I've been back now for a couple of weeks after four months in Austin. Overall, I can only repeat my earlier assessment that it is a great chowhound town. In fact I am feeling somewhat deprived back in the City. From my perch on the Upper West Side, it takes a long time to get to much of what NY has to offer. In Austin, it was generally speaking a quick and predictable ride in the car, which meant that I actually had better access to cheap eats than I do back here.
In any case, here are a few additions and amendments to my earlier posting.
I very much doubt I'll eat as much of this stuff ever again. It's great, but (as I packed in several spots in my last couple of days) I don't think you can live on the stuff. It's also a pretty crude food, so it's tough to make fine distinctions, and atmosphere inevitably adjusts one's taste buds.
I did a lot more exploring of the in-town joints during the second half of my stay. As a general matter, the less prettified the place, the better the barbeque (consistent with the observation above).
Dan's BBQ, on the way to the airport on the Old Bastrop Highway: This is a discovery, I think (at least I never saw anyone else mention it before). Succulent ribs and brisket, some sort of green sauce at the fixins bar to go with it, in addition to regular sop. I only got here once; I almost cried when, on the way to airport for the trip back to NY, it was closed at three in the afternoon. It may just have been a good batch, but I thought this some of the best BBQ I had.
House Park, on 12th off of Lamar. Greg Spence turned me on to this place, and he's right about it. Pork loin is especially good.
Ben's Long Branch, on East 11th. Took me a while to find this spot, on a quiet street parallel to east 7th, not far from IH-35. Good, though a little on the dry side. Nice sauce, and a good banana pudding.
Lewis' Bar-B-Q, on East 18th. Very nice stuff, from a shack. The real shiner here: the peach cobbler. Caramelized, rich, nothing bready about it; really superb. As far as East Side BBQ goes, I thought both Ben's and Lewis' better than Sam's, which was pretty greasy.
Tex-Mex BBQ, South 1st at East Oltdorf. A little drive-in. Nothing really Tex-Mex about it, just plain good barbeque, especially the ribs.
Bert's, on MLK west of campus. Fine, but nothing special. Tis was towards the end of my barbeque ninging, though, so I may not have recognized it for what it may be. And of course nothing special in Austin terms is better than we will ever see in Manhattan.
Bongo BBQ, on West 24th. A student beer hang, basically. Not a contender for anything in the meat category.
After visiting these other spots, I have to conclude that Ruby's is overrated, prettified BBQ for the non-BBQ set. Nice sides and all, but the BBQ itself doesn't rate. I would also put Artz in the overrated category. This was some of the driest barbeque I had during my whole visit - the country style rib was almost leathery. Wonderful warm atmosphere, with nice music and service, so I don't regret the trip, but on food values, this was not up there with the others.
Out of town:
Before a few clean-up notes (my expeditions to places like Cooper's and Mueller's were covered in my earlier posting), one experience to recount. After a lovely weekend afternoon in the Hill Country the wildflowers are spectacular in their color and variety, truly world class we happened on the annual Founders' Day celebration in Dripping Springs. It was already dark, and it was hard to figure out what was going on - but there were a couple of dozen stands, all with barrel grills with wood boxes on the side; not commercial, people just hanging out behind them like they were on a picnic. Little "tips" buckets on tables. Well, it was the end of a BBQ cook-off, and sampling was for the asking. I was already full before I really figured out what was going on, but it was great even still.
Luling Central Market. I finally made it here, feeling almost on a pilgrimage. You see, five or six years ago I had my first real BBQ experience in Texas, on a car drive from Houston to Austin, and I almost feel that I can date my serious chowhounding to that experience - the pit, the butcher paper, by the pound on a non-electronic scale, the white bread, a small hangar-like place that just couldn't be faking it. Alas, that place was not Luling. So I was completely deflated when I discovered that this was not the place of my revelation. Truth be told, I didn't think the barbeque here anything exceptionally - both brisket and ribs on the dry side, sausage very good but nothing extraordianry. Great little town, though, with all the campaign posters for Watermelon Thump Queen, and a nice produce market along the main stretch.
(As best I can figure it the place I actually had the barbeque those years ago was Giddens. Does that ring any bells with anyone? I didn't get back there this time, so I'm only working my obviously faulty memory here.)
Kreuz. I went back twice, and I still don't quite get it. May be that I always seemed to be there off-peak. A colleague told me to order an "outside" piece - which landed me a totally inedible, incredibly salty end piece. Always seemed dry to me. I also hate the second line set-up - you're dying to dig into the meat, which is in your hands, and you have to wait another fifteen minutes to get a soda. And as some other poster noted a few months back, you don't really get any good flavor off this stuff. In Lockhart, I prefer Black's (although this is one place where the grungy surroundings just feel grungy, and a salad bar never added to BBQ atmosphere).
Uncle Kunkle, in Johnson City. Pretty weird atmosphere, like the place was stuck in the Johnson era, and I got the feeling they wouldn't be impressed by my Yankee credentials, but my quarter pound (for all of two bucks) was just fine.
Inman's BBQ, in Marble Falls. Great atmosphere - an old house only somewhat converted for the task, so that one can still recognize the kitchen as once for the home. Charming guy at the pit giving out chocolate covered strawberries to the kids. Good brisket and turkey sausage.
What can you say - Austin has great Tex-Mex. This stuff you probably could live on, from a dietary perspective, though it must wear on you after a while. But for four months I was an all-taker. A few more spots and return visits:
Manitas: Sorry I didn't get here until the day before my departure. Great in-town Tex-Mex; I had an excellent al pastor plate with black beans. Charming, old Austin (as in 1970s) ambiance.
Taco Xpress: Hyped place on S. Lamar. Pretty good, but doesn't hold a candle to Mexicana Bakery. Nice old Austin atmosphere, though perhaps a little contrived by now.
Chuy's: Mediocre Tex-Mex on Barton Springs, now of Jenna-fake id fame. Popular enough spot - we had to wait a half an hour on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. A watery margarita, pedestrian fajitas. Why anyone would wait here when La Reyna is empty up the street goes to show the power of little decorating tricks (the airplanes hanging from the ceiling) and a "fun" atmosphere.
La Reyna, on South 1st. Phil Wronski's right about the fajitas here. Nothing pretentious about this joint.
Joe's Bakery, East 7th. A slightly anglicized version of Mexicana Bakery. Doing a brisk business on a Sunday morning, but I didn't find it nearly as good as the South Austin offerings. A pretty mediocre menudo; barbacoa that screamed lard.
La Monita, East 7th. A real dive, but the best barbacoa I had during my stay. Chunky and tender tasty.
Julio's, on Duval. Nice service, but typical North Austin tex-mex - in other words, better than anything you'll get in New York, but not nearly as good as the South Austin fare.
Guerro's, on South Congress. I wasn't too impressed with this place on my first visit - too much of the bar feel, and a little upscale compared to the South 1st joints - but on a second trip was surprised by a couple of good, simple tacos on corn tortillas (made in house), and a decent tamale (though nothing compared to the lady on a 106th and Amsterdam).
Curra's, on Oltdorf. Had an excellent breakfast there one Sunday morning, eggs with shredded dried beef, black beans on the side.
Jeffrey's. Felt some compulsion to check this place out, and was pretty completely underwhelmed. Other than the mandarin orange margarita, nothing that was really any good, and the prices are New York. I can't remember what I had to start; the duck and shrimp entree sounded interesting, but was just a heavy mess. Leaden atmosphere.
Oasis, overlooking one of the river canyons. This is a scene around sunset, a multitiered hillside haunt that seems (judging from the parking lot) to accommodate thousands. Not bad for a drink, but skip the food.
Enfield Drug, on West Lynn. Nice authentic fountain counter, with the food to match (in other words, nothing special). Old Austin without trying.