Best BBQ in Austin
Come for the essential brisket, pork ribs and sausage, but stay for the sides (and occasionally, the free beer). At this East Side trailer, surrounded by a few simple picnic tables with some enormous old trees for shade, it’s the chipotle coleslaw—zestier than most with a kick to match the house-made chipotle sausage—and fresh black bean salad (complete with corned, diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro and serranos) that raise the total-package bar a cut above. Perhaps it’s also the humble, genuinely friendly nature of 21-year-old pitmaster Dylan Taylor (raised in Arlington, Texas, but cooking in Austin for almost three years) that gives La Barbecue’s meats the highest-quality edge. Or it could be that dash of granulated garlic they add to the traditional salt and pepper rub. “Central Texas BBQ is definitely its own style, but within that you have a lot of different flavors,” says Taylor. “Ours is more southern-rooted—we flirt with the line of tradition by adding chipotle to a few things. We try to look at the whole package…BBQ isn’t just sliced brisket. It’s a whole beautiful tray with all the sides and homemade ingredients: the bigger picture.” In any case, there clearly isn’t a lack of reasons why no one in ATX cooks it up better. Just make sure to arrive early—when the meat sells out, they close for the day.
Don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s location smack-in-the-middle of West Campus (University of Texas) or the speakeasy-style bar framing the entryway. Yes, you can get an assortment of nice cocktails and leave it at that. But that wouldn’t do Freedmen’s—so named because the building was constructed in 1869 by freed slave George Franklin—the justice it deserves considering the deliciousness of every single menu item. They serve up some of the thickest cuts of brisket around (and the absolute best burnt ends, not too salty and with a crave-worthy crunch), slightly sweet pulled pork and spare ribs, some seriously spicy sausage and an assortment of sides you won’t see anywhere else: horse radish potato salad, grilled cabbage coleslaw, house-made pickles with a jalapeño kick, baked beans infused with brown sugar and Lone Star Beer (now that’s Austin-style), smoked beets, jalapeño German-Texan beer cheese, smoked banana pudding and smoked chocolate mouse. And their homemade bread makes everyone else’s store-bought sliced loaves look shameful. While many local pitmasters can be prickly and secretive, Freedmen’s Evan LeRoy maintains an attitude that holds up to Southern hospitality: “I’m very much not about secrets. I like teaching people and putting it all out there—I think that more BBQ knowledge is better for everybody.” All the meats are slightly spicy, and each side has some sort of authentic smoked element; enjoyment will separate the true Austinites from the wannabes.
The tales are true: If you want to eat at the actual restaurant (as opposed to sampling the goods via catering), you will wait a minimum of 2 hours to reach the front of the line, which typically begins forming before sunrise every morning except Monday when they’re closed. So, is it worth the hype? Mostly…. Famed pitmaster Aaron Franklin’s brisket is top-notch—all prime cuts—and comes sliced as thick as some $20-$30 beef ribs, the pork spare ribs are slightly more peppery than most, which makes for a satisfying kick and, though one might not suspect this, the turkey is the best in Austin—you’ll salivate as you watch an employee slice it, then throw it back into the pepper-butter sauce before placing it on your tray. While the addition of the house-made espresso sauce to the beans is a cool twist, the chopped beef infusion is too much after sampling all the other meats. And the potato and coleslaw are too heavy on mustard and mayo, respectively. So, to make your wait worth every second, skip the sides and stick with the meats (we also recommend the perfectly moist pulled pork and rich, Elgin-style sausage).
Located in a mostly residential North Austin area, Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew looks and functions like a typical restaurant: It’s decked out with simple, trendy wooden tables, has a pint-house feel (make sure to grab a “kraft” beer while you’re there) and cooks enough food to make sure everyone who visits within operating hours gets fed. But the care of pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick makes the difference. With 15 years of cooking under his belt, Taylor, a Texas native, ensures that the traditional Central Texas-style elements—salt and pepper rub, post oak-wood smoking and homemade everything—translate to spectacular quality, down to the last slice (all the brisket is upper 2/3 choice cuts, dubbed “German Reserve”). A few extra ingredients—New Mexico chili powder and a hint of citrus—make for some of the more standout BBQ flavors in the city. Add to that the freshest-tasting potato salad in town, a sweet-and-creamy cornbread casserole and a peach cobbler that’s a certified gobbler—resistance is futile even if you’re about to pop. Kirkpatrick says that, in particular, it’s the quality of the beef rib that may set Stiles Switch apart from other local haunts: “We’re doing a four-bone chuck rib—the last part of the chuck and the first part of the ribeye—as opposed to those dinosaur three-bone ribs As novel and cool as those look on Instagram, we don’t want to kill our customer with a $30 rib.”
Line too long at Franklin? Head five minutes farther east to Micklethwait Craft Meats, a tiny, one-pit trailer with a handful of picnic tables situated in an unsuspecting East Side lot. You won’t wait eons, but you do need to arrive within the first couple of business hours to ensure a taste of pitmaster Tom Micklethwait’s goods—though they’re open until 3pm, they often sell out quickly. Our recs to help you decide before you arrive: a bit of brisket (stands up splendidly to the knife and fork test), some of the wonderfully smoky, extra-peppery pork spare ribs, and a beef rib. The latter will run you $20 by itself, so consider sharing, but the melt-in-your-mouth quality trumps almost any five-star steakhouse beef select. Essential sides: lemon-poppy-seed coleslaw–a crisp, creamy twist on a classic—and jalapeño-cheese grits, a Southern staple spiced to perfection.
Though Bill Kerlin and wife Amelis are technically still newbs on the Austin BBQ scene—they relocated here about three years ago from Arizona—their meats are among the most enticing in town. They employ the standard Central Texas methods, and those certainly succeed: post oak makes for less smoke penetration in the brisket and pork, which better preserves the meats’ natural flavors; pork spare ribs feature a pepper-heavy rub and formidable bone-to-meat ratio; and sausage delivered daily from Smokey Denmark’s down the street is spicy-sweet and juicy throughout, without ever crossing into way-too-rich territory. The sauce, however, needs work: it’s a bit too heavy on the apple cider vinegar. And the sides aren’t for everyone; bleu cheese coleslaw will appeal only to the funk-inclined, and the jalapeño-dill potato salad leans a bit too heavily on pickled-zest.
Food aside, Iron Works BBQ—located in the heart of the Red River District, a madhouse every year during SXSW—is worth a visit solely for its history. A family of actual ironworkers constructed the building in 1922 using materials from the original State Capital building left in an onsite landfill. The family of pitmaster Aaron Morris opened the restaurant there in 1978 and has since gained notoriety for their recipe, “a traditional Central Texas blend of salt and pepper with paprika and few other secret ingredients.” Those flavors are best experienced by sampling the beef ribs, which are back ribs instead of the much-more-common short ribs. If you go for the brisket, get the fatty—the lean cuts are salty to the point of drymouth. They cook enough each day to avoid selling out, but purists may resent the use of rotisseries for the ribs.
It’s the same family as Lockhart, Texas’s famed Black’s BBQ—twins Michael and Mark, nephews of third-generation founding pitmaster Kent Black, run the cooking here—but they insist it’s not the same product. The brisket in particular, though it uses the same simple salt and pepper rub, is almost chocolate-y in its richness—delicious, but realistically an entrée-dessert combo. Almost everything else—down to the sides, the way they’re displayed cafeteria-style, the checkered table clothes, you name it—is identical to the Lockhart location. Only three times bigger. As a rule of thumb for Central Texas BBQ: the smaller the joint, the better the cookin’.
The Salt Lick, which is technically located just outside of Austin city limits in nearby Driftwood, is the most sought-after local BBQ joint (next to Franklin, maybe) by tourists. The reasons why are somewhat of a mystery. Yes, the fatty brisket is mouthwatering, and the beef ribs have an almost turkey-leg-richness to them. And of course, the authentic Hill Country vibe—screened-in porch seating with large, family-style picnic tables adjacent to the bustling pits—is ideal. But the drive to and from is brutal (don’t plan on drinking with your meal), and every single meat is served sauced, a huge taboo among Central Texas BBQ aficionados. Sauce is fine in some cases, but it needs to remain optional. That said, it’s a fantastic choice for eating late—it’s one of the only BBQ eateries open past 9pm every night of the week.
As one of the only worthy craft-quality BBQ spots south of Highway 290, Valentina’s is a savior for Southsiders seeking succulent meats. True to Tex-Mex tradition, there’s a taco version of almost everything (or fresh tortillas served your by-the-pound cuts) and they’re even open for breakfast. Mesquite wood instead of post oak adds a savory smokiness and the brisket’s bark retains a fantastic crunch, even if some bits were too salty. Valentina’s may not quite be worth an out-of-the-way trip for everyone, but for barbecue-breakfast maniacs, it’s heaven.