Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Burgerbanism No. 12: The Strip Malls Of Austin Barbecue

It wouldn’t have been a complete trip to Texas without barbecue. I had heard that most of the places in central Austin usually sell out of product earlier in the day, and most of them actually close by the time I had finished my afternoon meeting at UT, so I took the recommendation of my engineering colleague and headed up to Stiles Switch BBQ (6610 North Lamar Boulevard, Austin, TX 78752), located in a strip mall a few miles north of downtown. I took an express bus up Lamar Boulevard, which is the central, four-lane artery of Austin, just past a giant five-story apartment building on which a crew was putting the finishing touches. The sidewalk abruptly ended, deferring to the primacy of the development project, and there was no crosswalk, so I waited until the traffic cleared. This miraculously happened at some point, and I looked left, then right, then left again, and made a dash for it.

When they say “Keep Austin Weird,” they might well say, “Keep Austin’s Urbanism Weird,” or perhaps, as I joked, “Keep Austin Urbanism Slightly Dysfunctional.” Lamar Boulevard, as an important thoroughfare, forms a backbone of a development paradigm that, quite unusually, goes north-south (including to this location, speaking of densification and improving land use), with no one Ringstraße of any sort or highway. Few American cities have a north-south orientation, and perhaps even fewer lack some monumentally stupid ring road that goes around it. US-183? Almost. SH45? Kinda sorta.

There are, of course, transportation engineers in the TxDOT headquarters, a building nestled next to the state capitol (an island of conservatism and garbage in the center of an island of progressivism inside of an ocean of conservatism and garbage in the greater state of Texas– however that even works topographically as far as islands on islands), daydreaming of a complete ring highway system around the city. One ring to rule them all, etc. But this is unlikely to ever happen because, as a Reddit post pointed out, this would involve running a highway through some of the city’s wealthiest ZIP codes and suburbs.

But it’s not just the fact that the western connector would run through wealthy areas. It’s also the fact that the highways as they are built often don’t connect. You often have to get off one highway to get off another one. I’m not clear on the history of this and it frankly has nothing to do with barbecue, so let’s get to that important point of this article.

Stiles Switch BBQ in Austin. I’m sorry for the weird angle and bad focus. It was a weird afternoon, if I’m being totally honest.

Similar to how there are many typologies of housing and they all have a place on God’s earth, there are many styles of barbecue based on the level of moisture, the “sauce vs. not” gradient, the seasoning, sides, and much more. One notable element, especially important for the purposes of Burgerbanism, is the venue in which the barbecue will be et [sic]. St. Louis features a solid number of restaurants that are located in the city proper and that do not require narrowly avoiding being mowed down by a giant Dodge Ram on a 40mph thoroughfare. Texas does not seem to have this arrangement. But perhaps this is part of the charm. Stiles Switch BBQ is located in a little strip mall that was, as a plaque dryly explains, featured in the 1993 Richard Linklater film Dazed and Confused, which is set in Austin.


Travel Texas claims there are four main styles of barbecue in the Lone Star State, defined roughly by geography. Austin falls into the central Texas and Hill Country category, in which meats– especially brisket- are slow smoked with dry rub. Brisket is a central focus. This contrasts with the saucier, more pork-heavy mix of meats used in east Texas, which sounds more like the Mississippi basin styles of barbecue, as in St. Louis, or the more Mexican-influenced south Texas barbecue styles.

While I have preferences, I also respect that styles are different. I do appreciate a sloppy, saucy barbecue, as long as it’s more on the tangy and umami side, rather than the corn syrupy sweet side. But I also love a good dry rub. One of my mentors in life was a native Kansan (and adoptive Pennsylvanian) who favored a dry rub with a modestly smoky character that sounds more like what is described above as more of a West Texas style.

Brisket & Sausage Sandwich. Because I generally try to avoid eating 8 ounces of extremely salty meat in one sitting, I instead opted for a sandwich– in this case, a jalapeño-laden brioche bun, glistening with grease, that featured both a thinly sliced sausage and a handful of shredded brisket. The brisket was on point, and the sausage was a welcome novelty in a world of ribs and (sliced or pulled) brisket and pulled pork.

Wings. The cashier even threw in a couple of chicken wings on the house which, she said, were recently said to be among the best wings in America. Even in a market where nearly every bar serves wings, it’s hard to find truly exceptional ones, and harder still to find ones that are smoked. These were both, and served with sliced celery and ranch (another fun augmentation instead of just wings on their own). I peered over at my fellow diners including a table of skinny folk with a tray that probably had a solid two pounds of meat on it including some luscious-looking pork ribs. It seems like there are no completely unsafe bets at Stiles Switch BBQ.

Conclusions. I’m going to agree with my colleague at UT that this was some excellent barbecue. But the sodium content of the meal made me think that it might have fit in better inside the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (the contents of which are stored in former salt mines) than in my stomach. For me as someone who has not only an iron stomach but also who loves salty food, this was surprising to me both from a gastrointestinal as well as from a gastronomic standpoint. The pinto beans, my lone side, were no exception (neither mushy nor undercooked, but the dominant flavor was salt). I’m not entirely sure I can recommend the place because of this unless you’re prepared with an extraordinary level of preparation and hydration.

Gets busy for the dinner crowd but late afternoon was nearly empty. Make sure to get extra pickles and pickled onions, which throw a sandwich over the top. The sauce they included on the sandwich was a smoky and savory mayo-based one that is not included on the table, but the sauces they do include for your barbecutorial pleasure– among them a tangy “balsamic” or a mustard-based one- are quite good and a bit of a welcome deviation from your average Sweet Baby Ray’s corn syrup sauce that the average medicore barbecue joint typically serves up in tanker truck quantities.

The quality of the product was excellent. It just could have done with, you know, a normal quantity of salt. This knocked down my final rating from what might well have been six stars out of five. But the staff are great, the sides were passable and the barbecue was good. Next time I might just have to steel myself against the electrolytic overload and it’s possible this will end up bolstering the rating. (★★★½)

Burgerbanism is a series that explores food in its urban context. Stiles Switch BBQ is located at 6610 North Lamar Boulevard, Austin, TX 78752.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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