Kerlin BBQ isn’t yet a year old, making it one of the youngest barbecue joints in Austin to be mentioned with the big names. Owner and pitmaster Bill Kerlin is also pretty new to the craft of smoking meat. “I never cooked a brisket until I moved to Texas.” That was three years ago when he and his wife Amelis left Arizona for Austin. They were looking for a change of pace from Arizona and found it during an earlier scouting trip to Austin that had opened Bill’s eyes to what barbecue could be. I wondered if the Kerlins moved to Texas for the barbecue. “Not exactly, but the culture of barbecue was part of what drew me to Texas.”
Once in Texas they continued honing their barbecue skills in the backyard as they had done in Arizona, but now they had brisket. Not satisfied with the compliments of friends and neighbors who were largely eating (and drinking) for free, Bill and Amelis decided to enter a few barbecue competitions. “The first competition we did we took top ten in every category including two first places, and we won the grand championship.” That was in 2012 in Wimberley. A few months later in San Marcos they took eighth in brisket out of a hundred teams in the Hill Country State Championship. That was all the validation they needed, so plans commenced to open the barbecue trailer.
My first visit here was when they were a month old. The St. Louis ribs with a sweet glaze and plenty of pepper were already hitting every mark, but why not serve full spare ribs? Was this a hold-over from those competitions where spares are frowned upon? Nope. “I hate rib tips” was Kerlin’s blunt response. “Everything that we’re doing here, I’m cooking to my personal taste.” The ribs are still a crowd-pleaser. You can’t ask for much more when you get a ruddy bark, tender meat, and ample smoke, and a sweet glaze helped to cut the considerable salt in the rub. The brisket was still a work in progress at that point, but Kerlin BBQ was making its mark as a contender even then.
Nine months makes a big difference in Kerlin’s execution on the brisket. Instead of the tight slices that required a good set of molars, this version, using prime Angus, pulled apart like a meaty doily. The smokiness has been fortified by a change in wood. “I switched over to post oak because I didn’t like the smoke penetration I was getting with pecan on the beef.” And how different is this brisket than what scored well in those competitions a couple years back? “Three hundred percent different. It’s not even close.” This brisket is close enough to their older brethren in the 78702 to make folks take note. With a little less salt I could have eaten a pound of it.
A sausage link from Smokey Denmark’s down the street was juicy with a great snap and good smoke. A scoop of the pulled pork was somehow even more juicy. This is a meat that if mistreated can easily get dry and stringy, but Kerlin has a couple secret weapons. “We pull it fresh for every order.” And just as helpful are the pork drippings. A pan is placed beneath the pork while it cooks to collect the drippings, and each order is then baptized in those juices just before they make it onto your tray. With simple seasoning and plenty of smoke, this is one of the finest examples of Texas-style pulled pork.
After all the care taken with the smoked meat, the sides still get plenty of attention. Bill and Amelis both have a hand in creating the recipes. Slaw was heavily dressed, and fortified with lots of blue cheese – for funk lovers only. I asked for a taste of the green beans, and instead of the salty mush in the shade of Army green, these were bright with a bit of crunch remaining and plenty of bacon. The fried onions on top were even crispy. A red skin potato salad was creamy with mayo with a nice celery crunch. There’s also plenty of dill in there which is grown on site along with all the other herbs they use in the trailer. They also grow the cucumbers for their homemade pickles. This is a food trailer in Austin, after all.
Kerlin BBQ is a solid barbecue contender, even in the extremely competitive market of Austin, Texas. With all the well-deserved attention of late, business is growing, but they’re still cooking out of the same pit they started with. With an average of ten briskets per day there hasn’t been a need to expand capacity, but Kerlin isn’t concerned. They’ve been getting a steady flow of camera-toting barbecue tourists recently. “The East Side has become a destination for barbecue…There’s a lot of competition, but all that surrounding competition bolsters the other places. All the ships rise.”