Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

Pork Tour Day 1: Austin

Posted By on March 17, 2009

Pre-pork, I take the edge off the 400-mile drive from Marfa.

Pre-pork, I take the edge off the 400-mile drive from Marfa.

When I decided to commence the Pork Tour in Austin, I knew who to call for advice. My red-headed, Texan, pistol-of-a-girlfriend Coqui didn’t fall far from the tree. Her dad, Ronnie Dunn, has been searching out the best BBQ in and around Austin “since God was a chile.” In his off-BBQ hours, he’d butchered meat and fish for Central Market, hunted and field-dressed all manner of game, and smoked more meat than any other private person. Ronnie knew his way around an animal and a BBQ joint.
I made the call: “Hey Ronnie, I want to eat some great pork in Austin on a Sunday night. What are your thoughts?”
We may be a little late - but we've found our light!

We may be a little late - but we've found our light!


Thus began a two-week exchange of bright ideas, hearsay, and decisions gone awry. I’m not going to mention the establishments that were selected, discussed, and then abandoned, nor share the reasons why they fell by the wayside, because it wouldn’t be fair to those who didn’t make the grade. Let’s just say that it all boiled down to Sam’s.
Sam’s is in a kinda funky part of town, Ronnie said, so we should probably get there by 5:30pm. Unfortunately, I miss-perceived that number of hours it would take to drive in from Marfa (in the future, remind me to wax lyrical about the gorgeous deep pool at Balmorhea State Park, around which I took a lovely stroll), and didn’t even get to Ronnie’s house, about 15 miles south of Austin, until that exact hour. This meant that we would eventually roll into the dirt parking lot of Sam’s at about 7pm. I couldn’t have felt more at home.
After 30 years of being around happy people, Sam's a pretty positive guy.

After 30 years of being around happy people, Sam's a pretty positive guy.


Sam’s is at 2000 12th Street, and the neighborhood is both colorful and, actually, colored. The place has a reputation for (arguably) the best backyard BBQ in Austin, among many worthy contenders. Note the prevarication here? Anywhere in Texas, BBQ is a subject fraught with potential conflict, and I am a neophyte who probably shouldn’t even enter the reverent discussions: I don’t profess to be a BBQ expert, or even a true connoisseur. I just love pork, and one of the great ways to eat pork in Texas is at a barbecue place. Ronnie has told me the pigsickles (his word for ribs) at Sam’s are goooood. So after a quick shot of tequila to take the edge off my drive, we’re off to Sam’s.
My sausage nestling up to Ronnie's brisket. It can't get away.

My sausage nestling up to Ronnie's brisket. It can't get away.


The room is small and close and full of festive, frayed history—plus a bunch of eager customers. I tell Sam he looks way too young to have been standing there carving pieces of hog and beef heaven for thirty years, as he claims. But sure enough, Sam started working for his uncle in 1978, at the age of 25, and took over the place for himself in ’98. At the beginning, Sam’s mom did all the cooking (“Used to be, he couldn’t even boil water,” she tells me), but these days she cares for Sam’s invalid sister pretty much full time. Tonight, to get a break from that all-consuming work, she’s dropped in to watch her handsome son work the counter, so I get to meet her. She’s draped on the chair like her bones have turned to dust—she’s that tired.
When we make our way up to the ordering station, my usual good fortune takes a holiday: Sam is out of ribs. There was more than one reason we shoulda been here earlier.
Austin BBQ consultant Ronnie Dunn, ready to head home and chew over our discoveries.

Austin BBQ consultant Ronnie Dunn, ready to head home and chew over our discoveries.


This soul-destroying news makes me eye Sam with respect even as my heart is breaking. A good barbecue man does not—ever–serve reheated ‘cue. So, he makes his best estimate of how much meat he’ll sell on a particular day, and then gives it his all. If something unexpected occurs (on this particular evening, a nearby church bought triple their usual order), Sam will simply run out of meat. So, it’s sausage for me and brisket for Ronnie. I do end up eating some of Ronnie’s brisket; yes, I am on the Pork Tour, but why would I be so dumb as to stand on ceremony in the face of this kind of tenderness?

Sam gets his sausage from the meat market, and this is a fine grind, more like a hot-dog than a chunky-style wurst. But it’s what happens inside his pit that makes a difference: the exterior of the links are burnished to a translucent burgundy, shiny with promise. When he slices my length into chunks, the promising, pink and day1samsignrefined interior is exposed; it’s like a girl wearing a pretty pink dress underneath a beat-up old sou ‘wester. First, I taste the sausage sans sauce, so I can take its naked measure; There is a snap as my tooth hits the skin, then I break through the hint of resistance and hit porky pay-dirt. Ummmm. Chew. Repeat. I dunk just a corner into the soupy red goodness in my styrofoam cup. Slippery, a little shy, but willing to give it all up for me if I will but take the time to relish. Now that’s the way I like my pork.

Comments

Leave a Reply