About a year ago they replaced the old airport in downtown Austin with a fancy mixed retail and residential development with a Best Buy and a Starbucks and eventually as it filled up it got a new barbeque restaurant called Mr. Bones, which opened about two months ago. I drive by it almost every day, but yesterday I thought I’d give it a try.
I was predisposed to view the barbeque favorably, because I assume that Mr. Bones is the revival of the business of the same name which was at the heart of a notorious lawsuit against the city of Austin about a decade ago for the ridiculous action of terminating a contract with a black restauranteur because he refused to register as a minority owned business in order to fulfill their racial quotas. Their original location in north Austin has also had some good reviews, so I had high hopes.
Mr. Bones is located in a nice modern strip mall and the interior decor fits that setting, looking more like an upscale coffee shop than a barbeque joint. The menu is extensive with just about every meat you can imagine plus about a dozen sides. Atypically for a barbeque restaurant it has table service and waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional black and white outfits.
Now, I should have known something was not quite right when, after seating me, the hostess sat down at a corner table to eat a box of Popeye’s fried chicken. With the large selection of meats and sides on the menu, having the employees sending out for food from a chain restaurant doesn’t look good, and letting them eat it where customers can see is a huge managerial blunder which suggests that there may be problems in other areas of the restaurant as well.
As I usually do when trying out a new barbeque place I wanted to order a little bit of everything. Although they did list meat by the pound on the menu, when I tried to order that way my waitress told me that meat by the pound had to be ordered in half-pound amounts of more. Not wanting to kill myself and my wallet with about 4 pounds of meat, I instead decided to order a four meat plate. I wanted to try the beef ribs which a friend has spoken highly of, but they wouldn’t let me have beef ribs as one of the meats and they wouldn’t let me order just one on the side. Frustrating, and not great customer service, but I made the best of it.
From the selection of 8 meats I picked the pork butt, brisket, pork ribs and mutton. I eliminated sausage after being told that they just sell Meyer’s sausage from Elgin. It’s good sausage, but I’ve had it before. I also passed on the pork short ribs, which aren’t a good test of barbeque skill and the turkey and chicken which aren’t my favorites. And, of course, I wasn’t allowed to have beef ribs. My plate came with two sides and bread. I picked green beans and sweet potatoes.
My plate came out quickly and the meat servings were substantial. In volume it was worth the $11 price for the largest meat selection available. Normally I don’t like to put barbeque sauce on my meats, so I set it aside and dug right in and started trying things.
I started off with the brisket, which was not impressive. It had no smoke ring, which is a surprising failing in properly cooked barbeque, plus it was surprisingly tough and dry. Most disappointingly it had a kind of kerosene-like chemical aftertaste which I think might be the product of some sort of liquid smoke style flavoring.
I moved o to the pork butt, which seemed like an easy winner. It’s hard to make bad pork butt, but as far as I could tell the meat was roasted rather than really barbequed and it had no flavor to speak of – certainly not the nice smoked flavor I was hoping for. It still wasn’t bad, but it was disappointing. On the upside it didn’t have the weird chemical aftertaste.
Next I moved on to the pork ribs, which turned out to also be dry and quite tough, and they had been basted in something which again had that chemical aftertaste, but beyond that it seemed not to have imparted any identifiable flavor to the ribs. This aroused my suspicions and I decided to try the barbeque sauce. It was not impressive and clearly contributed to the problems with the meats. Although it was the right color, the sauce was thin and had very little flavor except for a slight sweetness. You can buy better sauce in the supermarket. Since this sauce was clearly used for basting the meats, it explains the general lack of flavor, though not the weird aftertaste.
The one meat I had left turned out to be the best. Although it was basted with the same weak sauce, the mutton breast was pretty good. Admittedly it’s hard to make bad mutton, but the same cooking process which dried out the ribs and the brisket apparently made the mutton less greasy than it often is, so the end result was not bad. It still had a bit of that weird chemical taste, but by then I was used to it.
Overall the meats were just not good. Inferior sauce used to baste them rather than a stronger sauce or a nice dry rub, in combination with rushed cooking with a lack of real smoke and the application of some sort of chemical smoke substitute, produced a very unsatisfactory result. Ironically the best item I ate at Mr. Bones was the green beans, which were loaded with ham and quite flavorful. But it’s not good when the best thing at a barbeque joint is one of the sides.
Worst of all, that chemical smoke flavor stayed with me well into the next day. It was like it had coated the inside of my mouth and it just wouldn’t go away. It left me feeling vaguely nauseous through several subsequent meals.
I suppose that to be fair I ought to try Mr. Bones at its main location, but after this experience I was not encouraged to do it any time soon. I also suspect that because the strip mall location is ill suited to smoking meat they probably cook the meat at their north location and bring it in to this restaurant to serve, but I can’t be sure. Regardless of where they’re cooking it, they have a lot to learn about making barbeque up to the standards we’ve come to expect from the legendary barbeque which is easy to find all over the Austin area.