With our utter failure to find an open barbecue truck on Monday and only one morning left to spend in Austin, the idea of having to leave without even trying its world famous barbecue was becoming a real possibility. We had planned a full day of of outlet shopping for Tuesday, and while I was willing to forego that for food, Matt was not and as desperate as I was, I wasn’t prepared to break up our marriage over smoked brisket.
I needed to find a place where we could eat as early and as quickly as possible, which effectively meant that we were going to have to eat barbecue for breakfast but I didn’t have a problem with that.
So this was my plan: check out of our hotel and drive to the La Barbecue truck about half an hour before its opening time of 11 am, PRAY that there isn’t a line, and hopefully be finished eating by midday, leaving us plenty of time to go shopping and stick to our schedule for remainder of the day.
I woke up that morning feeling incredibly anxious. I kept on visualising driving up to the truck, seeing a ridiculously long line, and being forced to just turn around and watch my barbecue dreams slowly fade away as we drove off into the distance . . .
Luckily, the barbecue gods decided to give me a fair go that day. We arrived at La Barbecue at 10:30 am and HOORAY there was only a handful of people waiting on the picnic benches.
This is when I started to let myself get excited.
La Barbecue is owned and run by LeAnn Mueller, who hails from a Texan barbecue dynasty. Her brother John runs John Mueller Meat Co which is a name you’ll find alongside La Barbecue on almost every “Best BBQ” list about Texas. Mueller enlisted the expertise of pitmaster John Lewis (ex-Franklin Barbecue, nicknamed the “badass brisket boy” and now moving on to open his own restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina) and after swinging open its trailer doors in late 2012, La Barbecue very quickly become a top contender in the Austin BBQ stakes.
I didn’t really expect such a famous food hotspot to look so… dingy. I guess all the money goes into the meats and the pitmaster’s salary.
This is the firepit trailer. It fits thirty-two briskets, twenty-four racks of beef ribs, sixteen racks of pork ribs, three whole turkey breasts, and six pork butts. Basically, an entire farm of animal carcasses (sorry vegetarians!)
The menu is written out in marker on big sheet of butcher’s paper confirming that absolutely zero dollars are going into design and decor here. As 11am approached and a line began to form, we studied the menu and realized that our original plan of just walking up to the counter and saying “one of everything, please!” wasn’t going to work out, especially with beef ribs costing $22 + tax per pound, and each rib weighing almost 2 lbs.
In the line there was a mix of people who were clearly tourists (couples like us who were over-excited, stressed about what to order, and taking photos all over the place), and men who were there by themselves or with a mate, with their hands in their pockets just chillin’ like they were in the line at McDonalds. The guys in front of us looked like they were local regulars so we asked them for recommendations on what to order.
They recommended the brisket (duh) and the beef ribs, and also mentioned the sausage was pretty good. Given the cost and size of the beef rib, we decided against it since Matt and I aren’t really big beef-eaters. Matt wanted pork ribs because they’re his fave, and I wanted to try some turkey because I’m a sucker for turkey meat and I’ve never had it barbecued. As we approached the counter, they gave each person a small cube of brisket as a sample. As I bit into it, the explosion of fatty, salty, juicy, smokey flavor made me shout “OMG THIS IS SO GOOD!” so loud that Matt got upset and told me to calm down and stand further away from him.
After a lot of careful thought, this was our final order: 3/4 pound brisket, 1 pound pork ribs (Matt’s choice), 1/4 pound turkey (my choice) and 1 sausage. On the side, chipotle coleslaw and pinto beans. About fifty dollars in total, including tax.
BEHOLD THE GLORY!
I can hear my stomach weep as I look over these photos.
We sat down at a table with, not a plate, not a platter, but a TRAY full of meat and began to eat the greasiest, most carnivorous brunch of our lives.
The pork ribs were spice-rubbed and glazed so shiny you could almost see your face in them. The meat fell off the bone like the it didn’t want anything to do with it, and in my opinion these were the best pork ribs I’ve had in my life. Matt prefers his ribs saucier, but he still polished these off within minutes.
The turkey breast was just okay – grilled as a breast alone it didn’t have the juiciness off turkey meat bathed in butter and roasted whole for hours in the oven. It would be good in a sandwich, but by itself it was just taking up precious stomach space I needed to reserve for brisket.
Did someone say brisket?
These days, any old food photo is hashtag food porn, but the brisket in this picture is so fleshy and sensual that it almost makes me blush. Covered in a crusty black salt and pepper rub that fades into a scarlet smoke ring, there’s a layer of perfectly rendered fat dripping into the butcher’s paper, and the meat falls apart on impact with tray.
Brisket is not a naturally tender cut of meat (it’s a muscle that acts as a cow’s collarbone) so cooking it well is a labour of love and at La Barbecue, it spends twelve to fifteen hours in the pit. If something takes FIFTEEN hours to cook (not including the time it takes to pre-rub and rub) you can be pretty confident that the final product is worth the effort.
Smoked and slow-cooked, the flavour of the meat is as intense as you’d expect. I’ve never had beef that tasted so … beefy. It was like rehydrated black pepper jerky – which doesn’t make it sound very delicious but if you love beef jerky as much as I do, this is a very good thing. The meat is greasy and the flavour is intense, so eating it with white bread and chipotle slaw (the slaw is really good here btw) helps keep your tastebuds from being too overwhelmed. I’m not quite caveman enough to just eat the meat by itself.
The brisket was so different from anything I’d eaten before, I loved it just for the cultural experience and bragging rights. As much as I wanted it to be the best thing I ate in Texas, that honor still belongs to (don’t judge) my Chick-Fil-A Chicken sandwich. What was even more unexpected, however, was that it wasn’t even the best thing we ate at La Barbecue. It was shockingly upstaged by something we added to our order just because it was cheap and worth a try: the Texas Hot Guts sausage.
The sausage is bright red like a bell pepper and is so fat it looks ready to pop like a pork intestine balloon. Sausage making is a craft of its own, so even the most expert BBQ-ers outsource to professionals. But the sausage at La Barbecue is a John Lewis original. It’s built with a foundation of coarse, greasy beef and is packed with all kinds of secret spices. It is so red, hot, and salty that it was more like a juicy beef chorizo than the BBQ sausages that I’m used to. If we ever find ourselves back at La Barbecue, we won’t be there for the brisket, we’ll be stocking up on the sausages.
So in about thirty minutes, “Omg I think we ordered too much food” turned into an empty tray of grease-soaked butcher’s paper.
We may have eaten this meal with plastic cutlery on a damp wooden picnic table, but the food was world class. Even with my limited experience, I know it’ll be a long time before we eat barbecue this excellent again. I give it four… no, five out of five NBA championship rings.
Now we carry a little piece of Austin with us wherever we go in the pound of weight we each gained from that one meal. “See this new chin I’ve grown? Yeah, I got that all the way from Austin, Texas.”
We knew that San Antonio was way behind Austin in the Texas BBQ rankings, but we still wanted to give it a try. San Antonio BBQ isn’t really famous outside of San Antonio, so I relied on Yelp to help me find a local favorite.
With Spurs logo painted on the wall and a friendly “You deserve to eat this good” greeting us, we liked this place from the moment we walked in. Here you can buy meats by the pound or as a plate of one or two meats with two sides of your choice.
Even though I wasn’t a HUGE fan of the brisket at La Barbecue, I can’t resist ordering the local speciality when I travel so I got the brisket again, with some pulled pork, collard greens and pinto beans. Collard greens because I saw them on Top Chef and I’ve always wondered what they tasted like. They’re mushy and gross, it turns out. Like someone stewed up some random plants from the yard because they didn’t have any other vegetables to serve with their meat.
You can see from the photo that the brisket here was no where near as glamorous as the one at La Barbecue. It was still tender, but the smoky flavor was milder which I actually quite liked. The pulled pork was just pulled pork and was not really a smart choice on my part. I should have gone for the bbq chicken.
Matt got the pork ribs (of course), which were good but nothing particularly special. I think he enjoyed his sweet potato casserole even more than his meat.
I got pretty excited about the bottomless styrofoam soda cups which were as big as my face (“This is SO American!”) but people tell me this isn’t actually that big haha.
We finished our plates (with the exception of the icky collard greens) but felt like something was a bit lacking. So, as fatties do, we went back to the counter and ordered some more food. Since we had such a good sausage experience in Austin, we thought we’d try the Jalapeno sausage here too.
Really spicy and tasty, as all sausages are, but I think the hot red sausage at La Barbecue ruined us for life. Nothing will ever come close.
This was all I was meant to get but as I was waiting in line I saw all these framed newspaper clippings raving about the peach cobbler, so I thought I’d just add that to the order for dessert.
It was good but SUPER sweet and we could only handle a few spoonfuls.
If La Barbecue is the hipster, “fine dining” version of Texas Barbecue, The Big Bib is your friendly mom and pop’s. Cheap and cheerful – the whole meal cost us about half of our tray from La Barbecue. I give it a rarely seen, very special Kawhi smile.
And with a heavy heart, I now end the four-part saga that was my trip to Texas; a place I fell in love with so fast and deep I actually wept at San Antonio airport as we waited for our flight back home to Seoul.
Texas: Austin, San Antonio, my Spurs, Sixth Street, the River Walk, Tex Mex, Chik-Fil-A, In-N-Out, and Barbecue – you are my new favourite. The hero of all my dreams. The place I would always rather be. I’ll miss you but I promise I’ll be back.