It’s a good bet that most Q-heads have a platonic pit image in their minds that runs something like this: smoke-stained walls, past-their-prime calendars, old beer and/or oil signs, maybe a counter with knives chained to it, certainly a chopping block contoured and cured by years of slicing brisket and portioning ribs … and, somewhere visible, a proud pile of the fuel of choice. If the pit isn’t apparent, there should be at least a pungent whiff of smoke.
With the exception of three beer signs, there is none of this at strip-center Burnt Ends on Blanco. The smoking takes place in a lean-to out back where some snooping will reveal a few scattered pieces of wood (oak and some pecan, I’m told). From the dining space, emblazoned with big graphics (including BEER, which is rarely as intense a focus as it is here), nothing of the smoking or slicing is apparent. Does any of this matter?
Not really. Yes, I miss not seeing more of the process, but the brisket that issues forth from behind the BEER wall is as barky as a junkyard dog; the pork ribs are moist, meaty and peppery; the house sausage, though it may lack the snap I prefer, is good, grainy and full of flavor. And even the pulled pork, often a disappointment, has personality. In addition, smoking doesn’t stop with the meats. You can get a smoked spud piled with pulled pork, beef, or sausage, and there are two kinds of smoked corn on the cob.
Let’s start with the sides. The potato salad is creamy and appears house-made, but it’s more like a foil for the meats than a dish with attitude of its own. Of the two corns, one of which is called elote Mexicano, the gringo version is better. It might have been bad luck of the draw, but the elote was far from cooked, and its dusting of chile powder and packaged parmesan was unconvincing; on another day, the simpler smoked corn tasted a tad of smoke, showed signs of actually having been on the grill, and was perfectly served by butter and pepper. But about those green beans…
At most traditional BBQ joints, if green beans are available, they have been cooked to a fare-thee-well with perhaps a little tomato. Not here. These still have a toothiness to ‘em. They’ve been sizzled with onion and maybe some burnt-end bits from chopped brisket sammiches, and they are worth ordering in the large size. Also worth a bigger portion than what comes as a cap to the smoked spud, is the ginger slaw; it’s the perfect, punchy sidekick to an otherwise lonesome brisket, especially in the meat’s fattier form.
You might not be asked, but you can order the brisket either lean or fatty — or in a combination as I did when it was finally available. (Note to the wise: of course it will sell out by late afternoon or evening, but it was also not available at opening time on another occasion, so consider calling ahead.) For what this observation is worth, the fattier slices were barkier, but the leaner had a smokier bite — at least based on my sample. Either is fine without the thin and slightly vinegary sauce (I’m not going to be so foolish as to try to deconstruct it), but neither suffers from a squirt or two. Neither the pork ribs nor the sausage probably wants sauce, at least at first, but I won’t be looking (or judging).
Beneath BEER, by the way, are 15 taps-worth of the craft stuff, ranging in price from $4 to $6, and all are $3 at the generous, daily happy hour from 3-8. (Pork sliders will run you $4 then.) Another wall graphic claims entertainment on Sunday, though there was none during my visit. And there are also said to be Monster Beef Ribs — on weekends only. I got there at about 5:30 on Sunday when there was a butcher-paper sign taped to the door advising the late-to-the-party of their demise, along with the brisket, so they will remain the stuff of legend. Always good to have at least something new to encourage a repeat visit.