A good barbecued brisket is the most primal of foods, smokey and charred, with soft pads of melted fat that make our necks go limp with joy, our faces raised to the heavens with happiness. At least that’s what mine does, because a well-cooked brisket is a thing of wonder worth an amen any day.
As the founder of Austin’s Southern Smoke BBQ, Kris Austin is among the faithful believers of investing time in worth-the-wait barbecue, turning the muscly cut of beef into a soulful Texas-style, smoke-ringed slice of joy with the proper Southern ratio of fat to meat, meaning just enough but not too much. After 12 hours of white oak and almond wood smoke and 10 hours of resting, it’s just about right and ready to serve at his pop-up restaurant at Old Possum Brewing in Santa Rosa each Monday (although not Monday, Sept. 27).
Growing up in Kansas City, Memphis and Texas, I got to know the stark differences in the barbecue of each place. Texas barbecue is dry-rubbed, the others heavily mopped with sweet-tangy tomato-based sauce. They all have their merits, but Texas brisket, cut from the breast area of the steer, is my favorite. And no, tri-tip, cut from the other end of the steer and a favorite of Californians, is not brisket, so stop telling me it’s the same thing.
In addition to brisket, sourced from Joe Matos heritage-raised beef in Santa Rosa, Austin smokes pork and ribs and offers sweet cornbread, collard greens with smoked turkey, coleslaw and other weekly specials. Don’t expect super-saucy barbecue, because that’s not Austin’s style.
“I don’t over-sauce, because too much sauce is hiding something,” he said.
The Mississippi-born Austin has barbecue in his soul. He learned the craft from his mother, aunts and uncles. As with any good apprentice, it took years for the tongs to pass to Austin, but like golf or food writing, you never really master it. You just keep working at it.
“I’ve been around barbecue pits from 10 years old. As a family, we processed our own hogs and got our own food. The only thing we bought from the store is milk, flour and sugar,” he said.
Austin isn’t the old-school pitmaster with a filthy apron and beer belly. He’s a personal trainer with a passion for barbecue run amok. As his fitness clients dried up during the pandemic, he decided to make the leap to barbecue catering after rave reviews about his cooking from friends and family.
That led to a Monday takeover at Old Possum, where Chef Carlos Rosas of Barrio Fresca Cocina Mexicana recently set up a cafe operating nightly out of the taproom’s kitchen.
It’s a leap of faith, but Austin believes whatever’s in store is for the best.
“God hasn’t let me down yet. When he’s closed a window, he’s opened a door,” he said.
For now, Austin is sticking to private catering, his Monday pop-up and taproom events, though he hopes to open a brick-and-mortar location or purchase a food truck in the future.
Like any good pitmaster, when he sells out, he sells out for the day, so go early.
Overall: Excellent Texas-style barbecue from a passionate pitmaster who knows his way around brisket and pork butts. The dishes are always a work in progress for this first-time chef, but Austin’s ’que is the real deal and worth a visit.
Austin’s menu is brief but incorporates flavors from the South and California and inspiration from Rosas’ Barrio menu.
Nachos, Loaded Pork ($18) or brisket ($20): Juicy pulled pork floats above a raft of tortilla chips, black beans and straight-up ballpark nacho sauce (cause it’s freaking good). Sweet homemade barbecue sauce and a squeeze of citrusy chimichurri that adds dimension.
BBQ Bowl, Pork ($18) or brisket ($20): This is the most fusion dish, a mix of Barrio’s black rice and Chile Seco with Austin’s barbecued meat on top. Dark chocolate and smoked chili flavors of the seco echo the smoked meat for a rich, savory, earthy bowl. I’d love to see a side a sweet or vinegary sauce just to balance things out.
Combo Plate ($38): Brisket, pulled pork (some weeks it’s ribs), with collard greens, coleslaw and a cornbread muffin. This is the best way to see what Austin is working with. We loved the juicy pulled pork with crispy bits and melted fat. Austin adds a dash of his creamy vinegar sauce for an extra bump. Collard greens are legit but could use just a touch more vinegar and salt. Sweet cornbread muffins are a taste of home.
While you’re there, try out Old Possum Brewing’s lineup of tasty beers on tap. The covered patio is nicely spaced out, and dogs are welcome.
Austin’s Southern Smoke Barbecue, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays, except Sept. 27. 357 Sutton Place, Santa Rosa, austinssouthernsmokebbq.com