The first interview I did after taking the job as Texas Monthly‘s barbecue editor was with Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. In May of 2013, we sat on picnic tables outside the Buzz Mill off of East Riverside Drive in Austin with beers and a tray of pepper-crusted, smoked pork tenderloin from Blue Ox Barbecue.
“I was cutting [at Blue Ox] that night,” Ben Lambert told me recently. He was excited to be serving Aaron Franklin, and not long after that night, Lambert would leave Blue Ox to work for Franklin. After a rewarding four years and 364 days, Lambert left Franklin to open his own place with his wife Sarah. Their JNL Barbecue trailer now sits on the Buzz Mill food truck lot not far from where the now closed Blue Ox was once parked.
As with a lot of restaurants, things weren’t looking promising for the JNL trailer in April. The Lamberts were set up at Buzz Mill’s short-lived second location, which closed for good soon after the pandemic hit. “We tried to stick it out for a weekend” alone on the lot, Lambert said, but the customers didn’t materialize. “We didn’t have anywhere else to go, and there was so much uncertainty,” Lambert says. They reluctantly decided that shutting down the business was their only option. On their last day, the Lamberts smoked all the meat they had left in the cooler and gave it away to first responders. “We gave each other hugs, cried a little bit, and locked it up for we didn’t know how long,” Lambert recalls.
The next day they got a call from the original Buzz Mill location. A vegan pizza trailer had moved out, leaving an empty spot for the JNL Barbecue trailer. Lambert was right back in the place where he got his start in barbecue, and JNL didn’t even miss a weekend. Now, after one year of business, the Lamberts are serving a focused menu of carefully crafted barbecue and sides three days a week.
The Franklin influence at JNL is evident in the scant menu. New school Texas barbecue trends toward the avant-garde, which I enjoy, so places like JNL with five meats and four sides seem glaringly staid, especially in Austin. Lambert’s goal, he says, is to show a high level of care in preparing each item. Rather than make a splash with innovative takes on barbecue, Lambert bares his old-school barbecue soul.
The snappy smoked sausage has plenty of black pepper and a little gaminess from the offal in the mix. Slices of smoked turkey are simply seasoned and smoked until supremely juicy. A dip into melted butter before serving doesn’t hurt. Massive slices of prime, fatty brisket are juicy throughout. The well-formed bark, subtle seasonings, and textbook texture are pure barbecue bliss. A tassel of pulled pork, which is usually a boring menu item best suited for sandwiches, has a hint of vinegar sauce mixed in and is topped with crunchy, crushed chicharrones (also available, uncrushed, by the bag).
The one item a bit out of the ordinary is the “al pastor” ribs. “My favorite taco in the world is an al pastor taco, and I wanted to see if I could replicate that on the bone,” says Lambert. It’s a catchy name on the menu, and it amounts to a perfectly smoked pork rib glazed with a savory blend of chiles and spices. Lambert leaves out the pineapple entirely, but it doesn’t taste like anything is missing from each tender bite.
With fatty smoked meats, I enjoy a a crunchy slaw dressed with oil and vinegar rather than mayo, and JNL delivers. The cabbage and some green peppers are shaved thin but are still crunchy. Parsley and red onion brighten the homemade potato salad, and the pinto beans are meaty and rich. I’m not usually big on green beans that have all the crunch cooked out of them, but I could get used to this version that was tangled up with sautéed onions and chunks of the bacon that’s cured and smoked in-house. You can also purchase the bacon raw to take home, or just wait until Sunday when it’s served on a BLT.
Asked about the name JNL, Lambert joked that “Lambert’s Barbecue was already taken,” referring to the popular restaurant in downtown Austin. His dad James Nolan Lambert died when Ben was just sixteen, but he’d instilled an early love for barbecue into his son. “My wife and I haven’t had any kids yet, so I haven’t been able to name anybody after him,” Lambert says. The barbecue joint will have to do for now.
Lambert also memorialized his late mother Mary Ann by naming the smoker after her. A massive smoke stack, made by Mill Scale, rises from the smoker that sits next to the JNL trailer. Lambert said of his mother, “She was always the heart of the house, and so is the kitchen.” Every Sunday, he and Sarah open their own hearts by sharing their smoker with the community. Once the sausage comes off the pits, Lambert keeps the fire going for people who want to bring their own meat to smoke while the pit is still hot. I asked Lambert why he’d bother wasting the money on wood to keep the pit burning, and his answer was the same as for when he gave away all their food on that awful day in April as they prepared to go out of business. He simply said, “You get what you put out into the world.”
Method: Oak in an offset smoker
Pitmaster: Ben Lambert
Address: 1505 Town Creek Drive, Austin
Hours: Friday–Sunday 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Year opened: 2019