It used to be that if you were in Austin and wanted good Texas barbecue—fatty, crusty brisket, drool-worthy ribs and sausage—you had to gas up your truck and head to one of the surrounding small towns: Lockhart or Elgin or Taylor. But that’s changed with a renaissance of real-deal barbecue in Austin, pioneered in part by Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew.
Since 2011, owner Shane Stiles and pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick have been bringing small-town Texas barbecue to the city and skillfully sidestepping the whole “sold out” situation.
In the state of Texas, setting your barbecue business apart from the herd is the name of the game. At Stiles Switch, one major differentiator is the fact that they don’t sell out.
Selling out is a fact of life—and sometimes a badge of honor—at many barbecue joints. But that’s something that Stiles and Kirkpatrick disagree with, big time.
“A lot of places go until they’re sold out and they brag … I can’t stand that,” Kirkpatrick says. “You’re bragging about not having enough product for your customers.”
So to prevent the selling out—and also to take advantage of the live-music traffic that comes later in the day—Stiles Switch has two things going for it: management of inventory and a bigger pit size.
During the day, Kirkpatrick uses his trusty clipboard to track the inventory of cooked meat, re-upping by throwing on faster-cooking meat like chicken for dinner service as he goes, having already gauged how many bigger items like brisket will be needed to last all day.
“It’s all a timing game,” Kirkpatrick says. “We start ribs at 2:30 or 3 p.m. We start brisket at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and as they cook and shrink up we move them. We do our smaller-piece items like chicken at six in the morning.”
He’s found that having a well-thought out and comprehensive log/count system means that managing inventory can be made less of a gamble.
Stiles Switch has four indirect-heat pits with three cooking shelves in each chamber. Hefty chunks of Post oak create a distinctly Texas-flavored smoke over the fire. No propane assist in sight here.
“The pit size can dictate the hours of operation,” Kirkpatrick says, adding that while Stiles Switch knows plenty of local regulars by name and order, a lot of tourists come through too, but often later in the day, on their way to experience Austin’s famous super cool music scene.
“Since we’re not a sell-out place, we get more tourists,” he says. “At first we had just one pit, but what we’ve done is just keep growing.”
And in order to make enough meat to not sell out—in a process that’s not automated—it takes an awesome team.
Training, teamwork and the Tao of barbecue
Kirkpatrick has assembled and trained a pit team with the expertise needed for pits that are not automated in any way (Kirkpatrick describes the operation as “very hands-on and analog. It’s a man putting wood on fire.”)
“A lot of the success comes from the people you hire and who you have working with you. They have to know how to work each area of the pit and the different temperature zones,” says Kirkpatrick, who worked under Bobby Mueller at Taylor’s Louie Mueller Barbecue for nine years. “Having good pitmasters is key; I want them to be better cooks than me. I had a good mentor. It’s part of the culture in Texas. It’s like being a blacksmith. It’s passed down from one guy to another.”
With a trusted team in place that shares his passion for the pit, Kirkpatrick has been able to cut back just a bit on the long hours he worked when he first started, but his favorite shift remains 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., in which the quiet allows space for contemplation and philosophy.
That solitude of the overnight shift has often led Kirkpatrick to his copy of the Tao Te Ching, and he’s applied some Taoist teachings to the pit.
“The Taoist would say, ‘You always want to be the rock in the river; you don’t want to be the tree on top of the mountain saying that you know everything,’” Kirkpatrick says. “The first day that you think you’ve got it figured out, the pit will humble you.”
Sides that stand out
Another way for a barbecue business to get noticed is by tinkering with side dishes that customers get addicted to. At Stiles Switch, many of the sides are a classic idea that’s elevated, such as lemon vinaigrette coleslaw (get the recipe here).
“We’re always working on our sides to make them a little better than what you’d find anywhere else,” Kirkpatrick says. “We did a seasonal watermelon-cucumber salad in the summer with a soy-basil-sherry vinegar vinaigrette that was so good we just kept it on the menu.”
A family-recipe corn casserole has become a signature specialty side, even keeping pace in sales with potato salad, which Kirkpatrick will tell you, “is really saying something.”
There’s also Cajun coleslaw, topped with a remoulade that begins with onions and garlic turning into dark, savory candy in a cast-iron skillet. The potato salad is a classic sour cream-dill combo that’s big in Texas, an echo of the dill pickles you find served alongside many foods. Mac ‘n cheese, pinto beans and green bean salad round out the sides menu.
All I want for Christmas is brisket tamales
One of the most highly-anticipated annual promotions at Stiles Switch is 12 Days of Smoked Meat, a magically meat-filled time in December that features crazy good off-the-menu items like brisket tamales.
Last year, about 3,500 tamales helped make the season merrier with finely chopped brisket wrapped in soft pillow of corn masa, a Mexican Christmas tradition made with the smokiest, most craveable filling possible. The first year, friends and family helped stuff the tamales, but now, production is sourced out to a local tamale company.
“It’s pretty cool,” Kirkpatrick says. “It gives us time to get off the menu and do something fun. We came up with it that first year, when we were looking for stuff to set us apart from other places.”
Other smoked-meat selections for the promotion include smoked tri-tip with chimichurri, pit-smoked ham with boudin, brisket, smoked meatloaf and chicken and sausage gumbo.
The cultural references found in Texas provide a flavorful foundation for the whole menu.
“Mexicans and Germans basically created what we’re doing now,” Kirkpatrick says. “A lot of Germans migrated into Central Texas with the railroads and cattle drives, and they met the Mexican vaqueros, who came up with the herds.”
German influence led to sausage becoming an enduring part of the Texas barbecue lexicon. Currently, the sausage on the Stiles Switch menu (spicy, mild and jalapeno-cheddar) is sourced from local sausage maker Thorndale.
But soon, sausage will be made in-house at a new project by the Stiles Switch team located west of Austin in Dripping Springs. This location—planned to be a more cheffed-up version of the original—will have a dedicated cold room for making sausage that will serve as a central sausage-production facility for both locations.
That’s a lot to look forward to, part of a smoky, flavorful new year for BBQ Industry’s inaugural BBQ Star, Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew.