If I had noticed the smoked brisket salpicon on the lunch menu at Lamberts in time for my favorite Tex-Mex bites, it certainly would have made the list. I recently tried the seasonal menu item at the downtown Austin restaurant for the first time, but for chef Lou Lambert, who founded the restaurant in downtown Austin, it’s a tried-and-true staple.
Lambert’s salpicon was first praised in an Austin Chronicle write-up in 2002, after his eponymous restaurant opened on South Congress. (It moved downtown in 2006.) Writer MM Pack loved the combination of shredded beef with a fresh salad. Her only quibble was that the dish “was marred by dry and rather tasteless corn tortillas.” When I visited, I found hot, fresh corn tortillas. They carried the combination of spicy, smoky brisket and the crisp shreds of iceberg, sliced avocado, and radish dressed in a bracingly acidic vinaigrette. The punch of lime helped tame the rich beef in the same way that Lambert says chimichurri provides the proper counterpoint to a fatty steak.
The Lamberts brisket is smoked in a pan with beer, beef stock, chiles, onions, and garlic. “It’s a shallow braise in the smoker,” said Lambert. Once the brisket is done and shredded, the liquid from the braise is pureed and incorporated back into the beef. It’s as dense as a good chili con carne, but the bright salad provides a good balance so it seems like a light lunch.
All that brisket will soon be smoked in a new smokehouse at Lamberts. They’ve broken ground on a foundation for a new pit. They had planned to rebuild the pit they rescued from Ruby’s BBQ after it shuttered last year, but the salvaged bricks proved too fragile to use. The restaurant is anxious to have the extra cooking space once the smokehouse is complete. “We needed the volume, and we wanted a new pit,” Lambert said.
Lambert’s relationship with the brisket dish dates back to before opening his own restaurant. “I’ve always had a tender spot in my heart for the salpicon, because it goes back to when I was a kid,” he said. When his family would spend time on their ranch near Eagle Pass, they’d often cross the border for dinner. Lambert recalled “an old classic restaurant in Piedras Negras with white tablecloths, and they always had a mariachi band. That’s the first place I had salpicon.” It took more than forty years for me to enjoy my first bite, but the salpicon at Lamberts wasn’t a bad place to start.