Explore Austin – Austin Black-Owned Barbecue Spots with Soul

Welcome back to another installment in our Explore Austin series with Food Network’s Ali Khan! Ali is checking out notable restaurants around Austin that you can visit using CapMetro as you get back to what you love in our great city. Don’t forget that weekend rides are FREE through July 4th! Head to our Trip Planner to get started!

Hey guys, Ali Khan here with another installment of Explore Austin. Today, we are talking about barbecue; specifically barbecue for the soul. So what exactly does “barbecue for the soul” mean? Well, more that just a round of up best BBQ joints in town, I wanted to focus on the culture of barbecue and it being around Juneteenth, feature some Black pitmasters who are frankly the blood, sweat and tears of barbecue.

Get ready for some saucy ‘cue, but no bibs necessary. And even though it’s hotter than the surface of the sun these days in Austin, you’ll be glad to know that both our barbecue spots feature access to air conditioned dining. That’s a game changer for the next couple months at least. 

Lastly I’ll add this before we dig in: there’s no shortage of great barbecue in Austin and while we all have our favs, keep in mind that barbecue is more than just melt-in-your-mouth brisket. It’s a longstanding culture whose traditions transcend any Yelp rating. A barbecue spot worth its salt has a story and lineage behind it that’s just as important as the rub on the brisket or the wood in the smoker. Get ready to for two good stories, kissed with smoke and cooked with love.

Slab BBQ: BBQ, Beats and Life

Slab BBQ has two locations, I went to the one off Research blvd that’s a 5 minute walk from a bus stop. In fact it’s not too far from Q2 stadium, in case you’re looking for a third spot to hit up before or after an Austin FC game.

Starting out as a food trailer called Sugar Shack, owners Mark Avalos, Raf Robinson, Jason Hernandez Chris Osbourne and Chip Gourley evolved their distinct barbecue vision into Slab, which is an acronym for “Slow, Low and Banging.” What sets Slab BBQ apart from the old school barbecue joints like Black’s or craft barbecue places like La Barbecue, is the influence of Memphis and Carolina styles and a focus on bold barbecue sandwiches. There’s Alabama White Sauce in the BBQ Chicken slider, and the overall experience at Slabs highlights sauces take cues from the sweeter and tangier side of barbecue.

Pro tip: while you can order meats by the pound, you’re here for the sandwiches. A sandwich called “The Donk” includes every meat on the menu and weighs in at a full pound. Others are named for Black pop culture icons, the like the “McDowell.” Yup, you’re looking what the McRib could (and should) be if it was made with a Pitmaster’s love and actual ribs (Chef Mark removes the bones after smoking). Not only is the sandwich’s name a reference to the movie Coming to America, but it’s Mayor of Flavortown approved! Slab was featured in a 2019 episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives.

Along with the McDowell, I’d strongly consider the “El Jefe.” As a total Texas transplant with zero affinity nor nostalgia for queso, this is the second time queso actually made sense to my palate. Not surprisingly both times involved brisket. Nothing about Slab’s BBQ is traditional, not the sandwich combos nor the sincere adoration for hip hop. Wu-Tang Clan references adorn the bathroom doors and they have a sandwich named C.W.A. which stands for Chicken With Attitude and a clear tip of the cap to arguably the most iconic Rap group ever, N.W.A. 

If it’s not obvious by now, Slab’s has a culture that stands out in the world of barbecue. Like the hip hop references that coat the walls at Slab’s, the culinary POV here samples different genres and remixes the game a bit. Jason Hernadez, one of Slabs’s partners, said “we aren’t trying to be biters.” That they are not. While barbecue sandwiches itself may not sound game changing, I challenge you to find sandwiches that are this bold by design yet actually deliver with genuine smoked meats.

For you BBQ heads, I’ll also add that the their smoker is a Southern Pride, featuring a gas assist that fires up Oak and Pecan. The words “gas assist” might shake the confidence of some purists, but I got plenty of smoke from the chopped brisket and the meat was pretty darn juicy too.

Like rap and hip hop, barbecue aficionados put an emphasis on the old school. But keep in mind, you can’t have an old school without someone striving to be new school. As chef Mark Avalos puts it, “everyone wants to be on Texas Monthly; we wanted to be on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives.” That’s new school barbecue thinking right there, folks. Now come get your BBQ sandwich on.

Brown’s BBQ: Old School for the Soul

Switching gears to the old school, I found myself finally trying Brown’s BBQ on S. Lamar Blvd, a trailer situated in the parking lot of Corner Bar. Daniel Brown did pop-ups for years before opening Brown’s BBQ. His pop-ups though weren’t exactly the chef-driven, Instagram-hyped sensations they are now. In the early 2000s, the self taught pitmaster would set up for Austin City Limits Music Festival in the lot at Barton Springs Saloon.

Back then, regulations were a bit looser and Daniel was able to serve the kind of Central Texas barbecue he was brought up on to the scores concert goers who would travel to Austin’s famed music festival. One of his regulars was from Denmark, who would visit Brown’s barbecue set up when he was in town for the festival. Eventually city regulations regarding food vendors became more strict and Brown’s had to shut down. That customer from Denmark came back one year to Barton Springs Saloon, asking, “what had happened to the bbq guy? That was my favorite part about ACL.” The bartender responded that Brown’s had to shut down. Daniel happened to be there when this conversation took place, which was when he decided he need to come up with a more permanent set up.

When I met Daniel Brown, he was wearing a t-shirt that said “78704”, which is the zip code where Brown’s BBQ resides and where Daniel grew up. Born and raised in Austin, his barbecue style is connected to Lockhart TX, where his dad worked the pits at Chisolm Trail. Daniel learned the art of barbecue by watching his dad, simple as that. In a barbecue world that, nowadays, is no stranger to fine dining chefs and an ever-evolving global pantry, Daniel Brown’s barbecue is steeped in tradition. Even though the trailer opened in 2012, make no mistake that the barbecue at Brown’s is old school Central Texas.

Brown’s BBQ makes the round ups on sites like Eater as a place to go for some bang for your buck. Still, being listed along with craft barbecue joints like Micklethwait means your brisket has to stand up. Out the gate I’ll say right now this brisket is pretty darn juicy and you can’t go wrong with ordering some up. Brown’s also does boudin, a cajun sausage that’s stuffed with rice, pork and sometimes liver, a staple in Louisiana and East Texas as well.

The link was respectable too, moist like brisket, though its a finer grind than my preference. Daniel says “a true test of a BBQ joint: how do they do the chicken and ribs? If they can do that they can do BBQ”. I tried both and was partial to the chicken. The St. Louis cut spareribs were huge and quite fall off the bone too. The smoke and bark was little light on the ribs but played well for the chicken. My big takeaway from all the meats is that Daniel doesn’t like it dry.

For the BBQ heads, here are the deets: Daniel uses a custom smoker that he built and post oak that he chops on his own to keep his costs down. I’ve interviewed a lot of chefs over the years and Daniel Brown could take the cake for being exactly he puts out on the plate: a legit taste of Texas.

“I am the C and the Y in country,” Daniel said. “The smoke runs through our veins.” And by “our,” he’s referring to his daughter Amaris, who has not only worked at the trailer since high school, but is poised to take over, which Daniel alluded to more than once.

It’s not easy to take over the family business, nor is it always in the cards for the next generation. So I had to ask how Amaris felt about doing this work and ultimately taking over. I should add here that even with a window AC unit which Brown’s has, making barbecue in a food trailer in the Texas heat is HARD WORK. Still, Amaris said, “I love it,” with zero hesitation. In the Brown family, smoke certainly does run through the veins.

As a Texas transplant who fell for craft barbecue first, I gotta tell you that if you’re craving a taste of old school Central Texas barbecue, I’d skip Lockhart and head to Brown’s BBQ; it’s a way shorter trip. Even if you take the bus!

And there you have it: two barbecue joints for the soul. Old school bbq and new school bbq, both rooted in the culture of the cuisine. Something to chew on as we honor Juneteeth with more awareness and reverence for the contributions African Americans have made to the most American of cuisines: barbecue.

Cap-tivities with Catalina!

We’re welcoming Catalina to the crew with our latest issue of Cap-tivities!

This issue is all about hitting the road by MetroBike to experience the sights and sounds of the city, up close and personal. Join Catalina for a wheelie fun variety of cycling-themed word games, coloring pages, mazes and even a basket-full of Cap Laughs you can share with your friends.

Download Cap-tivities Issue 8 to get started! Click here to check out our past Cap-tivities issues.

Be sure to use #captivities and tag CapMetro on social media to share in the fun!

Facebook = Capital Metro

Twitter = @CapMetroATX

Instagram = @CapMetroATX

Check back next month for a new friend and even more fun activities!

Another Step Forward for Project Connect: Request to Enter FTA Project Development Phase

Following last November’s vote moving the funding of Project Connect forward, we have been busy completing the necessary processes to establish and implement this bold new transit plan.

Adding to the significant milestones we have reached in less than a year since local approval of Project Connect, President and CEO of Capital Metro Randy Clarke signed letters requesting the Orange and Blue Line projects be accepted into the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Capital Investment Grant Program. These request letters serve as a critical milestone kicking off Capital Metro’s formal funding for the two light rail projects.

We told our community and voters we would work closely with our federal partners to secure federal funding, and this is another important step in fulfilling that commitment. Less than one year ago we hosted the joint Capital Metro Board of Directors and Austin City Council meeting to approve the Locally Preferred Alternative. To be at this step less than one year later is an incredible, industry-leading achievement and a testament to the expertise and dedication from our staff teams, and your leadership.

– Randy Clarke, President and CEO of Capital Metro, in a letter to the Boards of Capital Metro & Austin Transit Partnership

While the FTA reviews the requests and accepts the projects into the next phase, CapMetro will continue to work through the required environmental impact documents and preliminary engineering design.

CapMetro is proud to serve the greater Austin community by taking each step of this process with care.

Head to our website to learn more about Capital Metro’s Project Connect.

Explore Austin – Austin FC Game Day Eats

We’re celebrating getting back to what we love this summer and we want you to join in on the fun! Not only are we offering FREE weekend rides from June 5 – July 4, but we’re helping you kick off the fun with some delicious recommendations. Our foodie friend Ali Khan is helping us highlight restaurants across Austin, new and old, that you need to know about and that you can easily visit using CapMetro.

Welcome to the first installment of Explore your Austin, where we take you around town to sample old school and new school restaurants, all accessible by CapMetro. My name is Ali Khan and if you watch Food Network and Cooking Channel, you’ve probably seen me on shows like Cheap Eats, The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and recently, Spring Baking Championship.

For the last five years, I’ve also been an Austinite. And I’m here to celebrate the Austin food scene and its unique character. Austin was cool way before it became hipster chic, so there are restaurants representing days gone by that are well worth your time and attention. The city is also a draw for culinary talent and new ideas and I intend to put the spotlight there, too. 

Everything we feature here will be accessible by CapMetro. Why? Because as any city grows, so come growing pains like traffic, parking, gas prices, etc. I’m a believer in public transit and believe it’s a great way to explore and connect with your city.

And with that, let’s talk about what’s happening in Austin right now: Austin FC and where you should eat before and after the games. The two restaurants we’re featuring this week are Huckleberry, a seafood truck near Q2 Stadium, and Mi Madre’s, an iconic Austin Tex-Mex restaurant near MLK Station.

photo via MLSsoccer.com

Where to Eat Near Q2 Stadium

As much as I get fired up at the games, I’m just as hyped for the food options before and after. While the stadium has plenty to offer, here are two of my picks for before and after an Austin FC match. Because if you’re like me, the pregame and postgame is just as important as the game-game. 

Huckleberry is a relatively new offering to the Austin dining scene. Parked on Braker Lane by Circle Brewing Co., the Huckleberry food trailer is about a 15-minute walk to the stadium. It’s worth schlepping a few extra steps to nosh on quality seafood, which just happens to pair so well with the beers next door at Circle Brewing.

Partners Reese Melinda and Chef Davis Turner grew up with a tradition of backyard Gulf seafood parties and wanted to bring that here to Austin. Despite opening during the pandemic, the two stayed the course and are now just starting to blow up, as Austin FC fans discover their tasty fare.

When you try the Shrimp Roll, you might be raving, too. Texas Gulf shrimp are perfectly poached for a quick three minutes before leaving the flame but not the pot. The carryover heat brings the shrimp to temp before they get sauced in a bath of scratch-made lemon aioli, vibrant fresh dill and fried capers.

What separates a great recipe from a great meal, besides execution, is top-notch ingredients. A cornerstone of the Huckleberry concept was sourcing great seafood from the Gulf. When you read a farm’s name on a menu, you sometimes cotton to the time and energy that went into creating the supply chain that brings the purple carrot to the hip restaurant on East 6th street. Even more challenging is creating a sustainable Gulf seafood supply chain. At Huckleberry, you get just that.

You’ll taste it in the Black Drum Fish Sandwich, which goes beyond simply a Filet-O-Fish on steroids. There’s something a bit more meaty and satisfying to the flavor profile of Black Drum when compared to more mild-mannered fish like cod. When fish is fresh, it’s just far more interesting.

I’ll play the part of a proper food critic for a sec and say that the fries don’t match up to the previous dishes. But hey, you’re eating at a food truck, and expecting Kennebec potatoes hand-cut and fried to order is simply asking a bit too much.

The fries are very forgivable when one tastes the watermelon salad or the charbroiled oyster flight featuring five different toppings. The former is the ultimate edible summer heat wave reprieve, and the latter, in particular the Oyster Rockefeller topped with caviar, was one of the more decadent bites I have ever had, either at a food truck or on a white tablecloth. 

Not surprisingly, all of this comes with a price. The sandwiches run $13-14, with sides around $6, and there are platters that sail past the $30 mark. But… it’s quality seafood with the promise of sustainability. And that means something, whether you’re sitting in a hip dining room or at a picnic table in your Austin FC jersey. 

I should add that the smashed burgers are pretty reasonable and there is a kid’s menu too. But trust me on this, if that shrimp roll sounds remotely appetizing, you’re gonna be a Huckleberry regular. 

Legendary East Austin Tex-Mex

Switching gears for a taste of old school Austin brings us to the east side and Mi Madre’s. A local Tex-Mex staple, Mi Madre’s has garnered a loyal following spanning 30 years of business. Aurelio Torres and his wife Rosa, opened Mi Madre’s in 1990 with a lot of heart but not a lot of money. The restaurant business is fraught with stories of frustration and failure. To hear Aurelio reminisce over his three decades in the biz, it sounds like none of that ever entered his mind or deterred his spirit to succeed.

I’ve spent a few years meeting memorable characters in the restaurant industry, and let me tell you, Aurelio is up there with the very best. His success and Mi Madre’s loyalty are tied into his spirit as much as, if not more than, the food. Ask any Austinite about the breakfast tacos at Mi Madre’s and you will know that their food is pretty darn good.

You could start with the UT Longhorn’s football team who get Mi Madre’s catered during their spring training. Or ask any “hurting” east sider on a Sunday morning who needs a hangover cure in the form of miguitas. College football players and hungover hipsters may not have a lot in common, but clearly there is common ground when it comes to refried beans.

Me? I’m a barbacoa man. Barbacoa is from the Mex end of the Tex-Mex spectrum (Tex-Mextrum? SpecTextrum? Best Western?). It was Mexican food before Mexico existed, and barbecue before the word barbecue existed; and you know that was long ago, because without barbecue, Texas couldn’t exist yet. Even now, barbacoa refers to almost as many kinds of slow-cooked meat as its Anglo counterpart, from cochinita pibil in the Yucatan to cow’s head in South Texas, with lots of braised goat and lamb in between. Around here, we’re usually talking about the sort of braised beef that I have fallen for, head over heels, since moving to Austin. Mi Madre’s version calls for beef cheeks to be braised for 10 hours. They double wrap the cheeks in foil so the meat is immersed in rendered fat. That plus some fresh pico de gallo and their house green salsa and I’m set.

While the menu is rooted in Tex-Mex classics, Mi Madre’s is more than just a genre of Mexican-American cooking. Aurelio and Rosa opened this restaurant when the east side came with its share of issues. There was a higher crime rate. And there certainly wasn’t the same kind of foot traffic that businesses would typically want.

That didn’t matter too much to Aurelio and Rosa. They needed to make a run of what they had, namely the restaurant and who they could serve. They would serve anyone who came through the door. If they couldn’t pay their tab, Rosa would say to them, “pay me tomorrow”. Back then and even now, some buildings would get hit with graffiti. Except Mi Madre’s. Then, as now, Mi Madre’s earned the respect of the neighborhood.

If you’re coming after an Austin FC game, fair warning that you might miss the breakfast tacos which get cut off at 3pm. All will be right, though, because the barbacoa tacos are still available along with some hearty plates like the chicken mole enchiladas or the crispy fish tacos. 

The fish tacos, which feature tilapia, aren’t at the level of seafood found at Huckleberry, namely sustainable. But there is sustainability happening at Mi Madre’s, and it’s in the form of community. 

Mi Madre’s is the Austin many locals and old-timers do in fact long for. Before the national press and real estate developers zeroed in, Austin was a funky little city that welcomed an eclectic mix of folks. Some may lambast the change and lament for days gone by. Being a transplant, I can’t share the sentiment, per se, but I can understand where it comes from. 

But here’s the thing: folks like Aurelio are still here. And you can support this part of Austin and take a big bite of the new, namely that shrimp roll at Huckleberry. I pressed Aurelio a bit about his thoughts about the neighborhood changing and moving on. His response? “Why swim against the current?” While I love his outlook, I hate imagining an east side without Mi Madre’s. 

That’s why I’ll be at knocking back some tacos and a pitcher of margs at Mi Madre’s. It’s that part of Austin that I don’t want to see fade away. So while you get ready for an exciting chapter of Austin to begin, with MLS teams and Gulf shrimp rolls, take a bite and a sip of what made it special way back when.