A Texas legend, hidden in plain sight
by Karen Spezia
Photographs by Taylor Prinsen
Pssst. Wanna know a secret? Waiting in line for great barbecue is a dirty lie. Somehow we’ve been brainwashed into believing that the longer the line, the better the ’cue. But I’m here to tell you that ain’t necessarily so. And while I
agree that Franklin’s has the best brisket ever, I don’t usually have a few hours to wait in line for it. So I go to Black’s. Instead of a lengthy wait, Black’s ushers me in with similarly good barbecue, pronto. Never fear, the short wait doesn’t mean it’s not popular — it is — but the most I’ve ever witnessed in its fast-moving line is a dozen people. No worse than your lunchtime crowd at a fast-food place.
Black’s is legit and has the history to back it up. In operation since 1932, Black’s opened its original location in the Texas barbecue capital of Lockhart. Started by Edgar and Norma Jean Black, the business is now run by their kids and grandchildren, making the original Black’s the oldest family-run barbecue joint in Texas. In 2014, Black’s opened an outpost in Austin, just off Guadalupe near UT, and a location in San Marcos, called Kent Black’s BBQ. Additionally that year, Terry Black’s BBQ opened in South Austin, but is unaffiliated with the original and owned by other relatives, using different techniques and recipes. Still, the family barbecue legacy runs long and deep.
The Black’s Austin location is truly an outpost. Its barbecue is cooked daily in the original pits down in Lockhart, then hand-delivered to Austin hot and fresh, ensuring it retains the look and smell of the original. Black’s cooking method is somewhat unconventional. First, briskets are partially smoked in a wood-fired rotisserie for eight hours, then stored in a cooler for a couple of days. Finally, they’re smoked over aged post oak in old brick pits for several hours. The result: tender beef shot through with flavorful marbling and smokiness and covered in a thick black crust.
Although brisket is the star at Black’s, it certainly isn’t the only highlight. The gigantic beef ribs look like something out of The Flintstones, weighing up to two pounds each. The moist turkey breast is as good as I’ve ever had. And for sandwich lovers, the chopped beef is piled high with succulent brisket. Black’s signature sausage contains more beef than most conventional links. Its century-old recipe utilizes 90 percent beef brisket trimmings and just 10 percent pork, resulting in a rustic grind within a juicy, snappy casing. There are lots of tasty side dishes, but the creamy potato salad, sweet coleslaw, and gooey mac and cheese are my favorites. Black’s also provides traditional accoutrements like white bread, dill pickles, sliced onions, and jalapeños free of charge — unlike some of Austin’s more notorious and greedy barbecue joints (you know who you are).
Black’s outstanding food and modest lines attract a delightfully diverse clientele. During a single meal, I spotted UT students and professors, government employees, buttoned-up lawyers, Camp Mabry soldiers, techies on laptops, senior citizens, and Texas Rangers (complete with guns and holsters!). Nary a tourist in sight. On the front curb, a dark-tinted government vehicle idled as a pair of security guards scurried in to procure lunch for their VIP passenger. It was quintessential Austin: a mélange of happy people, side by side at communal picnic tables, sharing the joys of terrific barbecue. Black’s is friendly, funky, delicious, and relatively undiscovered — for now. So what are you waiting for?