Prime Bites from TMBBQ Fest 2015

On Sunday November 1st, twenty four of the best BBQ joints in Texas dished out boats of barbecue on the Long Center patio and lawn. The event that brought them together was the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival which takes place annually in Austin in celebration of Texas barbecue. Aside from competition events, you won’t find a greater concentration of well regarded pitmasters in one place. Here are some of my favorite bites from this past weekend.

Brisket is King
The hallmark of Texas barbecue is beef, and the king of slow-smoked cuts is brisket. While all the brisket was good, Franklin Barbecue and la Barbecue consistently produce outstanding results with beef that is moist and tender with rendered fat internally but a thin fat cap that packs tons of flavor. The lines for both were long, with Franklin’s spanning the Long Center’s outer fence for most of the day. Many pitmasters predominantly use oak, so the mesquite-smoked brisket from Pecan Lodge and Opie’s Barbecue were a nice change of pace with a distinctive but not overpowering smoke flavor.

I consistently find myself digging the beefy flavor of Hutchins BBQ from the Dallas area. I was excited to sample Killen’s barbecue since it was one of the few BBQ joints hadn’t previously tried. While Ronnie Killen has been on the restaurant scene for years, he only opened Killen’s Barbecue in 2014 and rave reviews followed. His brisket didn’t disappoint and was remarkable for a thick seasoned crust.

Beef Rib Burnt Ends
By the end of the day, a huge pile of beef bones weighed down Stiles Switch’s table. Lance Kirkpatrick’s beef rib literally tasted like butter and was my favorite of the day. At Louie Mueller BBQ, the ribs were so tender that the bones were easily pulled meat free from the racks. The beef rib burnt end from Killen’s was one of the most flavorful bites of the day.

Pork’s Doesn’t Play Second Fiddle
Despite the ubiquity of beef in Texas BBQ, pitmasters still served up a strong pork game Sunday. The pulled pork from Franklin’s and La Barbecue were both notable, but it was Lambert’s Downtown BBQ that had a defined pork flavor.

It was reminiscent of the whole hog barbecue from North Carolina where the “porkiness” that has been bread out of commercially raised pigs, still shines through. Props to Buzzie’s Bar-B-Q for breaking the monotony of meat by serving potato salad and pinto beans with their baby back ribs. Over the years I’ve started to prefer my ribs like my brisket, unadorned, so the lightly sauced pit-smoked ribs from Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que were right up my alley.

Sausage, Sausage and More Sausage
The king ranch sausage from Freedmen’s Bar was far-and-away my favorite. This was one of the most distinctive bites of the festival and tasted like casserole in a casing. The pronounced corn flavor from tortillas Evan LeRoy added lingered in my mouth after each bite while the melted cheese coated the inside of my mouth. I’m a sucker for anything Tootsie Tomanetz dishes out, and the sausage from Snow’s BBQ is second to none.

The distinctive flavor from being cooked in a pit rather than an offset smoker defines it’s flavor. Other favorites included the sausage ring from Black’s, hot guts from la Barbecue and jalapeño cheddar from Hayes County Bar-B-Cue. The new addition of Bill Dumas to the Stiles Switch crew was noticeable as they served a crispy fried boudin sausage, an item Bill perfected at Smokey Denmark’s.

Prime Time
Lockhart Smokehouse served four Fred Flinstone-sized prime ribs that were cooked to a perfect medium rare. The whole bones were left in which made it look even bigger. I would have been happy to eat a whole bone-in slice and call it a day, but alas I had to settle for a few strips of the tender juicy meat.

Beast of a Different Breed
The only pit master to serve a meat other than beef, pork or sausage was Wayne Mueller for Louie Mueller BBQ. His smoked lamb popsicles with spicy barbecue sauce have become a favorite at bbq festivals. It’s not a regular menu item so it’s always a treat when he serves them. Smoke and lamb are an underrated paring, and Wayne’s lamb chops are proof.

Toeing the Line Between Sweet and Savory
This is second time in a few weeks that I’ve had Miller’s pumpkin spiced sausage. The traditional spices from pumpkin pie are added to their homemade sausage. Once smoked, it’s sprinkled with powdered sugar. I understand it might not appeal to everyone, but the sweet and savory was an unexpected but successful combination.

Freedman’s also toed the line between sweet and savory by serving a brisket chocolate chip cookie with caramelized brisket burnt ends. The cookie was respectable with a soft chewy texture on it’s own, but the caramelized brisket sent it over-the-top. Cookies and brisket together, what’s not to love?

That Green Sauce Though
Although John Lewis is no longer the pitmaster at la Barbecue, he still showed up for the festival and served a hatch green chile barbecue sauce. I’m not sure of the ingredients besides chiles, but the spicy vinegary notes were the perfect counterpoint to the rich fatty meat. It needs to be added to their menu or bottled so that I can bathe in it.

In all, I tried twenty-three of the twenty-four BBQ joints on hand, with the last selling out before I could get to it. I’m still suffering from the meat sweats days later but it was worth it. If you love barbecue, attending the TMBBQ Fest at least once is a must.