Brisket With a Beat

For the best barbecue and music, follow those who know the hot spots best--the Austin Fire Department.
Jennifer L. Mckenzie

It's a fact that Austin is the music capital of the Lone Star State, but Texans like me believe the city also rules the entire music world. It's the place where you can hear the latest musicians jam, and you can two-step until you collapse. After wearing a hole in the floor, you'll need a little sustenance. What better than Texas 'cue to fuel your boot scootin'?

Travel photographer--and unofficial barbecue expert--Gary Clark and I volunteered our palates and eardrums in a search for the juiciest, sauciest, and leanest barbecue in town, along with the hippest and coolest places to get down and groove.

Taking our task seriously, we consulted some 'cue connoisseurs who are accustomed to getting smoke in their eyes. The men and women of the Austin Fire Department graciously agreed to get stuffed with Gary and me. "Most firefighters are meat-and-potato eaters. Why would you ruin a good dinner with vegetables?" says Lt. Palmer Buck. "Barbecue is its own food group in Texas."

We visited some popular haunts and uncovered some new choice spots. Here's the beef.

Chowing Down
The resounding favorite barbecue joint in Austin, according to the firefighters, is John Mueller's BBQ. "It's the real deal," says fireman Marcus Reed. Because neither Gary nor I had ever heard of it, we were skeptical. But we had faith in our new friends.

John was knee-high when he started learning the cookout ropes. Now he owns a smoky, rustic dive on Manor Road that stays open until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 6 p.m. on Saturday--or until he runs out of meat, which happens occasionally.

Both the spicy sausage and tender pork were hits--as were the ribs and chopped beef. John is such a barbecue genius that we dare say eating here will change your life.

After a life-altering feast at John Mueller's, we shuffled over to The County Line. More sit-down restaurant than no-frills dive, it's a great place to treat the entire family, as most dishes are served family style. Not only did we devour lots of beef ribs and tender brisket, we also saved room for bread. Yep, that's right. The secret-recipe white bread is perfect for sopping up extra sauce.

 
Then we waddled over to the next stop, Iron Works BBQ. This establishment doesn't impress with atmosphere as there's no air-conditioning--even in the summer. Framed pictures of Willie Nelson, Reba McEntire, and Woody Allen attest to its celebrity, though. We tried a sampler plate with beef, sausage, and ribs--it was all tasty. I was especially delighted with the big-as-Texas baked potato loaded with chopped beef, while the firefighters preferred the ribs. Gary just liked everything.

Another worthy dive, Sam's BBQ, skips the white tablecloths and opts for paper napkins. It's a local place, explains fire specialist Gary Wilks. Evidently so, because musicians LL Cool J and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan are listed among Sam's followers. For something different from the normal 'cue, patrons enjoy the mutton here.

A Moving Feast
To add some tunes to our barbecue adventure, those in uniform said a visit to Stubb's Bar-B-Q was a must. Gary and I agreed. Known as one of the top venues in town, Stubb's features live music, welcoming everything from popular rock bands and country crooners to no-name artists about to strike it big. In addition to the fun evening concerts, Stubb's throws a Sunday gospel brunch that made us believers. With gospel singers onstage and a heap of food from the buffet, we were hollering "hallelujah" by noon.

They also serve up some mean meals. I, along with the firefighters, thought the turkey breast and chicken were delicious. The ribs were another pick. Gary said go with the sausage or don't go at all.

Another spot that beautifully combines entertainment and eating is The Broken Spoke. This honky-tonk legend is known as the dance hall visitors must see when in Austin. Live country music bands play here Tuesday through Saturday nights while folks chow down on barbecue.

Strap On Your Boogie Shoes
We let the firefighters return to doing what they do best, putting out fires, and hit the dance scene on our own.

Austin boasts tons of places to get down and strap on those boogie shoes, be they cowboy boots or Birkenstock sandals. We found a new name to add to our list and revisited an old joint that's as good as ever.

Speakeasy, our discovery, is the kind of place where you want to get "duded up." It features a smooth, swanky setting where you can catch live music inside or simply enjoy the view from the Evergreen Terrace.

One of my favorite haunts from my college days, Antone's, is as fun as I remember. Known as a blues club, Antone's remains an Austin tradition. At this hole-in-the-wall, the audience is mere inches away from the entertainers.

 

Getting Tuned In
To take some of Austin home with us, we stopped by Wild About Music. This art gallery and retail store stocks more than 1,500 music-themed items--from oil paintings of Willie Nelson to Austin City Limits T-shirts to a piano turned into an aquarium (it's called Tune-A-Fish). Not everything under the roof is totally Texan--there's also Elvis and Rolling Stones memorabilia. Our only complaint? Not much actual music is sold here.

Never fear, though; the firefighters came to our rescue again. The folks in uniform rated Waterloo Records as the best place to buy the music of local artists. Our firefighters list Davíd Garza, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Bob Schneider, and Willie (he doesn't need a last name) as a good start for your Texas tunes library. (We love Waterloo's exchange policy: If you don't like what you bought, bring your receipt, and you can switch your purchase--even if it has been opened--within 10 days.)

A Final Bite
As our rockin' barbecue adventure came to a close, Gary and I decided we might pursue a future in this 'cue-and-tunes combo. We could be judges in a cookout contest. We could start a band. We could be the next professional two-steppers. Austin just has a way of making you think you can be anything you want. We figured, though, that it would be best to keep our traveling day jobs. That decided, we popped Willie in the CD player and hummed "On the Road Again" as we drove to the airport.

Tune In to Fun

  • John Mueller's BBQ: 1917 Manor Road, Austin, TX 78722; (512) 236-0283.
  • The County Line: 6500 West Bee Cave Road, Austin, TX 78746; (512) 327-1742.
  • Iron Works BBQ: 100 Red River, Austin, TX 78701; (512) 478-4855 or www.ironworksbbq.com.
  • Sam's BBQ: 2000 East 12th Street, Austin, TX; (512) 478-0378.
  • Stubb's Bar-B-Q: 801 Red River, Austin, TX 78701; (512) 480-8341.
  • The Broken Spoke: 3201 South Lamar Blvd., Austin, TX 78704; (512) 442-6189.
  • Speakeasy: 412-D Congress Avenue (alleyway entrance), Austin, TX 78701; (512) 476-8086.
  • Antone's: 213 West Fifth Street, Austin, TX 78701; (512) 320-8424.
  • Wild About Music: 721 Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78701; (512) 708-1700 or www.wildaboutmusic.com.
  • Waterloo Records: 600-A North Lamar, Austin, TX 78703; (512) 474-2500.

This article is from the January 2003 issue of Southern Living.Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.