Late last month chefs and Big Day BBQ collaborators Rhys Amber (ex-Campagnolo), Colin Staus (ex-Campagnolo) and Doug Stephen (Downlow Chicken Shack) were joined by local brewer David Bowkett (Powell Brewery) on an epic pilgrimage to Austin, Texas — the unofficial capital of BBQ. Together, they share the story of their delicious adventures below…
On March 28th, a group of us chefs (and a brewer) set out on a trip of a lifetime. All in, we ate at 14 of the best BBQ spots in and around Austin, Texas. We ended up hitting 11 spots on Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list, including 3 that were among the Top 5. We are happy to present our own top 5 to you, as well as a couple other incredible spots to check out the next time you find yourself in Austin.
#5 Terry Black’s BBQ
Our first stop was Terry Black’s Barbecue. We knew we were in the right spot when we spotted the pit from the street before we’d even turned into the parking lot. Fronted by an old school neon sign were three beautiful, thousand-gallon smokers with their stacks intertwined, looking like someone with a steampunk fetish built them.
We set about tackling our first platter: a combination of Brisket, Beef Rib, Pork Ribs and Sausage served next to some incredible potato salad, baked beans, creamed corn and Mac n Cheese. We rolled out to the patio with several Lonestars, the ‘national beer of Texas’. Everything was great with the highlights being the Beef Rib and Brisket. Great bark, great seasoning; the fat was rendered perfectly by a deft hand who’d worked the pit for years. (The pork ribs were also well-prepared but lacked a little somethin’ somethin’ to push them over the edge). The sausage was almost a southern interpretation of a bratwurst with maybe just a little too much fat. The sides were also delicious, with the potato salad wowing the entire Big Day crew.
As we were preparing to leave, we noticed a sign that read ‘Pit Tours Available’, and how could we not? This was where we met Ricky, a mainstay at Terry Black’s since they opened. He had moved up the ladder starting with prep, trimming up the briskets and finally running the pit. A good time!
#4 Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ
About 10 minutes outside of town we spotted a few 1000 gallon smokers on the side of the road and immediately set upon Valentina’s. A series of BBQs were set up inside small trailers, all named after 90’s grunge era performers (Cobain and Cornell were both there.)
It takes some serious chops to not just do incredible BBQ, but also to give it some Tex Mex flair. The Sausages were outrageously good, as were the ribs. And then we bit into the Brisket Taco! Chopped Brisket with a fresh Pico and Guacamole wrapped in a fresh hand made flour tortilla — it was about as good as you could imagine. The Brisket had been smoked to tenderness, with great flavour and texture. Unfortunately we missed their famed breakfast taco – the ‘Real Deal Holyfield’ – but everyone we spoke to said it was revelatory.
#3 Franklin’s BBQ
Arguably the best BBQ in the world and definitely the most famous, Aaron Franklin’s ode to smoked meat was a must for us, even if it meant waiting for hours!
Located just outside of downtown Austin but well within the city limits, Franklin’s requires patience. We woke up at 5:30am to be in line by 6. We arrived to find a few guys ahead of us in line. A few hours later, as the Front of House crew started to arrive, they pulled out a huge collection of lawn chairs that had been donated to make sure everyone had a seat while waiting. At around 9:30 am, one of the managers started coming out asking us what we’d like to order and how much of each so they could get a gauge of where they might sell out in line (when we were leaving at 12:15 they were letting new arrivals know what they would be sold out of already).
As the opening hour of 11am approached, everyone started to get ready. Chairs were put away and the line tightened up. As we approached the slicer, he looked up at us and knew we had traveled and waited a long time. He immediately sliced some incredible brisket from the ‘Point’, the fattier part of the brisket for us to try while we were ordering. Of course we ordered everything — Brisket, Ribs, Pulled Pork, Sausage and Turkey Breast, which is rested in clarified butter to keep it moist.
As we dug deep into the giant platter we found meats that had been cooked about as close to perfect as possible: a smoke ring around the brisket that almost seemed impossible; ribs that looked like they had come out of a magazine photoshoot; and slices of Turkey Breast so consistently thin you’d think a machine was responsible.
We finished our experience with a tour of their pit, which is located at the back end of the building with windows opening out on all sides to allow for proper airflow. It was a site to behold. This was an incredible if slightly overhyped experience, but if you’re on a BBQ trek you can’t miss it!
#2 Micklethwait Craft Meats
The day we arrived in Austin we started calling around all the places we wanted to hit that weren’t going to be lined up for hours before opening just so we could get a gauge of when we should be trying to visit. Hearing Micklethwait was, in fact, catering for the PGA tour stop that particular day led us to make sure we visited!
That it only sits at #8 on the Texas Monthly list almost seems a travesty. Micklethwait thoroughly floored us. A single 1,000 gallon smoker sits beside an old Winnebago that acts as the service counter. Smoking some incredible meats was only the beginning of the food. The sides, usually an afterthought, were more of a compliment here — just phenomenal! Cheesy grits; a potato salad made with skin on nugget potatoes, dill and grainy mustard; slaw that crunched with texture and popped with acidity; and – impressing us the most -‘chile’ beans that tasted like a Texas-style chili flavoured solely with ground spices. Micklethwait opens at 11am and if you’re not there by 11:45am or so you may miss out. Play it safe by getting there by 10:30am.
#1 Snow’s BBQ
Ranked #1 on Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list, the Legend of Tootsie, all the accolades — Snow’s BBQ had a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the hype was legit! We left at 5am for the town of Lexington, which is about one hour east of Austin (see map), and arrived at 6am. It was still dark but we could see the open-air dining room, the pits and smoke, and the woman herself – Tootsie Tomanetz – working the pits.
We opened the car door to the sounds of cattle mooing and then a rooster crowed. It was almost too perfect and yet it felt like just another day for this small town of 1,177 people.
Before we dive into the food, there’s a few things you should know. Ms. Tootsie Tomanetz is a BBQ hall of fame inductee and at 84 years old is widely known as one of the best pit bosses in the world. Snow’s is only open on Saturdays, so to fill the time during the week she works as a custodian at the local school. Rumour has it she tried to retire a few years ago but got bored so she went back to work.
At about 6:30am, Kerry Bexley, the owner of Snow’s, came outside to let us know coffee was on inside and that we could help ourselves. They’d also have beer out shortly. From that point forward, the hospitality continued. At 7:15am, a massive cooler full of beer was placed in front of a table with a tip jar placed on top: “Make sure y’all tip so the good folks next week can have some beer” shouted Kerry to the line, a great form of paying it forward, and one we’re assuming usually ends up positive for the Snow’s crew.
At 7:50am everyone in line was assigned a number for a few giveaways…well, almost everyone. One gentleman showed up in full ‘Texas Longhorns’ regalia, but right on the side of one of the smokers was a Texas A&M logo. This was Aggie’s Country, boy. You best know better!
We ordered everything! Every meat, every side, even the banana pudding (it turns out we love banana pudding) and didn’t regret it one bit. The Brisket, the Ribs, the Half Chicken, the Turkey Breast — all the best we’d ever had. The beans we’d watched being cooked since the second we got there; the slaw tasting like an adult version of KFC complete with actual sliced cabbage; and the potato salad, a great combination of creamy and acidic with a hint of sweetness to balance everything — it was all so perfect!
Meeting Kerry, Tootsie and Clay (the other person working the Pit with Tootsie) was such an incredible experience. They were all so open to talking about BBQ and answering all our questions. If you even get to Austin on a Saturday and you don’t go, you will regret it forever.
One year ago, James Beard award-winning chefs Aaron Franklin (of Franklin’s) and Tyson Cole (of Uchi) opened Loro, an Asian Smokehouse. They cook all of their meats in the traditional Central Texas way of low and slow smoke, and take their flavouring cues from the cuisines of Asia.
If you arrive and they don’t have a table for you, the side patio serves up fun, slushy cocktails and cans of beer, plus plenty of wine and cider. The service was amazingly prompt, even with a packed house. It took a little under five minutes to order everything from the bar (they have five lines for ordering and then they bring everything to you).
We were handed one of those giant light up, vibrating number pads, to let you know your table was ready. While keeping a careful eye on the pager, food suddenly started showing up. After the second round of dishes arrived, it took us a while to figure out how they knew where we were without this thing going off like a disco ball. Each and every table had a GPS tracker inside of it, allowing the expediter to send food to the correct table without any hiccups.
Diversion TO Jester King
Jester King was built on a small farm about 30 minutes west of Austin, a place of wonderment that almost didn’t feel real. Since its inception, JK has been buying up land in an effort to maintain the feel the farm has, as well as to help make it a more sustainable brewery. They now have about 168 acres and are in process of securing 7 more. The farm itself is home to a few rows of Hops (a new, experimental varietal capable of growing in the Texas heat), a small heard of Goats, plenty of open air seating, a wood fired kitchen and, of course, the brewery itself. We met Matt, one of the partners, who took the time to show us around. The beer is all made through the most natural process possible, including their top level beers, the Spon series. All beers made under the Spon label are made entirely naturally, with the wort cooling over night in an open air vessel called a cool-ship, a method that helps trap all the ambient yeast usually floating in the air, inside the liquid. These beers can only be made in the winter as it’s too hot in the summer for the cool-ship to work properly. They are then left in oak barrels to ferment naturally for upwards of three years.