BBQ Road Trip: Lambert's in Austin, TX
Going from Dallas to Austin is sort of like falling off the edge of some crazy skyborne metropolis and landing in the land of the lotos eaters. Dallas, for all its charms (great museums and a weirdly fascinating neon skyline), is just a little too slick for me. Austin has the air of a quaint university town that has suddenly made good—in cash. It’s an odd but charming mix: the make-do, laidback attitude, combined with a real industriousness. You see it in the houses, too: adorable little arts-and-crafts homes with Porsches and Mercedes-Benz sports cars parked outside them, and in the skyline, which is still low and modest, but presided over by a riot of construction cranes. And most of all in the food scene, which seems to be thriving everywhere, from Airstreams serving Thai food to shining gallerias dishing up high-concept BBQ and Mexican food.
Lambert’s wasn’t on our original BBQ tour list, but we heard such great things about it, we figured it was worth checking out. Part of the purpose of this trip was for Marlene to research how she might incorporate barbecue-style meat cookery into the menu of her new restaurant in Zürich, and Lamberts seemed like it would be a good model for that.
When we show up, we’re told that the wait at Lamberts on this particular rainy weeknight is over two hours. If this happens to be the case when you’re visiting, get a cocktail at the nearish-by Garage bar which is, very literally, inside a working parking garage. If you’re lucky, like we were, you’ll get a text from Lamberts in less than half an hour letting you know that a table has opened up.
I’m not sure how hardcore BBQ aficionados view Lamberts. The moment you walk in, it’s clear from the well-appointed interiors that they’re selling a sort of high-end BBQ experience, something that contradicts most purists’ idea of BBQ. Still, there’s a nice homey vibe to the place, and the hostess is very pleasant, even when she’s dispensing bad news about how long you have to wait for your table. She greets us back in out of the rain with what seems like real enthusiasm.
We start with a great appetizer of wild boar ribs tossed in a honey-sambal sauce and served with slaw and a crumble of ripe blue cheese. A couple of days later as we drive down to Port Aransas, we see a scrum of little wild pigs running through the high grass, and I remember this dish fondly, if a little bloodthirstily. The ribs are small and take some effort to eat, but they get high marks from all around the table.
After that we plunge straight into big meat territory with a giant smoked beef rib served with scallions, cilantro, and jalapeno and a caper chimichurri. I appreciate the presentation (the rib is truly a behemoth) and the fresh sauce and herbs are a nice foil to the smokiness of the meat.
The rib-eye is beautiful and simply prepared—grilled with a light rub of brown sugar that gives the funky meat a nice caramelized edge that I don’t see very often in the Northeast and decide I quite like.
We guilt ourselves into ordering light for our third plate and get the cold-smoked rainbow trout. This ends up being one of my favorite dishes of the night. The flesh is tender and lightly smoky and the quinoa, far from being the usual afterthought restaurants serve with health-conscious dishes, is beautifully cooked and dressed. I’m not sure if it’s a ringing endorsement of a Texas BBQ joint that the trout is so good, but it’s high praise in my book–to deliver excellence in unexpected quarters.
The service is attentive and friendly, though we’re pitched the most expensive menu and wine options a couple too many times, despite repeated demurrals. This ends up happening a lot at “nicer” restaurants throughout our time in Texas. New York has a reputation for bad service, but I actually think the higher-end restaurants seem to have adopted a much more laidback form of hospitality in the last decade or so, a development I’m personally relieved about.
We enjoy a nice rosé from Teutonic which stands up remarkably well to the steak and we end the meal with a fried pie. All day long, as we’ve driven through cracking thunderstorms between Dallas and Austin, we’ve spied signs for fried pies. Lamberts’ sour cherry version is pretty gorgeous. The crust is halfway between bread and pastry, and the filling is tart, sweet, and lush. It comes with a sauce made of Dr Pepper (perhaps my least favourite American soda) that tastes surprisingly bright considering its sugary provenance, and a scoop of some ice cream whose flavour I’ve neglected to commit to memory.
I’m glad we stopped at Lamberts. The restaurant handily demonstrates how barbecue can play a starring role on an eclectic menu. It’s Austin on a plate—unabashedly Texan, but with a broad palate.
The duration of our meal is probably a good indication of how much we enjoyed it. We’re the last diners to leave—music is still plinking over the speakers into the empty dining room and the chefs are busy tidying their stations in the big open kitchen. Outside the rain has died away and the streets are deserted. We walk a ways down the appropriately named La Vaca Street, already planning our BBQ agenda for the next day.