I had one goal when I visited Austin, Texas for the first time a couple weeks ago: Find the best barbecue in Austin by eating as much of it as possible in the time that I had. The result? C’mon, this would be the shortest blog post in history if I gave it away that quickly.
The fact is that America is serious about barbecue (as evidenced by the num. 1 place on Yelp being a BBQ joint, in California no less) and no place is more serious about their barbecue than Austin. And I’m telling you, barbecue divides friends and families. Barbecue literally divides my home state of North Carolina in two, between eastern (whole hog pulled pork characterized by a vinegar-based sauce) and western (pork shoulder pulled pork characterized by a tomato-based sauce). So being from North Carolina, where there’s such pride and excellence in barbecue, I should know a little something-something about Texas barbecue. Wrong! Texas is the land of smokey, sliced brisket (breast and lower chest) from that of beef, compared to the sliced pork that North Carolina is known for.
Nonetheless, I went on a mad search to find the best barbecue in Austin, Texas. I started with days of research followed by crowdsourcing on Twitter and then finally arriving in Austin, with the first order of business to inquire from locals, which I did at Hops & Grain Brewery in East Austin. I figure if anyone knows something about barbecue, it has to be brewers and those who love beer, since beer and barbecue seem to go hand-in-hand.
It should be noted, however, that this isn’t a be-all, end-all of Austin barbecue, but rather my experience, since it was impossible for me to get to every place. The Austin BBQ restaurant I wanted to get to the most, La Barbecue (often considered second to Franklin Barbecue), I was unable to because of my schedule not aligning with their hours. Micklethwait, too, considered one of the top Austin barbecue restaurants, eluded me, as did John Mueller Meat Company, though that was due to it being closed for the week I was there. But now to the Austin BBQ restaurants I did visit.
The Salt Lick
Technically, The Salt Lick isn’t in Austin, but rather just outside of it in Driftwood, though there’s also a location inside the Austin airport. I feel like The Salt Lick is the Disney of barbecue, and it has the parking lot to prove it. I was told that on any given Saturday they’ll serve as many as 4,000-5,000 people. That’s cray. It has multiple dining areas and an on-property wine cellar where you can buy a bottle of wine to enjoy with your meal. Walking up to their main dining area, the smell of BBQ hits you before you even walk in. And then you see it, all of their different types of meat hanging from the smoker at the entrance. I ordered one of the sampler platters, which included a sampling of brisket, ribs, sausage, and turkey, and of all of those, the turkey was some of the best I’ve ever had. But I wanted to say that about the brisket, which was good, in addition to everything else, but it wasn’t one of the standouts from the trip. Nonetheless, this is a token Texas barbecue experience. Trust me, however, when I say get the cobbler. No crumb was left behind.
If there’s one Austin barbecue restaurant you’ve heard of, it’s probably Stubb’s, since its barbecue sauce lines the aisles of grocery stores around America. And Stubb’s was good, and made for a great start to my Austin BBQ tour. However, as much as a barbecue restaurant, Stubb’s is also a live music venue (upcoming bands include Wilco and Rise Against) and particularly known for its gospel brunch. As such, I found Stubb’s to feel a bit more commercialized than the others, and more of a place I’d go to for the experience, than the barbecue, though I did like my brisket sandwich and particularly loved the biscuits, being the southerner that I am. I feel like this is where you go when you want to gather a group of your friends to just throw down on a bunch of good barbecue, have a few cold beers, and enjoy one of your favorite bands.
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue
I actually visited Lamberts twice. Does that make it the best BBQ in Austin? No, but their happy hour, which includes half-priced items like caviar-topped deviled eggs and a brisket sandwich made it worthy of a return trip. This is like upscale barbecue, which I didn’t even know could be a thing, but it is. I’d recommend just going for happy hour for their cocktails, brisket sandwich, and great apps (like a barbecue Frito pie) and then head upstairs afterward, where they often have live music. Of the brisket sandwiches I had, this was one of my favorites, and generally speaking, my favorite sit-down meal, thanks in part to air conditioning and great cocktails and apps.
Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew
Go for the barbecue, but stay for the beer (and for less hassle) at Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew. What I liked about Stiles was a number of things, including a short wait, a great curated craft beer menu, and the fact that it’s open at dinner. This can’t be said for most of Austin’s top barbecue restaurants. Their brisket was among my favorites, and I was pleasantly surprised by their sausages, which they have a number of. If you order no other side, get the corn casserole. And while you’re at it, order the chocolate & banana pudding, because it’s chocolate and banana pudding! It’s a little bit outside of the major parts of Austin, but if you have some time, have great taste in beer, and want a less wait time, I recommend Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew.
Terry Black’s Barbecue
Spoiler alert: This was my favorite barbecue brisket I had in Austin. Now I’m not saying that it’s the best, but it was my favorite. I had been waiting to bite into a slice of brisket and be wowed, and Terry Black’s Barbecue was the Austin barbecue restaurant that did just that. Even more so, the entire experience and all of the food I had was great. But wait, there’s more! We were sitting down and eating within 5-10 minutes of walking in, even though it was during the heart of lunch on a weekday. I wasn’t blown away by the sides, but the beef ribs and brisket were some of the best I’ve had. And I had a pleasant Shiner Prickly Pear to wash it all down with. Also, the banana pudding. Oh, the banana pudding. I’m no pudding expert, but it, too, was some of the best I’ve had.
So this is where I tell you that I went to Franklin Barbecue, had their world-famous brisket, it was the best, and everyone lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, being in Austin only four days didn’t afford me the time to wait several hours for their barbecue, which is what you’re confronted with even on a weekday. A few locals I met recommended getting there by 9-9:30, and if so, you could probably be sitting down and eating between 12-1. I’ll do that, but only when I can gather a group of friends and we can take a cooler of beer and tailgate (which sounds equally ridiculous and awesome). With that said, I’ve talked to person after person, from Austin locals to food writers to travelers, and every single person raved about Franklin. I didn’t hear a single person say that the barbecue was overrated or only just okay. Every person said it’s among the best they’ve ever had, if not the best. And that’s rare to have such a positive sentiment for any restaurant in any city in the world, let alone a barbecue restaurant.
With that said, I believe that Franklin Barbecue is likely the best barbecue in Austin. The best I had, however, was at Terry Black’s Barbecue, although there are still many barbecue restaurants in Austin I have to visit. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to dream about the brisket tacos at Torchy’s Tacos, the barbecue Frito pie at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, and the brisket at Terry Black’s Barbecue.
Where is the best barbecue you’ve ever had?