Austin is situated in center of Texas’ brisket belt, and its BBQ joints have truly mastered this staple, with its crispy, caramelized casing and tender, slip-off-the-bone interior, all suffused with a sublime oaky smokiness. This pitch-perfect brisket is joined over the charcoal by all the other meaty mainstays of Southern BBQ: ribs, turkey, pulled pork and sausage. Waiting in the wings is the potato salad and coleslaw, along with the classic Texan tangy-sweet, tomato-and-vinegar BBQ sauce. Austin has all bases covered, too: for a laid-back eat-in vibe, go to Rudy’s; for great live music with your meat, hit up Stubb’s; and for the best beef brisket in the entire United States, get in line outside Franklin’s.
Originally a rural convenience store in the Texas Hill Country, Rudy’s has expanded greatly since it served its first platter of Texan BBQ back in 1989. It now has outlets across Texas and has also spilled over into neighboring Oklahoma and New Mexico. But whereas such growth often dilutes the character of much-loved small businesses, Rudy’s individual flame continues to burn bright across all its stores. Whether in upcycled barns or converted petrol stations, the large halls are packed with people, plucking beer and soda from the ice troughs that line the room and, of course, savoring the smoky, sumptuous meat that made Rudy’s famous in the first place. And the beating heart of Rudy’s body of BBQ joints is located in Austin, making it a must-visit for BBQ fans when in the town.
If Austin is known for anything other than BBQ, it is its thriving music scene. These two passions are brought together at Stubb’s, where legendary musicians have played since 1968, when Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan provided the perfect accompaniment of blues with Stubb’s smoky BBQ fumes. More recently, acts such as The Shins, Muse and the Band of Horses have drawn crowds in the restaurant’s big backyard, and it’s become a top venue during Austin’s annual SXSW festival.
If Rudy’s has the vibe and Stubb’s the entertainment, than The Salt Lick really has the BBQ itself down to perfection. A great way to experience it all is with the "Family Style" all-you-can-eat option, which allows you to pile up as much as you wish of the restaurant’s famous sausages, pork rib, and beef brisket. The brisket comes in lean, moist and burnt-end varieties, so you can try each and settle on your favorite. The Salt Lick has also made an art of the cooking process: its meats are slow-cooked for hours over a huge open pit, smoking atop a smouldering fire of live oak wood. The results fall off the bone and melt in the mouth, well worth the half-hour drive from Austin to The Salt Lick’s home in Driftwood.
La Barbecue is a recent addition to the Austin BBQ scene, but it has grown from the soil of some of the city’s finest practitioners. It is helmed by a precocious young tillerman, John Lewis. Lewis learnt the ropes at Austin’s legendary Franklin BBQ before leaving to join la Barbecue in 2013. And many consider the resulting BBQ from la Barbecue to be even better than that of Fanklin’s. There’s smoky brisket, spicy sausages, red-veined pork ribs, and a perfectly seasoned potato salad on the side. Best of all is the pulled pork, Lewis’ personal speciality: tender, delicate and oozing with flavor.
From Wednesday to Sunday, Franklin BBQ calmly opens its doors at 11am and sells brisket, ribs, pulled pork, turkey and sausage until its all gone. A simple rhythm for a restaurant – but there’s clearly something special about Franklin, because the lines start forming around 9, and the sold-out flag is frequently raised by 1pm. People queue for hours to get their platter of meat, cooked by Aaron Franklin, who learned the BBQ basics from his parents and went on to transform this family folklore into one of America’s most lauded BBQ restaurants. Paeans have been penned to all of Franklin’s offerings in the local and national press, including the spicy scoops of pinto beans doled out on the side, but it’s that native Texan speciality, the beef brisket, that has seduced America’s foodies into waiting humbly in line for a bite of Austin’s finest BBQ.