Austin Food & Culture — and What it Taught Me About Barbecue and… Thai Food

I was in Austin recently, it’s one of my favorite cities, both for classic Texas and for much more modern culture. One of the things I did over the weekend earlier in the month is picked up tickets for ‘Master Pancake,’ a live Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style performance in a theatre/draft house. So you get something to drink, you can pay extra for comfortable chairs (a very modest upcharge), and watch some cutting-edge comedy. In this case, one of the original MST3K folks joined Austin regulars as they mocked Hunger Games. I may not have the most exciting Saturday nights, but it was a lot of fun.

I also returned to some of my favorite barbecue spots, and I learned something about barbecue in the process.

I expected consistency — restaurants that have been around for 15 years or 50 years probably make the exact same thing day-in and day-out. And that’s not what I found at all. When I did a tour of Texas barbecue back in September I loved Kreuz Market‘s pork ribs and also their brisket the best. But this time the brisket was overcooked, I was eating the fatty brisket but most of the moisture was cooked out of it. Their sausage was still good, their pork ribs good (although not quite as good as last time). And overall it was much better barbecue than I’ve ever had outside of Texas. But the place seemed a bit off.

Now I know to go early for barbecue, not only because the places will sell out but because you’ll have the best meal immediately once the meat is done cooking. It was still on the early side. Kreuz Market just wasn’t as good this time as last, they aren’t as consistent as I expected.

On the other hand, Black’s seems the model of consistency. I didn’t think they were the best at any single item on my last visit, though possibly they were the best at beef ribs and came in a close second with their brisket. But everything was very, very good. And on this visit everything was still very, very good. I give the nod to Kreuz for pork ribs, still. But I’ll take Black’s overall for its execution both last visit and this one. It becomes even a clearer favorite for me.

I didn’t eat nearly as much barbecue on this visit as last, the point of the trip wasn’t barbecue it was just a positive side-benefit. I did, however, decide to have one last bit at the airport on the way out of town.

I love the Austin airport for the rental car lot directly across from the terminal, that they’ve just added TSA PreCheck earlier in the month, and that they have an Admiral’s Club (one of the great benefits of accessing the lounge as a British Airways elite is that they give me drink chits — which I trade in at the bar for bottled water and don’t need to purchase any for the flight).

Now the local barbecue tradition doesn’t emphasize barbecue sauce. Some places offer it, Kreuz is specifically opposed (don’t dare ask for any!). That’s how I like it — the meat should be good enough, flavorful enough, that you wouldn’t wind to hide the taste with sauce.

There’s an outpost of Salt Lick Barbecue in the airport, and I decided to give it a shot. It’s been recommended highly to me in the past, and I tried their Dallas airport spot and found it to be awful. But that one never came recommended, and I’ve been told Austin’s is quite good.

And it was perfectly fine for a sandwich at the airport but it shouldn’t be described as barbecue, at least in the same breath or same metropolitan region as places like Kreuz and Black’s. Moreover, they lather it in sauce at Salt Lick. They need to. The brisket was dry, unflavorful.

There is no way to offer good barbecue airside at an airport. And I should know that. You aren’t going to be able to cook over an open pit all night in order to recreate the flavor that’s offered in the best real barbecue spots. There’s a reason that barbecue hasn’t been successfully franchised and offered as a consistent product across the country. It’s too much of a labor-intensive bespoke craft, not given to regimented duplication, which means it doesn’t work well in the airport environment. I didn’t mind the sandwich, it would be perfectly fine if I were eating it at home in the DC area, but it wasn’t Texas barbecue at all. Still, much better than the sandwich I got at DFW.

Meanwhile, if there’s any preconceived knock I had against Austin it’s that while you can get decent Mexican food, there’s a lively food truck culture, and the barbecue of course is amazing, Asian options just aren’t going to compare to what I’m used to in the Northern Virginia suburbs (especially Thai and Vietnamese). Still, I wanted to test that theory and I did find a Thai restaurant in the Sunset Valley suburb that’s pretty good — that I would return to even in DC — though it didn’t achieve the heights that my better local places do at home.

It can be a reasonable strategy for Thai to just search reviews on places like Yelp, as long as you discount any comments about Thai food that mentions the words “pad thai.”

IM Thai was pretty good, and I’ve never seen such huge (“Texas-sized” I suppose) portions at a Thai restaurant.

As I’ve commented about eating in Paris, where the spice of Asian food can be helpful in cutting through all of the butter and provide a gastronomic break from French food, I think it can do the same for barbecue. So I’m glad to find something that reasonably approximates good Thai — something I didn’t expect to find in Austin because the best ethnic restaurants are going to usually come from clusters of similar-style restaurants which provide both competition and supports well-developed supply chains.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The real Salt Lick location in Driftwood is far superior to what you’ll find in the airport. Black’s is still my favorite, though. Their garlic sausage rings are excellent.

    You can actually get very good ethnic food in Austin, but you have to venture away from the central neighborhoods to get it. Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese places abound up north.

  2. Franklins is indeed in a rarified class, but lines start forming at mid-morning. I haven’t yet solved the mystery of Franklins without standing at least an hour in line.

    Gary, why were you in Austin?

  3. Salt Lick uses Southern Pride gas ovens. So does Blacks. Thus, not real BBQ. Go to Franklin, LA Bbq, or John Mueller Meat Co. next time you are in town. They are within the city limits and vastly superior to any of the industrial places you ventured too. For Thai, check out Sway. It is on South First directly across the street from LA BBQ. Maybe do both in one day.

  4. Austin is a great place to visit, haven’t been there in a couple of years but it’s good that a couple of my favorites, Franklins and Blacks are still going strong. Hope to return there this fall.

  5. “There is no way to offer good barbecue airside at an airport.”

    You need to visit Interstate BBQ across from gate B17 in MEM. Then I think you’ll have to retract that statement.

  6. For several years, I’ve sent BBQ from Black’s to my brother (a native Texan and BBQ lover) who resides in western NY state. He has raved over how good it was, so later this year, after he has retired and relocated to TX, we’ll try it at the ‘point of origin’! I’ve been to Kreuz and Salt Lick, and those venues are very good. In some of the smaller communities within 60 miles of Austin, you can find some excellent variations on the BBQ theme. Y’all come on down!

  7. As native Texans who have escaped to one of the coasts will tell you “the only problem with Austin is that it is in the middle of Texas”………that said there is more to great BBQ in Austin…….Chicken Fried Steak and Mexican food just a couple of the comfort foods that go down well with a cold beer!

  8. Gary, next time you’re in Austin, I highly recommend The County Line for BBQ. They are a small chain – only about 10 outlets – large enough to be consistent, but small enough to stay close to the business. I first experienced their fare at their El Paso outlet, The State Line, and the brisket melts in your mouth. There are two locations in Austin, including the original. http://www.countyline.com

  9. It’s easy to be consistent with mediocre BBQ, but very hard to do great ‘cue consistently. Think about it, even a single whole brisket has lean parts, fatty parts, narrow parts, and thick parts. A slice from one end may be phenomenal while a slice from the other end may be lousy. And even if you figure out how to cook that one brisket perfectly, the next one may be a half pound bigger and require a different cooking time. There’s no doubt that it’s as much art as science, and why truly great BBQ is still such a tiny minority of all the places out there.

  10. Gary,

    So glad you enjoy our fair city as much as we do. Thanks for some interesting leads on new places to eat.

    We became big carnivores when we moved to Austin. Our favorite is Opie’s, about 25 minutes west of Austin. We stumbled on to Opie’s and have been stumbling in regularly for the last 7 years.

    Great meat – beef ribs and chicken are my favorite. All dry rub. Sauce on the side if you must. The quality of the meat along with the excellent skills of Opie’s pit masters, make it the BEST BBQ in the region.

    Fantastic sides. Home made desserts that are worth the trip. Friendly people. They take credit cards. BYOB and convenience store directly across the street, We have never been disappointed. We hope you stop by and visit Opie’s next time your in town.

  11. Barbecue can be inconsistent and the most revered places have to be that. Louis Mueller in Taylor, Smitty’s in Lockhart, Franklin in Austiin are usually quite consistent. I have been to the new John Mueller but I bet it is consistent. Still Stiles Switch is my good to place due to location and quality (for lunch, dinner inconsitent) All these places are better than what you visited.

    You get food recs from yelp? Why? Chowhound.
    You ate Asian food south of the river? Why? North 183/Lamar

    Recs:

    Sichuan: Asia Cafe
    Thai: Titayas, Spin Modern
    Vietnamese: Tams (bahn mi, rice wraps, not bun and pho), Sunflower
    Knife cut noodles: Chens
    Ramen: ramen tatsuya
    Cantonese: Din Ho, Ho Ho
    Indian: Teji, Bombay Palace, Hot breads, Asiania
    Bangladeshi: Voss (all fish)
    Fancy sushi: Uchi, Uchiko, Tomo

  12. @CarterB – I’ve done uchniko and it’s fine but not great. Sorry! And Smitty’s in Lockhart is several notches below Black’s and Kreuz’s in qualty, though I love the ambience — you walk in and it’s like a corridor to hell with decades upon decades of barbecue smoke baked into the walls. But the barbecue just isn’t as good as their Lockhart competitors.

  13. We will agree to disagree about about Uchiko, but I won’t agree to disagree about Smitty’s. You don’t go to Lockhart enough to justify blanket statements like that.

  14. Sorry Scott, but County Line is garbage. Salt like is OK (airport is garbage). Lockhart is good.

    Franklin and John Meuller are GREAT.

    It’s not a contest. There’s no room for debate. Anyone declaring any of the former being the “BEST” bbq either 1) hasn’t tried the latter or 2) has been smoking crack instead of brisket. The lines suck and I generally don’t think they’re worth the wait (nothing is), but they are definitively the best BBQ around.

  15. +1 about County Line being garbage ( at least the one on the riverwalk) Went to Blacks and Smittys in Lockhart an both were by far the best two I have ever eaten. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to wait in line at Franklins or John mueller in Austin – but I can’t imagine them being significantly better then the lockhart ques…. Either way you are looking at like 5 of the best 8 bbqs restaurants in the world all within an hour of each other.

  16. Following your recommendation, I drove up to Lockhart during a MR to SAT. OMG, this place is simply excellent Texas ‘cue*. Beef brisket. Tender and moist. Well worth the trip.

    *I live in Charlotte, so I can’t give full props to Texas for fear of dissing Carolina barbecue.

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