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Austin Barbecue Anthology (ABA)

I write this paragraph laying flat on a bed in my first Airbnb ever. That's not as relevant as the fact that I'm in Austin right now, and y'all know what that means.

Barbecue.

Barbecue is essentially slow-cooked smoked meat. That's it!

People also take it very, Very Seriously. Part of America's cultural heritage, barbecue spans almost as many styles as there are regional dialects of English. You have the North Carolina style with its vinegar-based sauces, the Memphis pulled pork, Kansas City burnt ends, Alabama's mayonnaise-based "white sauce" chicken, and, of course, Texas brisket barbecue.

I'm in luck because brisket is my favorite cut, and I'm about to embark on a multi-day tour where I eat at some of Austin's top barbecue joints to Very Seriously crown its Barbecue King.

But first, we need to set some context with some terrible barbecue.

Whole Foods Seattle

Whole Foods Seattle Brisket

Yup, this sucked. This genuinely, genuinely sucked. This brisket had virtually zero flavor, and although I was able to cut through it with a plastic knife and fork, each piece was tough and dry, taking an insane amount of energy to eat - probably 10-15 chews. Truly subpar. The worst part was the fat which, all clumped together in that bottom left corner, chewed like rubber and tasted little better.

Whole Foods Austin

Austin is where Whole Foods was born and I must say this store is absolutely mindblowing in scale and scope. It can go tête-à-tête, mano-a-mano with La Grande Épicerie de Paris any day of the week. If these two grocery stores were put in a cage fight, I'd bet my money on this Whole Foods... and happily lose.

But hey. It has a barbecue stand. With a name. Bowie BBQ. This is where I learned about the two different cuts of brisket: moist and lean.

Whole Foods Austin Brisket

The moist, on top in the photo, is thicker, fattier, and juicier. You can even see it glistening. This was significantly yummier than the Whole Foods Seattle brisket, the best part being the melty and flavorful fat.

The lean - and therefore tougher - brisket was sliced more thinly for easier chewing. I think this type of cut, sans fat, has to rely more on the smoke and rub for its flavor. If I were bulking up at the gym, this is what I'd want to be eating every day.

La Barbecue

La Barbecue, owned by and named after LeAnn Mueller, is always making BBQ toplists in various national and local media, often second only to Franklin. Not too surprising, as pitmaster John Lewis used to work at Franklin, and La Barbecue uses its own proprietary smoker which Lewis built himself.

I arrived at 10AM (they open at 11) and waited exactly 102 minutes before I got to the counter. Waiting for food, one of my least favorite things in the world, was made bearable by a copy of Borges' novel Ficciones I borrowed from my Airbnb.

A lunch on Saturday.

La Barbecue

Moist Brisket. I've heard that brisket loses moisture quickly, so it's best to eat within a few minutes of slicing. Here, you watch them slice the brisket right in front of you and that's a great sign. Another great sign is the fact that this was delicious. You pop a piece in your mouth and it almost melts as you chew, releasing its rich smoky flavor from post oak logs. The brisket bark, the burnt crust on the outer edge, was just a tad tougher than the meat. Layers of pepper, salt, and mustard gave it a nice spicy edge. The best part was the fat - you just let it sit on your tongue and as it melts, the flavor leaks out, developing complexity over the few seconds to follow.

Lean Brisket. As of writing, I don't have much to compare this to, but this also was swell. Tender with great smokiness. Notice the deep red layer right underneath the bark. Called the smoke ring, this is yet another tell-tale stamp of quality because it only forms while the meat is still cold, which means Lewis got up real early (probably circa 3AM) to start smoking the meat.

I also asked for Burnt Ends, apparently the pro thing to do (see tip #8). The meat slicer graciously gave me one - the charred black triangle in my picture - even though it's not on La Barbecue's menu. I took a bite out of this before I touched any brisket, and it was just the most intense and wonderful thing, the bark thicker and more accentuated, the fat nicely dissolved into the meat making it nice and tender. Absolutely no sauce needed for this tiny powerhouse.

Probably the biggest lesson I learned here was how much to order. One pound of beef is definitely too much for me, and I spent more than an hour munching away at it by myself and didn't end up eating anything else all day. If you find yourself at a barbecue nook, I suggest ordering half a pound total.

Extra props to the guy playing the guitar in the lot, who sang one of my favorites.

Kerlin BBQ

A dude by the name of Johnny Fugitt, as devoted to barbecue as a Master Sommelier is to oenology, decided to eat at 365 barbecue restaurants in 48 states over the course of 1 year, and in his post-journey book, which on Amazon has 5 stars and 57 reviews, concluded that Kerlin is king.

So I tried it out for Sunday lunch.

Kerlin BBQ

Moist Brisket. This stuff was exceptional. You can see the nice fat cap at the top, right underneath the bark. The fat here was very melty, blending in with the superb, easily-sliced muscle. Chewing through this made me feel, in a word, carnivorous. By smoking with pecan wood, Kerlin is able to emphasize the flavor of the brisket itself, which I found could easily rival various cuts at a top-end steakhouse.

Lean Brisket. Oddly just as tender as the moist brisket, except without the fat. Also odd was its being sliced thicker at the ends than the moist cut, which was totally not a bad thing because it meant more of that lovely beefiness. I put some and some pickles and onions ("Texan Salad") on top of the white bread and made a sandwich of it. The perfect little bite. The fermented acidity from the crunchy housemade pickles gave a nice kick to the beef, and the even crunchier onions helped the pickles out with their characteristic bitter spiciness.

Burnt Ends. Soft and tender but not chewy. The rendering hints that the beef was nicely marbled before it got barbecued. These weren't as intense as the one from La Barbecue, but the sweet touch of caramelization was definitely more apparent in the bark here.

If La Barbecue takes brisket and evolves it into überbrisket, Kerlin brings out the best qualities in the brisket and makes them sing. I didn't need to use any sauce here, although they did have a tangy vinegar-based sweet and sour not unlike what you'd find at typical American Chinese restaurants. There was no line at Kerlin and it definitely deserves one.

John Mueller Meat Co.

John Mueller, born to a barbecue dynasty, has been around the block, behind the block, and beaten by the block, but still lives to smoke another day. Fired by his sister LeAnn from JMueller BBQ (which she then turned into La Barbecue), this cart is his testimony to the world. It's a great story. No frills here; John prefers to be "just another cook" because to him "pit master" and "pit boss" are simply too pretentious.

Monday lunch.

John Mueller Meat Co.

Moist brisket. Not quite as melt-in-your mouth as what I've had so far, but it still had a lot of character. You have to chew it a few times but it was at once peppery, smoky, and beefy, and the fat had a nice richness to it which gave the whole thing some definition.

Beef short rib. Now this was the stuff. You have a bone, the bottom part clean so you can hold it while you chow down on the meat at the top. This did not "fall right off the bone," a phrase that's usually praised, but was still exquisite. Although you had to bite with some force to rip the meat off, the crusty bark was crispy and crunchy and full of crushed black peppercorns which was amazing and something I haven't seen elsewhere. In contrast, the rib meat underneath was incredibly tender and juicy. A+.

Burnt ends. Liked them for the most part. Some pieces had that amazing crunchy bark, other pieces had soft and moist bark. My favorite part here was the ruby red, almost translucent smoke ring, which, like the best beef jerkeys, had the good kind of tough consistency which becomes more flavorful and more tender as you chew.

The publication Eater claims that on a good day, Mueller's stuff is tip o' the top, but that it lacks consistency. I can see the truth in that. This Monday was warmer than average, humid, and rainy, all factors that affect the barbecue process, and I didn't see Mueller at the pit or trailer. Parts of my meal here were superb, other parts were merely pretty decent.

Worth a highlight: Mueller's spicy capsaicin-laced, peppery tomato-based sauce.

Terry Black's

My friend's favorite barbecue joint as of November 13, 2015. This is also highly reviewed as one of Austin's rising star joints, and my inner hipster loves feeling in the know so I had to bring him here.

Tuesday dinner.

Terry Black's

Moist brisket. Moist, tender, broke down very easily when chewed. Fat had a nice, rich flavor, but lacked the complexity of the fat at La Barbecue. Salt and pepper rub was mild, the smokiness and meatiness to match. I'd say everything here worked well together but nothing was exceptional. Also not a fan of the oily rainbow coloration which you can see near the bark. Overall a solid B+.

Beef rib. Huge and tender, this had a decent amount of pepper flavor. Lots of fat near the bone. My friend tried to pick this up but there was no way to do it without the meat sliding off.

Burnt ends. Some parts had crunchy bark, although it was more of a soft crunch than Mueller's crispy crunch, if that makes any sense. Didn't taste any sweetness in there.

All in all, this was pretty good, but my inner hipster wasn't satisfied because it was a sit-down, air conditioned restaurant where you lined up to spoon your own sides into small Styrofoam bowls in a cafeteria-esque fashion before ordering any barbecue. But extra kudos to Terry Black's for giving tours of their smoking pits. Like Franklin and La Barbecue, they smoke using post oak, keeping the brisket in for around 14 hours before serving.

Freedmen's

I had to work during the week, so it wasn't particularly feasible to eat 'cue for lunch every day, which you'll want to do because the best pitmasters get up early in the morning to start smoking and finish just in time to serve up the freshest briskets.

Thursday dinner.

Freedmen's

Moist brisket. Lovely. The salt-and-pepper bark was nice and crunchy at points, and the beef had a great smoked flavor. Moist and tender, this wasn't cut as thickly as the other places but you can see the nice cap of fat resting underneath the bark, which was savory throughout its melt.

Lean brisket. Not moist but still tender. Echo my comments regarding flavor from the moist brisket.

This is another sit-down location; the bar has a classy Southern ambiance. By far the hottest jalapeño slices you'll eat in any restaurant. I surmise they've been pickled in some even hotter chili...

As you might have noticed, my commentary has gotten shorter as you've continued reading down this list. Turns out there's only so many ways you can talk about barbecue. Go figure! That being said, focusing on one particular food subgenre is a fantastic way of training your palate should you decide to do so.

I'm also beginning to understand why La Barbecue is so exceptional.

Stubb's BBQ

Got lucky and had this catered at work.

Friday lunch.

Stubb's

Moist brisket. Exceptionally tender, even too much so. It's like they took a humidifier and injected the cells of the meat with condensation. I had trouble picking it up with the tongs because I'd only manage to pick up half the piece I wanted. The brisket fell apart as I chewed, breaking into tinier and tinier little fibers which gave it an odd, gristly feeling. Unfortunately this wasn't too flavorful either, and I can understand why Stubb's is famous for its sauce and not for its meat. The bark was lightly peppered at points, but completely unremarkable at others. No crunch. Fat had a rich rush of flavor at the start, which quickly died as it dissolved. Lacking complexity, it was at points blubbery, melty at others.

Lean brisket. Texturally, this was the opposite of the moist brisket. It was tough and quite dry, although not nearly as dry as that of Whole Foods Seattle. My teeth began creating that unpleasant grinding sound as I chewed and chewed. The flavor was definitely more on the meaty side than the smoky side, which was suspect given the abnormally thick, almost raw red smoke ring. No chance I'd eat this by itself, given the choice.

It's really too bad. In retrospect, I might have wanted to come here first instead of La Barbecue because I might have thought it was decent then; by this point my standards have been eviscerated.

Stiles Switch

Another highly recommended barbecue joint, Stiles Switch also happens to be the most euphonious of all the places I've tried. Try saying it five times fast. The draw here is pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick, who worked under barbecue legend Bobby Mueller for nine years.

Friday Dinner.

Stiles Switch

Moist brisket. Perfectly done. If there is a poster child for solid, grade-A barbecue, this is it.

  • Bark: perfect blend of salt and pepper, with a wisp of caramelized sugar.
  • Flavor: smoky at first, turning into beefy as you chew.
  • Texture: close to melting in your mouth, the perfect thickness.
  • Fat: yummy and complex with a perfect ratio to the meat.
    • The ratio was probably more due to my luck receiving a couple particularly great point cuts.

Lean brisket. Once again, I noticed absolutely nothing wrong with this. That sentence should speak for itself.

Burnt ends. Also great. Crusty with some crunch, and as I looked at its heart I could see the melted fat, iridescently occupying the tiny spaces between threads of meat.

For the most part, Stiles Switch is just a better version of Terry Black's. Better sides, better meat, and I liked the setting better too. Let's put it like this: if Freedmen's is the place to take someone on a date, then Stiles Switch is where you'd go after you two have become a couple. Stiles matches Kerlin in terms of value for food, and is just as good but in a different way.

Franklin Barbecue

Well folks, here it is: The Chosen One. The only barbecue restaurant in America whose pitmaster, Aaron Franklin, has won a James Beard Award. Barack Obama has been here. Tony Bourdain has been here. God has probably been here too, disguised as a lowly mortal.

But before we get to the food, we need to have a serious discussion about lines for food. What makes Franklin Franklin, as much as everyone would love to believe is the barbecue, is also the line. Just as certain white-collar professionals masochistically wear how late they stay at the office as a badge of honor, foodies love to one-up each other about how long they've languished in lines for a bite of The Next Big Thing. Folks, this is not a pissing contest, and the fact that I am desperate enough for a chance at barbecue that should be at best marginally better than option #2 to wait an additional 3 hours for it (4 hours total) is not one of which I am or should be proud.

Foodies also tend to get super hyped about a place and proceed to write great reviews because of their confirmation bias, a well-known psychological phenomenon, instead of their actual experience of the food itself. I went into Franklin fully expecting to be disappointed.

Saturday lunch.

Franklin Barbecue

Whoa, hold your horses. Isn't that a lot of food for one person? The short answer is yes. The long answer is: I was goddamn hungry after having not eaten for 14 hours, woken up at 6:30, arrived there circa 7:30, and waited in line until 11:30. Everybody has room for one truly, sinfully, painfully gluttonous meal in their lives, and this is where I used my ticket.

Moist brisket. Just like that of Stubb's, I could barely pick this up with my utensils without parts of the cut detaching themselves from the lever point. Unlike Stubb's, this brisket was the bomb. It had a few good chews in it before it melted in your mouth, the fat having a fantastic level of complexity, the flavor lasting until its total dissolution. Little columns of beef jutted out, glistening with moisture, hitting your tongue with that characteristic oaky smokiness right before the flavor of the beef comes into play. Seriously equal to A5 Kobe (or even better), but you pay with time, not with $. At points I hesitated to shove another piece in my mouth because my brain understood exactly how much richness that would entail.

Lean brisket. This was the de facto best lean brisket of my trip. What made it so was simple: it was moist. Other pitmasters, realizing that the primary reason why people shy away from lean is that it's tougher and drier, have resorted to slicing it more thinly. And the whole point of lean brisket is to understand how the meat tastes without the fat. Franklin accomplishes this differently; he somehow imbues moisture into the lean brisket and cuts it just a little thinner than his moist brisket. I believe this is good for two reasons:

  1. Makes the lean cut easier to chew and swallow, solving complaint #1.
  2. Breaks down chemical bonds in the meat to release more flavor as soon as you start chewing (so your saliva doesn't have to do as much work).

How Franklin does it is a mystery.

Burnt ends. Sadly not as intense as La Barbecue's, but definitely easier to chew. Also happens to be the only stop where I didn't have to ask for them, but got freshly-cut samples right upon reaching the order counter. Customer satisfaction brownie points.

Beef rib. Super good. Well-peppered exterior gave it some crunch, and the beef had real depth which is always a missing factor in beef short rib and brisket cuts (unless you ask for the whole brisket). The difference between this one and Terry Black's was that the beef still stuck to the bone, letting you chomp off bark, beef, bone, and fat at the same time for a curiously tasty textural excursion. John Mueller's is still king though.

Pork rib. Pepper rub here was nice and intense, La-Barbecue-brisket-burnt-end-level intense. But only for a moment - not throughout the entire mastication process. This was fun to munch off the bone. One difference between pork and beef is that pork muscle is softer and less filling because its cell tissues aren't as dense as those of cattle. Not to be confused with tenderness, a quality that the chef can control.

Pulled pork. This stuff was really soft and tender but never fibrous or gristly. Because of its relative dryness, this paired well with Franklin's powerful espresso-based barbecue sauce.

Sausage links. Beef sausage made with a mix of fat and lean cuts and a salt-and-pepper mix. Unfortunately not as good as Kerlin's, but was very juicy with a nice snap.

I lied, by the way. I shared that plate with four other people. Not even Kobayashi could've finished nearly seven pounds of food in one sitting.

Conclusion

After eating at NINE barbecue nooks over the course of one incredibly smoky week, my 100% objective, highly discerning palate has come to the exceedingly obvious conclusion of which place has the best barbecue in town.

Bowie BBQ at Whole Foods Austin.

Kidding. Kidding.

It's Franklin.

I really hoped it wouldn't be, but my taste buds refuse to lie. For me, Franklin's lean brisket was just better than the rest and most everything else was at least comparable to second best, and with that it takes the gold.

Well, not quite. In some competitions, the difference between first and second place is literally a few milliseconds, but when I review food, it takes more than a few centiliters of moisture to win instead of tying, and Franklin did indeed win.

So what really did it in for me? The pinto beans. No joke. I also ordered pinto beans anywhere they existed as a side option but I didn't talk about them until now because none of them were anywhere close to noteworthy. While Franklin's brisket was similar - perhaps a bit better - to those of La Barbecue and Kerlin, his beans were bar none, heads-and-shoulders peerless. Ensconsced in a thick, spicy gravy with silken threads of brisket, these beans were full of earthy punch and robust texture. Some sushi chefs will examine each individual piece of nori before wrapping a maki roll, and I like to imagine Franklin examines each bean in this side before slow cooking them. He doesn't, of course, but their textural consistency was remarkable.

On The State of Barbecue

No, not Texas. This section is about the state of barbecue as a cuisine from my outsider's perspective. I think it has a lot of room to grow, and there's plenty of low-hanging fruit pitmasters can grab to step up their game.

For example, baking their own bread, or at least buying bread from a local baker. Pretty much every place I visited used white bread from one or two companies, with the general philosophy that bread is nothing more than a vehicle to transport anything on the plate into your mouth. This thinking would be rather blasphemous in the gourmet circuit. Bread can be a wonderful, flavorful, textural experience which enhances the best qualities of your meat, sides, and sauce. Placing more emphasis on side dishes would also be nice - they should exist for a better reason than "just because it's expected."

But all in all, because everyone's palate is different, it's ultimately futile to declare a 1-2-3 pecking order in barbecue supremacy. Take my Franklin pick with a grain of salt; different places do different things better. If a brisket had the crispy bark of John Mueller, the intense smoke of John Lewis, the meat quality of Bill Kerlin, and the luxurious fat of Aaron Franklin, that might just be the perfect cut. Since that's not really possible, you'll just have to try 'em all.

Though, I do think tiers of excellence exist, and I hope by reading this post you've picked up on some of the telltale signs of delineation.

Some great barbecue I've had outside Austin
Slow's Bar BQ - Detroit
Peg Leg Porker - Nashville

Finally,

Just last month the World Health Organization made the controversial announcement that red meat and processed meat are carcinogenic to humans. What does that mean? It means all of you can say howdy bye to me within a few months because after this week of devouring meat after meat after meat after day after day after day there is no question that I've mutated some cells.

Was damn tasty while it lasted though.

P.S. I know.