When LeAnn Mueller, owner of La Barbecue in Austin, was growing up in Taylor, she would go shopping with her family at Taylor Meat Company. “They would always give the kids a whole wiener to eat while they were waiting for your mom and dad to do the ordering, and it was always cold,” she says. She has fond memories of those hot dogs and their bright red hue, so when she and Ali Clem, her wife and business partner, were developing a recipe for house-made hot dogs, they knew the wieners had to taste good cold and had to be red.
I’ve only eaten them hot, but I can attest to the great flavor and deep red color. After I took a bite of La Barbecue’s Red Rocket Chili Dawg, the inside reminded me both in texture and color of red velvet cake. It was a little disconcerting, but I forgot all about the color with the next bite.. The wiener rests on a squishy bun lined with raw jalapeño slices and is topped with shredded cheese. Packets of yellow mustard come on the side (squeeze away), as does the chili, which is meant to be poured over top just before you eat it. When the order was brought to my car, they delivered a complimentary plastic lobster bib as well to save my shirt from falling chili.
Brisket makes up the bulk of the chili, but not the smoked version. The joint still has plenty of leftover briskets because of the unsteady flow of customers during the pandemic, but those are placed whole in Cryovac bags and frozen for later sale. The only leftovers that go into the chili are the smoked sausages. The casings are removed, and the filling is chopped to be used as the chili base, to which raw ground briskets are added. The finished version is available on the hot dog, or on its own by the pint or quart.
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Once fully constructed, the chili dawg is definitely a mouthful—each bite requires careful planning when you’re enjoying one behind the steering wheel. Rather than using smaller lamb casings like most natural-casing hot dogs (La Barbecue is exploring the lamb casings for future versions), they use the same pork casings as on their house-made smoked sausages. The size and price of the wieners is no different than the smoked sausages, but the process of making the hot dogs is quite a bit more complicated. They tried seven versions before they got it right. “It’s the grind, and having to keep the meat cold while grinding without having too much ice in there,” Mueller says of the many challenges in making a proper hot dog consistency, especially using only beef shoulder clod for the meat. The hot dogs also have many more ingredients (including an undivulged coloring agent) than the smoked sausages, take twice as long to smoked (over two hours), and don’t hold up as well in the warmers that keep the barbecue hot for serving.
The idea for the Red Rocket isn’t a new one. Mueller and Clem had been planning a second restaurant with what they described as a summer camp menu. Smoked hot dogs were always going to be central to the theme, but they decided not to wait on a future venue to make them. “Red Rocket,” both chromatically proper and a bit suggestive, came from an Instagram-based contest and is in line with the restaurant’s “sausage is my safe word” branding. A friend of the business, Jenny Schipani, who sports a hot dog tattoo, won the contest; Clem said the prize was a virtual hug and a free hot dog.
Mueller and Clem said the hot dogs have been selling well and will remain a permanent part of the menu. In addition to the chili dog, they’re also available as a single link, as a fully loaded (minus the chili) Red Rocket Hot Dawg, or as a chilled four-pack. It’s just one of the ways La Barbecue is trying to stay innovative and bring in new business. It’s also offering smoked beef tri-tip on weekends and deli-sliced smoked ham and turkey, and it even simplified its brisket rub. Gone are the mustard slather and the many rub ingredients. It’s now just salt, black pepper, and garlic powder on the briskets, and they’re as good as ever. Sometimes innovation means going back to basics, and sometimes it just means making an old classic like the hot dog feel exciting.