The 10 Best BBQ Joints in Austin, According to Top Pitmasters
Where there’s smoke, there’s brisket.
Austin has long been lauded as one of the best BBQ cities in the US and to this day, the city continues to ride the wave of a BBQ renaissance that has no signs of slowing. This ongoing success, of course, falls squarely on the shoulders of the dizzying number of diverse pitmasters and chefs bringing top-notch technique, creativity, and storied traditions to the table.
“I think the ‘keep Austin weird’ mentality has extended to BBQ, and it's created an incredible incubator for chefs and newbs alike to turn the art of BBQ into a craft,” says Jess Pryles, founder of Hardcore Carnivore and expert on all things meat and live-fire. “We're so spoiled by the incredible world-class quality of so many restaurants here, while so many other cities have to contend with mediocre smoked offerings.”
There’s truly no place like Texas when it comes to barbecue. You’ll find various styles of its signature slow-smoked, pit-style brisket, pulled pork, and ribs at festivals, food trucks, and restaurants across the state — which means you’re going to need to stay awhile to try them all. Plan your Texas vacation now and travel when you’re ready to have a barbecue experience that’ll blow your mind (or at least your taste buds).
No conversation about Austin barbecue would be complete without paying homage to iconic institutions like Snow’s BBQ, Sam’s Bar-B-Que, Black’s BBQ, and Louie Mueller Barbecue, alongside generations upon generations of BBQ royalty that have been elevating Austin’s smoke scene since long before the creation of online top ten lists. And, of course, there’s Aaron. Aaron Franklin set the bar sky-high in 2009 when he and wife Stacy opened the original Franklin Barbecue trailer—the world experienced his brisket wizardry, and the rest is history. Today, Franklin Barbecue stands as the most (and, dare we say, deservedly) hyped neo-traditional barbecue joint on the planet.
Fast forward to 2021, and Austin pitmasters are not only hitting their marks when it comes to cranking out kick-ass barbecue, but they’re also harnessing creative ingenuity and cross-cultural influence in an effort to take their beloved cuisine to the next level. “Austin's scene is so unique because of the competition here—a place has to stand out by offering something nobody else does, whether that's a side dish, a special sausage, or a [different] take on the cuisine in general,” says Evan LeRoy, pitmaster and co-owner of LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue. “Valentina's does Tex-Mex barbecue, Kemuri and Loro take an Asian-inspired approach. I see LeRoy and Lewis as the New American expression. We use offcuts and try to step just outside the bounds of what people consider barbecue.”
With summer (and perhaps even a glimmer of normalcy) on the horizon, Austinites are itching for a barbecue experience that doesn’t involve sucking down spare ribs over the kitchen trash can or using week-old sweatpants as a napkin. The city’s plethora of incredible offerings can leave your head spinning, so we turned to local experts Pryles and LeRoy to get the inside scoop on the absolute best places to get your fill of bark-laden brisket, tender barbecue chicken, plump pepper-spiked sausages, and pork ribs swimming in tangy barbecue sauce.
From an Eastside staple made famous by a guitar god to a woman-owned smoke shack and a family-run trailer celebrating Tex-Mex culture, this hand-picked list proves that the future of Austin BBQ burns bright. “When the new round of pitmasters is ready to step up to the block, they’ll have learned in an environment that’s already super creative,” LeRoy adds. “I can't even imagine the kind of BBQ we'll be eating in 20 years.” Amen to that.
The basics: After years tending the pits at Freedmen’s, Evan LeRoy and business partner Sawyer Lewis embarked on a concept that marries old-school BBQ technique with a newfangled approach firmly planted outside the box. While LeRoy and Lewis serve a knock-your-socks-off Akaushi brisket on the weekends, LeRoy’s deft skill set means less-typical cuts of meat not only shine but often steal the spotlight from the usual brisket-and-ribs suspects. And you can’t go wrong: The smoked beef cheeks are fall-apart tender with a crisp bark, the Citra hops-spiked sausage has that perfect snap, and lighter sides like kale caesar slaw and kimchi are an ideal complement to the fatty mains.
What the pitmasters say: “The rotating menu and unusual pairings (think: brisket kimchi sandwich) are a stand-out feature,” says Hardcore Carnivore’s Pryles. “Chef-driven applications, like confit-ing their barbacoa in smoked brisket fat, really takes their offerings to a new level.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served patio seating, call 512-945-9882 for take-out, or order next-day pick-up online.
The basics: The city is literally buzzing over East Austin newcomer, Distant Relatives. Inside his mobile smokeshack, chef-owner Damien Brockway, whose resume includes notable Austin eateries like Uchiko, Counter 3 Five VII, and Jester King, channels culinary traditions passed down by his African-American grandmother and West African ancestors. We love the pulled sugarcane pork, mango slaw sandwich served on a milk bun, fall-apart-tender beef chuck slices with tangy mop sauce, and racks of pork spare ribs encrusted with spicy red dry rub, all smoked low-and-slow over native pecan.
What the pitmasters say: “They have such a unique voice,” says LeRoy, singing Brockway’s praises. “The food is different enough to stand out yet familiar enough to be comfortable.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served patio seating or call 512-717-2504 for take-out.
The basics: After the permanent shuttering of Noble Sandwich Co., chef John Bates’ next move would prove to be a stellar one–Texas BBQ with a playful, chef-inspired approach. Eat your way through the mix of traditional, quirky, and elevated offerings starting with tried-and-true classics like pork ribs, all-beef Kielbasa sausage, and Certified Angus brisket that Pryles describes as “phenomenal,” and “at once impossibly gelatinous and crusted with a crunchy bark.” Devour Instagram-worthy indulgences like jalapeño popper sausage, the sliced brisket taco with avocado salsa, or drool-inducing boneless beef rib and pimento cheese melt complemented by a bounty of unbeatable side dishes.
What the pitmasters say: “John is a chef who transitioned from the restaurant world into 'cue, meaning the sides are bomb,” Pryles notes. “The smoked scalloped potatoes and tomato zucchini salad are such a nice departure from the ‘same old.’”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order next-day pick-up online.
Barton Springs Rd
The basics: Twin brothers and fourth-generation pitmasters Mike and Mark Black proudly continue the traditions set in place by their great-grandfather, BBQ legend Edgar Black Sr., who founded Lockhart’s Black’s BBQ back in 1932. Terry Black’s makes everything from scratch, and all meat is smoked in-house, low-and-slow. The brisket is practically required eating, but don’t sleep on the enormous Prime beef rib that the brothers describe as “a ribeye on a stick.”
What the pitmasters say: Terry Black’s Barbecue is Pryles’ preferred place to take first-timers who are seeking a hyper-Texas experience: “The classic menu, extensive beer trough, and huge ‘fixins’ bar allow people to experience the traditions of Lockart without the drive.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out and delivery online, or get nationwide shipping via Goldbelly.
The basics: Loro Asian Smokehouse & Bar is a collaborative effort from James Beard Award-winning culinary giants Aaron Franklin (pitmaster and founder of Franklin Barbecue) and Tyson Cole (chef-owner of Hai Hospitality, the restaurant group behind Uchi, Uchiko, Uchiba, and Loro.) Loro’s menu is what you’d expect from the duo: Perfectly smoked meat imbued with fresh Asian-inspired flavors, a move that lends brightness, color, and a welcome departure from the usual heavy, starchy spread. Menu standouts at the modern, casual eatery include smoked beef brisket (obvs) with Thai herbs and a chili gastrique and smoked baby back Duroc pork ribs that are only available Sundays and Mondays. To sweeten the deal, there’s also a huge patio and lots of Asian-inspired frozen cocktails.
What the pitmasters say: “It's the lightest barbecue in town,” LeRoy emphasizes. “I don't feel dragged down after eating it.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast
The basics: Since 2012, former baker Tom Micklethwait has been serving killer smoked meats and sides to droves of hungry (and, let’s be honest, hungover) Eastside residents. The modest trailer is nestled in a picnic table-peppered lot, and the wait is unbelievably short given the quality of the menu.
What the pitmasters say: Micklethwait tops LeRoy’s list for “the attention to detail on sides and sausages,” as evidenced by his standout picks, Tex-Czech sausage and jalapeño cheese grits.
How to book: Stop by for counter service or call 512-791-5961 and order online for take-out.
East Cesar Chavez
The basics: While we’re on the topic of Texas BBQ royalty, LeAnn Mueller and wife Ali Clem are steering the venerable ship over at la Barbecue. Legendary BBQ institution, Louie Mueller Barbecue, was founded in 1949 by LeAnn’s grandfather. LeAnn’s father Bobby Mueller later took the reins, serving as pitmaster for three decades and earning the restaurant both a coveted James Beard Award and the moniker “cathedral of smoke.” Today, the ladies of la Barbecue are churning out some of Austin’s best smoked meats and sides. Purists, avert your eyes: We love the over-the-top (and fun to say) “la Frito Loco” sandwich, a mountain of pulled pork, chopped beef, chipotle slaw, beans, Fritos, cheese, and jalapeños served on a Martin's potato bun.
What the pitmasters say: “Aside from being a badass female pitmaster, Ali churns out some of the most consistently top-quality 'cue in Central Texas,” raves Pryles. “They have an exciting range of housemade sausages, the brisket is always fire, and the shells and cheese are a must-order.”
How to book: Stop by the new location at 2401 E. Cesar Chavez for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.
The basics: Pitmaster Ben Lambert honed his skills during a five-year-long stint at Franklin Barbecue before setting out on his own with the help of his wife, Sarah. JNL’s menu is concise, a classic ‘cue hallmark that also makes sense for a small operation. Unsurprisingly, Ben nails his brisket—we’re talking textbook-quality—but his deviations from BBQ purist territory are similarly enthralling. Take the “al pastor” ribs, for example, hacked to taste like the real thing, plus a butter-dredged Cajun chicken and Carolina pulled pork spiked with tangy vinegar sauce. Enough said.
What the pitmasters say: Commending them for what he calls the city’s “best quality-to-wait ratio,” LeRoy considers this rustic Lakeshore hideaway “still a pretty good kept secret.” We think that won’t be true for long.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served patio seating or call 512-839-9469 for take-out.
The basics: More than a clever mashup, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ is owner Miguel Vidal’s tribute to the backyard get-togethers in his hometown of San Antonio. Mesquite-smoked meat, handmade flour tortillas, and fresh salsas are the backbone of Valentina’s offerings. Tender smoked brisket, ribs, fajitas, pulled pork, pulled chicken, and carnitas appear in different forms throughout the menu—tucked in a freshly-made flour tortilla, on a Martin’s potato roll dressed with tangy slaw, and by the pound, of course. In place of traditional creamed corn, Valentina’s smoked version is cut off the ear and dressed with crema, chili salt, and cilantro for a Mexican street fare vibe.
What the pitmasters say: For Pryles, it’s all about the am eats. “Get here for breakfast if you can,” she says. “Until you've had legit mesquite-smoked brisket in a taco, have you ever really had a breakfast taco?”
How to book: Order take-out via Toast.
East Martin Luther King
The basics: The East MLK no-frills, family-run spot—emblazoned with the catchphrase “You don’t need teeth to eat my beef!”—lays claim to a great deal of local renown. Since the 1950s, Sam’s has survived two major fires, various controversies, violence, and seven-figure offers from real estate developers. The homey BBQ joint was also beloved by legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. Today, the remnants of Sam’s history are displayed across the wall in the form of faded Polaroids and autographed headshots from decades of guests. But, mythology aside, third-generation pitmaster Brian Mays trucks along with the help of his family, keeping Sam’s history and welcoming neighborhood ethos alive one styrofoam plate at a time. Stop into this East Austin institution for Brian’s specialty, lamb mutton chops, as well as Texas-style brisket, ribs, and a giant scoop of creamy mac and cheese.
What the pitmasters say: “Sam’s is one of the only places to get lamb ribs,” notes LeRoy. “There's just so much history there.”
How to book: Stop by for counter service or order take-out online.