In the heart of the Blacklands neighborhood on the eastside of downtown Austin is Sam’s Barbeque, the quintessence of the gritty urban barbeque joint. Sam’s has character to spare, but it’s not just about atmosphere. They’ve earned the coverage they’ve gotten in newspapers and magazines all over the nation as one of Texas’ best by offering some fine no-frills barbeque for more than 20 years.
I lived only a few blocks from Sam’s for many years, so I’m intimately familiar with their offerings. We used to get take-out at least once a week when we lived in town, but since moving to the exurbs, my visits to Sam’s have been infrequent. I did get back there recently for a late night flashback tour of their menu and a perfect opportunity to put together this review.
When you first approach it, even with a beautiful sunset behind it as shown above, Sam’s is pretty unprepossessing. It’s a small, old frame house with a single small room for diners, featuring two booths, a couple of tables and barely functioning air conditioning. The walls are papered with posters and photos of visiting celebrities and community notices and there’s a TV in the corner with basketball constantly playing. Seating capacity is maybe 20 people, but when Sam’s burnt down in 1992 they added an outside deck with a few picnic tables for overflow crowds. It looks like it’s been there since the dawn of time. The walls are greasy, the windows are almost opaque, and there are ziplock bags full of water hanging in the windowframes which somehow magically repel flies. The neighborhood is terrible – though the Nation of Islam finally chased off the floating crapgame which had been at 12th and Chicon for years – so it’s not surprising that space is limited since most of their business is takeout. The uninformed visitor would never guess that Sam’s was one of the most famous barbeque joints in the nation unless they noticed all the yellowing clippings, grimy awards and glowing testimonials thumbtacked to the walls.
So that’s the atmosphere. How’s the barbeque? It starts off with the usual. There’s sausage, brisket, pork ribs and chicken plus typical sides like beans, potato salad, pickles, chips, crackers, white bread and onions. That’s all pretty typical, but there’s also something you don’t see that often, barbequed mutton. There’s iced tea and a cooler with sodas and desserts in it. The food comes on styrofoam plates for dining in or wrapped in white butcher paper for carryout.
All of the meats use more or less the same rub, which is mild and fairly lightly applied. This is different from most Texas style barbeque, and sort of begs for the application of at least a little sauce. Of the standard items the ribs and the chicken are nicely done, but unremarkable. Despite all the barbeque I’ve eaten over the years I know bad ribs or chicken when I taste them, but if they’re good I can’t always differentiate just good from really excellent. The chicken’s not dry and the ribs are meaty and flavorful and that’s a good start. The brisket isn’t up to the same standard. It tends to be a little tough a little too lean and sort of flavorless. It’s definitely their weakest offering. In contrast, their homemade sausage is really excellent. It’s not as exotic as Kreuz’s or as spicy as some, but it’s a coarse-ground, flavorful and peppery long-link sausage similar in style to the renowned but overrated links from Southside Market in Elgin, but less greasy and much more tasty.
Pretty good so far, but Sam’s has a secret weapon, the breast of mutton. Mutton is a non-standard offering, and everywhere else I’ve tried it I’ve been disappointed to the point of downright horror in at least one case. It tends to be greasy and often flavorless and full of tiny bones and unidentifiable things. Not so at Sam’s. Theirs is excellent. Most people won’t be brave enough to try it, but if they do they won’t be disappointed. I think the secret is that they cook it longer anhd slower than their other meats – the softness of the rib bones bears this out. It develops a rich and complex flavor, a lot of the usual grease cooks off, and it has a crust which has a concentrated flavor which is outstanding.
As a barbeque purist I often deride sauce and those who put it on their meats. Too often it’s used to hide bad cooking. But when BBQ mistress Ronnie (shown in the photo to the left) offers you some sauce, you ought to consider it. Sam’s has one of very few sauces which are worth having in their own right. It’s peppery and thick and not excessively sweet or vinegary. It’s one of the few sauces I can put on barbeque and feel like it really compliments the meat rather than smothering the flavor. I think that to a large extent the excellence of the sauce is part of what makes Sam’s such a hit with out-of-towners and food journalists. They’re not from Texas and they’re probably afraid to try the mutton, but they expect barbeque to have sauce on it, and in this are Sam’s doesn’t disappoint.
Sam’s is at East 12th and Coleto. Unlike John Mueller’s which is not far away and closes inexplicably at 7pm, Sam’s is open until 4am. It may not be as good as Mueller’s overall, but it’s got that killer mutton and it’s open late at night, and that’s hard to beat.