First Look: LeRoy & Lewis
What does barbecue look like in 2017?
In Austin there's no food group more heavily debated than barbecue, but with personal and critical rankings cemented in most people's taste buds, it raises the question: What does it take to stand out in today's post oak landscape?
With a smoker helmed by former Freedmen's pitmaster Evan LeRoy, LeRoy & Lewis is looking to earn a place in your regular combo plate rotation. Fans of Freedmen's will recognize the brisket – LeRoy still uses the same technique, eschewing a paper wrap so that the steam doesn't soften the bark – but it won't be the cornerstone of the experience. Although available on Saturdays, it's left off the weekday menu in favor of less conventional fare.
"We try to stay within the realm of quote unquote barbecue, but we're trying to redefine that," says LeRoy. "There's not really a limit as to what we can do. As long as it fits in a boat, it can be a side. As long as we can slice it by a pound, it can be a meat."
Unlike many Austin barbecue joints that only offer weekly specials, LeRoy & Lewis offers a modest menu that changes daily, showcasing ambitious dishes like macaroni & cheese-stuffed quail, plus unconventional cuts like boar ribs. Some of the offerings came by happy accident. The use of beef cheeks, for example, was caused by a shortage of brisket during SXSW, but it led him to work more closely with Cameron, Texas' 44 Farms. He followed suit with other local purveyors like Peaceful Pork in Dinero and Capra Foods in Goldthwaite.
The focus on local sourcing also has much to do with operations manager Sawyer Lewis, who previously worked at Contigo, Coltivare in Houston, and several locavore trailblazers in Boulder. She says buying local, especially for a small operation with a changing menu, presents a host of logistical challenges. "People want to support local farmers and ranchers, but it's also very challenging. When running a business you want to make it as systematic as possible, so you know exactly how much to order and food costs. But with our concept it's different every day."
Unpredictable demand leads LeRoy to get even more creative with whatever meat is left over at the end of service, turning it into sides like pork jowl fried rice or pulled boar rib chili. "It's getting back to how barbecue started," he says, "when meat markets would butcher the animals and use every part. At the same time we're looking back and looking forward, hopefully that's where the industry will go."
The missing piece of the LeRoy & Lewis operations is alcohol. Two years from now they hope to run a brewery and restaurant in Dripping Springs, with beers crafted by Lewis' husband Nathan, who currently works at Austin Beerworks. They plan to brew lighter, sessionable lagers with a culinary slant – like a recent smoked dunkelweiss with chiles and cocoa nibs.
Catering is the last part of the business model. Austin's booming event industry means that what's lost in daily sales returns in the form of large-scale contracts. The final member of the L&L team, LeRoy's wife Lindsey, works in PR and helps build awareness of the brand, which leads to more catering opportunities and pads margins that are typically thinner than a strand of pulled pork.
So how do you open a barbecue trailer in 2017? Find a barbecue desert and build a veteran service industry team, then combine a beloved brisket recipe with an experimental slant, local proteins, strong catering business, and long-term plans to evolve into a destination brewery. But most importantly, give people a reason to come back.
"One of the coolest things I've noticed so far is that maybe 60 percent of the customers have come multiple times," says Lewis. "We have people that come three times a week. We try to go out of our way to talk to everyone so that they learn about a new dish every day."
LeRoy & Lewis121 Pickle Rd., 512/945-9882
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com