Damien Brockway was sick of cooking the food people expected from him. A native of Norfolk, Connecticut, Brockway graduated from the Culinary Institute of America nearly two decades ago, and has since worked in high-end kitchens from One Market Restaurant in San Francisco to Uchiko in Austin. He even created a beloved tasting menu at the elite, awkwardly named Counter 3. Five. VII in Austin. Now, he’s handed in his tweezers for the load of pecan wood that fuels a steel smoker at Distant Relatives, a month-old East Austin barbecue trailer. “This place is about sharing what I like and what I am versus playing to what everyone wants or expects me to do,” Brockway says. The result is barbecue that might be unexpected to the Austin faithful.
Brockway calls Distant Relatives a “smoke shack,” rather than a barbecue restaurant, because he doesn’t serve brisket. I think he’ll draw in barbecue fans either way, but if they want smoked beef, it’s going to come from a different part of the forequarter. A whole chuck is about thirty pounds of raw beef, roughly twice the size of a brisket, and Brockway cuts it in half before smoking. It makes the beef more manageable on the pit, but it still requires sixteen hours of smoking to get up to the proper temperature, which Brockway says is around 195 degrees. Any longer, and it falls apart before he can slice it.
The choice to not serve brisket at an Austin barbecue food truck might seem contrarian. (Just remember that LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue does the same: smoked beef cheeks are their de facto bovine cut, and briskets are saved for the weekend.) Brockway’s decision is personal. His African American ancestors were likely the ones providing the labor when large hunks of barbecue were cooked over an open fire for massive crowds. That sort of traditional Texas barbecue didn’t discriminate between different cuts of beef. Along the journey from community barbecues to modern barbecue joints, the brisket was singled out in Texas for its marbled fat and low cost. Brockway contends that all other beef cuts are just as historically significant, so why not offer something different from the same tradition?
“It’s harder to cook than a brisket,” Brockway says of the chuck. He salts the meat the night before, adds his proprietary seasoning blend before smoking it, and spritzes it with vinegar as it cooks. Once it finishes on the smoker, there’s an extended rest period in a cooler, after which reheating is required. The slices I was served weren’t as hot as I’d like, but they were pull-apart tender, with a flavor unlike that of the smoked beef I’ve had elsewhere in Texas. The black pepper, salt, and red pepper are familiar, but they’re only the foundation of Brockway’s seasoning. “Those three things are the historical core of barbecue,” Brockway says. He calls the trio “newspaper rub” because it’s black, white, and re(a)d all over.
The common threads among the dishes are the same flavors that make Distant Relatives unique: locally made, cumin-steeped vinegar and a West African spice blend that contains allspice, mace, nutmeg, red chiles, and white pepper. There’s also plenty of smoke. Every dish contains some element that’s seen the inside of the smoker, even if it’s just the dried red chiles that go into both the green papaya slaw dressing and the pickled cauliflower and carrots. The latter are lager pickles made with beer, heavy on the fresh dill. (In light of the current trend of adding a puckering pickle flavor to Texas beer, I much prefer Brockway’s reversal.) The slaw is even better with Brockway’s smoked and spiced peanuts sprinkled on top.
The slaw is made twice a day so that it’s always served crunchy. The dressing is a lime vinaigrette, made with serrano peppers, garlic, and ginger paste. It’s the perfect foil for smoky, fatty meats, and brings some heat. Cabbage is also on the menu, stewed with mirepoix and pork fat—but not just any pork fat. Brockway trims the thick fat cap off the pork shoulder in a single piece, then smokes the fat on the top rack of the smoker so the drippings baste the barbecue below. What remains of the smoked fat goes into the smothered cabbage dish. Don’t leave without some.
There’s as little waste as possible at Distant Relatives. The joint serves St. Louis–cut ribs, but they begin as spareribs. Brockway trims the tips and the pork skirt under the ribs and smokes them separately. Those extra bits of smoked pork and the bony, gristly parts go into a pork stock that he simmers with the burnt-end black-eyed peas. The parts of the chuck that aren’t pretty enough for slices become the burnt ends that go into the savory side dish.
Bits of those ribs make for great sides, and the ribs themselves are impressive as well. The pork flavor comes through a restrained amount of seasoning, and the texture is perfect. The skin on the smoked quarter chicken is so thin it nearly shatters, while the meat beneath is juicy. The sauce pairing is also spectacular: a chili vinegar butter that is far more savory than sweet. Pulled pork from the shoulders is served with chili ketchup and, most importantly, a thick slice of brioche toasted in brown butter. The pork itself is decadent enough, with big chunks of seasoned bark and a splash of cumin vinegar for balance, but I dare you to not put a forkful on that buttered bread.
The magnificent bread and buns are made by Sarah Listrom of Elpis Bakehouse. She also supplies the rum cookies, which are the only dessert on the menu. If a cookie isn’t what you’re after at the end of the meal, just try the whipped sweet potatoes. They’re velvety smooth, super sweet, and also savory thanks to the spiced brown butter that gets mixed in. It’s another surprising turn from Brockway’s impressive lineup of sides. “Treating the sides with as much attention to detail and care as you do the meat” is part of Brockway’s barbecue mantra.
Brockway says he intends to create a brick-and-mortar lunch counter that also serves barbecue dishes for dinner, but the food truck in a tire-shop parking lot was as good a place to start as any. Distant Relatives’ tagline is “modern African American.” Brockway wants to work from the foundation his parents and ancestors built for him and his generation. “I’ve been blessed by the work that they’ve done and continue to do,” he says. “I’m a modern African American. I’m a business owner celebrating my heritage, and we’re going to make something new.” As someone who eats a lot of Texas barbecue, I can say that Distant Relatives is one of our most exciting newcomers. Austin is lucky to have it, even without the brisket.
3508 E. Seventh, Austin
Hours: Wednesday–Sunday 11–7
Pitmaster: Damien Brockway
Method: Pecan in a steel smoker
Year opened: 2020