It's the Smoke: BBQ in Austin, TexasSubmitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Wednesday 13th October 2010
- What about this "smoke" thing?
- Austin who?
- Where to go.
"…It’s the smoke, man! It’s all in the smoke."
A simple declaration, but it’s the only thing the folks from Austin, Texas will agree upon when they discuss (heatedly and repeatedly) the merits of barbecue. Oh — there is one other thing:
There is no place in the world that makes barbecue like Austin. Ice breakers like "I hear they make great ‘cue in Memphis" do not fly. Barbecue is king — and the king rules from Austin.
So, if your travel plans include a trip to this small town/big city, read up before you go. Then be prepared to eat a lot, form an opinion — and be ready to defend it…
What about this "smoke" thing?
Actually it’s about wood, not smoke. According to people who really know their barbecue, the taste of the barbecue differs dramatically from recipe to recipe depending upon the wood you use to cook up a massive helping.
Are you an oak enthusiast? Or does the mere mention of mesquite set your taste buds a-tingling? Maybe you’re even more enthused about hickory. See? There is no easy answer to the idea of the "best" barbecue.
Time was when a barbecue meant a picnic in the backyard with stacks of juicy beef ribs marinating in tangy sauces. Or maybe for your family it was a Sunday in the park with all the neighbors. Sometimes it was "take-out" when you stopped at the local rib joint and brought home a batch. And it was cooked on a grill over a fire started with newspapers.
All of that still happens, but there is another choice. Gather the clan, dress real, real casual, and head to the nearest restaurant specializing in your own favorite style barbecue.
Of course, you can only do that after some serious research. There are so many barbecue spots in Austin that you could probably visit a new one every week for a year without repeating yourself. Strictly as a friendly gesture, I decided to do some of the basic research for you by visiting a number of the restaurants most enthusiastically endorsed by the natives.
There is one thing all these places have in common, from the most expensive, carefully casual ones, to the little hole-in-the-wall you would not dream of visiting without a prod from a friend you trust implicitly.
You have to feel it from the moment you open the door. It’s that make-yourself-at-home, set-yourself-down-and-dig-right-in attitude. I’m not sure if all of the places I visited had sawdust on the floor, but if one didn’t, it sure felt like it should.
We (nobody eats barbecue alone, you know) started our research on a high note at the County Line On The Lake restaurant located on a road known only by the number 2222.
The folks at County Line go crazy over the pork ribs that they actually refer to as "savory." This is upscale barbecue: a little more money, a little more flash and a kind of "uptown" feel. Dinner can cost as much as 20 bucks, or as little as $10 on average. Either way, it’s expensive in the land of barbecue and it includes vast amounts of meat plus loaves of bread, beans, coleslaw and homemade ice cream. There’s a pretty good bar there, too.
The sauces we tried that night had a slightly sweet taste, unlike most of the ribs I’m used to, but I have to admit they were goooood. And like all of the restaurants we visited, this one was family-friendly. Apparently the cooks don’t divulge their wood choices…maybe it’s a trade secret. Anyway, whatever wood they use to smoke their meats was wildly successful with our group.
There is also a County Line On The Hill run by the same people. We didn’t get to that one but apparently the menus run along the same line. The main difference seems to be that at one the view is the lake and at the other it’s miles and miles of hill country. They are, we hear, noted for their peach cobbler, but from the amount of food served at these places I don’t know how anybody ever reaches dessert.
The following night I met up with some of the college crowd from the University of Texas. While they generously allowed that the food was surely good at the County Line, they felt we owed it to ourselves to visit Artz Rib House. Yes, Art-Z with a "z". A little cutsie for Texas, but there it is.
Artz is a real family restaurant. Once inside, even on a first visit, you feel like the people who work there actually care that you were nice enough to stop by. There’s music almost every night, varying from country to western swing, to folk to blue grass. And according to our resident experts, all of it is worth hearing. A lot of locals have played there and there is an easy exchange between staff and stuffers (otherwise known as the dinner crowd).
In addition to some great barbecue, the side dishes at Artz got an A+ from all of us. The creamy potato salad and the spicy beans make you wish your stomach would expand for just a one more bite. But it won’t. Let me suggest you try the sampler if you go alone (but, as stated earlier, no one eats barbecue alone) or with just one other person. There is enough to take you through the next several days. I don’t like to come on like I’m an expert after just two visits, but I’m pretty sure I tasted oak smoke at work here. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
Artz got raves from the group we traveled with and there was some heated debate over which dessert was better — the sweet potato/pecan pie or the banana pudding. Nice, light fare to settle your stomach after a huge BBQ feast — not. My vote went for the sweet potato/pecan pie.
All barbecue conversations inevitably led to a discussion of Ruby’s and Rudy’s. There’s got to be a reason why, with all the possible names in the world, these two establishments settled on names that are so easily confused. But settle they did so we’re stuck with them. Once you visit these two restaurants life gets easier, but it seems like a dumb step to have to take.
OK. We’ll start at Ruby’s, of which there are two. I’ll tell you about the one I chose to visit.
Talk about attitude.
This place doesn’t even let you get inside before it hits you in the face with its "This is us. You want to come in — come it. Or don’t."
The restaurant sits cockeyed on a badly paved lot. The paint job is mostly missing. And that continues right on inside where the ceiling tiles are water marked and loose. But the customers seem more than content as they dig into some hot (as in spicy) barbecue. That word "hot" seems to go with just about everything they serve at Ruby’s. If major spicy is your idea of great barbecue, this is the place!
Considering the "I’m an Old Cowhand" look of Ruby’s, it is rather surprising to find a vegetarian menu available. Sort of new age hippie meets old west cowpoke theme. Another thing, nobody tries to hide the choice of wood. They tout their own mix of oak and mesquite, and from these fires they produce beef brisket, sausage, chicken and ribs of all kinds.
I’ve got to give the people there five stars for the spicy beef sandwich. Man, that is a great tasting thing. And there is so much of it. The brisket, according to a fellow sitting at the next table, was a little on the dry side, but the sauce pretty much covered up that deficiency. He also said it was usually great! Apparently, in Austin, even the barbecue joints are entitled to a bad day. Side dishes, which I had pretty much taken for granted in other spots, were something special here, particularly the macaroni and cheese. That was rich and creamy and probably equal parts cheese to pasta.
Have I mentioned yet the need to pack several bottles of your favorite antacid? You should.
On to the next one. The first thing that gets your attention at Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q is that it shares its space with a gas station. The obvious, irresistible statement, is that you fill your car with gas on the way in and yourself with gas before you leave.
Rudy’s has a great sense of humor about itself. There are signs all around the place proudly promising "The Worst Barbecue in Texas." They also tout their "Barbecue Sause." Yep. They spell it sause, and judging from the loyal following the stuff has garnered, we wouldn’t want to be the ones to argue with them. Rudy’s is so sure you are going to appreciate their sause that they offer to ship it all over the world.
Rudy’s is strictly a get-it-yourself kind of place. There are lines, but they move quickly, and, lest you get bored waiting, there are in-house videos of the cooks chopping and marinating and slicing and whatever else cooks do in those places.
You find a seat at one of the many long picnic tables placed inside and out (weather appropriate, of course), and settle in between other barbecue enthusiasts. The menu here consists of all the usual choices plus barbecue turkey breast. (Try it; you’ll like it.)
The brisket at Rudy’s is something special too, and you get to choose moist or regular. The moist means there is more fat in the meat but it also means it has more flavor and is more tender. It’s worth flirting with a little cholesterol just to taste the meat; it’s that good. The pork ribs are stellar, too. If you push a little, somebody at Rudy’s will admit that they choose oak as their favorite wood because it is "slower" than mesquite.
There is one other spot I feel duty-bound to mention just because so many people said it was among the best in the world. It’s called The Salt Lick Bar-B-Q. It was good — it was great. But...the greatest??? Arguable. And it’s out in what the Austonians call "The Hill Country"…and there’s just too much good barbecue everywhere you look to warrant the drive. One really cool thing about The Salt Lick, besides the food, of course, is that it has a humongous open-pit barbecue and you can actually see the meat smoking over the handmade stone ring.
The Salt Lick also has a branch at the airport, which is neighborly of them, but doesn’t show off their barbecue to best advantage. We did get adequate food there, but nothing that would inspire you to make a special trip to visit them again — and if you were eating on your way INTO town, nothing that would inspire you to make the trip to "The Hill Country." Of course I have to give them "most convenient while waiting for a plane."
I’m thinking I should head on over to Memphis and see what the locals have to say. I just won’t mention it to my friends in Austin.
COUNTY LINE ON THE LAKE
FM 2222 (just before 360)
ARTZ RIB HOUSE
2330 S Lamar Blvd
Austin, TX 78704
2451 Capital of Texas Hwy, S.
Austin, TX 78746
Phone: (512) 329-5554
512 W 29th Street
Austin, TX 78705-3714
Phone: (512) 477-1651
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX 78619
Phone: (512) 894-3117