Three years ago, Stiles Switch could have been considered the best barbecue restaurant in Austin.
But in that time, Aaron Franklin opened his trailer along Interstate 35, and the bespectacled phenom quickly rose to national prominence with his bricks-and-mortar location on East Eleventh Street.
Months later, Franklin's former boss, John Mueller, returned to Austin from his self-imposed exile and opened a trailer in South Austin serving some of the best barbecue in the country.
Suddenly, Austin could boast barbecue as great as that being served in the Central Texas barbecue mecca of Lockhart.
The success of Franklin and Mueller proved that barbecue nerds and the culinary curious would line up (often for long periods, in the hot sun) for a taste of exceptional smoked meat.
But barbecue is for the people, all the people, not just the stridently devoted, blog-obsessed and endurance-blessed. Despite the massive popularity of Franklin's and Mueller's places, there was still a hole to fill in the Austin barbecue scene. And it seems Stiles Switch owner Shane Stiles and pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick have filled it.
Situated on the corner of the Violet Crown Shopping Center, made famous as the home of the Emporium in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," Stiles Switch opened in December. Its orange-red sign rises from the roof of the restaurant like a flame. The blue-gray brick building echoes the copious smoke that gives the meat its flavor. The slate-gray metal doors have the look and feel of pit lids. And the brown architectural buttresses on the building's exterior resemble matchsticks.
Lines inside move quickly along a wall decorated with black-and-white photos of Texas music heroes and scenes from Linklater's 1993 film. Kirkpatrick slices meat to order at the head of the line, placing the cuts on traditional brown butcher paper. The wiry and spring-loaded Kirkpatrick snaps to attention, offering customers free burnt ends as they order, Texas's answer to the lagniappe, a tradition reportedly started by Fred Fountaine at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor.
Kirkpatrick spent years working the pits at the legendary Taylor barbecue restaurant. And you can sense the Mueller cooking DNA in Kirkpatrick's two best dishes: fatty brisket and beef ribs.
Both cuts feature a coarse salt-and-pepper mixture that gives the meats' exterior a nice crust, though one that falls short of the incredible bark on John Mueller's barbecue. The softer exterior may be a result of the meat coming from a warmer located behind the serving station.
The brisket ($6.99 a half-pound) can be ordered fatty or lean (read: dry and tired), but there is no reason to ask for anything other than fatty. An impressive ruby smoke ring colors the edge of the brisket, a bunting of fat draping its flavor on the meat's periphery. The chopped beef sandwich ($6) was more cubed than chopped but delivered a decent amount of fat in the saucy mixture.
The large, prehistoric beef ribs put up only the flirtation of a tussle, the textures a blend of smooth fat, susceptible sinew and brittle skin.
The pork ribs ($6.50 a half-pound) have ranged from slightly overcooked to well done on several visits. At their best, they had a caramelized crunch, but it hid a lacquered surface that took center stage on another visit. The ribs on that trip had the texture of a worn football (I guess that's why they call it "pigskin"), and with no crispy tangle or pull, the ribs more closely resembled pork chops. The pork loin fared worse. With almost all of that fat rendered from the small cuts, the pork was as dry as a mouthful of T-shirt.
Sausages can be ordered by the half-pound ($5.48) or as individual links ($2.99) and come in three varieties. The Thorndale is the LeBron James of this particular Big Three. Made primarily of pork, the Thorndale has piquant spice disseminated throughout its coarse grain beneath a snap casing. The jalapeno-cheddar balances green heat with subtle cheesy relief, though the tightly packed sausage resembles many store bought variations. Beef sausage lacks complexity though lingers with a meaty aftertaste.
Though many Texas barbecue lovers loathe straying beyond brisket and ribs, Stiles Switch caters to all barbecue tastes. The less-heralded white meats have generally impressed me. The succulent and peppery turkey ($6.48 a half-pound) absorbed the smoke like some do-it-all meat chamois sold by a raving lunatic on television.
Half-pound chicken breasts have the uniform look of airplane food, but it is a first-class bite, releasing mists of smoke and pepper. I imagined the leftovers as a contender for any number of salads and sandwiches. The smoked chicken fryers ($6.25 for half a chicken) did less to impress. Crispy skin carried flavors of paprika, salt, cayenne and citrus, but the first bite into the bird tasted brightly metallic, maybe owing to the unfortunate amount of blood inside the strands of meat.
All of the meats come dry, but each guest is given a small Styrofoam ramekin of a rust-colored sauce enriched with beef drippings and tingling with pepper and a hint of vinegar. Sides at Stiles Switch, though all made in-house, have that mass-produced quality you'd expect from lesser joints, though the lemon vinaigrette coleslaw distinguishes itself with refreshing flavors. The mac-and-cheese and pinto beans are both bland, and the corn casserole tastes like mushy cornbread batter. The best of the bunch is the mayo-mustard potato salad with bits of pickle.
Stiles Switch has a classic feel with modern touches. Brick and weathered concrete walls ring the bright space that is crossed by burnt-orange beams and lined with large wooden tables. A number of flat-panel TVs unobtrusively lend views of games from pretty much any seat in the house. Area workers of collars both blue and white flood the place at the lunch hour, but service is swift and exceedingly amiable. On one visit, spurred by only a question or two, Kirkpatrick even offered us a trip to check out his Klose pit from Houston.
The things that differentiate Stiles Switch from the two leaders of Austin's barbecue pack are what the restaurant can offer that its competitors can't: abundant indoor seating, defined hours (no signs turning away guests here), the ability to drink a cold local draft beer while watching a game, and waits that feel briefer than a Monday Night Football commercial break.
The barbecue at Stiles Switch likely won't turn the heads of Bon Appetit Magazine, the way Franklin's did, and it does not approach the excellence of John Mueller's, but in a town finally getting the barbecue it deserves, Stiles Switch has carved out a spot for itself at the top of a very respectable second tier.
Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @Odam.