Barbecue in Austin has been around for decades, but in the past years, the scene in the city has really come into its own. Often overlooked for the smoked meats of other surrounding towns, the capital has now become almost synonymous with the style of cooking. For my short week in Texas, I wanted to try three of the city’s most popular joints, some of which were responsible for putting Austin on the barbecue map.
Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ
What’s unique about Valentina’s is that it combines two of Austin’s most beloved foods — barbecue and tacos. The humble truck is pretty far from the center of Austin, maybe 20 minutes away, but is well worth the drive. Everything is made on site, including their famous flour tortillas, which might have converted me from the corn ones that I prefer. Valentina’s was one of my favorite bites in all of Austin, because I’d never, ever had anything quite like it. How they married Texan barbecue with Mexican flair really described the diverse culture and food of Austin in one bite.
Their smoked brisket taco was one of the best things I have eaten in recent memory, and as annoying as it sounds, almost brought me to tears. The brisket was achingly tender, and all its fat was soaked up the soft but crisped up tortilla that managed to be fluffy and light. A bright guacamole and a piquant salsa ensured that the thing wasn’t all too rich. The brisket reappears in their popular breakfast taco, The Real Deal Holyfield, which is a singular taco as big as your hand. It comes with a fried egg, potatoes, beans and bacon, for a hefty, intense portion. I enjoyed the carnitas as well, as traditional as they come, with sweet velvety caramelized onions that were the star of the show.
Franklin’s is so famous, it has widely become known as the best barbecue restaurant in the United States, maybe even the world. Although just under a decade young, its pitmaster and founder Aaron Franklin has been awarded accolade after accolade for what he has done in his tiny, bright turquoise space.
Franklin’s is known for its long line, even during days when the city is off peak tourist season, and things should be quiet. Afraid to miss out, I got to the spot at 7:30 a.m., and there were already a few people in line! I came prepared though for the wait in 2-degree weather, blanket and all. At 11, while the line snaked around the restaurant, past the parking lot and onto the next block, they finally started letting people in.
Franklin’s was a beautiful experience. It might have been a combination of the long queue, the anticipation, the bonding amongst strangers waiting for food. I’m not a barbecue connoisseur by any means, but a bite of their brisket was almost transcendental. The fattiness was unreal, but it was really the intense, woodsy smoke flavor that permeated the meat that really called for your attention. A surprising hit was the smoked turkey, bathed in juices, which easily made you forget all other dry white meat of the past. I loved the pork ribs, too, with meat so tender that if you wanted to, you could eat it off the rib with a spoon.
Although La Barbecue just opened in 2012, the barbecue pedigree of owner LeAnne Mueller is no joke. Her family has been in barbecue for decades, but this place is entirely her own. La Barbecue is nestled inside a grocery store which adds to all its charm. The lines aren’t as long as Franklin, but you’ll still find yourself waiting from between 30 minutes to an hour.
They pride themselves on their locally sourced grass-fed meat, cooked over Texas oak for more than half a day.
What I loved about La Barbecue were their beef rib, sausages and sides. The sausages were the best I’d had yet, entirely meaty in consistency. The jalapeno one was so artfully made, so fresh, that the bright green of the whole rings of pepper were seen all throughout the link.
The beef rib came still on the bone, a gigantic hunk of meat that was falling off at each prod of the fork. It all came together with the accompanying side of mac and cheese, with the shells of pasta smoked in the same smoker as the meats.