On a recent business trip to Austin I resolved to consume 100 percent of my calories at barbecue restaurants.
The trip started with an Uber ride from the airport (the city’s license raj effectively outlawed Uber, but the state legislature brought them back). Traffic was horrific reverse-commuting into the city at 6:30 pm so we had plenty of time to watch folks living under bridges operate their 1980s-style squeegee business. I asked Himmatullah whether there were more homeless in Austin or back in his hometown of Kabul. “There are way more in Austin. Nobody is homeless in Afghanistan.” (As it was a leisurely ride, I learned that Himmatullah returns to Kabul at least once per year and that tickets cost as little as $1,200 round-trip from Houston via Dubai.)
Day 1: dinner at Iron Works BBQ, right across the street from the convention center/Fairmont. Tried brisket (a bit dry), sausage (great), mac/cheese (fair), green beans (limp). The purportedly homemade pecan pie was disappointing, with no apparent connection between the sweet/gluey stuff on the bottom and the pecans on top. I hate to say this, but a local farm near my Boston suburb makes vastly better pecan pie. (See below; this style seems to be what Texans like) Employees did not seem passionate about BBQ. Overall rating: Fair.
Day 2: early lunch at Cooper’s BBQ. Line that got right to the door by 12 was met by an enthusiastic pitmaster. Brisket (much better than Iron Works), Sausage (two varieties; both great), Pork Ribs (tender, not fatty), jalapeno/bacon mac/cheese (“meh” says John; Philip enjoyed it), green beans (not as mushy as at Iron Works; lots of bacon), cole slaw (excellent), salad(!). BBQ sauce is thin and vinegar-y. Pecan pie-ish cobbler: awesome. Lightyears ahead of Iron Works. Overall rating: Superb.
Day 2: dinner at Stubb’s BBQ. Brisket (tender, not as dry as Iron Works, not as much flavor as Cooper’s), sausage (good; Cooper’s was better, but John says “more of a toss-up), fried okra (awesome), mac/cheese (sharper than Iron Works; John preferred to Cooper’s, but Philip was less impressed), pecan pie (similar to Iron Works; pecans on top of flavorless sugar gel), banana pudding (Nilla wafers!). Overall rating: Good.
Day 3, Pilgrimage to Lockhart. Our local guide, Matt Cohen: “Historically, the best Texas BBQ was in small towns – in the days before refrigeration, the local meat market would smoke their leftover fresh cuts to sell the next day. BBQ is still generally sold by the pound for this reason.” We drove at 90 mph in a Chevy Volt down a private toll road (speed limit 85). We were joined by Chris Lamprecht, who flew a Columbia 400 (single-engine piston) from Texas to the southern tip of Argentina.
Day 3, lunch 1: Lockhart. Kreuz market. Brisket. Shoulder. Sausage (moist/soft). Beef rib (somewhat stringy). John’s favorite Mac and cheese; Philip found it bland. Boring green beans (not a lot of bacon like at coopers). Sauerkraut. Skipped dessert. Cavernous and not especially welcoming. Playing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” regarding individual responsibility (I would have been more excited to get customer reaction to his 2008 “Hillary”: “And who kept her head high when it could have been down … changes need to be large / Something like a big switch of gender / Let’s put a woman in charge”). Overall: great, but uninspired barn-like dining room.
Day 3, lunch 2: Black’s in Lockhart. Pork ribs. Brisket (moist and smoky). Sausage jalapeño and cheese. A bit mushy (maybe because it was made fresh and we’re used to supermarket sausage made months earlier?). Mac and cheese (bland, but John’s new favorite) beef ribs (better than Kreuz). Cole slaw (wet). Green beans (bright green and not mushy). Sweet potato pudding. Pecan pie looks like Iron Works: pecans on top of sugar gel. Did not try. Manager, Anthony Hamilton, came out to chat, welcome, us and insist that we try beef ribs (he returned with a sample and they were awesome, much more tender than at Kreuz). Best decor. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Overall rating: Superb.
Day 3: Stroll past the central square.
Day 3, lunch 3: Smitty’s (original Kreuz location in Lockhart). Turkey (moist!), brisket, pork ribs, prime rib, sausage (she specifically asked if we wanted a softer one, almost apologetic for the conventional firm sausage). Mac and cheese and beans. Desserts: not special. Meat and sides come from two different counters and are paid for separately. There are no forks (plastic knives are provided, though, and spoons are available at the sides/desserts counter). Dining area smelled funny. Decor: weak. Verdict: similar style/taste to Kreuz, but inferior venue. Overall rating: Good.
Day 3, lunch 4: Chisholm Trail BBQ in Lockhart: fajita skirt steak awesome. Brisket fair. Sausage fresh and soft. Mac cheese boring (John says not as good as Black’s). Fried okra not nearly as good as Stubb’s. Perhaps made in a batch in the morning and then left under the heat lamp? Pecan pie same style as usual; on top of gel, boring supermarket-style crust. Lemon Meringue pie: good graham cracker crust. Peach cobbler: super sweet. This is where the locals go (partly for the drive-through?) and the staff was the warmest. They also have the largest variety of food, e.g., fried catfish. Overall rating: Good.
We drove back into town just after 3 pm and traffic was intense. Viewed from the hotel window, I-35 was jammed every day from 3-8 pm. We saw a single rider on one of the light rail system‘s $12.5 million cars. The system shuts down at 7 pm on most days after running a total of 18 trips (i.e., the number that the Moscow metro would run on one line in 18 minutes). After we walked up the river a bit, Google Maps showed that it would be 18 minutes to walk back to the Fairmont and 15 minutes to crawl on a surface road. Austin needs a third or fourth dimension for transportation.
Day 4: Cheat with a fruit bowl at the Fairmont and coffee (no milk or sugar) with Jack Long, veteran of three round-the-world PC-12 flights (someone should tell him about the invention of the twin-engine turbojet?).
[Blues Posse interlude, courtesy of J.J. “Jamie” Van Beek, lead singer, harmonica player, and Uber driver to County Line (he’s a fan, but also recommends brisket from the H-E-B Mueller supermarket at 51st and Berkman).]
Day 4, lunch: County Line BBQ, Route 2222 in NW Austin. Homemade bread (awesome; sweet, chewy, and thick). Lean brisket (fair). 2nd cut brisket (moist and delicious). Sausage (firm, good). Beef rib (charred; not as good as Black’s Lockhart). Minimal choice of sides: potato salad, coleslaw, baked potato, beans, salad (no mac and cheese!). Peach cobbler: great and not too sweet. Pecan pie: Nuts-over-glue style, yet somehow better than the others. The gel/glue tasted nuttier and less sweet. The nuts on top were crunchier. We still preferred Cooper’s pecan cobbler. Much more elegant experience than the others: table service (excellent), interesting decor, waterfront location. John gives authenticity bonus for the well-dressed customer getting out of luxury pickup in cowboy hat open-carrying a collectible quality handgun. Overall rating: Great.
Day 4, dinner #1: Terry Black’s, just south of downtown. Superb moist brisket (see below for Ricky cooking the next batch of victims; all that you need is a big stack of wood and 14 hours of time). The most interesting and intense jalapeño cheese sausage. The best of the creamy bland-style Mac and Cheese (pasta was not overcooked, for example). Reasonably crunchy green beans. First butter crust for a pecan pie among the restaurants we tried and overall even better than Cooper’s pecan cobbler. Like a good pastry shop’s pecan pie. The peach cobbler, on the other hand, was gluey and sweet and no better than any of the others that we tried. Overall rating: Superb.
Day 4, dinner #2 (meal #10): Salt Lick BBQ’s outpost at the Austin airport. The best coleslaw so far. Good sausage, though quite peppery. Weak brisket (maybe due to reheating?). Sweet soft bread. Not competitive with County Line’s bread. Overall Rating: Poor.
Conclusion: My taste in mac/cheese is chewier and sharper than what folks in Texas like, i.e., creamy and bland. I am not a Texas BBQ dessert fan. The fruit-based desserts are not generally made with fresh fruit and they taste more like sugar than like fruit. Although we ate enough pecan pie to risk getting a nut rash, we never learned to enjoy what is apparently the classic Texas style of sugar gel topped with pecans.
Philip’s rankings: #1: tie between Black’s in Lockhart and Terry Black’s in Austin. #2: Cooper’s in Austin, with Cooper’s getting a boost for mac/cheese and dessert. #3: Kreuz Market. #4 County Line, with a boost for atmosphere, bread, and riverside location. Honorable mention: Stubb’s for fried okra.
John’s rankings, based on brisket and beef rib: #1: tie between Black’s Lockhart and Terry Black’s in Austin, #2 Kreuz Market, #3 Cooper’s, #4 Smitty’s. Honorable mention: County Line for bread and atmosphere.
Parting messages from the merchants at the airport…