Preface: New series on the Scrumptious site; we're fanning out across Austin and pitting rival barbecue establishments against one another in the most humble of categories: the brisket sandwich.
Texas ain't the South. Walk up to a meat man at a barbecue counter in Alabama, and ask for an outside slice sandwich, and he will nod sagely and begin expertly slicing the charred, outer-zone of a pork butt, then assemble your sandwich.
Ask the same thing at Sam's Barbecue and you'll get a "huh?"
I patiently explain that I'd love the fatty, black-outer of the big brisket that's sitting on the cutting board at the venerable, East Austin bungalow that's been dispensing brisket for decades. He goes to cutting as though I'd never said a word.
The brisket is soft to the point of mush with little smoke ring and zero seasoning. The bark is undisturbed, left on the slab, and I'm presented a good-sized sandwich of meat that offers little visual appeal. I take my meal on the veranda, a screened in side room that affords a fine view of bustling 12th Street. A couple hookers are strolling down the thoroughfare as patrons mill about, taking a few final tugs on their cigarettes before entering to feed.
A group of Croatian men are gathered about an adjacent table posing for pictures. They're in town for SXSW, and excited to be eating at one of Austin's landmark barbecue establishments. I begin telling them about my barbecue tour across the Balkans last Winter and they whip out their smartphones to take notes.
Just another day at the office.
Once doctored with sauce and salt the meal comes to life. I'm haunted by how good this sandwich could've been had I been able to communicate more effectively. I'm in no way a barbecue sauce advocate but I do love Sam's version. It's thin and tart, and highlights the meat nicely. Light bread swaddles the meat, and holds its own for a few minutes before the sauce renders it asunder; I resort to eating the final half of the sandwich with a fork. At $5.41 there's value afoot, and I always feel good putting a few dollars in pit boss and owner Brian Mays coffers.
Next stop: Hoover Alexander's Home Cooking's food trailer across the street from his brick and mortar on Manor Road.
Once again I ask for fatty, outside slice and may as well be talking to a doorknob. The meat cutter gives me whatever the hell he feels like, and presents the sandwich. It's enormous, a good 1/3 bigger than the version at Sam's and at $6.50 a steal.
The pit boss at Hoover's has his Southern Pride smoker dialed in; the beef is supple but lacking fat. I go to work with salt and sauce and the well-tended brisket springs to life. Hoover's uses a good sturdy hamburger-style bun as their sandwich conveyance, and its foundation is needed as the meal is enormous. Sauce is the plain-jane, overly sweet style that's in abundance around Austin. Good quality onion and sour pickles come on the side and serve as nice accoutrement.
Ambiance is fine. Manor Road is on fire with foot traffic and oddballs in modern fashion are hoofing it to the coffee shops and bars that line the avenue. Grown men in Fred Flintstone sandals, and young tartlets sporting their thrift store frocks provide nice people watching from my pic-nic table perch.
Victor: It's a tough call, but Hoover's edges out Sam's in the final analysis. The brisket is well cooked, the serving substantial, and the microscopic traces of bark, rich with oak smoke give the nod over the curiously smoke free meat at Sam's.
I'm left wondering how good each meal could've been had the meat cutters received even the most rudimentary of educations on their chosen jobs.
I used to regularly brawl with John Mueller when he had his Manor Road joint open just down the street from Hoover's but he would eventually give me the black and fatty slices I so treasure.
Of course a stream of cuss words and baleful stares would accompany the meal but that's a trade I'll gladly make when it comes to Texas barbecue.