Austin is celebrated for its diversity, driven by one of the world's largest urban universities and reflected in the "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers all over town. As the state capital, it's a city of politicians, and with its official nickname, The Live Music Capital of the World, it's a city of musicians.
Hugely popular with athletes but still in the heart of the Lone Star State, it's a place where cowboy boots and triathlon cycling shoes happily co-exist and yoga studios share the same street with beer gardens. It's the city where Whole Foods was born, where the X-Games are held, where the tech industry is booming, and the home of Formula One racing in the United States.
But most of all, it's a city of barbecue, the signature cuisine of Austin and its surrounding towns. The rapidly growing city seems to be all things to all people, and this spectrum is reflected in its smoky specialty. "Texas-style" barbecue is roadhouse dining dually driven by the cattle industry, with beef brisket the featured meat, and by 19th-century European immigrants who brought sausages.
But in Austin it has morphed into a scene where this tradition lives alongside fancy gourmet barbecue, casual barbecue, hipster food truck barbecue and barbecue served with a side of live music. They are smoking lamb, pork, turkey, ham, fish and even quail. If you can't find barbecue you like in Austin, you probably don't like barbecue.
Here are top places for four styles of BBQ dining:
Traditional Texas BBQ
The classic experience revolves around slow-smoked beef brisket and German-style sausage, and to a lesser degree pork ribs, all accompanied with simple sliced white bread and minimalist sides. But how it's served is as important as the menu: by tradition you order meats by weight and servers slice them straight from the pit onto sheets of butcher paper, which are topped with bread slices and pickles. You take these meat-laden sheets to the dining room, where you find a seat and pick up any sides or drinks. The entire affair is self-serve, communal and often cavernous, usually with no sauces, no plates and few utensils except your hands.
The most classic eateries are in towns surrounding Austin, especially Lockhart to the south, with rival classics Kreuz Market and Smitty's, and in Taylor to the northeast, home of the famed Louie Mueller BBQ. Within the city, this classic style is less common, but can still be found at places like Sam's Bar-B-Cue, also famous for its unique smoked mutton, and critically acclaimed relative newcomer Live Oak BBQ, which also adds creative weekly specials such as stuffed quail or Thai pork belly. Rudy's, which has become a mini-chain with more than two dozen outlets across Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, was born in Leon Springs, between Austin and San Antonio, and is popular with locals as go-to take out. Despite its chain fast-food feel, Rudy's serves the real thing, sliced to order meats on paper by the pound, and there are four locations ringing Austin.
Kreuz Market, Lockhart; 512-398-2361, kreuzmarket.com Brisket or ribs $12 per pound, average meal under $10
Smitty's Market, Lockhart; 512-398-9344, smittysmarket.com Brisket or ribs $12 per pound, average meal under $10
Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor; 512-352-6206, louiemuellerbarbecue.com Brisket or ribs $12 per pound, average meal under $10
Sam's Bar-B-Cue, Austin, 512-478-0378, Brisket or ribs $9-10 per pound, one meat plate meal $9
Live Oak BBQ, Austin, 512-524-1930, liveoakbbq.net Meats by the pound $10-$12, sides $6 per pound
Rudy's, four locations in Austin suburbs, rudysbbq.com Brisket $14 per pound, ribs $12, average meal $12
Not everyone wants sliced brisket, ribs and sausage with white bread, so the model for most Austin BBQ joints is a far broader menu that adds smoked turkey, chicken, ham, and other pork and beef cuts. These are usually sold meal-style by the plate, singly or in combinations, with a choice of two to three sides from a much bigger array, along with sandwiches, typically absent in the classic model. BBQ sauces – added at your discretion – are also common and another departure from the classic mold. Most operate cafeteria style, where you order at a counter and fill your tray, and this is the city's most common style of barbecue – there is even one in the flagship Whole Foods Market on North Lamar Boulevard, a major tourist attraction in its own right.
Here at Bowie BBQ, options include two or three meat plates and meats by the pound, with less common offerings such as beef tri-tip and pulled pork, all kinds of sandwiches and even wraps, plus house-made sides including a rich and very popular mac and cheese. The smell permeates the store, as all meats are smoked on site – 18 hours for the brisket -- and the counter sits next to the wine bar, offering pairings for the barbecue by the glass.
Other top options include Stiles Switch, a highly-regarded newcomer which has plates, sandwiches and combos featuring the classic meats plus beef ribs, pork loin and Frito Pie, a cacophony of shredded meat, cheese, beans and jalapeños over a bed of Frito chips. Stiles Switch is one of just five Austin eateries that made Texas Monthly magazine's coveted 2013 list of the state's 50 Best BBQ joints. The huge and critically-acclaimed Salt Lick in suburban Driftwood is probably the single most famous barbecue joint in the region, featured on countless TV shows. It offers a wide variety of meats, including huge beef ribs, in plates, by the pound, in sandwiches, and as an all-you-can-eat option. There is a satellite location in the Austin airport.
Bowie BBQ, Whole Foods Market, Austin, 512-476-1206, Sandwiches $5-6, Meat meal plates $7-9
Stiles Switch BBQ, Austin, 512-380-9199, stilesswitchbbq.com Meats $14-$15 per pound, sandwiches $6.50-$9.50
Salt Lick, Driftwood, 512-858-4959, saltlickbbq.com Most meal plates $13-$20, sandwich plates $10-$11
Franklin ushered in a new generation and put Austin BBQ on the national hipster radar when it got tons of glowing press, including a Bon Appétit magazine proclamation as the country's best barbecue. Open only for lunch, it has become a tourist pilgrimage with a two- to three-hour wait, as the line forms well before the 11 a.m. opening and continues until they run out of food. Few locals I know will bother with the hassle, and my one visit was enough, as the sandwiches are excellent – especially the signature Tipsy Texan with chopped brisket, sliced sausage, crunchy slaw and sliced pickles -- but the simpler fare, like pork ribs, undistinguished.
Other nouveau alternatives quickly opened, and several have garnered similarly passionate fan bases but with much shorter waits. Most notable is la Barbecue, which emulates Franklin's 11 a.m.-till-sold-out model, except from a trailer, and has a similar signature sandwich, the El Sancho, combining chopped beef or pork or both with sausage and red onion slaw. Stiles Switch is another acclaimed newcomer, along with John Mueller Meat Company, also a trailer-based until-it's-gone operation, run by the grandson of famed Louie Mueller. All four faddish joints -- Franklin, la Barbecue, John Mueller and Stiles Switch -- made Texas Monthly's Top 50, with Lamberts as Austin's sole longer-established winner. Another buzzy trailer newcomer is Blue Ox Barbecue, which has won over fans and critics with its signature espresso-rubbed pork tenderloin.
Franklin Barbecue, Austin, 512-653-1187, franklinbarbecue.com Brisket $17 per pound, ribs $17, most plates $12, sandwiches $6-$8
la Barbecue, Austin, 512-605-9696, labarbecue.com Meats $13-$19 per pound, sandwiches $6-8
John Mueller Meat Co., Austin, johnmuellermeatco.com Meats $14 per pound, average meal under $10
Blue Ox BBQ, Austin, 512-537-2047, blueoxbarbecue.com Birsket, pork and ribs $14 per pound, espresso rubbed pork tenderloin $20, sides $3
Stubb's, in the heart of Downtown, is nationally known for its widely available bottled sauces, but in Austin it is synonymous with live music, a combination restaurant and concert hall with both an indoor stage and outdoor 1,800-seat amphitheater that attracts big name national acts to be enjoyed along with a full menu of starters, sides, salads and meats, including an all-you-can-eat dinner option, with choice of three meats for $18 per person. Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, which made Texas Monthly's Top 50, stands out even by Austin standards for its highly professional waiter service, upscale feel and date-night ambiance. It lives up to its "fancy barbecue" reputation with specialty meats such as Niman Ranch ribeye, natural black angus brisket, natural pork and Texas quail, along with oddities such as wild boar ribs and smoked rainbow trout. Competitive with similarly upscale restaurants, Lamberts is pricier than most BBQ eateries but delivers an elevated experience, with signature cocktails, a lengthy wine list, craft beers and decadent desserts. Upstairs is an intimate and popular live music venue, and the heart of Downtown location is tough to beat.
Stubb's Bar-B-Q, Austin, 512-480-8341, stubbsaustin.com Most meal plates $13-$17, sandwich plates $10
Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, Austin, 512-494-1500, lambertsaustin.com Most appetizers $8-14, most entrees $17-32, average dinner $50-$60