InterStellar BBQ Makes Austin’s Most Creative Barbecue
Located in northwest Austin, this BBQ joint is built on quality ingredients, clean smoke and a commitment to keeping it low and slow
By Karen O. Spezia
Photos by Holly Cowart
InterStellar BBQ ain’t your typical barbecue joint. Oh sure, it’s got all the usual suspects found at most smokehouses: brisket, ribs, sausage, et al. But there’s a little twist on everything: a dash of unexpected spice here or a surprising ingredient there. Almost every item offers a fresh interpretation of Texas’ most traditional cuisine, which is what sets it apart from the bounty of other excellent barbecue in town. And what earned it a top spot on last year’s coveted “Texas Monthly” barbecue rankings.
As its name implies, InterStellar offers something slightly alien. And being different is the trademark of chef/owner John Bates, who’s been stirring up the Austin food scene for over a decade. Bates honed his culinary chops working in top Austin kitchens like Wink and Asti, then struck out on his own in 2010 when he opened Noble Pig, offering a small but superb menu of creative pork-centric sandwiches.
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Housed in a generic strip center on the unfashionable outskirts of northwest Austin, Noble Pig wasn’t much to look at and barely held 20 people, but Austin foodies took notice and happily made the pilgrimage up to Bates’ tiny shop, frequently lining up out the door. It even garnered the attention of Food Network and was featured on Guy Fieri’s wildly popular, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Bates rebranded his restaurant as Noble Sandwich and, a few years later, opened an outpost in Central Austin, expanding the menu to include an extended offering of sandwiches, sides, salads, soups and brunch items. But in 2019, he shuttered both restaurants to make way for InterStellar BBQ.
Located just down the road from Bates’ original Noble Pig and in a similarly unfashionable strip center, InterStellar has attracted barbecue devotees from the get-go. But it was last year’s spotlight that launched InterStellar into the stratosphere, when it made the cut on “Texas Monthly’s” heralded barbecue rankings. Not only did InterStellar make the list, it secured the #2 spot, just below Goldee’s of Fort Worth and outranking local barbecue darlings Franklin and Leroy and Lewis. Since then, the crowds have only gotten bigger and the lines longer. If you arrive at opening time, expect a crowd already queued up at the door.
And what these hungry folks are waiting for is some of Austin’s most creative barbecue. One of InterStellar’s signature items is pork belly shellacked with a peach tea glaze. After a second turn in the smoker, the glaze caramelizes into a sweet and smoky lacquer atop thick cubes of pork that are strangely addictive. The Tipsy Turkey Breast is another favorite, marinated in a bucket of local German-style beer then smoked until tender and juicy. It’s so flavorful that it needs no sauce or accompaniments.
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The rotating selection of sausage mostly consists of a 50/50 mix of ground pork shoulder and brisket. The Jalapeno Popper is one of the most popular choices, stuffed with jalapeno, ground bacon and gooey nuggets of melted cheddar. There’s a Banger sausage spiced with paprika, garlic and black pepper and a Texano link with Mexican oregano, cumin, charred serranos and Oaxaca cheese. For purists, there’s a classic beef Kielbasa.
Bates uses a slightly sweet dry rub on his St. Louis pork ribs, and his heritage Duroc pulled pork shoulder is moist and unctuous. Brisket is traditionally prepared, simply seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic and smoked over post oak. There are always daily specials, and this year, many have featured lamb, such as shanks with gremolata and red wine BBQ sauce, rack of lamb with espresso BBQ sauce, lamb shoulder with chimichurri and lamb sausage studded with sun-dried tomato and feta cheese. On one visit, I enjoyed a shredded lamb taco topped with salsa verde, cilantro, onion and cotija cheese, tucked into a handmade flour tortilla. Specials also showcase Bates’ love affair with global flavors and might include Curry Barbecued Pork Chops, Coconut Rum Chicken Legs, Smoked Oxtail Stew or tangy Red Pepper Chicken.
Side dishes are given star treatment at InterStellar. Instead of old school potato salad, there’s luxurious Smoked Scalloped Potatoes, thinly sliced spuds baked in layers of cream and butter, then topped with a caramelized parmesan crust. It’s practically a meal in itself. The spicy jalapeno slaw is freshly tossed and crunchy — a far cry from those insipid slaws found at so many barbecue joints. And the beans are both savory and sweet, and best of all, free of charge (you read that right). Pro tip: take home a tub of InterStellar’s delicious homemade pimento cheese to enjoy at home later.
Since I reviewed Chef Bates’ first restaurant almost a decade ago, his culinary skills have matured and grown. And so has Austin. And InterStellar is a tasty reflection of both Bates’ and the city’s impressive evolution. With InterStellar, Bates has shown that Austin barbecue doesn’t have to be the same old thing. Instead, it can be as creative and diverse and yes, perhaps a little weird, as the city itself.