Autographed headshots of celebrities, Polaroids of customers, and other photos and posters overlap one another to paper the walls inside Sam’s Bar-B-Que, in East Austin. Most are curled at the corners from age. In a room behind the counter is a massive brick pit that also looks like it’s from another era. Along with the sagging sign outside the front door, secured to the building by a trio of chains, it all looks as if Sam’s has held fast to this corner of East Twelfth and Poquito streets forever, but most of what you see was built (or rebuilt) after a devastating fire in 1992, the second time we almost lost Sam’s.
“All this stuff we have is from ’93 and up,” says Brian Mays, the owner of Sam’s, as he points to the walls. He says one of his brothers, though he doesn’t name which one, accidentally left the pit doors open on that fateful February night 28 years ago. They had insurance, but not enough. Mays said he questioned whether the place would ever open again. The fire was front-page news in the Austin American-Statesman. Soon after, a group of volunteers—led by Rob Hyman, then a contractor for Architectural Habitat in Austin; Bill Ferris, then the owner of Lone Star Interiors; and brick mason Wilson Harris—joined together to help rebuild and raise money for the effort. Seven weeks later, Sam’s reopened with a larger dining room and a new screened-in patio. A new sign hung over the door because the previous one had melted, and Mays built a larger, double-walled brick pit. It’s what differentiates his place from all the new spots that have become his Austin barbecue competition. “I got a pit,” he tells me. “They ain’t got no pit.”
Lost forever in the fire, though, was memorabilia from the joint’s most famous customer. Autographed photos from legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan were destroyed in the blaze (although Mays has a few at home). Mays, who was a pallbearer at Vaughan’s funeral after the fatal 1990 helicopter crash, says that his mother, Erma Mays, had made Vaughan—a Dallas native—a part of their Austin family. “She adopted Stevie Ray as her son. Not by blood, but by love,” Mays recalls.
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Vaughan chose Sam’s as a frequent backdrop for band photos and even had Sam’s barbecue delivered to a New York recording studio while he was working on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album in 1982. As Edi Johnson, who worked for Vaughan’s management company, remembers in the book Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Stevie called me and said, ‘We need some real barbecue here. Go over to Sam’s and send it up.’ They packed it in dry ice, and I drove it to the airport.” A few years later, Vaughan was interviewed at the Lone Star Cafe in New York. “Sam’s Bar-B-Que is the most incredible barbecue in the world,” he says to the camera before saying hello to Erma Mays. Vaughan’s advocacy for the place certainly helped raise the profile for Sam’s, which was the subject of a 1982 story in the Statesman and was given a two-and-a-half star review the same year by restaurant critic Mark Hanna. He wrote that Sam’s “is not a place to go before the symphony. It is simply a bit of Americana which offers no modern-day frills and a lot of old-time flavor.” Little has changed about Sam’s charm.
Vaughan’s connection to the place made the recent controversy between Sam’s and the band Midland even more of a head-scratcher. Musicians claiming allegiance to Texas should crave the association with the legendary barbecue joint, but in a band photo taken outside Sam’s, the label replaced “Sam’s” on the sign with the title of one of Midland’s songs. Mays said they’ve since come to an agreement. “We’re all right,” he said, referring to the payment he received from the band as part of Midland’s public apology.
In 2018, the value of Sam’s was also being debated and we almost lost Sam’s again. Brian Mays had been offered $3 million, then $5 million, to sell his property. Many worried that Sam’s would be the latest victim in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood of new condos and hip bars. Supporters said Sam’s had to be saved, but I wondered at the time whether they only cared about the joint’s symbolic value—were they actually even customers? Mays had the same concerns. As he told Texas Monthly, “I don’t mind keeping and saving it, but you ain’t bought a sausage wrap from me. You’re sitting here talking to me about turning down $5 million, and you ain’t spent no money with me?” The community went on to organize several “Save Sam’s Saturday” events. Today, Mays says there is no sale currently in the works.
The importance of Sam’s Bar-B-Que to its neighborhood is unquestioned, but its history is unclear. Mays was told the place first opened in 1957. The building itself could go as far back as the forties, according to a 2007 interview shared by Foodways Texas with Brian Mays’s sister, Waunda Mays, who passed away in 2009. Brian admits, “I can’t go back that far. I can go back to about ’76.” He knows his father, Dan Ivory Mays Sr., took over Sam’s Bar-B-Que from Sam Campbell in 1977. Before Sam’s, Dan was a taxi driver in Austin. In 1969 one of his passengers was injured when Mays hit a horse on FM 969, and he was threatened with a butcher knife by a passenger in 1976, according to the Austin American-Statesman. A change in professions probably seemed like a good idea.
The first mention I could find for a barbecue joint at 2000 E. Twelfth was not for Sam’s, but for Friendly Bar-B-Q, operated by Clarence Green in 1949, according to the Austin city directory. In 1954 it was called the Friendly Barbecue Pit. Based on several police reports, officers routinely broke up dice and card games at the address throughout the fifties. Green was arrested along with a Sam Tasby Jr. during one game. Tasby worked for his brother Andrew across Poquito Street from the barbecue joint at Tasby’s Liquor Store. A few years later, Tasby would become the first Sam to run a barbecue joint at the northeast corner of Twelfth and Poquito, but it wouldn’t be named Sam’s just yet.
The 1959 Austin city directory lists 2000 E. Twelfth as vacant, but that information was gathered the year before. The fire department was called to the address in the early morning of August 10, 1959, for a barbecue pit fire, which may have been the first time was almost lost Sam’s. Tasby’s Bar-B-Q was listed there the following year, and it was run by Sam Tasby Jr. It’s not until the 1967 Austin directory that the barbecue joint was listed as Sam’s Bar-B-Q, with Samuel H. Campbell Jr. as the owner. Like Sam Tasby Jr. and Clarence Green before him, Campbell was an African American veteran of WWII and a native Texan.
Brian Mays tells me he knew Campbell. They were related, but wasn’t exactly sure how (his sister, Waunda, referred to Campbell as a cousin in her interview). Campbell’s mother was Alisea Campbell, née Mays, but other than her maiden name, I wasn’t able to find a clear intersection in their lineage. Brian Mays doesn’t remember Campbell teaching him or his father how to cook barbecue before they took over the place. “We learned together,” Mays recalls of the family operation. Dan Sr. and Erma both worked the cutting block. Brian’s brothers, Willie and Dan Jr., also pitched in along with Waunda.
Back then, the hours were long, and the place was open late. Brian says they’d post the closing time as 3:30 a.m., but would sometimes serve later than that. One night in 1978 Dan Sr. and Brian were working together when an argument broke out in front of the counter. A man grabbed the knife from the cutting block and stabbed another man to death. It was a rougher neighborhood then, and Brian said he doesn’t miss the late nights. Now, he spends afternoons playing chess on the patio with his son, and closes the joint at 8 p.m.
Brian has been part of Sam’s for decades. He’s experienced the lows like Operation Meat Locker, which shut the place down briefly almost a decade ago for purchasing stolen meat, and the highs like acting in films alongside Nicolas Cage and Al Pacino just a couple of years later. In addition to Stevie Ray Vaughan, the East Austin institution has hosted Stevie Ray’s brother, Jimmie Vaughan; actor Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft; and Questlove, of the Roots. Since his mother’s passing in 2010 and his father’s in 2012, Brian Mays has been the Sam’s Bar-B-Que owner, patriarch, and mascot, he tells me, sporting a toothless smile. “Don’t need no teeth to eat my beef,” he says with a laugh, echoing the motto painted on the building out front.
The beef I was served made me appreciate my teeth. I preferred the sausage made by Texas Sausage Company, home of “Austin hot sausage,” just a few blocks down Twelfth Street. Sam’s was out of my favorite item, the mutton ribs. They are an old-school Texas barbecue cut, and Sam’s does them particularly well. They’ve been part of the menu since the Mayses have run the place (the lineup of brisket, ribs, mutton, chicken, and sausage hasn’t changed), but their availability has been spotty recently—they were left out of his latest meat delivery.
Dan Mays Sr. preferred oak wood, minimal seasoning, and no sugar in the barbecue sauce. Since Brian took over the cooking duties, he adds some pecan wood into the smoker with the oak and mixes in brown sugar to the tangy sauce that’s a shade lighter than ketchup and a little thinner. He eschews salt too. “I use rub, not salt,” he tells me emphatically. The recipe includes garlic powder, but that’s as far as he got in the ingredient list. When I ask whether he considers his barbecue to be Austin style or Central Texas style, he responds that he would describe it as Southern style or simply “Sam’s style.”
Mays, who is 66 years old, says he has thought about who’ll take over from the next generation. His daughters Tamika, Britney, and Ebony all put in hours at the restaurant, but he’s not looking to retire just yet. “I’ve got 18 kids, 45 grandkids, 6 ex-wives, 2 lawyers, and 3 doctors. It’s hard to retire,” he says, laughing. I ask again about the possible $5 million payday he could take advantage of. He tells me about a conversation he had recently with a wise older woman. She told him: “If you need some gold, get the gold out of your gold mine. Don’t sell the mine.”