by BETH CORTEZ-NEAVEL
For Reporting Texas
People line up for three hours to pay $16 a pound for brisket at Franklin Barbecue in East Austin. The place is famous, having been featured by the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on national television. Fawning reviews by newspapers and Texas Monthly haven’t hurt.
One street over, at Sam’s BBQ on 12th Street, there’s rarely a line. The brisket is $10.25 a pound. Sam’s isn’t famous, though it often features in the “best of” awards in the local alternative newspaper. Locals say the brisket is as good as Franklin’s, but at Sam’s the mutton is the thing.
Barbecue critics can argue for hours over which cut of meat is best where, but they seem to agree that there are two kinds of barbecue consumers: the media-driven crowd and those who make their own way without regard to what Bourdain says. In Central Texas, the media buzz has centered on places like Franklin, the Salt Lick in Driftwood and Kreuz Market in Lockhart.
“Barbecue issues sell magazines. They sell newspapers. They drive viewers to blogs,” says Elizabeth Engelhardt, editor of the book “The Republic of Barbecue,” and professor of American studies and women and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “People can’t quite resist ranking and devoting an issue to what Texas loves best.”
That rugged little joint off the two-lane might smoke the best brisket anywhere, but the critics can’t be everywhere. Places like that appeal to Marvin Bendele, executive director of Foodways Texas, an Austin-based group that promotes Texas foods.
“I don’t believe in that kind of stuff,” Bendele says of barbecue rankings. “My philosophy on barbecue is, you just got to know when to go, at what time, and it’s probably going to be a good meal.”
Probably, but not necessarily. Mike Sutter, a food journalist for restaurant review site Fed Man Walking, says published reviews do create a barbecue hierarchy, but “our presence raises the level of accountability restaurants have for their food and service, and that can only make things better for the consumer.”
Sutter says critics help the public spend its money well among the restaurants that are reviewed. He’s less confident about the value of online reviews written by just anyone.
“Yelp, Chowhound and other citizen criticism sites have opened the doors for anybody to register an opinion. But their anonymity leaves their integrity an open question,” he says. “On the other hand, a bylined reviewer who doesn’t accept free food and writes about restaurants in a trained, reliable voice is as indispensable as a friend whose opinions you trust.”
Brian Mays, the pit master at Sam’s, regards such considerations as noise. The only thing that matters, he says, is how you cook the meat. Mays, who’s worked at Sam’s since he and his late father opened shop 36 years ago, has never advertised his mutton or anything else, and doesn’t have an online presence. The mutton speaks for itself, he says.
“As long as you’re cooking with love, you’re all right,” he says.
Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew in North Austin opened this year and is slowly garnering a loyal crowd. The beef ribs and chocolate banana pudding are among the most ordered items. Owner Shane Stiles says restaurant owners have a love-hate relationship with the media.
“Everyone says, ‘I’m a barbecue connoisseur,’” he says, but the real expert is the customer that comes in twice a week to order a favorite cut of meat. “He might go home and get back on his tractor. He might go back and start fixing a motor. But the last thing he’s ever gonna do is go get on the Internet and write an article about it.”
Critics and celebrity aside, Franklin general manager Ben Jacob sounds like the other pit masters when he talks about how people should approach barbecue.
“That’s your own flavor, your own palate. You have to make that decision on your own,” he says. “You should go try them all and make your own decision. It’s a good excuse to go eat a lot of meat.”
Still want to see what the critics think? Scrumptious Chef’s site has a barbecue section. Fed Man Walking lists its top 10 Austin barbecue joints. Full Gospel BBQ rates barbecue all over Texas. And Texas Monthly has a barbecue page on its website.
BETH CORTEZ-NEAVEL writes for Reporting Texas, a UT School of Journalism program, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.