Much comes to mind when Austin is mentioned. The capital of Texas, where everything is “bigger and better.” The Live Music Capital of the World, with PBS’s long-running Austin City Limits, and famed music festivals South by Southwest (March 13th-22nd) and Austin City Limits. Home of the University of Texas, Whole Foods, and a downtown bridge that for most of the year houses the world’s largest urban bat colony. But Austin is also the perfect spot from which to depart for the scores of Texas barbecue joints scattered throughout Central Texas. Although Austin has dozens of its own (more on that later), within an hour’s drive from the city are so many top-notch barbecue spots that even the most ardent Texas nonapologists will begin to question their carnivorous loyalties.
When it comes to the barbecue institutions that dot Greater Austin, there are articles and lists aplenty. With good reason, many of the same establishments are recommended time and again. With all due respect to the well-known favorites, I have some spots that might be news to you. So, clear your day, skip breakfast, and hop in the car. Once you’re buckled up (seriously, Click It or Ticket), allow me to lead the way.
Generations of goodness
Southeast of Kyle about 49 miles (and 62 miles from Austin) is sleepy Gonzales, Texas, where a tried-and-true restaurant and meat market sits on the courthouse square. Known for its homemade sausage, whose recipe hasn’t changed since the family-run store opened in 1958, Gonzales Food Market (which smokes with oak and mesquite wood) is not only a local favorite but also a destination for Texas barbecue enthusiasts. Now in its third generation of Lopez-family ownership, the restaurant serves up something you rarely see at Texas barbecue joints: lamb ribs. Meaty, flavorful lamb ribs. Trust me, order them. For those of you with less-adventurous palates, the chopped-beef sandwich is right on the money. After the meal, take a few steps through the swinging doors of Long Branch Saloon, a perfect place to wash down your bites.
Even barbecue needs a day of rest
Let’s keep riding this meat-market train. About 77 miles northeast of Gonzales (and 55 miles west of Austin) is the town of Giddings, where Gerald Birkelbach and his wife, Sharon, run City Meat Market. Gerald mans the hundreds of pounds of oak-smoked meats they serve up six days a week (sorry, Sunday visitors to Giddings), while Sharon handles the front of the house with a smile as friendly as the Texas sky is big. The sausage is made fresh every day. The pork shoulder is a must as is a conversation with Gerald, who is one of a kind.
Speaking of one of a kind, hurry thee to Cele Store in Manor, Texas. Amid gorgeous farmland 21 miles northeast of Austin sits an old general store that serves barbecue for Thursday dinner, Friday lunch and dinner, and Saturday lunch. Depending on when you go, you’ll have your choice of some or all of brisket, sausage, and baby back pork ribs. The rest of the week, workers in this German farming community file in after a long day’s work to quench their thirst at the store’s bar. If you recognize the place, it’s because if was featured in the movies Secondhand Lions, A Perfect World, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre I, II, and III. The ambiance alone is worth the trip. If possible, pay a visit on one of the two Friday nights per month when live music is played. After the meal, tables will be moved so you have plenty of room to showcase your moves. Don’t be shy. Show ’em what you’ve got. I did, and they’re still talking about it.
Like father, like son
If you’ve done Cele Store’s dance floor justice, chances are you’ll still be dizzy the following morning. Not to worry. Your next stop is straight up I-35, 51 miles north of Austin. Take Exit 284, and cross back over the interstate. Just off the West frontage road sits Johnny’s Steaks & Bar-Be-Que in charming Salado, home to great antiquing. Owner Johnny Bratton, who has been in the restaurant business since 1980, opened a barbecue place in nearby Killeen in 1992. His son Josh joined him in opening the Salado location in 2002 after graduating from Texas A&M University. Mesquite-grilled steaks are cut in the kitchen, where everything is made in-house from scratch. Barbecue is smoked with oak and mesquite. I recommend the brisket and the chopped-beef sandwich. Johnny and Josh also run a thriving barbecue-catering business around the state. (They even catered Jenna Bush Hager’s wedding luncheon.) Throw in rustic atmosphere and some down-home hospitality and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Anything but the pits
Well, I’ve probably lost my Auburn readers, but for those who are still with me, 10 miles up the interstate from Salado is Belton, home of Schoepf’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (Exit 294A). Ronnie Schoepf Jr. and his wife, Staci, bought the place in August 2007 from Ronnie’s parents and are deftly steering it toward 20 years of operation. In true pit-barbecue fashion often seen in West Texas, Schoepf’s cooks its meats over (mesquite) wood coals. The half chicken is delicious. The peppery pork ribs are fantastic. And don’t leave without dipping the cornbread into the tangy barbecue sauce. If you’re around anytime from April to mid-August, Schoepf’s Texas Music Series will give you a different taste of the Lone Star State, with popular Texas musicians like JB & the Moonshine Band, Randy Rogers Band, and Kyle Park taking the stage. Pit barbecue and Texas music on a hot summer night? Sign. Me. Up.
All good in Spicewood
Last but not least is Opie’s BBQ, 34 miles west of Austin, out Highway 71. After careers in the corporate world, husband and wife Todd and Kristin Ashmore went rogue and opened Opie’s in beautiful Spicewood in December 2009. You know you’re in for a treat when you step in the door and are immediately face-to-face with a big serving
pit, fully stocked with a smorgasbord of smoked meats. Just start pointing at what you want, and they’ll slap it down on a black cafeteria tray to be whisked away to the counter for cutting. It’s a free country, but under no circumstances should you bypass the sweet-and-spicy baby back pork ribs. Their half chicken is among the best you’ll find anywhere. And the unique sides and enormous desserts, all creations of Kristin’s, are show stealers. Snag some tater-tot casserole, spicy corn, and any of their cobblers. A consensus favorite is the banana pudding, but be forewarned: It will make you want to slap somebody, so you might want to clear the immediate area.
Once back in Austin, you’re probably in desperate need of a nap. Perhaps a sodium moratorium. Fair enough, but how often are you in Austin? It’s vacation, right? Diets and rules are on hiatus. So, splash some cold water on your face, give yourself a pep talk in the bathroom mirror, and grab the proverbial bull by the horns. Translation: Get back out there for more smoky, salty meats.
Believe it or not, Austin has barbecue treasures of its own. It’s not just 360 degrees of chicken-fried steak, chips and queso, and funky food trucks. Particularly with the arrival of several excellent joints during the past couple of years, Austin is increasingly becoming a barbecue destination rather than simply a city of departure for Texas barbecue in surrounding towns. With dozens of barbecue places in town, it’s hard to pick among them; but I have a few in central Austin you’ll want to check out.
Since opening in late 2009 as a tiny trailer on an interstate frontage road, Franklin Barbecue has become arguably the most-in-demand barbecue in the entire state. With dozens-deep lines forming an hour before the door opens (earlier on weekends), Franklin is now a brick-and-mortar spot in downtown Austin. Its Meyer all-natural Angus brisket receives more fanfare than any other barbecue menu item in Texas. And with a new cookbook coming out in April and a new TV show coming soon to PBS, owner Aaron Franklin shows no signs of slowing down, much to the delight of Austinites and tourists far and wide.
If standing in long lines outside and smelling like smoke aren’t your cups of tea, I’ve got just the fix: Lamberts Downtown Barbecue (LDB). Located next to Austin City Hall, LDB is an upscale barbecue creation of famed Texas chef Lou Lambert. With a lineup of fantastic barbecue sauces to complement its smoky brisket and succulent pulled pork, and one of the best happy hour scenes in town, Lamberts is a surefire bet before you leave our fair city.
When the day is done, mosey down South Congress Avenue for some music at the Continental Club, grab an ice cream next door at Austin-favorite Amy’s Ice Creams, and then hang your hat for the night across the street at Hotel San Jose, the boutique hotel of Liz Lambert. (Yes, that Lambert. Sister of Lou’s.) After opening its doors in 1939, it meandered its way—became a brothel (allegedly), a Bible school (man, I love the juxtapositioning of that), and then a haven for “drug users, pimps and prostitutes”—to reopening as a boutique hotel in the late ’90s. Austin. Keep it weird.
By Drew Thornley/ Photography by Kimberly Finkel Davis