John Brotherton thought he was on the path to barbecue success in 2013. He had moved on from the food truck life and had opened a real barbecue joint, Curly’s Carolina Texas BBQ, with a partner in downtown Round Rock. Brotherton still made good money working full-time selling printer supplies, but he hoped the new restaurant would eventually become profitable enough that he could go all-in on barbecue. “All I wanted to do was be broke and cook barbecue,” Brotherton said, laughing. It didn’t work out that way, and in what he calls “a big defeat,” he had to close Curly’s in 2014.
The barbecue itch didn’t go away easily. Brotherton picked up some catering jobs in 2015 after quitting the printer business, and made ends meet by working the phones collecting student loan debt. He described it as “probably the most miserable time of my life,” and on New Year’s Day in 2016, he made a resolution to do barbecue full time. With great relief, his time as a debt collector ended on April 15, and Brotherton ramped up the catering business while also selling whole briskets from his barbecue trailer. In August, 300 people stood in line for one of his barbecue pop-ups and KVUE news was there to report on the new barbecue guy in Pflugerville. “Overnight I gained 500 new Facebook likes,” he remembers. It was his big break.
A few months later, Brotherton approached Kelley Gerry, the owner of Black Iron Eats. The tiny Pflugerville restaurant had just opened with a counter and a few tables. Their sandwiches were getting some local attention, but Brotherton thought the menu could use a little smoked meat as well. That was just the beginning: Now there’s a full menu of smoked meats and sandwiches, Tex-Mex BBQ Tuesdays, and a real dining room. The partnership was so successful that they’re opening another outpost, Liberty Barbecue (named after Brotherton’s hometown), which will feature smoked meat flatbreads and plenty of cocktails when it opens next month in downtown Round Rock.
Liberty Barbecue will have the same menu of by-the-pound barbecue as Black Iron Barbecue, and if the quality is equal, it’ll be the best barbecue in Round Rock: Brotherton and his team are putting out some seriously impressive meats. As he works to get the new place open, it’s mostly the crew—pitmasters Dominic Colbert, Alanmykal Jackson, and Andy Stapp, along with executive chef Marvin Briley—that’s responsible for the barbecue these days. If the three meat plate I had on my latest visit is any indication, the crew is doing just fine.
While standing in line to order, you can get a peek at the Prime grade briskets on the cutting block if you peer over the low wall that surrounds it. One or more of the pitmasters man the block during the busy lunch service, but you won’t order directly from them. All orders are taken at the register, customers are given a number to display at their table, and the food is delivered by a server. You can order barbecue by the pound, but the three meat plate is so generous that it’s hard to pass up the value. I suggest the eminently juicy slices of turkey, which gets an herbaceous note and some black pepper bite from the seasoning, and the heavily rubbed pork ribs, which veers toward sweet with a rib bark so glossy it looks painted on.
Did you think I would forget about the brisket? Each order comes with a couple slices and a few burnt ends. There’s a crunch in the concentrated bark surrounding each burnt end from the cracked black pepper that one could easily confuse for a late sprinkling of sea salt flakes. Brotherton swears there’s no final salt flourish. Slices of both lean and fatty beef exhibited the textbook texture of pull-apart brisket. It goes perfectly into the banh mi sandwich which I ordered to go. We already covered many of their sandwich offerings last year, but I had to get another bite.
Sides go well beyond potato salad and beans, although they offer the basics too. I couldn’t get away from the combination of creamy mac & cheese laced with green chiles and the excellent collard greens. The cucumber salad is overdressed with vinegar and I wasn’t sure what to think about the BBQ macaroni salad, but another favorite was the smoky rice and refried black beans served on Tex-Mex BBQ Tuesday (starting at 4:00pm).
That Tex-Mex menu was a hit, and the place filled up in the late afternoon for a bite of smoked brisket enchiladas. They’ve found some of the most inventive ways to use barbecue leftovers, like (boneless) pork rib al pastor mixed with charred pineapple and a smoked brisket carne guisada that could even make their H-E-B tortillas taste good. Brotherton promises he’ll up his tortilla game soon—he needs to in order to highlight the beautifully crispy, sweet fried shrimp taco and the smoked brisket taco.
There are several hot and chilled desserts available every day. Brotherton got away from the banana-flavored instant pudding he made at Curly’s a few years back and now does an honorable version. Dreamsicle tres leches cake tastes like an oven-baked Orange Julius, and I fell hard for the warm apple cobbler, which is really more like an apple pie topped with a spice cake.
Brotherton is a barbecue cook at heart, but he also loves barbecue travel. He’d love to see his restaurant in the Texas Monthly Top 50, and has done the research to know where he stands, eating at all fifty on the 2017 list. When the 2013 list came out, he had just closed his first barbecue food truck. The family had already planned a road trip to Tyler, and they stopped at Miller’s Smokehouse in Belton, Kirby’s BBQ in Mexia, and Bob’s BBQ in Henderson on their way to Stanley’s in Tyler. “That trip is really what sparked me,” he said. “I’ve gotta get back in this.” That realization of his calling is what made the subsequent flop at Curly’s hurt even worse, since back then, Brotherton expected the barbecue success to come more quickly. His patience and perseverance have now paid off, and it makes the location of the upcoming Liberty Barbecue, just across from the old Curly’s space, sweeter for Brotherton. As he describes it, “it’s a huge moral victory for me.”
Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue
15608 Spring Hill Ln., #105, Pflugerville, TX, 78660
Pitmaster: John Brotherton
Year opened: 2016