating. Expect some live acoustic music on the patio during South by Southwest; it is in a relatively quiet neighborhood, so bands can't get too frisky. Like any market-style 'cue joint, you enter, say howdy, order your meats and sides, decide on a drink or a beer, pay (meats by the pound, $10-$12), and immediately get a tray with your food and drinks. It's the food part we want to discuss.

The superlative ribs were tender and moist, smoky and peppery, and not overcooked, oversmoked, or too mushy. A barbecue judge deducts points for rib meat that falls off the bone; it should be tender but still toothsome and substantial. The sausage is first-rate, with a medium grind, peppery flavor, the kiss of smoldering post oak, and a good snap on the casing. Live Oak's brisket (we asked for cuts from the point or fatty end) moistly melts in your mouth, with a deep smoke ring and an assertive, peppered bark. The chicken was juicy and tender, with a rendered, crackling skin. The pork loin has a really nice, smoky, deep, sweet, porky flavor, and a tender bite; Live Oak is known for its pork loin.

Sides ($6 per pound) delight as well. We loved the borracho beans, which are loaded with meat and flavored with chile and garlic. The crisp, sweet-sour cucumber salad counterbalances the richness of the meat to perfection. The slightly mustardy potato salad has ample boiled egg in it, which we love. The crisp slaw is also of the sweet-sour variety, which is the only way to eat it. Onion slices, pickles, crackers, and white bread round out the plate; splurge on a jalapeño or two.

On Saturday afternoons, around 2pm or so, Live Oak does a weekly special, where it flexes its culinary muscles and goes outside of the CenTex box (check its Facebook page for the current special). In the past, it's been smoky delights like Monterrey-style cabrito, or cabrito with jicama pico, Moroccan méchoui-style lamb, beef cheek tacos, green-chile tri-tip, jerk chicken, Patagonia lamb leg, Bronto beef ribs, Cuban lechon asado, and smoked rib roast. It's gaining quite a following for the Saturday specials. Live Oak also offers a nice selection of beers ($2-4; local, craft, and other) and sodas ($1-2), and has a wine list for those who want one. Live Oak has managed to slide right into a smoky Eastside groove as it's hit its stride. – Mick Vann

Blue Ribbon Barbecue

120 E. Fourth, 369-3119
Daily, 7am-9pm
www.brbbq.net

The pedigree of Austin's Downtown Blue Ribbon Barbecue runs deep: Owner Bobby Cavo is a grandson of Taylor's famous barbecue kingpin, Rudy Mikeska, of the barbecuing Mikeska clan. Branches of their Czech-American family tree either cook or have cooked 'cue in Taylor, Columbus, Temple, Smithville, and El Campo. The popular catering operation that Rudy started immediately after World War II is still going today, run by Bobby's mom, Mopsie.

It's this catering operation that serves as the smoky heart of Blue Ribbon. The barbecue of Blue Ribbon originates at Mopsie's Taylor catering operation, cooked in the pit, all kissed by post oak smoke. For some bizarre reason, bankers don't want clouds of sweet, meaty smoke wafting up through their building, so other provisions had to be made. The sides, banana pudding, and sauce are made in-house at the base of the Frost Bank Building, near the southwest corner, in what used to be the WeFuse location.

We shared a couple of different three-meat plates ($13.99) so we could taste a broad range of offerings (we both got sausage). The turkey tastes brined, has a quarter-inch smoke ring with a light smoky flavor, and is tender, moist, and delicious; we thought this would make a dynamite sandwich. The pork-and-beef sausage was fairly good, with a medium grind, a snappy casing, a fair amount of smokiness, and the lingering kick of pepper and cayenne. The brisket was fall-apart tender and fairly moist with a smoky edge to the flavor, although it was from the lean end – we prefer the point or fatty end, where the most flavor hangs out, and should have asked for it. There's an inherent problem with brisket that's wrapped up and transported somewhere: It takes on a steamed quality, and the caramelized exterior bark degenerates. That doesn't make it inedible, not by a long shot. It's just not taken from a live fire and sliced in front of you, the way many locals expect it to happen.

The pork spareribs were moist, smoky, and fall-off-the-bone tender. I ate them and enjoyed them, as I would almost any rib, but I prefer a rib that has a little more bite to it, one where the meat clings a little more precariously to the bone. Pulled pork was the big star of the show. Done in a chunky style rather than shredded, it had small chunks of the fat and the caramelized crust mixed all through it, making meat that was porky, succulent, and moist.

From the world of sides, we tried four of the nine veggies. Potato salad was the fave, prepared mayo-style, with some mustard, balanced flavor, and soft yet defined chunks of spud. The coleslaw is finely shredded, done in the sweetish mayo style. The corn was lackluster, and the meaty pinto beans could have stood more cooking to develop that creamy texture. The banana pudding was definitely not made from a mix, and it had a thickish texture, as if a little whipped cream or Cool Whip had been folded into the custard. Nilla Wafers were pleasantly crunchy, but the pudding was a little shy on banana slices for my taste (merely a portioning problem). I've said it before, and I'll say it again: When it comes to barbecue, sides are usually for sissies anyway.

Blue Ribbon also makes breakfast tacos in any number of combos ($1.65-$2.05). All of the meats can be ordered as plates or combos ($9.99-$13.99), as sandwiches ($6.49-$6.99), and by the pound ($11.99-$14.99). It also prepares massive, meat-stuffed baked potatoes ($5.99-$7.99). – Mick Vann

Franklin Barbecue

900 E. 11th, 653-1187
Tuesday-Sunday, 11am until sold out (often 1pm; be in line by 9:30am)
www.franklinbarbecue.com

Aaron Franklin, the most congenial pit boss in town, learned his craft very well while working for his folks at their barbecue place in Bryan, working with John Mueller at his old John Mueller's BBQ on Manor Road, and smoking up a storm in his backyard for friends. Franklin's vintage trailer operation started small, with Mueller's old pit, and rapidly grew into a huge success. Now, Franklin and crew are settled in nicely at their brick-and-mortar location, the radically renovated remains of the old Ben's Long Branch Bar-B-Q (and before that, Willy's Bar-B-Q), just east of I-35 on 11th Street.

What stayed the same as at Franklin's old trailer location up the freeway was the enthusiasm of the mob; his devotees had no trouble finding the new spot. Almost from day one, it was like the morning-forming line had been picked up on Concordia Street and teleported down to 11th. Some days, it starts forming at 7am, and the line can grow to 250 folks or so. Not that they'll all get served before it sells out; an employee monitor takes pre-orders, and then tries to figure out who the last person to receive the holy sacrament will be. It's the greedy bastards that leave with huge multipound packages that screw it for the rest. Franklin and crew can only cook so much on the four big smokers, and then it's gone until the next day.

To further complicate the manic nature of the devotion, Bon Appétit said Franklin's "bricks-and-mortar restaurant serves what we're calling the best BBQ in Texas, if not America." The bottom line is that Aaron and wife Stacy are devoted to producing the best-tasting barbecue they possibly can, and they won't sacrifice that quality to feed more folks. They've considered expanding a little, but the city won't let them add more seating without building more bathrooms; do that, and it gets very expensive.

The custom-made sausage ($10 per pound) is outstanding: medium-textured and smoky with a snappy casing, it's spicy and juicy with rich garlicky flavor. The brisket (natural Angus, $16 per pound) is superb: a thick, smoky, spicy bark and a deep smoke ring, it's exceedingly moist and tender with intense, beefy flavor. Get it from the point end and nibble on the "sugar cookies" (the crusty little nodules of caramelized fat and spice). The pork ribs ($14 per pound) are perfection: tender without being mushy, juicy, smoky, and assertively spiced. Franklin's luscious pulled pork and moist turkey (both $13 per pound) don't get as much press, but they deserve it.

Sides ($1.35/$4.50/$8.50) are good, but could use a little punching up. You don't normally pick a barbecue joint for its sides, though; the vegetables are just there to keep things regular. The sauce options include sweet, espresso (pitch dark with a hint of coffee), and pork (peppery, thin, and vinegary). We recommend mixing the sweet and espresso sauces half-and-half, and then adding a dab of the pork for balance. We use a little sauce with the pulled pork; god forbid you use it on the ribs or brisket!

The ecstatic moaning and groaning in the dining room might make a blind man think he had stumbled onto a porn set, but it's just regular folks enjoying some really, really good barbecue. We should all be glad that Franklin decided to listen to his smoky muse. This is truly delicious barbecue, worthy of the wait, the mania, and devotion, and well worth the price of admission. It ain't hype if it's true! – Mick Vann.

Sam's BBQ
Sam's BBQ
Photo by John Anderson

And Some Old Favorites From the Chronicle Restaurant Guide

Artz Rib House The Austin headquarters where lovers of great barbecue and bluegrass converge. The thick, country-style pork ribs are legendary, and there's live music most nights. 2330 S. Lamar.

Green Mesquite BBQ This is one of Austin's favorite barbecue dives. It may look seedy, but the food is exceptional. 1400 Barton Springs Rd.

Iron Works BBQ Located in the actual iron works that predates the Convention Center by decades and by the grace of fortune was left standing right next door, Iron Works retains its neighborly charm with modest prices and self-serve beer on ice in tin coolers. You can have meat shipped to your house later if you'd like. 100 Red River.

Ruby's BBQ Luke Zimmermann's spirit lives on in this award-winning natural barbecue served in a down-home setting, with an outstanding assortment of vegetarian options and side dishes. The jalapeño cornbread casserole is emphatically not to be missed. 512 W. 29th.

Sam's BBQ stays open until 3am on Fridays and Satur­days; so if you hurry over, you can still make it after the clubs close. Some say they have the best chicken in town. 2000 E. 12th.

Stubb's One of Austin's premier rhythm-and-grub joints, and it has damn good barbecue. The Gospel Brunch on Sundays has become so popular that reservations are a must for both seatings. 801 Red River.

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