By Jill Gleeson
Just how heated is the competition amongst purveyors of Austin, Texas barbeque? Heated enough that when I reached out to a certain downtown restaurant’s PR representative for a comment about the city’s BBQ scene, she asked me what others I’d be including. More than slightly controlling, I thought, but okay.
“Kemuri Tatsu-ya and la Barbecue, for sure,” I replied. Her response?
“Got it, thanks for letting us know! Unfortunately the team will have to pass on participation at this time, but we’ll be sure to let you know if anything changes.”
Whoa. You want some ice for that burn?
I’d heard the Austin barbecue scene was cut-throat, a not-surprising state of affairs considering just how seriously Texans take their smoked meats. And in the Lone Star State’s capital folks especially mean business about their barbecue, apparently. “We don’t keep a number of how many just because it’s always changing and growing, but we currently have over 100 listings of barbecue in Austin,” says Katherine Wise, Visit Austin Communications Manager. “With that being said, award-winning barbecue and Austin are synonymous. Area chefs have spent lifetimes perfecting this smoky, spicy craft, making no trip to Austin complete without sinking your teeth into some local favorites.”
Among those prize-snaring pit masters is James Beard Award winner Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue. Franklin and his wife were on the road when I reached out for a comment, hopefully taking a much-deserved vacation. Franklin is legendary for the length of lines out the door, which last until staffers put out the equally famed “Sorry, Sold Out! Come Back Soon.” sign—usually around 2 or 3 p.m.
Aaron Morris, general manager of the highly-regarded Iron Works BBQ did find a moment for me, and he confirmed my suspicions about rivalry in Austin barbecue. “I would characterize BBQ in Austin as something that has evolved from being a cheap and traditional, family type of food to more of a competitive type of cooking and eating scene,” he says. “Meat prices are high, the cost of doing business is high, and the competition is fierce! Barbecue is not cheap anymore and I think a lot of people would agree that Austin has become the barbecue capital of the world. You can experience all the classics here at Iron Works and then experience all kinds of different takes and fusions revolving around smoked meats at some of the world’s best restaurants, and all just blocks from Iron Works!”
Whether or not you’re ready to crown Austin BBQ king of the world, there’s no denying that the city is chock full of superb eateries. When I put the question of who dishes up Austin’s best barbecue out on social media, I got a slew of replies that included Mum Foods, The Salt Lick, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, Terry Black’s BBQ, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, and la Barbecue.
Tucked away in the Quickie Pickie convenience store in East Austin, la Barbecue comes courtesy of LeAn Mueller, granddaughter of Louie Mueller, who put Texas barbecue on the map with his eponymous joint in Taylor. The state’s barbecue is known for its brisket—which is traditionally rubbed with salt and pepper and cooked “low and slow” over post oak wood—and La Barbecue’s version can compete with the best of the best. Always made from organic USDA Prime brisket and smoked for 12 to 15 hours, it’s renowned for being so juicy and tender it falls apart on the butcher paper-lined tray on which it’s served.
While la Barbecue is said to be threatening to topple Frankin’s reign as Austin’s best traditional barbecue, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, also in East Austin, is playfully—and skillfully—mashing up Texan and Japanese cuisine into something entirely new. Dishes like brisket with ramen and “Tokyo street corn” with yuzu pepper aioli and cotija cheese have helped snare all kinds of accolades, including semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award.
There’s other cool and creative doings afoot in the world of Austin BBQ, like Barbecue Wife, described by proprietor Catherine Stiles as “a ‘Junk Free’ craft cocktail mixer company and lifestyle brand promoting the ‘sport’ of Texas BBQ…my Bloody Mary Mix,” she adds, “was inspired by the barbecue industry we are in. I took a lot of time in perfecting my unique recipe by blending my Bloody Mary Mix I made for years for friends and family and a bit of our house barbecue sauce from Stiles Switch BBQ into the recipe. It’s a great compliment to the Bloody Mary, packed with lots of spice and flavor. We love using smoked meats as garnishes. I do things like brisket stuffed olives, sausage and cheese skewers, or even a pork rib for a Swizzle Stick dunked right in.”
Stiles and her husband, Shane Stiles, own the popular Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew in Austin, as well as The Switch, located just outside the city in Dripping Springs. Stiles knows local barbecue as well as anyone, although she swears up and down it’s no dog eat dog scene but instead “a very supportive and collaborative community.”
Either way, Stiles adds, “We are absolutely in a golden age of great barbecue and the competition is what drives everyone as a whole to be better together.”
Visit Austin during the 10th annual Texas Monthly BBQ Fest Weekend, November 2-3 at The Long Center for the Performing Arts and get your fill of the state’s best smoked meats for two glorious days.
The JW Marriott Austin is located downtown, in the heart of Austin, making for some showstopping city views from its beautifully-appointed rooms. Other goodies include a 4,600-square-foot full-service Spa by JW with locally-themed treatments, and a stunning, heated rooftop pool.
Austin isn’t call the Live Music Capital of the World for nothing. With more than 250 music venues, said to be more per capita than anywhere else in the country, there’s always great music going on somewhere. That includes South Congress’s celebrated Continental Club, where legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Plant and Alejandro Escovedo have played.
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