It’s telling that I only tried Lamberts because I could expense it. This was back when I was still traveling to Austin, holed up in a hotel on business. My last three meals had been some permutation of Mexican — tacos, Tex-Mex, Korea-Mex — and I was dying to try the other indigenous cuisine. After a quick search on Yelp, I discovered the pickins downtown were slim, especially on a Monday night.
Not wanting to brave the crowds of homeless people to get to Stubb’s, I opted for the other end of Austin’s socioeconomic spectrum: the tony Second Street corridor. Catty-corner from the W Hotel, Lambert’s looked fairly unassuming from the curb. Crossing the threshold, however, made me wonder if I hadn’t passed through some magical portal to Dallas. Inside was a slickly designed dining room, throngs of beautiful people and sharply dressed servers.
Since I wasn’t at a real barbecue restaurant, I choose a wedge salad for my starter. It was a good rendition, but nothing exemplary. In retrospect though, the wedge was the best thing I ate. That’s because my $16 brisket was a huge disappointment.
The modest portion came sans side, with nothing more than a pickled escabeche garnish. The first few slices I tried were awfully dry. In fact, halfway through my meal I wished I had some sauce to add moisture, but figured Lamberts wasn’t that kind of place. Sadly, it was. As I choked down my last bites, my waiter realized he didn’t bring any sauce and sat a bottle down on my table. It was a classic case of too little, too late.
Thankfully I fared a little better on my next visit. This time, I met a co-worker at the upstairs bar. Not wanting to repeat my past mistake, I decided on the spicy jalapeño hot links. $14 got me two plump sausages topped with some pickled cabbage. Unlike when I had the brisket, I was treated to the subtle oak-y aroma that comes from hours of smoking — without the La Niña-level of dryness I was expecting. All in all, a much better choice.
Surprisingly, what I liked most about my return trip to Lamberts was the overall vibe upstairs. More lounge than restaurant, a live band was playing while I dined and the bartenders were incredibly friendly. When I inquired about local brews, one of the guys shared his favorites — with free tastes — and told me about two great beer bars in town. We chatted on and off during the meal and he really made me appreciate the value of a good bartender.
Of course, any review of a barbecue restaurant with not much to say about the barbecue says something in itself. For what Lamberts charges for their meat, it should be exceptional, memorable and crave-worthy. But that’s not the case. To be honest, I’ll probably only go back for a band and beer. Largely because I find the live music calendar to be much more appetizing.
Note: I’ve come around on Lambert’s. While it still doesn’t equal the quality of true BBQ joints, I have to admit I’ve enjoyed my meals lately. I had a wonderfully seasoned ribeye on NYE (not BBQ, but damn good); really like their succulent ancho-lime chicken; half-love their brisket (the moist parts); and admit their ranch beans are the only legume side I care to order.