AUSTIN IS A CITY WHOSE schizophrenic self-image is suspended between its laid-back, small-town, beer-swilling past and its high-speed, big-city, wine-sipping present. That gap can be hard to bridge, and restaurants that open here tend to go for one side or the other. But when chefs and business partners Lou Lambert and Larry McGuire returned to the city after a two-year hiatus, they decided to address both sides of its split personality. Three months after their new place opened, the results of the experiment are in. If you don’t make reservations several days in advance for a weekend night, you may find yourself cooling your heels on the sidewalk outside the Second Street District building that is the home of Lamberts Downtown Barbecue.
A tour of the menu can make your head spin, in a good way: There are both deviled eggs and wild salmon (not together, thank goodness), jalapeño hot links and bigeye tuna. Lambert and McGuire lull you with something folksy, then pull back the curtain to reveal—ta-da—something classy and unexpected. Crunchy fried green tomatoes, for instance, are crowned with lump crab salad; crispy wild boar ribs (pictured) come in a reduction of hoisin sauce and apple cider.
Or sometimes they do the opposite, offering a dish that sounds daunting but turns out to be totally approachable, like “housemade charcuteries and local artisan cheeses.” Friends, it’s a pâté-and-cheese plate. Order it—and believe me, you should—and you’ll get three savory kinds: lean shredded rabbit that has been luxuriously poached in duck fat; a coarse-textured cabrito and pork; and an old-fashioned “headcheese” made from sweet, succulent pork jowls (don’t freak out; it’s delicious).
But the place where Lamberts really speaks to the city’s dual soul is with the smoked natural meats (we Austinites may be threatening our arteries with beef, but by God, we want it hormone- and antibiotic-free!). There are juicy slices of herb-crusted prime rib and impossibly tender pulled pork. And then there is a whole separate list of grilled entrées led by a natural porterhouse steak, a velvety slab served with red-chili cheese enchiladas. As seductive as the meats are, though, I have to pay special tribute to my favorite vegetable dish sampled so far, chickpeas seasoned with achiote and slathered with goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, and caramelized onions. And a quick word—well, three words—about dessert: pear fried pie. No other flavor will ever do again.
Not surprisingly, Lambert and McGuire are also on target about what will appeal to Austin visually. The place occupies a rustic historic building with buff brick walls and lofty ceilings, and at the drop of a napkin, the servers will tell you in breathless detail about the tables and woodwork, which are fashioned from century-old “sinker” pine logs that were dredged out of the Sabine River. (Can you imagine Dallas getting excited over waterlogged old trees?) Five years ago, the first Lambert’s, on South Congress, was an instant hit. Today, it’s déjà vu all over again. The guys who are running the show understood Austin then, and they understand it now.