Last night Sabino “Pio” Renteria pursued his manic obsession against Austin’s barbecue restaurants and grilling food trailers, and the amazing thing to me is that he succeeded in getting his proposal to the next level. From listening to him yammer on, it’s apparent that the whole thing stems from the gentrification of East Austin. I hate Californians zooming in and snatching up the eastern side of our city as much as the next guy, offering cash for the asking price on the same day that a property hits the market. It displaces all of the old timers that can no longer afford to live there, and the increase in taxes is forcing old eateries out of the area. If you think the McMansionism of the ’09 zip code was bad a couple of decades back, I would urge you to hop in your lowrider and do an extended cruise around the eastside today.
...you elected him, District 3. Happy now?
But what Renteria fails to understand, is that most of the barbecue venues are leasing their spots, and with the meteoric increase in real estate values (and therefore, taxes) in the area, the rents that the landlords will have to charge will eventually price the barbecue folks out of the area, along with all of the locals. Not to mention the fact that the profit margin on barbecue is abysmally small, and these restaurants cannot afford to buy scrubbers, even if they wanted to. The hipsterification of East Austin will be complete, and only those rich enough to live there will be rich enough to pay the Dallas prices the remaining restaurants in the area will be forced to charge.
When Renteria suggests that instead of wood as a fuel, the restaurants should instead use natural gas, or that smoke scrubbers should be installed on every pit smokestack, he shows what a moron he is when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the meat smoking art. It is a delicate and carefully choreographed dance between wood, fire, and air, and you start jacking around with that tango and you lose the flavor. Even raising the height of the smokestack changes the dynamics. A stack scrubber would be catastrophic.
Most of the hubbub seems to center around Terry Black’s on Barton Springs, and la Barbecue in east Austin. Read this from KXAN’s report on March 30: “Last year, Terry Black’s Barbecue on Barton Springs Road received two TCEQ complaints alleging smoke nuisance. When TCEQ staff checked the restaurant, the smoke observed was not considered a nuisance and no violations were cited….La Barbecue has seen visits from TCEQ as well. In 2014, there were two complaints regarding smoke and in both instances TCEQ staff determined there was no violation.”
Holiday House WAAAY back in the day.....
It’s really unfortunate that Terry Black’s is one of the featured violators, because I've eaten their barbecue, and it is sub par at best. But the fact remains that the location has been a restaurant since at least the very early ‘60s, cooking flame-kissed burgers over charcoal (Holiday House started in Austin a long time ago). The time to bitch about the possibility that a barbecue restaurant might make some smoke, and that you lived right behind it, on the edge of a limestone cliff that would prevent the dispersal of said smoke, would have been during the months leading up to the opening, when there was near constant news coverage of the joint starting up. Or the public disclosure or posting of their impending alcohol permit, for that matter. Complaining a half a year later, after they've spent a butt load of money, just doesn't work.
This whole situation reminds me of the folks that raised hell about airplane noise when Bergstrom AFB became ABIA. Airplanes make noise, and believe me, B 52 bombers and KC 135 tankers make a HELL of a lot more noise than a puny airliner; we used to live under the approach to the north end of the Bergstrom runway when I was a kid, and it would shake the entire house to its foundation when one flew over (which was frequently). Unless you lived out there before Bergstrom was established, keep your mouth shut. You don’t move next to an airport and bitch about noise. Just like you don’t move close to a barbecue joint, and bitch about smoke.
John Lewis is talking about relocating his pits a little to help disperse the smoke more efficiently. A magnanimous gesture if you ask me. He was granted a certificate of occupancy for that new location, and went through all of the required steps from the City and the Health Department. I also saw some news footage from some guy bitching about the smoke from a smaller mobile food trailer. There are existing zoning provisions which cover that situation: “Neighborhood Planning Contact Team or a Neighborhood Association can adopt additional regulations that regulate the distance and hours of operation of mobile food trailers near residential areas…” No new rules need to be imposed.
Here’s the bottom line, back in the day, getting really excellent barbecue usually required a 30 minute (or more) drive out of Austin, and today we are blessed with a ridiculous bounty of great barbecue within our city limits. Pitmasters like Aaron Franklin, John Lewis, John Mueller, Tom Micklethwait, Lance Kirkpatrick, Bill Kerlin, Evan Leroy, Daniel Brown, Tom Spalding, and the rest have helped Austin’s national reputation as one of the best food cities in the country, as well as one of the nation’s focal points for excellent barbecue. That brings in tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of publicity to Austin, which benefits us all, whether you like barbecue or not. In considering the effects of Renteria’s proposal, I can’t think of a more wrongheaded, discombobulated move for Austin’s City Council to make. If you agree with me, I would encourage you to let him, and the rest of the Council, know about it. Next thing you know, they could be dictating what YOU grill or smoke in your own backyard.
Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Austin City Council, District 3
Mick Vann ©