Mark Avalos has been an innovator since he opened his Sugar Shack BBQ trailer in Austin in 2006. Back when pulled pork remained a rarity in Texas, he was selling it on a sandwich with coleslaw on top. “The Notorious P.I.G.,” as he dubbed it, doesn’t seem all that odd now, but it was then an unheard-of combination in Central Texas. So were strawberry/habanero-glazed pork ribs, but they sold well and are both still on the menu at SLAB BBQ, which Avalos opened in 2014 after shutting down the Sugar Shack trailer.
SLAB—short for “slow, low, and bangin’—is known for its sandwiches, some of them outrageous. When its first brick-and-mortar opened on the north side of town, Austin’s barbecue reputation was skyrocketing. Weighty trays of sliced brisket, beef ribs, and house-made sausages were viewed as serious barbecue, and I didn’t pay much attention to this sandwich shop. But I recently visited SLAB’s second location, which opened in late 2017 in the Oak Hill neighborhood on the southwest side of Austin. The McDowell, a boneless rib sandwich that debuted in 2015, caught my eye.
Children of the eighties, like myself, will immediately catch the reference to Coming to America. The 1988 film starring Eddie Murphy features a McDowell’s burger chain, which bears a striking resemblance to McDonald’s. The McDowell at SLAB is likewise reminiscent of McDonald’s McRib. Avalos wanted to, “make a sandwich that was like a McRib sandwich, but a real rib sandwich.” The other difference is that the McDowell is available year-round.
Avalos starts by smoking a rack of St. Louis cut ribs with the ends trimmed cleanly. They’re smoked with oak and pecan in a Southern Pride and get a good bark before being wrapped in foil to tenderize. Once tender enough, the bones can be slid out of the rack, leaving just the meat. (This short video shows the process, as demonstrated on a February 2019 episode Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.) Each sandwich gets a third of a rack on a great bun made locally at the New World Bakery. “Keeping it traditional with the McRib, we just did the pickles and the onions as the toppings,” Avalos said. The rib slab is also slathered in Soul-Glo sauce (another Coming to America reference), which is a mix of their house mustard-based and tomato-based sauces.
The ribs are tender enough that there’s no struggle to make a clean bite through the sandwich. I tried it at both the north and south locations of SLAB, and I preferred the heartier bark up north. I also don’t recommend doubling the meat, which is an option with every sandwich at SLAB. A single layer of ribs is plenty, and the second layer will slide off anyway. I’d also suggest a side of the excellent banana pudding. Each cup comes with a shortbread cookie in the shape of a hip-hop legend like Biggie or Tupac.
After getting praise from Guy Fieri, the McDowell solidified itself as a menu favorite at SLAB, though it still has some ground to make up to overtake the humble chopped brisket sandwich. “Nothing beats the O.G. because we’re in Texas, brother, and brisket is king,” Avalos said. Maybe that’ll change next year when the sequel Coming 2 America is released. Avalos is excited for the possible tie-ins, telling me, “We’ll definitely do something for that.”