There’s a trailer in East Austin that is creating a new target for what it means to be a complete barbecue joint. Micklethwait Craft Meats not only serves great smoked meats, they also bake their own bread and desserts, all the sides and sauce are homemade, and they start with dry beans from a sack rather than from a can. As if the time required to make great barbecue wasn’t already a big enough hurdle, Tom Micklethwait demands more of himself and his staff.
How he does it, I’m not sure, but afternoon naps must be involved. That was probably the case when I was there last week and Tom wasn’t on site. [Read more about Tom’s schedule here]. He would have been pleased with the line that had developed by 12:30. Micklethwait has been steadily gaining popularity, but any sort of line has been confoundingly absent on my previous visits dating back to February. Maybe it was the recent publicity they received after the Cooking Channel show Eat St. filmed at the trailer two weeks ago. Maybe it was overflow from the always lengthy line at Franklin just a half mile away. No matter the cause, this is a joint that deserves the attention.
Tom Micklethwait (the “th” is silent) opened this trailer last December. Two months later I was pleased to find lamb sausage on the menu along with other barbecue staples. That day the brisket was dry, the chicken lacked smoke, and the pork spare rib was a bit tough. The sausage, however, was stunning. It had bits of tangerine zest and the lamb had been mixed with beef instead of the usual companion of pork. It provided an aggressive meatiness with every flavorful bite.
A few months later I popped into town already late for a meeting. Meats are not sliced in front of you, but rather tickets are completed in a fashion similar to a short order cook. My to-go order still came out quickly, and the other party at the meeting was the beneficiary of some great barbecue. We fought over the jalapeño cheese grits. They are light in texture and rich on flavor at the same time. They’d replace macaroni & cheese on every local menu if everyone could make cheese grits like Micklethwait. The large pork spare ribs were just as stunning. These were grown-up ribs that make candy-coated baby backs feel like child’s play. The salt penetrates deep from what must be an overnight rub, and the large pellets of black pepper mingle with the hammy flavor with every tug of meat. Tug you must, but not uncomfortably. Meat clings to the bones a bit, but they’ll be clean when you’re through. You’ll also know you’ve eaten. With sides and bread, just one could be the meaty centerpiece of a whole meal.
“Sausage is a playground.” is what Tom Micklethwait told another interviewer recently. That’s where his creativity goes way beyond traditional links. That lamb sausage was stunning as was a simple kielbasa that was so technically sound it made me wonder why he bothers with anything else, but I’m glad he does. A pork belly andouille from a previous visit was the only misstep, although slight. Despite the incredible flavor, it was too fatty to hold together, and the juiciness seemed to affect the still-chewy casings as well.
Brisket may have been the weak link a few months ago, but it has come along nicely. Last week, the slice from the fatty end cut was intense with smoke and pepper and melting fat. A slice not from the end wasn’t as tender. The meat could have pulled apart a tad easier, but this was still better than most in town. Because of that, I almost felt bad ordering the simple chopped beef sandwich. I’m so glad I did. The meat was chopped to order and served on a homemade roll. I topped it with the excellent pickles, a bit of red onion and some of the vinegar-heavy sauce. The first bite was sublime. Hidden inside the top of the bun was a layer of cheese baked in. The heft of the bun complemented the juicy, smoky beef beautifully.
Thankfully the pork rib was still great, and so was every single item on the plate with it. Pinto beans were well spiced with a texture that comes from using dry beans to start with. The potato salad was simple and well executed. There was just enough dressing to bind the tender potatoes with the bell pepper and chives. The plate was clean when I finished, thanks in part to the white bread. It is homemade by former pastry chef William Ankeney who is now on the Micklethwait staff.
Anthony also has a hand in two of the best barbecue desserts in town. I’m a sucker for buttermilk pie, and the one here is both firm and yielding at the same time. The marshmallow filled, chocolate covered moon pies are also incredible, but make sure they warm up a bit before eating them. Marshmallow cream right out of the fridge isn’t a great texture. Either one will make a gratifying end to one of the best complete barbecue meals you can have in Texas.
This level of attention to sides and accouterments isn’t likely to catch on in rural joints, especially where the pitmaster’s time is already too taxed with the pits alone. That’s fine with me since there should always be a place for cheap, fluffy white bread and dill pickle chips from a five-gallon bucket. But in a more confined and competitive environment of the city, it’s not a stretch to imagine Micklethwait’s attention to each detail becoming a real influence on the Austin barbecue scene. Maybe that means bakers will now be in demand whenever a new barbecue joint opens in Austin, but I do hope others start following the lead of Tom Micklethwait and his staff.