Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of Mann’s BBQ in Austin, TX

A word of disclaimer. Before I started teleworking I used to be a regular at Mann’s (it is close to work). My wife and I would get BBQ from there 2x a month, and usually 2 meals worth at a time. While this is before I started doing reviews, my memory of them is that they weren’t necessarily the best at anything, but were pretty damn good at everything. Jim and Sallie (the owners) were there all the time providing friendly service, and the food was always good. Worth waiting a bit in line if you were there at lunch time. But it’s been a while since I’ve been (over a year). 

On this visit, the casual atmosphere is the same, but something is different. I realize pretty quickly what it is. It’s 11:50am and there’s no line at all. That surprises me, as usually by this time I’d expect at 20 minute wait. But maybe it’s a fluke. I also notice that neither Jim nor Sallie are there. In fact, I don’t recognize anybody. I’m doing takeout for a group at work, so I order a large family pack: 2 pounds fatty brisket, 2 pounds ribs, 2 pounds original sausage (I added an extra pound), and 6 pints of sides (2 each green beans, pinto beans, mashed potatoes). It’s about 10 minutes back to work. 

Ribs: Have a good flavor, but are a little chewy. They are also all small with not much meat. If it was just one or two, that would be fine, but all of them are this way. Score: 6/10 just because of the small meat ratio. 
Sausage: Excellent flavor, but again is very chewy. I remember it use to have a nice snap on the casing, but not this time. The chewiness is severe enough that I’m actually having to cut with a knife. Score: 5/10. 

Brisket: I have to wonder what happened. This used to be one of their better items. I always liked it a lot, and my wife considered it one of the best in the area. It’s tender, and … and that’s all I can say about it. There’s no flavor (other than the basic meat flavor) at all. I’m not tasting any smoke, and almost no seasoning. If it wasn’t for the bark, I’d think I’d gotten a pot roast (and a poorly seasoned one at that). It just doesn’t taste at all like it is BBQ. Score: 3/10.

Is it worth a visit? I’m on the fence on this one. I’ve had numerous meals there in the past that were much better. So I’m wondering: did I just happen to hit the place on that one rare bad day that anyone can have? On the other hand, there’s been a lot of changes in the hours, I didn’t recognize anyone there, and all three of the trifecta were worse than I remember. I’m wondering if the business is being sold or passed on. If so, is the magic gone? I’ll probably give it another chance if I’m in the area, but I’d certainly understand if others decided not to.  

Is it worth a trip (Trip: traveling 60 minutes or more just for the BBQ, no detours or other business)? No. Even at their best they weren’t quite that good. And with this last visit they aren’t worth the risk. 


Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review of Stiles Switch House BBQ - Austin, TX

Scott and I decided to stop there for lunch today after running an errand. It’s on Lamar a little south of Airport Drive. Atmosphere is decent. There are a lot of pictures like these on the wall…

Interestingly, pits are not visible from where we came in or anywhere inside.


I’ll order some to go, but Scott and I both get combo platters so we can share. Scott gets brisket, turkey, and pork spare ribs. I get pork loin, sausage (both spicy and mild), and a beef rib. We both get pinto beans and mac & cheese for sides. We will be sharing the meats.

Note: The score is based on how well I think they do that particular item compared to how well that item can be done. It is not in comparison to other items on the menu.  

Sausage: Sausage has a decent flavor, is moist, and has a nice casing snap. Mild is actually a little sweet. I’m not a fan of the spicy, but that’s a personal preference. It’s a solid 6 on a 1-10 scale.  

Brisket: Decent flavor, a nice bark, and we can see a smoke ring. It’s not dry. Could be a little more flavorful, but they did give him lean brisket (he was not asked if he wanted lean or fatty). Overall, 7 out of 10.  

Pork Ribs: Have a good flavor and a nice crust. They taste great. However, the meat to bone ration is some of the worst I’ve seen on ribs in a while. Not sure if this is the norm for them or if Scott just ended up with the runts of the litter. Overall, 7 out of 10 only because there’s so little meat on them. 

Beef Ribs: The large beef ribs again (sorry for the poor picture). They are nice and tender. Flavor is good, if not outstanding. A solid 8 out of 10.  

Pork Loin: Excellent. One of the best I’ve tasted. It has that balance of smoke and salt that good smoked pork should This is a solid 9 out of 10.  

Turkey: I saved the best for last. There are two mistakes it is all too easy to make with turkey: too dry and too salty. Stiles Switch House has done neither. It is perfectly smoky, just the right balancy of saltiness, and is perfectly tender. I don’t think I’ve ever had better smoked turkey from a BBQ place. 10 out of 10.  

Overall, this was a good visit. We’re adding two new categories to the reviews, so here they are: 

Is it worth going to? Just what it means. Is the BBQ place in question even worth bothering with.  

In the case of Stiles Switch House, definitely yes. If you are in the area and looking for some good BBQ, it is worth checking out. Nothing was bad and some of it was absolutely excellent.  

Is it worth a trip? And by trip we mean traveling more than an hour one way SOLELY for the purpose of getting their BBQ. This category doesn’t apply if it is less than an hour, or if you are combining the trip with a visit anywhere else for any other reason.  

(Obviously this is subjective depending on what is available in your area. My ranking in this area is heavily weighted based on the scoring of the trifecta (brisket, pork ribs, sausage). But since we are primarily doing the Austin/Hill Country area, I work under a default assumption of 1-2 places already within an hour of you that would be worth the trip if they were an hour or more away). 

Because the trifecta were actually the lowest scoring items of the bunch, I’d have to say it’s not worth a trip (unless you really love smoked pork loin or turkey). Most people seeing this review probably have a place that scores higher on the trifecta within an hour of them.  

Bottom line: great place to visit if you’re in the area or not that far away. Not worth an extended trip just for their BBQ unless you are a huge turkey/pork fan.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

So there was some thinking while we were passing the brisket around the table...

Image courtesy of

What started out as a casual tour of central Texas barbecue places has turned over the years into a semi-scientific look at what makes for a great barbecue meal and what you should avoid. It's really as much for reference for ourselves as anything else, but thought it might be fun to share. So here we go…

Scott, Mike (friend of mine from work) and I made the trip to Giddings, TX to check out City Meat Market (CMM).
It’s apparently a regular on Texas Monthly’s top 50 BBQ, coming in 22nd on (what appears to be) the most recent list.
The trip out 290 was pleasant (we left from my worksite, so intersection of 290 and 183). There’s some construction, but the drive was nice. Took about 45-50 minutes. No traffic to speak of.
CMM is on 290 (not sure if that’s what it is called there), on the north side of the road. It’s an older building in what is probably considered downtown “historic” Giddings. After parking in back, we entered through a side entrance.
To our left are a bunch of old meat cases, and to our right are several tables and a counter. Behind the counter we can see staff. We can smell smoke.
Staff are all very friendly and polite.
We decide we’re going to get some BBQ to eat there, and Mike and I are bringing back some for respective others.
First warning sign: I order ¼ pound brisket, 2 sausage links, and 2 ribs. The brisket comes out of a pot of liquid on a counter behind the serving counter. I’ve never seen this before, and can’t think of any reason for this that is good. Asked if we want lean brisket or a little bit of fat. I get the fatty. Sausage is very long and dark. Ribs look decent. 
Payment appears to be by weight for the lot (so price is the same for everything). Comes to $16 and change.
Scott gets about the same.  Take a look at the sampler:
Brisket: Even for what is supposed to be fatty brisket, this is pretty dry. Not much flavor at all. No real smoke ring, no real color changes inside (so once you get past the bark it is all the same universal gray/brown). Honestly, I’ve regularly had better at Poke-Jo’s and Rudy’s. 3 on a scale of 1-10.
Sausage: I don’t mind coarse ground sausage, and this is the coarsest I can ever recall seeing. It looks like someone took some hamburger meat (it is apparently an 80/20 beef/pork blend), cooked it, then stuffed it in a sausage casing. That wouldn’t bother me, except it tastes about the same. I can taste a little pepper and a little salt, but not much. And it is more like someone cooked the meat and then added the seasoning. It is very uneven. It is moist (unlike the brisket), but poor and uneven flavor is a deal breaker for sausage. Again, I’ve been getting better at the local Austin area “chains”. 3 on a scale of 1-10.
Ribs: These have a decent flavor. Good salt and pepper mix, and a decent crust. But a little chewy. I do agree that a rib that is “fall off the bone” is actually overcooked, but these are a little tough. Still, of what I ordered they are the best things by far. Say a 6 on a scale of 1-10.
While paying for my to-go order, I see more sausage going on the fire, and hear a comment about “3 hours”. And I look at where they are putting it. There’s no way it is getting any smoke at that location (it’s inside with no hood above it and in plain view). It’s hanging high enough that it seems to be getting direct heat at low temperature. So “slowish cooking”, but not smoke. Honestly, I think they’d do better cooking them faster.
Pork Butt: Mom asked me to bring some pork butt back and I tried a bite when I dropped it off. Tasted about the same as the ribs. Decent, but nothing spectacular. Not quite as chewy. Say a 7 on a scale of 1-10.
Chicken: Left some chicken with Bill and Kelly since they have a sick kid. I hope they will comment.

Final thoughts: Scott suggested that we should get t-shirts made that say “BBQ Recon”. It’s a good thought. One job of a recon patrol is to go out and make sure the way is safe, or if you need to detour and find another route. In this case, detour and find another route. The BBQ trifecta is made up of ribs, brisket, and sausage. CMM only does one of those that I would consider eating again (the ribs), and theirs aren’t so great that they are worth a trip. Since 100% of the time if I’m passing through Giddings I’m going to be passing through Elgin as well, there are better options closer to home.
I’m not sure when that last Texas Monthly review was written. Either CMM has gone way downhill lately, or this reviewer has radically different standards than I do.
Some may say it was just a bad day for them. While I suppose that is possible, the way they handle their brisket makes me doubt it. I can’t think of any reason a well-done BBQ brisket would then be kept in a container of liquid that would improve the flavor. And if it is improving the flavor, then they have even bigger problems than I thought.
My impression from comments on the car ride back is that Scott and Mike felt about the same about the trifecta, but I hope they’ll respond if they feel different.