Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bad Watermelon

Bun & Barrel
1150 Austin Highway
(at Exeter Street)
To me, barbecue is like watermelon. 

A good watermelon is wonderfully tasty, and messy. Bad watermelon isn't so much bad as just not good. The universe of watermelons is divided into a great mass of mediocre ones, and a tiny sprinkling of good ones. Very few watermelons are worth the inevitable mess. 

Barbecue, prepared by artists, is also wonderfully taste, and messy. Bad barbecue is okay, but nothing more (until you get into the styles popular in some other parts of the country, which can be revolting). Most barbecue isn't worth the mess.

Bun & Barrel is a restaurant that's been serving up barbecue on Austin Highway for ages. I'm sure when the first Spanish explorers passed this way, Bun & Barrel had an icon on their GPS screens, and they probably stopped in for dinner. Maybe they liked it, maybe they didn't. 

I was last there more recently than the Spanish explorers, but it had been decades; long enough that I had no memory of it, good or bad. So, driving down the road the other day with my faithful sidekick, Rick, and the lunch rush just beginning, we decided it was time to give it a try. 

Outwardly, the place hasn't changed since at least the Eisenhower era, a relentless hold on tradition that I find generally comforting. Inside, the place has surely been spruced up more recently, because the floors and walls and furnishings were clean and neat, showing nowhere near the decrepitude that sixty years will produce in retail property. The theme of the décor, loosely displayed, was the Rock & Roll era of the 1950s and '60s, meaning that the background music being played was mostly old when I awoke to the world. Another comforting thing, though I suspect people who came of age after the Berlin Wall came down are starting to tire of its ubiquity.

Not a large place, Bun & Barrel manages to pack people in at meal times, without having them feel packed in. Service is prompt and cheerful, and the staff's quickness keeps the tables turning over. There is a buzz of conversation in the dining rooms, but it's not so fashionably loud as to deter pleasant conversation.

The menu is almost without surprises: barbecued beef, chicken, sausage, ham; burgers; fried fish for the Friday Catholics; and side dishes that you expect to find in any self-respecting barbecue house. The only departure from the ordinary (besides the absence of pork loin) is the "spicy Thai burger," which I take as evidence to support the belief that Bun & Barrel is now owned by the people behind Tong's Thai restaurant, next door. I had Thai the other day, so I had no interest in that novelty menu item.

The best barbecue I've had — and despite my bias against the cuisine, I've had a lot, being a native Texan born in exile — is moist, tender and complex. That is true of good barbecue whether eaten in Texas, its true home, or in some benighted foreign place like Missouri or Alabama. The barbecue at Bun & Barrel, sadly, was none of those things. The turkey and beef were both dry through and through, and less tender than crumbly; as though they had been dehydrated prior to cooking. The two sauces available in squeeze bottles on the table (one sweet, too sweet for me; the other piquant) did a little to mitigate the lack of good texture, but not enough. The sausage was a little better in texture, but had little in the way of flavour to recommend it.
Bun 'n' Barrel on Urbanspoon
The side dishes were reasonably tasty, though only the french fries stood out. They, in fact, would probably rank in my personal Top Ten, if I could think of nine other places with really good fries. They were cut with the peeling on, and fried perfectly in good-quality oil. They had a hint of crispiness about them, and an excellent potato flavour on the inside. The beans were in that vague area between good enough and pretty good, with plenty of pork to flavour its thick, rich sauce, but the seasonings just missed the mark. The cole slaw was pretty to look at, and not bad to taste, but its sauce was runny to the point of being water. 

Last city inspection: September 2011
Only 6 demerits
There was something about the ambience of the place that prompted both of us to order malts, something I haven't done three times in my life. The malt flavour in Rick's was much more pronounced than in mine, I guess, because he commented on how clearly it came out, while I suspected that I had been given a mere milk shake. Still, the consistency of the it was excellent, and if I had ordered a milk shake instead of a malt, I would be raving about it, and comparing it favourably to the shakes at places like the Olmos Pharmacy. (No, it wasn't quite that good, but it would have merited serious comparison.)

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