Like any good Texan, Austin native Evan LeRoy grew up barbecuing with his father in the backyard. “We mostly cooked pork and beef ribs, with the occasional brisket and chicken,” he remembers. “I still use some of the tricks he taught me, like the jalapeño jelly we slather on our pork spare ribs.” He fondly recalls family pilgrimages to Salt Lick Barbecue, the iconic restaurant in Driftwood. “Their pork ribs were my favorite, and I still love their sauce on just about anything.”
His enthusiasm for sports emerged later. “I wasn’t a huge football fan growing up,” he confesses, “but it’s kind of inescapable here in Austin.” Years later, when the Longhorns won the 2006 Rose Bowl for the national championship with quarterback Vince Young, he really got into it.
After high school, Evan headed to Florida State University to study English and creative writing. It was in Tallahassee that he landed his first restaurant job, “a dingy little seafood joint known as the Cougar Bar,” and met his future wife, Lindsey. “We worked for the school newspaper together for three years before meeting face-to-face during our senior year,” Evan says.
Football and food were instant connections. “I’ve always been a huge football fan,” says Lindsey. “I grew up in Jupiter, Florida, about an hour and a half north of Miami and, as the oldest of three girls, I regularly attended college football games with my dad.” But it was Evan’s cooking that sealed the deal. After he made her chicken parmesan—“the best I’ve ever had to this day,” Lindsey recalls—she was head over heels.
After college, the couple moved to New York. Evan planned to try his hand at food writing, but soon realized he needed to supplement that pursuit with kitchen work. Before long, a culinary career became his primary focus. “Eventually, I realized that I really liked the work,” Evan says. He followed the smell of smoke and landed a position at Hill Country Barbecue Market. “I wanted professional barbecue experience, and they were the best place in town,” he says. “It also really made me feel like I was at home when I worked there.”
Life alongside a smoker is warm and cozy, but New York winters are cold. The year that their taxi couldn’t get down their unplowed street, forcing them to drag luggage through the snow, they knew it was time to return to Texas. But moving back wasn’t just about the weather. “I wanted to compete in the best barbecue city in the country,” Evan says. He was trolling Craigslist for kitchen equipment to outfit a food trailer—his initial plan—when he stumbled onto the opportunity at Freedmen’s Bar, a saloon-like lounge and beer garden in a landmark building (built in 1869) in the heart of the University of Texas campus. “One of the coolest features is the built-in wall safes under the inside staircase,” Evan says. “They don’t work anymore, but they definitely capture the age of the building.” The restaurant opened in late 2012 and has been growing ever since. “My philosophy is to take the same care in preparing every part of the meal,” he explains. “Most barbecue joints have juicy, succulent meats, but serve them next to plain white bread and pickles from a five-gallon bucket. We make everything we serve from scratch every day.”
The party kicks off with a lethal, margarita-style elixir made with mezcal, fresh lime and grapefruit juices, and a jalapeño-infused syrup. Heat plus heat is not a problem in Texas.
Thanks to its proximity to campus, Freedmen’s is an epicenter of pre-game buzz during the fall when fans load up on barbecue to soak up the free-flowing beer. Often the LeRoys gather friends to do the same. “I feel so fortunate that we’re able to live in a city that is such a strong football community,” Lindsey says. “Not only is tailgating in Austin some of the best in the country, but the majority of our friends attended UT, which makes cheering for the home team even more fun.”
Smoke and heat influence much of the menu. For instance, the party kicks off with a lethal, margarita-style elixir made with mezcal, fresh lime and grapefruit juices, and a jalapeño-infused syrup. Heat plus heat is not a problem in Texas: as their friends (dressed in an array of stadium styles, including an impressive rhinestone Longhorn ring) sip, they slather jalapeño cheese—a riff on pimento cheese made with smoked jalapeños—on crackers.
But the main event, of course, is a belt-busting amount of meat. There are charred, peppery, beef ribs that have been smoked for about six hours until they’re meltingly tender. A tangle of Evan’s pulled pork drips with his signature “pork sauce,” made with house-made hot sauce, cider vinegar, and fish sauce, which lends a satisfying umami base note. To round out the table, there are wedges of corn cake with maple bacon butter and colorful jars of crisp pickles—a mix of cucumbers, jalapeños, carrots, apples, green onions, celery, and onion—in a bread and butter-style brine.
No surprise that dessert also carries a whiff of smoke. Freedmen’s serves salted and smoked chocolate mousse, as well as smoked banana pudding (served in a jar and layered with smoked banana slices, custard, and whipped cream). But for tailgating parties, Evan pulls out smoked chocolate and peanut butter pretzel bars. Like the gathering, the bars are homey, casual, and reminiscent of something that tastes like childhood. “This is my kind of dessert,” he says
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