Cade Mercer knows his audience as well as he knows barbecue. When he opened his new CM Smokehouse trailer in Austin just after New Year’s, Mercer decided not to focus on barbecue trays. “I knew I was opening in an oversaturated market, so I have to set myself apart somehow,” he explains. “I’m so bored of getting just a barbecue platter.” Now he’s having a blast, making barbecue more fun and more accessible to a customer base that might be more interested in baby back rib “wings” or a brisket cheesesteak than in classic slices of brisket on butcher paper.
CM Smokehouse is the first concept Cade Mercer has seen his name (or initials) attached to, but the man has some serious barbecue experience. He began his barbecue career at Lamberts in Austin under chef Reid Guess, when it was on our Top 50 list. In 2016, he moved over to EastSide Tavern in Austin, where he created the restaurant’s now signature brisket and cheese tater tots. A couple years after that, he moved north to team up with Guess once again, both to helm Koko Ramen and to expand the menu at Guess Family Barbecue. Mercer left the Guess family of restaurants last November on good terms, having accomplished everything he wanted to in Waco. “I needed to get back into the hustle and bustle,” Mercer says. Guess even let him borrow a five-hundred-gallon offset smoker (which he’s still using) to get started.
After a few holiday season pop-ups in New Braunfels, Mercer reached out to EastSide Tavern co-owner Matt Carter, who also is part owner of Bouldin Acres in South Austin. Bouldin Acres is not really a restaurant, but rather a mix of beer garden and adult playground with pickleball, video games, and lots of big screens, along with a playground for kids. Carter wanted a new food concept for the place, and Mercer was happy to oblige. He parked his own food trailer and smoker on the lot in January.
A few CM Smokehouse dishes are recognizable from the Guess Family Barbecue menu, like the smoked and fried chicken wings and baby back ribs, which are tossed in your choice of buffalo sauce, barbecue sauce, white barbecue sauce, sweet chili sriracha, or lemon pepper. For vegetarians, he added smoked and fried cauliflower “wings,” which are great for meat eaters too. The soft, crisp florets (also available as a side) take on the oak smoke well, and were great with the sriracha sauce. This is no afterthought of a dish.
“No afterthoughts” might as well be Mercer’s motto. “I get very sad when I go to a barbecue restaurant and order coleslaw that’s not good,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. For the CM Smokehouse version, he chars whole shallots in the coals of the firebox, dices them, and folds them into a vinaigrette with honey and just enough mustard to create a well-emulsified dressing. He mixes radishes and cilantro in with the cabbage, but not just any cabbage. “I believe wholeheartedly that everyone should be using pre-chopped cabbage,” Mercer says. I assumed freshly chopped cabbage was always best, but he argues that letting the cabbage air-dry helps it better soak up the dressing. Pre-chopped and bagged cabbage is already a bit dry, so he prefers it.
Mercer’s favorite menu item is, he says, “the buffalo turkey sandwich, hands down.” I wish he’d told me that when I visited, but I’ll have to come back for the thick slice of smoked turkey breast that gets battered, deep-fried, and tossed in buffalo sauce. I did get to try the cheesesteak, his favorite thing on the menu “with brisket on it.” It’s served on a soft sourdough roll, and the chopped brisket is topped with caramelized onions and peppers, American cheese, and dijonnaise. It’s gloriously satisfying, as is the Brisket Bleu’s burger, which starts with a griddled patty of freshly ground chuck and is topped with brisket jam, blue cheese dressing, fried onion, and jalapeño strings. Putting all that between two slices of buttered Texas toast makes the burger even more rich, but it’s hard to put down.
Mercer will still serve up sliced barbecue on a platter if you prefer, but only as an off-menu item. Most of the orders come to the truck via the Bouldin Acres app that customers download at their table. The platter option isn’t on there, so you have to ask for it directly from the truck window, and they’ll only make you a tray if orders aren’t too backed up. “I don’t get asked for sliced barbecue often at all,” Mercer says, especially from his friends in the barbecue business. “They see [the menu] as a breath of fresh air.” As someone who eats more than my share of sliced barbecue on butcher paper, I’d have to agree. Besides the excellent brisket, be sure to try Mercer’s house-made beef sausage. Baby back ribs and sliced turkey may also be available, depending on the time of day.
CM Smokehouse is quickly gaining notoriety for another off-menu special: the brisket “crunchwrap.” “It’s silly how much of them we sell,” Mercer said. This version resembles the Taco Bell original in name only. It uses two flour tortillas made with smoked brisket fat by Flores Tortillas. Jack cheese, a third pound of chopped brisket, a corn tostada, lettuce, pico de gallo, pickled onions, crema, and salsa verde are layered on a twelve-inch Flores tortilla, then topped with a six-inch flour tortilla before it’s all wrapped up like a present and finished on the flattop. It’s like a barbecue torta inside a tortilla.
The crunchwrap, along with barbecue tortas and fajitas, will make up the bulk of the menu at yet another food truck (aptly named Gringo Loco) that Mercer plans to open in May right next to CM Smokehouse. “I get super bored super easily, so I have to constantly do new stuff,” he says. He’s humble, but the new venture is also a sign that this irreverent barbecue truck has found instant success.
While CM Smokehouse is enjoying some notoriety for his inventiveness, especially among members of the barbecue community who are already familiar with Mercer’s cooking skills, the pitmaster reminded me that “the top seller is chips and queso. I wish I was kidding.” Mercer takes that as a challenge, and wants to convert people who might not consider themselves barbecue lovers or who love classic barbecue too much to appreciate his experimentation. “Barbecue can be good in other ways,” he says. It’s okay for the barbecue fanatics and so-called purists to have some fun here too.
2027 S. Lamar Boulevard, Austin
Hours: Sunday–Wednesday 11–10, Thursday–Saturday 11–midnight
Pitmasters: Cade Mercer
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Year Opened: 2021