If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, you might still think that Texas BBQ is limited to beef brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. Maybe some sauce and a side or two, but only if the pitmaster was feeling fancy.
For those of us paying attention, though, it’s abundantly clear that this template has been stretched significantly by dozens of boundary-pushing joints across the state. Still, the venerable tradition of smoking meat in Texas has seldom seen as vibrant, delicious, and successful an innovator as SLAB BBQ in Austin.
The heart of what makes SLAB unique belongs to its Co-Founder and Pitmaster, Mark Avalos. Mark is an Austinite by way of California who arrived in the heart of Texas nearly 40 years ago as a teenager and attended St. Edward’s University. To be clear, he fell in love with traditional Texas BBQ as an Austinite, but when he started smoking himself he wanted to infuse the experience with his own vibe, which is closer to Wu Tang than Waylon Jennings.
Mark learned the craft on his own, absorbing the wisdom of authors like Steven Raichlen and Paul Kirk and picking up tips and techniques from online forums. His varied influences laid the foundation for a personal style that refuses to follow any one regional dogma and unwaveringly operates by the acronym by which the joint is known: “Slow Low And Bangin’.”
Mark’s food stood out in the Central Texas landscape from the very start. He partnered with high school friend Chip Gourley to launch a BBQ trailer called The Sugar Shack. The trailer made its debut at the University of Texas on New Year’s Eve 2006 at the original First Night Austin. Mark aimed to share the kind of communal backyard BBQ experience he loved growing up with his new neighbors, which meant serving pulled pork sandwiches and blasting hip hop from a boom box.
As the positive reactions turned to a palpable buzz, Mark continued to focus on sharing the kind of food he loved to eat with this BBQ-obsessed city. He never operated using the traditional meat-by-the-pound style, instead creating signature BBQ sandwiches from his smoked meat and the huge flavors of his house-made sauces.
Three partners helped Mark and Chip take the business to the next level with the first brick-and-mortar location of the newly renamed SLAB BBQ: Chip Osborne, Johnnie Smith, and especially Raf Robinson. Mark met Raf, a veteran entrepreneur in the Austin service industry, at church and they immediately hit it off. When an opportunity to take over a location that was set up for serving BBQ presented itself, SLAB hit the ground running thanks to their years building a following in the food truck.
To this day, SLAB specializes in sandwiches that remix flavors from all over the BBQ map, including Carolina-style pork, an Alabama white sauce, their own Strawberry Habanero Glazed ribs, and of course a killer Texas Beef Brisket, which you can get chopped or sliced. And people all around the country learned just how special their food is when Food Network star Guy Fieri featured SLAB on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”
For a self-made foodie like Mark, earning raves for his food from Fieri on-camera and off was like the Holy Grail, so it’s no surprise that Guy’s signature is proudly displayed in the Research Boulevard location.
Through all that success, Mark has stayed true to his vision of delivering an experience like the fun backyard grill outs of his youth, where he hung out with friends, family, and neighbors. He and his team effectively bring that atmosphere to life wherever they serve, and that spirit extends to the partners and suppliers he chooses to work with, where community and trust are essential ingredients.
SLAB recently partnered with Goodstock by Nolan Ryan to bring its Premium Choice Goodstock Angus briskets to the party. As Mark explained, it was about more than just ensuring that SLAB serves high quality beef that’s second to none to their customers.
It made a huge difference that he could work with a local company that took the time to get to know him, respected the new tradition to which he stays true, and understood his needs and ambitions. The dedicated support and partnership in creating marketing materials that enhance the customer experience didn’t hurt either.
As Mark looks to a bigger and brighter future for SLAB BBQ, he’s driven to continue delivering a unique and welcoming experience while experimenting with BBQ styles from around the country and beyond. Recent specials have sampled techniques and flavors from the BBQ traditions of Central America, Vietnam, and Korea, and Mark is still just getting started.
You can get a taste of SLAB’s Dope BBQ at its two locations in North Austin (9012 Research Blvd ) and Oak Hill (7101 State Hwy 71), along with a new location opening soon in Cedar Park.