‘Cued UP – From Backyard to Big Business

East Austin’s legacy of barbecue goes from backyard to big business.

Words by Creede Fitch  Photos by Ashley Haguewood

Austin is known as many things: the live music capital of the world, the Brooklyn of the south, Capital of Texas, and to many, a barbecue mecca. It hasn’t always been that way though. Years ago if you were looking for good barbecue, you would have to leave Austin and head to Taylor or Lockhart. In recent years, however, people  have raised the status of barbecue from backyard hobby to full on culinary art. Franklin, in fact, got a well-deserved James Beard award, an honor that has never before been bestowed upon a pitmaster. When it comes to who makes the best barbecue in Austin, everyone has an opinion. Franklin’s generally lands on top of the list, a fact that is clearly illustrated by the people who start queuing up daily at 9:00AM. Other long time favorites include La Barbecue and Kerlin BBQ, both located on Cesar Chavez. While each location has their own specialty, they do all have one thing in common. The best of the best all decided to call east Austin home.

While inexpensive leases may play a part in the location choice, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. East Austin and barbecue are two things that go together like smoke and fire. The eastside has been a hub for blues and barbecue for decades. The now quickly changing 12th Street was once lined with blues bars like the Palladium, Yellow Jacket and Slims, many of which had a pit for smoking meat. On any given day, you could find local talent like Al ‘TNT’ Braggs, Tyrone Davis, and Albert Collins, playing a club and maybe even eating barbecue from Sam’s across the street. Pull anybody from that smoky bar 20 or 30 years ago and drop them on 12th Street now and they wouldn’t even recognize the neighborhood.

That is except for Sam’s BBQ where the “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef” sign has remained unchanged since it was rebuilt after a fire in the ’90s. Stepping through the creaky screen door of Sam’s is about as close as one can get to stepping back in time. The walls are lined with photos of patrons past, stained with the smoke of time. Behind the counter, you’ll find the unassuming brother of “Sam,” a man who prefers to stay out of the lime light. For over 30 years now, he’s the kind of guy who just wants to keep his head down and tend to the fire. Don’t try to talk to him about barbecue though; he’s much more interested in talking about trail riding and his horses than he is about what’s in the smoker. It’s a hint toward what Sam’s is really all about. While the food is decent, it’s not why many people come here. The heart of the place is the people. In a city that is changing quicker than one can keep up with, Sam’s is a rock. Here you can run into the same friends who have be swapping stories over smoked meats for years. Sure they serve up some good meat, but really what they serve up is conversation and a sense of community for those who have been around since the hay days of 12th Street. That’s the sort of consistency that is at the core of barbecue. After all, good food isn’t the sort of thing that can be rushed.

Micklethwait Craft Meats

Photos by Ashley Haguewood & Matt Bradford

1309 Rosewood Ave.  |  (512) 791-5961

In Austin, 157 people move here everyday. Tom Micklethwait was not one of those people. Tom is one of the rare life long Austinites, 4th generation in fact. By and large, he’s been in Austin most of his life and a good deal of it in east Austin. The now shuttered Ben’s Longbranch BBQ was a frequent haunt for Tom back in the day. After a stint doing line prep work and basic butchery at Vespaio, Tom decided to open his own barbecue trailer. It wasn’t the rich history of barbecue that drew him to the eastside though; it was something far more practical—cheap rent. He’s managed to stake out a nice little shaded lot just down the street from Franklin’s. Tom recalls the younger days, “It was just something I did at home and was a fun thing, and I kinda got obsessed with it. It’s an easy thing to get obsessed with.” Luckily for Tom, obsession and dedication along with some long nights are exactly what it takes to make good barbecue. He spent many late nights tending to the smoker and catching catnaps on the trailer floor as he got things going. 100-hour weeks were the norm in the beginning. That same obsession to detail can be found throughout the menu. The incredibly delicious sausage is house-made on site under his direction, and even the moon pies are hand made. Of all the things they are known for though, it’s the beef ribs that probably stand out. They are a massive pound and a half ordeal that are as delicious as they are big. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a whole beef rib in a single sitting,” says Tom.

“It was just something I did at home, a fun thing, and I kinda got obsessed with it.”
-Tom Micklethwait

J. Leonardi’s Barbecue

Photos by Will Bowling

1149 1/2 Airport Blvd.  |  (512) 645-1910

J. Leonardi’s is a newcomer in the eastside barbecue scene, but they aren’t new to town. The “J” in J. Leonardi’s is a local kid Jerome who grew up in east Austin. To him, barbecue was just a way of life. Weekends included family gatherings at his grandmother’s house where smoked meat was a typical backdrop to time spent with family and friends. The cooking was usually left to his uncle, but after high school, his uncle took him aside and told him it was his time to learn.

“If it’s not right, don’t bring it in the house.”

Four years later, his uncle passed, and the full responsibility to cook fell upon Jerome. His grandmother only had one rule when it came to barbecue, and it’s the same one that he holds himself to at J. Leonardi’s Barbecue: “If it’s not right, don’t bring it in the house.” It was a long road to learn with plenty of trial and error. “A couple of times I had to leave it outside, but then I eventually got it right,” recalls Jerome. The proverbial house now is a little corner oasis that he and former UT player and NFL veteran Cedric Griffin have carved out on Oak Springs and Airport Boulevard. It’s barbecue at its finest, but it’s not strictly Texas Barbecue. While their brisket could go head to head with any of the top 10, it’s their ribs and sides that really shine. One particular favorite is the smoked cabbage, a recipe that was passed down from Cedric’s grandmother. Leonardi’s family focus isn’t just limited to the food. Sit down at any table, and you are likely to strike up a conversation and make a new friend. That’s something both Cedric and Jerome’s grandmothers would be proud of.

Birdhouse BBQ

Photos by Ashley Haguewood

Location: Opening new food truck on E. 11th in July!

Jack Zizzo, pit master and founder of Birdhouse BBQ, came to Texas by way of Brooklyn. While his background is in fine dining, he came looking to learn the ins and outs of barbecue and was fortunate to land a job at La Barbecue, arguably one of the best barbecue joints in Austin. It was just what he needed to learn the ropes. After a stint at La Barbecue, Jack went briefly back to his fine dining roots and worked at Barley Swine while he planned his entry into the barbecue scene. “Good barbecue is an easy process, but it’s hard to perfect,” Jack advises. It can be tough with all the outside variables that go into the seemingly simple recipe of smoke, fire and meat. “Running a smoker is a lot harder than running a sous vide machine,” admits Jack. Luckily he’s learned well what it takes to make good barbecue, a skill that he has transferred from traditional Texas cuts like brisket to more unique cuts like the goat’s neck, boar and quail that they serve up. “We’re always going to have brisket and ribs, you know to pay respect to Texas barbecue… but we still want to have some fun and do some different things.” The focus isn’t just on the more obscure cuts of meat here though; the sides really shine as well. Jack goes out of his way to source as many ingredients as he can locally. That means serving things that are in season and fresh. It can be tough at times though educating the public. “People are like, What’s beet salad? Why don’t you have potato salad?” Their response is, “it’s not what is in season right now?” Those who take the leap of faith though will be rewarded with some of the best sides they’ve ever had.

“Good barbecue is an easy process, but it’s hard to perfect.” -Jack Zizzo

Franklin Barbecue

Photos Courtesy of Franklin

900 E 11th St.  |  (512) 653-1187

In Texas barbecue, brisket is king, and when it comes to the best brisket in town, that honor falls upon Franklin Barbecue. On any given Saturday, over 2,200 lbs of perfectly cooked brisket are served out of their east Austin brick and mortar. The secret behind that brisket? Founder and pit master Aaron Franklin is surprisingly transparent with the process. He’s even gone as far as creating a web and TV series to share everything he’s learned about barbecue over the years. That means if you are looking to step up your back yard barbecue this summer, there should be nothing holding you back.

Kemuri Tatsu-ya

Photos by Jody Horton

2713 E 2nd St.  |  (512) 893-5561

While a restaurant serving a fusion of Japanese cuisine and Texas barbecue may sound like a strange combination, Kemuri Tatsu-ya shows that they have more in common than you would think. Out of the ashes of the old Live Oak barbecue location, they have created something authentically Japanese that also feels perfectly at home in east Austin. The menu includes traditional Yakitori and Kushiyaki (skewered meats cooked over charcoal) as well as smoked fish and brisket that could hold its own against any Texas barbecue.

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