Noble Sandwich Co. has been beloved in the Austin area since 2010 when co-owners and chefs John Bates and Brandon Martinez began serving smoked duck pastrami and beef pastrami, among other items, in far northwest Austin. They opened a second, more central location in the city in 2014, but the flagship remained until last year, when Bates got the itch to change things up. “I was getting a bit of wanderlust, and wanted to do something different,” he told me. They closed the original location and reopened it as Interstellar BBQ in February.
I know what you’re thinking. Does Austin need another barbecue joint? But if you look at a map of Austin’s northwestern-most reaches and the adjacent suburb of Cedar Park, there’s a dearth of good barbecue. The recent closing of Big Cat BBQ thinned the options further. Bates already had experience smoking meats at Noble Sandwich Co., and his dad provided his barbecue foundation. “One of my earliest memories was cooking briskets for my cousin’s wedding,” he said on the patio at Interstellar. “It was a logical change for us.”
The barbecue is great, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to note that the crew at Interstellar dedicate themselves to making great sides.”It’s really difficult for me to work really hard at some things and mail it in on the other stuff,” Bates said. Plus his wife is a vegetarian, and he wants her to eat at Interstellar too. A spicy dressing is added to raw, shredded cabbage for every order of slaw, ensuring it doesn’t get soggy. The pasta shells in the mac and cheese are truly al dente. “We got a guy making the mac to-order in the back,” Bates said. A tomato salad replaces the usual cucumber with zucchini, the structure of which holds up better in the acidic dressing.
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Bates also serves the best vegetarian barbecue item I’ve enjoyed in recent memory. The scalloped potatoes are sliced very thin. Cream, butter, and garlic are mixed in (I didn’t say it was vegan), but not so much that it’s gloopy. The mixture is loaded into a shallow pan and topped with copious amounts of shredded parmesan, then the whole pan goes into the smoker to cook. The smoker reduces the parmesan to a solid, dark crust. It eats like brisket bark. There’s so much umami packed into each bite, it tastes like a main course. I joked that it’s not exactly a dish appropriate for Texas summers, but Bates said it’s too popular to ever take off the menu.
All orders are taken by Bates at the cutting block. He smiled when I asked for lean brisket, and later told me, “It’s kinda what we judge ourselves on these days.” It passed the test. Bates and pitmaster Warren McDonald know what they’re doing with the huge offset smoker that sits in a trailer in the parking lot. A portion of pulled pork was rich and fatty with plenty of smoke. Just looking at the pork ribs, it seemed like they’d overdone it on the rub, but it was well balanced between sweet, spice, and salt. They were smoked to the perfect tenderness and were a favorite at the table.
In a move similar to Cooper’s and Opie’s in the Hill Country, Interstellar offers free beans. They’re on the counter next to the pickles, and have a “ranch style” flavor, though they’re made from dry beans. I asked Bates why he makes a free side so good. “People come in and spend a lot of money on stuff. We think it’s cool to give them a little bite of something on the house,” he said. A sausage wrap and a side of those beans could make a satisfying and inexpensive lunch.
The sausage making at Interstellar ranks among Austin’s best. Former butcher Ray Hernandez, who remained from the original Noble Sandwich Co., leads the program. The links are based on a 50/50 mix of ground pork shoulder and brisket. The majority of the latter comes from what’s trimmed off the briskets before they go into the smoker. The jalapeño popper sausage is fortified with ground bacon and big chunks of gooey cheddar. The brisket banger—with garlic, black pepper, and paprika—has a fine grind and plenty of juice. I also liked the Texano, which was the special of the day. They say it’s a take on carne guisada. There’s Mexican oregano and cumin along with charred serrano peppers and Oaxaca cheese. It’d be great in a tortilla with a little salsa, but you’ll have to provide those yourself.
I’ve never seen rice pudding on a barbecue menu, but at Interstellar it’s the only dessert. A drizzle of pumpkin spice sauce covered the top, and it was a nice change of pace from a cobbler or, dare I say it, banana pudding. Never mind. As a biased proponent of banana pudding, I take it back, but I’d love to try that drizzle on top of some banana pudding.
Interstellar has done themselves well to focus on the quality of basics like brisket and ribs, but I also love the creativity they’re showing. I stopped in months ago, on their first Saturday, to find them sold out, and McDonald wearily cleaning out the smoker trailer. These folks are putting the work in, and it’s paying off. The motto on the Noble Sandwich Co. website is “Make it, and make it better than the guy down the street.” That attitude has carried over to Interstellar, a solid new option for suburban Austin.
12233 Ranch Rd 620 N, Suite 105, Austin, TX, 78750
Hours: W-Sun 11-4
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Pitmasters: John Bates and Warren McDonald
Year Opened: 2019