“Is Austin still light years ahead of Houston?”
I hadn’t even finished driving home from a day trip that would see four friends dine at four of Austin’s highest profile barbecue joints (and Shake Shack) before a restaurant owner who’d been following along on Instagram wanted to know what I thought of the experience.
After all, for as much as Houston's barbecue scene is on the rise, Austin is still widely considered the better town for Texans's favorite food. Just a few months ago, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn placed five Austin joints on his list of the Top 25 New and Improved Barbecue Joints in Texas. Houston only had three.
“No,” I replied. “It’s not light years ahead, but we could definitely learn some things from them.”
In terms of the fundamental act of smoking meat, Houston’s best barbecue joints match up well with the four Austin spots we visited: La Barbecue, Micklethwait Craft Meats, Freedmen’s Bar, and Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ. Only La Barbecue’s fatty, smoky, well-rendered beef rib and celebrated hot guts sausage tasted better, by which I mean more intensely seasoned with better texture, than what I typically find in the Houston area.
On the other hand, we found both the beef rib at Micklethwait to be weirdly bland, although supremely well prepared in terms of the meat’s consistency and how well-rendered the fat had become. Similarly, the brisket had a bit of that undesirable pot roast texture. At $80 for a three meat plate, a two meat plate, and a beef rib, those disappointing meats were literally and figuratively tough to swallow.
Austin restaurants clearly lead the way in the diversity of their sides and their commitment to preparing just about everything in house. Micklethwait may operate out of two small trailers, but it still serves freshly baked bread, non-traditional meats like strip loin (pleasantly chewy, nicely medium) and barbacoa (sadly sold out), and sides like jalapeno cheese grits that blend classic Southern fare with Texan influences.
Similarly, both Micklethwait and Valentina’s show a willingness to bend genres by serving, respectively, brisket Frito pie and smoked brisket tacos, which arrive wrapped in a freshly made flour tortilla and are topped with creamy guacamole and red salsa. Both are such brilliant combinations it’s hard to believe they aren’t available just about everywhere.
Then again, nothing in Austin that we experienced incorporates Korean or Indian flavors like Blood Bros does with its gochujang burnt ends or Pappa Charlies does with its masala-spiced lamb. Those Asian-inspired touches are still uniquely Houston.
La Barbecue, Micklethwait, and Freedmen’s also make their own pickles, and they’re all a noticeable improvement over the flabby specimens typically found in Houston. In particular, Freedmen’s pickles had a solid crunch with just enough acidity to cut the rich, fatty brisket and sausage we tried, and the pickled jalapenos delivered the right balance of tart and spicy.
Even more than its pickles — or its jalapeno cheese spread and decadent smoked banana pudding — Freedmen’s overall concept is one that could make someone a lot of money if it came to Houston. Instead of being a trailer like the other three establishments, Freedmen’s is a bar with table service and a full liquor license that allows them to stock a solid selection of bourbon. After standing outside and waiting in lines, being able to sit down and pair barbecue with a Sazerac or an Old Fashioned felt like a real luxury. It’s also open for dinner, which is mostly unheard of in either city.
Lots of Houston pitmasters are bourbon enthusiasts. One of them needs to step up and develop a local version of the barbecue bar.
On the other hand, Austin could learn something from Houston restaurants about respecting their customers’ time. Despite a line that snakes through the food trailer park it occupies, La Barbecue only has one person cutting meat and one register to complete transactions. If a friend hadn’t held a place for us in line at 10 am, our arrival at 11 am would have meant waiting an hour-and-a-half or more to eat. At both Micklethwait and Valentina’s, we sat for roughly 15 minutes after ordering (and waiting in line) before our food arrived.
Say what you want about the line at Killen’s Barbecue, but at least that restaurant employs a platoon of people to serve food. That operation isn’t physically possible inside a small trailer, of course, but waiting for food after ordering it was my least favorite aspect of the whole day.
While some may think Houston has reached what Chronicle barbecue columnist J.C. Reid has dubbed “peak barbecue,” I think we still have more to accomplish. Thankfully, the immediate future offers lots of strong prospects. At a recent pop-up to preview Midtown Barbeque, chef Eric Aldis served an extensive selection of pickles alongside pitmaster Brett Jackson’s meat. At RodeoHouston’s annual Best Bites competition, upcoming Montrose barbecue joint The Pit Room served its version of pastrami with fiercely spicy housemade mustard and a pickle of its own. John Avila, a Houston native who worked for Austin's celebrated Franklin Barbecue, could blend both city's cultures once he opens El Burro & the Bull inside Conservatory downtown.
Admittedly, these are small steps, but they’re the kind of developments that will raise the bar and push the scene forward. After all, Austin may not be “light years” ahead of Houston, but the city still has some catching up to do if wants to overtake the capital as the best barbecue city in Texas.