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.