2402 San Gabriel St
Austin, TX 78705
I’m really excited about this blogpost. Because I’m really exited about this place.
The buzz on Freedmen’s had been intruguing since they first announced their opening in the historic Civil War era building, complete with antique soda fountain bar imported from San Antonio. So immediately, it was going to be a cool place to drink. Then they sealed the deal by announcing the food would in fact be BBQ, headed up by pit master Evan LeRoy. Ok Freedmen’s, now you’ve got me.
Placed in the rather bro-tastic frat saturated area of West Campus, Freedmen’s holds its own amongst the trashy college bars of the same neighbourhood, and at the time I visited, their lovely courtyard was a welcome, relaxed respite from the general douchebaggery of Fratsville.
Freedmen’s is named for former slave George Franklin, who built the historic premises in 1869. The facade of the building is original, and remnants of old decorative tile-work are still dotted around the venue. Stepping inside, the gorgeous dark wood bar has been tastefully matched with rich upholstered leather panels, and elegant marble topped tables. You’d be forgiven for thinking Freedmen’s was actually once a highfalutin saloon.
Keep a keen eye out for authentic antique details – I was shown behind an old wooden door to the original iron safe, installed under the stairs. I wouldn’t be surprised to find other trapdoors and hidings places strewn throughout the building, and that just adds to the charm!
To the side of the bar is a newer outdoor area, typical of an Austin courtyard with gravel flooring and string lights, but somehow the setup makes this ubiquitous area rather polished, as though it always belonged.
And what of the imbibing, you ask?! Freedmen’s have nailed that oh-so-delicate balance between high end tipples (such as their fat-washed Bloody Swine) and unpretentious offerings like $2 pints of Lone Star during happy hour. Dining buddy Steve was thrilled to discover that Freedmen’s also make their own tonic, matched with Beefeater gin and soda for their signature G&T. Also particularly handy if you’re suffering from a case of malaria (did you know that the G&T was introduced by the British Army in India to make the anti-malarial quinine more palatable? Fascinating!)
The menu at Freedmen’s is what I would call “sophisticated” BBQ. Which is to say, it’s carefully considered without being pretentious. It appears that the menu is printed daily, clearly adjusted according to the availability and freshness of produce. There is a strong focus on traditional methods (such as head cheese and charcuterie), and Freedmen’s also proudly offer a range of pickled treats like okra, green beans and spicy carrots as sides.
Appetiser dishes include Heirloom Tomatoes with Smoked Tomato Relish and Gorgonzola, Chicken & Duck Terrine and Smoked Beets with Chevre and Balsamic Glaze. None of the dishes seem particularly complicated or elaborate, but all are reliant on using exceptional produce, allowing the ingredients to be the stars. It’s not unlike the essence of BBQ – let the single “hero” ingredient do the talking.
Speaking of meat, you can expect to find brisket, pork ribs, house-made sausage, pork belly and chicken on the menu. Even more astonishingly, “smoked & grilled veggies” appear as part of the barbecue menu, so perhaps this IS the perfect place to satisfy a “varied” crowd?! Might I also add, I was super impressed when I saw their BBQ is served with European style rye bread. Not only do I think it’s a great flavor match, but it’s far closer to the Czech/German origins of Texas BBQ than Wonder Bread.
I ordered the brisket, and it was superb. Moist, tender and without having to ask I was served a selection of both fatty and lean cuts. I apologise profusely for not snapping a better pic (blaming the tools again!), but it was around that time that pit master Evan LeRoy came over to the table to say hola.
Don’t let the surly photo sway you. Surely this man has to be one of the nicest guys in BBQ. Texan born and bred, LeRoy has also served terms as a chef, baker and food writer, amongst other things. His varied culinary background no doubt has a direct influence on the balanced, thoughtful menu. Also, he is a huge Game of Thrones nerd and at the time of my visit, was planning a series of themed dinners in the upstairs dining room to coincide with each episode screening. Actually, you should probably keep an eye on Freedmen’s Facebook page for all their other fun events – like brisket benedict brunches.
Now here comes the swoon part. Being the lovely gentleman that he is, Evan sent out complimentary desserts to our table- Smoked Banana Pudding and Smoked & Salted Chocolate Mousse. Being that bananas are a revolting, evil demon fruit that should be killed with fire, I tried only the smoked mousse. And may I just say… LIFE CHANGING.
The chocolate is melted in the smoker which imparts the most incredible savoury note to this sweet dessert. The fatty richness of the cream works in exactly the same way as the fat of a brisket to balance the intense smoke with a well-rounded soft mouth feel. Yes, I may sound like a pretentious twat right now, but honestly it was one of the most exciting flavour combinations in recent memory. Brilliant.
So to Pit Master LeRoy, his superb crew working in a teeny kitchen, and Freedmen’s inspired and creative bar staff, I say: thank you for a truly fabulous dining experience.