Bo Jackson stepped up to the plate at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 1989 and hit a bomb, driving the pitch into an uninhabitable part of centerfield at Anaheim Stadium. The otherworldly athlete would go on to steal a base and drive in the winning run for the American League.
This was the same barrel-legged Bo Jackson who won the Heisman Trophy as a running back at Auburn University in 1985. He was the first pick in the National Football League the following summer. The world knew Bo Jackson as a football star, but Bo knew something many of didn’t. Bo also knew baseball.
Jackson achieved unprecedented success in his brief career in the NFL and MLB, becoming the only player to make the all-star team in both sports, and while Deion “Prime Time” Sanders would go on to play in both the World Series and Super Bowl, the two athletes were the exception that proved the rule — even the greats usually only excel in one discipline (see: Michael Jordan).
Most must pick a lane and stay there.
Fortunately, John Bates and Brandon Martinez don’t follow those rules. The chefs opened Noble Pig (now Noble Sandwich Co.) on FM 620 in 2010 and changed Austin’s deli game. A velvety roast beef knuckle, lush duck pastrami and fatty but crispy pork belly BLT elevated the humble idea of a deli to chefy heights, as did the pâté and housemade bread and accoutrements. They opened a second location on Burnet Road in 2017, and it seemed they would be happy to sit in an elite group atop Austin’s sandwich world. But then they changed lanes. And hit another home run.
The partners closed their FM 620 location at the end of last year and decided to reboot it as a barbecue restaurant. It’s one thing to change concepts. But to walk away from a successful format and enter the competitive and saturated world of Central Texas barbecue seemed brazen if not foolish. Bates and Martinez must have known something most of us didn’t. They opened the whimsically named InterStellar Barbecue in February and their new spot has already earned a place in the Top Five barbecue restaurants in Austin.
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Brisket stands as the benchmark in Central Texas, and here the prime Certified Angus Beef ($11/half pound) is rippled with melted fat and girded by an onyx crust. The lean has the suppleness of the fatty slices at some lesser barbecue restaurants. The cooks might have pushed the meat too much on one visit, not giving the fat enough time to render, and leaving a larger grain than they might have wanted, but these were minor errors that didn’t prevent any enjoyment of the beef’s lusciousness.
The duck pastrami at Noble Sandwich Co., when stacked high enough, still makes for one of the best sandwiches in Austin, and the chefs use a method of brining and smoking to create a fragrant pastrami brisket special ($11/ half pound) that is one of the best cuts of beef I’ve eaten this year. Dab the pliant slabs in the perky mustard-based barbecue sauce for a beautiful marriage of barbecue and deli.
InterStellar might have the best smelling parking lot in the city, its smokers nestled beneath a tree on a median in the strip center lot. That smoke wafts across the brisket but finds its way most deeply into the tender threads of exceptional pulled pork ($8/half pound). Always conscientious of sourcing, Bates, who worked at Wink and Asti before starting Noble, and Central Market veteran Martinez continue along that path with their Duroc heritage breed pigs. The fat content leads to rich and succulent pulled pork and ribs that find an almost unheard of balance of pull and give ($9/half pound). A lining of bubble gum pink meat sits beneath a lacquered, vinegar-spritzed skin, while the firm middle has the whitish color of a thin-sliced pork loin chop. That famously fatty pig may have rendered a touch too quickly, but it still left its juicy trace.
If Noble goes to the effort of making its own pâté, you know they’re making their own sausages at InterStellar. The Brisket Banger, made with prime brisket trimmings, glows burnt orange from its fine-grain center, the flavor smoked paprika the most dominant after the snap ($6/link). Some claim anyone can make a good sausage by stuffing it with cheese, but InterStellar makes the best sausage I’ve eaten this year, the cheddar oozing from the jalapeno-flecked sausage comprised of equal parts beef and pork shoulder ($6/link). The brisket, sausage and pulled pork also find their way onto a trio of sandwiches, the highlight of which is the Gangster of Love ($11.25), a tasty Frito-Pie-As-Sandwich mess starring the jalapeño-cheddar sausage.
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Standing in line (get there by 11:30 a.m. for the best chance at a negligible wait) will give you the chance to peruse the chalkboard menu before ordering. There you’ll find specials like that pastrami brisket, along with the sausage specials, such as the Texano, the blast of cumin and charred oregano softened by hunks of Oaxacan cheese ($6/link).
That sausage rushed to mind the memory of the Old El Paso taco seasoning my mother used for ground beef tacos in my youth; and Bates nods to his own childhood (and Cooper’s Barbecue in Llano) with an offering of free beans at the end of the service line. The pork-studded beans evoke the black label Ranch Style Beans Bates says his mother fed him during his childhood in South Texas.
While the beans hit the nostalgia centers of your brain and taste buds, the other side dishes transcend the norm. Many barbecue places have stepped up their attempts at modernizing side dishes and few have done it as well as Bates and Martinez.
Their restlessness with sticking to one concept and desire to experiment and challenge themselves led to InterStellar, but their serious culinary intentions did not change. The crunchy and refreshing zucchini and tomato salad, zipped with vinegar and lime juice, updates the traditional side with a splash; the mac and cheese has more in common with béchamel than Kraft; and the scalloped and smoked potatoes will change the way you think about spuds forever ($3.50 for single servings of sides).
The scalloped potatoes are smoked over pecan, blended with cream, and topped with a Parmesan layer bronzed and bubbled by the heat. It's a first-ballot entry for the Texas Barbecue Side Dish Hall of Fame that dares to nod to (gasp!) France.
The chefs’ resistance to phoning it in even extends to the dessert menu, where you’ll find creamy rice pudding, like a dessert risotto, run through by a cascading caramel cap of dulce de leche ($4). It’s a confident swerve into a new lane. And another in a litany of hits.