Austin Barbecue Crawl Weekend, Part 1 of 4, December 2012

February 7th, 20137 Comments

 

“So many barbecue restaurants and so little time . . .”

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Goto Part 2Part 3, Part 4

It’s been about 30 years since I’ve been back to Austin since my freshman days at Texas Tech in Lubbock in the early 1980’s where I experienced my ground zero barbecue moment with Texas-style barbecue brisket.  That smoky beefy salty first bite left an indelible imprint of awe and incredulity of how good slow cooked beef could taste.  As a financially strapped foreign student who loved to travel and eat around Texas, I would save my funds to indulge in a barbecue treat whenever I could afford it.

Fast forward to 2012 and as part of my continuing education as a pitmaster on the competition circuit, I felt it was time to revisit one of my favorite styles of barbecue as a fan instead of a cook.  The premise was simple: fly to a city in Texas and eat barbecue from the moment you land to the moment you fly out.  Focus on the Texas Trinity of smoked meats consisting of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage.  Apply a consistent scoring system and determine who had the best meat in each category.  Behave like an incognito customer and eat what they served you.   Try any suggested items including sides and dessert if they were recommended by the staff.

Picking the barbecue city was easy as Austin has been on TV many times and is home to Franklin Barbecue, reputed to be among the best in America.  Picking the restaurants was not so easy as there are at least 30 highly regarded restaurants, barbecue shacks, and food-trucks within 40 miles of Austin.   Some were open only limited days and some owners were on vacation since this was the Christmas / New Year vacation period.   So if your favorite barbecue place did not end up on my eat list, don’t despair as I plan to repeat trips such as this.

While there are many good scoring systems for judging food, the one I’m most familiar with is the KCBS system which awards one to nine points to each of the three categories of Appearance, Taste, and Tenderness/Texture.  I recorded my scores for each restaurant and used the same KCBS weighting which was 0.5714 for Appearance, 2.2858 for Taste, and 1.1428 for Tenderness/Texture.   The Excel spreadsheet did the rest and I reconciled my comments to the numerical scores to ensure that everything was accurate and complete.  I also had my fiancé Donna Fong with me who is a fellow Grand Champion pitmaster and Certified Barbecue Judge to discuss and validate my scoring impressions.

Before I share the results which are solely my opinion, and my opinion only, I have a few disclaimers. Several restaurant owners recognized me and refused to accept payment for the meal.  Several wanted take pictures with me and gave me tours of their restaurants and pits.  I ate at each place only once and I’m fully aware that if you are cooking 50 briskets a night, not every slice or chunk of point is going to come out perfect.  Also, the meat cutter on duty that day may not have chosen the best rib or piece of meat to put on my plate.  As in a barbecue contest, my judging included variability and a dose of luck.  Despite the variability and luck, most top teams end up finishing on top in a contest so I think this is the case with my crawl as the top barbecue joints finished on top.

In case you’ve never eaten Texas style barbecue, here is a quick primer.  First off, Texas style barbecue is neither sweet nor saucy.   It’s salty and smoky and the dark crust/bark sets it apart from barbecue from other regions such as Kansas City, Memphis, and North Carolina.  The wood of choice in central Texas is post oak which is a high BTU wood with little ash that imparts a very pleasant smokiness.  Mesquite is more common as you move west.  When you mention barbecue in Texas, it’s beef brisket and it’s often served on pink butcher paper and sold by the pound.  The point is called the fatty part and the flat is called the lean part.  For the purposes of my scoring, I averaged the scores for the point and the flat.

Texas beef brisket has two supporting players: pork spareribs (with rib tips attached) and sausage and I like to call the three the Texas Trinity.  With sausage, the reputation of entire towns rest on the uniqueness of their product.  One such town is Elgin, about 40 minutes from Austin which is famous for their sausage.   The beans served in Austin are pinto beans and German-style potato salad is the dominant style.

Although I cook chicken in my KCBS contests, chicken is not a common item offered in Texas so I did not order chicken.  When I stood in line at the Salt Lick Barbecue for an hour waiting for my table, I counted that they sold five whole briskets and eight slabs of spareribs before they sold one chicken plate.  Also, baby backs are rare and almost all the places served whole spareribs served with the rib tip intact for each bone. Consequently, my overall scores were based on the Texas Trinity meats and although I scored and talked about the other meats, they were not included in the overall ranking.

So pull up a chair and I’ll share my experience.  If you want a deeper dive, read on to the individual comments and scores for each place.  As you read about my journey, kindly remember that these are my experiences so if you don’t agree with me don’t worry as your mileage will undoubtedly vary.  Donna has also given me permission to reprint her blog on the trip to be presented through Parts 1 to 4.

Have fun . . .

Let me start off by announcing the results the same manner it’s done in a contest with the winner in each of the three categories by the Grand Champion.

  • Brisket winner:   Franklin Barbecue
  • Pork ribs winner:  la barbecue
  • Sausage winner: Southside Market
  • Overall Grand Champion: Franklin Barbecue
  • Reserve Champion: la barbecue
  • Honorable mention: Southside’s Mutton rib, Smitty’s Market Beef Clod, Beef Rib at Stiles, and Franklin’s Turkey 

Rank

Restaurant

Brisket

Pork Ribs

Sausage

Overall

1

Franklin

70.8572

68.5716

70.8572

210.2860

2

La barbecue

69.7144

70.2858

69.7144

209.7146

3

Stiles

67.4284

64.5714

64.5714

196.5712

4

Stubb’s

66.8572

61.7142

65.7142

194.2856

5

Mack’s

65.1432

65.7144

62.2858

193.1434

6

Meyer’s

61.1428

60.5714

68.5714

190.2856

7

City Market

68.5716

59.9998

60.5714

189.1428

8

Rudy’s

66.8572

57.143

61.1428

185.1430

9

Kruez

61.1428

60.5714

62.8572

184.5714

10

Blacks

56.5714

59.4286

59.4284

175.4284

11

Smitty’s Market

59.4288

57.1428

56.5714

173.1430

12

Southside

52.5714

46.2858

72.0000

170.8572

13

County Line

60.5714

50.2858

59.4286

170.2858

14

Salt Lick

58.2856

53.1426

56.5714

167.9996

15

BBQ Heaven

58.8572

54.857

48.0000

161.7142

 

Overall, two places stand above the rest among the places I tried in Austin.  Franklins and la barbecue (name is all lower case) are almost tied as the two very best places.  It is not surprising since John Lewis who is the headcook of la barbecue is the former pitmaster for Aaron Franklin who runs Franklin Barbecue.  John Lewis left Franklin Barbecue to work for LeAnn who owns la barbecue.  LeAnn is the daughter of Louie Mueller of the famous Louie Mueller barbecue restaurant in Taylor.  She is a well known celebrity photographer who travels around the world and has hired various pitmasters to run her trailer restaurant.  When she lost her head cook recently, she put out the word and John Lewis took over. the reins.  With John at the helm, la barbecue has created a growing legion of followers who did not want to stand in line for hours at Franklins.   The scores above only tell the numerical part of the story and there is much more to be told so I am including Donna’s story.   Donna gave me permission to feature her four-part articles on what the journey was like.   Her first article is next and her remaining three articles will be featured shortly.

Goto Part 2Part 3Part 4

A BBQ Pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, Part 1 of 4

By Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ Team, Alameda, CA; December, 2012

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What does a pitmaster do when not competing? The way I see it, when you take a break to relax and enjoy life, it is to do something that you’ve always wanted to experience or to reconnect with someone. Or if you can combine all into one trip, well, that’s a great time. For our Christmas trip, my fiance Harry and I went on a barbecue crawl but ended up relaxed, met some old friends and even made a few new ones along the way.

The destination was Austin, Texas. Mind you, I’m a proud California native and if there is one state that seems diametrically opposed to tofu loving Californians, it would seem to be Texas. But everyone knows there’s great BBQ in Texas, maybe even the best BBQ in America. And it didn’t seem right to cook brisket for two years running and never taste it in the place that started it all. So off to Texas we went. We chose Austin in particular because of Franklin BBQ, recently heralded by many as the best BBQ in America. Franklin is re-known for its brisket, my favorite BBQ of all.

For me, half the fun of a vacation is planning. To some, this may take all of the surprise out of an adventure. I disagree. Planning is like dreaming. By doing homework, you learn more about the destination than you can experience in a short period of time. What you see will be what you think is the very best the city has to offer. So I researched the top BBQ joints, including the most time honored restaurants. I wrote down addresses, hours of operation, the notable items on the menu, watched videos of Texas BBQ, and charted which joints to visit on which days. With me, I brought an empty laboratory notebook full of information and space to write down restaurant layouts, names of people, photos, menus, business cards, and KCBS scoring for everything I ate. Each establishment had its own tab in my geeky black notebook which I carried with me everywhere. Having been a BBQ judge for some time now, I was a veteran at pace eating. Five restaurants a day would be a goal. Anything above that would declare me a devoted foodie, worthy of a pin in my mind. At the time, I didn’t know what I’d do with the leftovers but I’d eventually figure it out.

Austin is an easy 3.5hr flight from Oakland. The airport reflects two defining characteristics of Austin, its art and its music. I haven’t heard a live band since my last BBQ competition but on the second floor above the baggage claim was a young band welcoming visitors and natives. There was a band in the Nashville airport a couple months back but this music was decidedly not country and didn’t have a twang. Throughout the airport, and throughout the city, for that matter, was art. Sometimes it would be a random piece in the middle of nowhere but sometimes it was an intentional array of flair. Austin art doesn’t mean to be pleasant or refined, which I often distrust, at least outside of Europe. The art here is rough, challenging, modern and thought provoking. It was just up my alley. All of my homework didn’t prepare me for a city open for reflection or social comment. In another 24 hours, I would soon realize that Austin was very similar to the East Bay minus the swarms of Prii (plural form of Prius). Our well planned trip was still full of surprises.

So what makes Texas BBQ different? First of all, there’s this business about butcher paper. I had heard about the butcher paper in Austin but never saw anyone use it before. Not in BBQ anyway. My dad uses butcher paper, of course, at his shop. We use to draw on it as kids after school, in the narrow little office towards the back of the shop in Oakland. But this wasn’t the same paper. First of all, it was pink. They call it pink butcher paper but actually it is more like rosy brown. Short of the big chains, most of the BBQ joints serve your meat on butcher paper. You get a choice of white bread or saltine crackers. Almost everyone will give you sliced onions and dill pickles, sliced or spears. If the restaurant wants to be generous, they will offer you the spear pickles. It’s a fancy thing I guess. Sauce is almost always a bottle on the table, not a liquid on your meat. Almost nobody cares about going over the top with sides. With the exception of Stubbs, all the sides were all pretty basic.

There were often two lines. One line was for meat, after which you’d proceed directly to the sides/drinks line. Sometimes you pay for meat separately, sometimes together. Oftentimes, you can watch the pitmaster pull the meat from the warming oven, which some may mistake for the smoker. Smokers are often in the back, away from the patrons. Most places burn post oak and few use a gas driven smoker.

A big difference from what I’m used to in California is that meat is sold by weight. It can also be sold as a 2 meat or 3 meat combination with sides, but the old school places will sell you brisket, ribs and sausage by the pound. A cold ring is an uncooked ring of sausage. A hot ring is a cooked ring of sausage. The smaller places run out of food before dinner, others serve lunch only. Others only open one or a couple days a week. Some wouldn’t open until 4 PM but stayed open until 4 AM.

Much of this is because of the large number of food trucks in Austin. The trucks run at all hours and there are hundreds of them throughout the city. I thought Portland was the food truck capital of the world but after having visited Austin, I think they’ve got Portland beat. The streets are littered with food trucks of all types. They serve anything from Tex-Mex tacos, chicken cones, banana and brown sugar doughnuts, chicken tikka cheap car repairs masala, NY style pizza, fried chicken, to grilled pig tails; and, of course, BBQ.

With the University of Texas in the center of the town, the city of Austin has a young vibrant feel to it. The Austin City Music festival, which lasts for two weeks in October, always attracts a large crowd. The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival blends music and film together for one week in February. The Urban Music Festival is held in March. The list is endless. The food trucks thrive when the festivals are happening. We frequently heard owners of BBQ joints talk about the Austin festivals and the waves of crowds that would spread throughout the city.

We began our journey with much gastronomic anticipation.

Goto Part 2Part 3Part 4

 

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7 comments... read them below or add one

  1. cspirou says:

    Did you stop by Louis Mueller Barbecue?

    • Harry Soo says:

      Ran out of time and didn’t make it to the Dad’s place. We ate at <em>la barbecue</em> with is Bobby’s daughter’s place. We also missed another 6 very good places so I have a good excuse to head back to Austin!

    • Harry Soo says:

      Ran out of time and didn’t make LM in Taylor. We missed another 6 really good places to I have an excuse to go back soon!

  2. ocman08 says:

    Hi Harry,
    I don’t want to get on a plane. I want to know what the best BBQ is here in Southern Cal. Say south of Santa Barbera.
    You should do a So. Cal BBQ Crawl..
    My thoughts are:

    For the best Tri Tip Lou’s Oak oven in Huntington Beach. The best ribs. Abby’s real BBQ in San Diego. Newport Beach, DIV Bar… Bob

    • Harry Soo says:

      Since I live and compete in So Calif. I’ve never thought to do a local BBQ crawl. Thanks for give me food-for-thought! (pun intended). I’ll tee up a local barbecue crawl and blog about it.

  3. cspirou says:

    I see you made sausage a major category on this trip. How come I rarely see sausage in BBQ competitions?

    • Harry Soo says:

      Sausage is popular in Texas due to the German immigrant influence. No one in Calif. seems to make their own sausage as that’s not part of Calif. culture. You will see sausage as a category if you compete in the American Royal in Kansas City.

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