Operating as the oldest BBQ pit in the capital city of Texas is a feat, one not easily maintained when considering the competitive culinary scene in Austin, but House Park Bar-B-Q still remains a stalwart after more than 70 years. Situated in central Austin, right off of Lamar Blvd and 12th street - which is within walking distance of both the Capitol and Austin Community College but also far enough from the bustle of downtown - this BBQ joint opens shop with a condensed operating schedule (Monday-Friday 11:00 am - 2:30 pm). It has all of the charm of a classic, Texan BBQ house; the BYOB signs placed throughout basically encourage you to wrap up a Loney and settle in for a hefty portion of meat and starches before resuming responsibilities elsewhere.
During that window of service, one might encounter a mix of young academics on their exhale or even white-collared men in their business suits and meeting books. They all come for one reason: meat so tender it practically melts before reaching your mouth. Word on the street is that the pit tender arrives at House Park during the dark hours of the morning to keep the fire going (and ensure the place doesn't burn down). While such a practice is not unheard of within the BBQ world, the resulting product here helps to put this joint into an elite class.
Visible on the interior, years of accumulated smoke effectively creates a tinge of yellow that acts almost as a filter on the photographs of vintage cars and other decor, which collectively feels like an assortment of furnishings displaced from a lake cottage. Such a mystique was certainly evident while dining, but even more so once exiting to the crisp air and piercing sunlight following our meal.
Having arrived a little after noon on a Wednesday, the tone was set with a stream of country radio (even a fine rendition of the National Anthem made an appearance), as men of all ages quietly dissected mounds of meat. Such a pacific ritual seemed to be contagious, and it was no sooner that my eating partner and I had begun putting more effort into our own food than conversation. Before us were identical plates - the Brisket plate ($9.75) was on special that day - which featured single scoops of potato salad, slops of brown beans, shavings of cabbage in the form of slaw, and generous slabs of beef in brisket form.
Earning true to the sign out front which reads "Need No Teef To Eat My Beef", this brisket was, to memory, some of the most tender and moist meat I have had the pleasure of consuming. Soft enough to be severed by a swift maneuver of the fork, the meat was accompanied by a small pool of grease on its surrounding perimeters; however, the consistency was not soggy or overly ridden with fat. There was balance here, and in the flavor as well. All of this coming, no less, from a novel approach to tending the meat: simply smoke. Word has it that the man behind the meat relies only on the wood and seasoning of his above-ground brick smoker (which is said to be one of the few spots in Austin allowed to use such a pit) for flavor. He stays away from spices entirely. When added, the liquid BBQ sauce provided a notable zing; the boost in flavor came with a tangy and slightly spicy profile.
Moving through the sides, the beans stood out with notes of brown sugar and a hint of smoke, while a hump of potato salad filled in admirably and the shredded coleslaw gave the meal a sweet balance - though the latter two showed unspectacular in comparison to the other portions. Most importantly, the meat delivered satisfaction with a seemingly effortless attempt and the portion proved to be too much for one sitting. It's worth noting that when I did finish the remaining meat sometime later, (after being in the fridge) it remained considerably moist and rich in flavor. Also worth mentioning is how the effect of less than an hour exposure to the smokey building proved to be lasting as the scent of campfire remained integrated in my hair for the next few days (I swear, I shower regularly).
The food resonated as much as the atmosphere, and the prices are affordable enough to make this a place one can frequent. For a true, unpretentious Texas BBQ experience, without the lines or glamor, House Park Bar-B-Que should be high on the list for any meat connoisseur.
(Items ordered: Brisket Plate)
Rating: 4 & 1/2 Slabs of Brisket (out of Five)
W 12th St, Austin, TX 78703