Austin's Barbecue Culture Is Well-Seasoned Thanks to These Pioneers
A brief history of old-school 'cue
In the past decade, Texas barbecue culture reached peak popularity, but long before selfies and hashtags existed, barbecue was a simple, staple food with a long history in Central Texas. "Barbecue used to be poor-people food," says Matt Sullivan, the owner of House Park Bar-B-Que. "You'd buy a quantity of it in bulk for a good price and you could eat it for days and days. That's the whole philosophy of smoked meats – you'd smoke it to preserve it so it would last a long time."
In 1943, five years before Louie Mueller Barbecue (in Taylor) and Kreuz Market (in Lockhart) transitioned from meat markets to barbecue joints, House Park Bar-B-Que opened on West 12th Street. Three different families owned it before Sullivan's father Joe bought it in 1981 and ran it for 35 years before Sullivan took over the reins three years ago. "My dad bought it because it was important to him to keep a place like this around in Austin, and that's the exact same way I feel," says Sullivan, who grew up in Clarksville, assisting his father at the pits after school let out at Pease Elementary. "It's very important to keep a piece of Austin here, especially while it's changing so quickly."
While some of Austin's oldest barbecue joints – like Salt Lick, Stubb's, County Line, and PoK-e-Jo's – went on to expand into multiple locations, plenty of other popular family-run establishments closed their doors throughout the years. Just this winter, Austin bid farewell to Ruby's BBQ, a beloved campus-area restaurant and staple of the city's blues community.
These old-school joints may have laid the foundation for the spots currently drawing in barbecue bros by the droves, but the culture has changed plenty over the years. These days devotees line up early in the morning to get their hands on heaping piles of meat ranked best in the state. But Salt Lick, which began as a roadside pit in 1967 before building a restaurant big enough to fit 12, evolved into its current iteration in an effort to keep lines at bay.
"My father didn't like people waiting in line too long, so every time the wait became longer than an hour and a half, he would add a section onto the building," says Salt Lick's current owner Scott Roberts. "We've had eight different expansions, including adding another building. We are what we are today because my father was Hill Country friendly and didn't like people waiting in line."
When Iron Works BBQ opened Downtown in 1978, founder Charlotte Finch offered the standard trio of sides found at all Central Texas barbecue joints: beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Now, points out her nephew and general manager Aaron Morris, they offer almost 10 different options. He also says meat preferences have changed considerably through the years.
"Fat used to be a very taboo thing, so we used to cook lean briskets and cut the fat off for the customers," says Morris. "Today, we use the USDA Prime briskets, which have a higher fat content, and more customers ask for the fatty end than lean."
"I was brought up when the fatty part of the brisket was for chopped beef only and now it is a delicacy," adds Joe Reese, one of the owners of Green Mesquite BBQ. "People used to get mad if they got even a speck of fat with their brisket. Public perception has really changed."
Though most of these foundational barbecue joints have stayed relevant by making these subtle alterations, House Park prides itself in serving food the same way since day one: using high-quality meat and not a sprinkle of seasoning – not even salt or pepper. Sullivan says their secret lies in the well-seasoned pit, and at 75 years old this year, it's one of the last remaining brick pits in town.
"A lot of people these days want to make cooking brisket a science project and it's just a simple thing – meat, smoke, and patience," says Sullivan. "In my opinion, if your meat needs a bunch of seasoning, you're not doing it right." However, he doesn't begrudge the current state of barbecue affairs one bit. "When people will wait in line like they will now and be willing to pay more than it would be to eat a steak, it's pretty incredible to me," he says with a laugh. "I'm not complaining about that!"
Though Iron Works also keeps things pretty traditional, Morris appreciates this wave of new-school barbecue. "The young people in Austin started putting creative energy into the food scene, including barbecue, and really taking things to another level," he says. "Some of it seems a little trendy and maybe overthought, but I think all in all it is pretty cool that so much attention has been placed on making our style of Central Texas barbecue."
Reese concurs that, with as many different styles as preferences out there, there's room for everyone in the business – and one unifying truth. "Everybody has different tastes," he says. "Some people like the camaraderie of waiting in line, some people like the down-home service. But the secret to good barbecue is getting it fresh. Nothing beats barbecue coming straight off the pit."
Old-School Barbecue Checklist
Get your smoked meat fix at one of these historic joints that paved the way for Austin's barbecue today.
House Park Bar-B-Que
Open since: 1943
How they do it: House Park is the city's oldest barbecue joint, boasting the oldest brick pit in the city, smoking for 75 years now.
Salt Lick BBQ
Open since: 1967
How they do it: Salt Lick uses wood-fired rotisserie smokers to sear and slow cook the meats, and they finish everything on the open pit to pick up different flavor profiles.
Open since: 1968 (in Lubbock, 1986 in Austin)
How they do it: They've used their custom-made Oyler barbecue pit for 20 years, and the rubs and methods have been consistent for over 50 years.
The Pit Barbeque
Open since: 1970
How they do it: They still maintain one of the few brick pits left in Austin, and they also run another location in Georgetown.
Open since: 1970
How they do it: Bert's used brick pits until a fire in 2007 caused them to switch to Ole Hickory rotisserie-style pits. Not only is this system easier to clean, but it's big enough to smoke 40 briskets at a time.
The County Line Bar-B-Q
Open since: 1975
How they do it: County Line's original Bee Caves location opened with an old-fashioned cinder block pit, but they graduated to large steel rotisserie-style pits several years later to be able to smoke meat for the masses.
Iron Works BBQ
Open since: 1978
How they do it: Iron Works started off using an open flame brick pit, but found it difficult to cook enough meat to get through the day. Today, they use two huge rotisserie pits running 24 hours a day.
Open since: 1979
How they do it: Steel pits with a five-shelf rotating rack system keep up with the quantity needed for PoK-e-Jo's five catering-focused Austin-area locations. And they use mesquite for everything but the brisket, which is smoked using oak.
Green Mesquite BBQ
Open since: 1988
How they do it: Green Mesquite cooks their meats in an Ole Hickory rotisserie pit which is gas-assisted for even cooking. And unlike most Central Texas barbecue, which typically uses post oak, they use mesquite wood for everything.