Sam’s Bar-b-Que: In Living History

Walking into Sam’s, love still lingered heavy in the air on the Friday afternoon following Valentine’s Day.

Presumably, that loving feeling is always in the air at Sam’s. It’s not the flowers and candy type of loving sentiment though - it’s the kind where the door will slam without care as it closes upon entering the East 12th Street barbecue spot, one of the current apexes of Austin’s ongoing gentrification woes. The credit card reader is down; the nearest ATM is several Texas-sized blocks away. The covered windows keep the unrelenting sunlight from flooding in. There’s no hostess to greet patrons as they enter. None of that matters at Sam’s, because the love that beams inside is the kind that only family, tradition and legacy could provide. Sam’s BBQ is a history lesson in honoring what keeps us whole; what keeps us together.

The stark contrast between the sunny, colorful exterior and the dark and homely lighting inside immediately quiets the mind. The sound of Taraji P. Henson and Mary J. Blige on a BET show playing loudly in the background doesn’t distract from the witty, mumbling and maybe even flirty banter by way of David Mays, who takes his time when he assembles plates.

You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.
— Sam's BBQ

Watching David walk back and forth behind the counter as he slices the brisket barehanded and explains that “the only sides we have are potato salad and beans, babycakes,” resembles a jovial parent making after school snacks -only family could get away with nicknames that bad. Only David Mays could get away with making belated Valentine’s Day plans with his patrons – before they even tried the brisket.

Sam’s has been a longtime staple of barbeque history in Texas, dating back to the 1940s when it opened in East Austin. The Washington Post proclaims that Stevie Ray Vaughan would have Sam’s shipped to New York City. Today, the establishment is run by the Mays family, who purchased the restaurant from their cousin Sam in 1978.

The west-facing exterior of Sam’s is home to a painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a quote above it that reads: “We may have come on different ships but we’re in the same boat now.” It’s a befitting phrase for what Sam’s represents all the way back to its barbeque roots. Where exactly does the term “barbeque” come from? Accepted wisdom traces it back to Haiti and the word “barbacoa,” which referred to the practice of using a framework of sticks to cook meat over a fire. When Spanish colonizers arrived, they started referring to the cooked meat as barbacoa. How exactly does Spanish colonizers mislabeling terms in Haiti turn into a Southern US culinary artform? The easy answer is that it is a separate (and longer) history lesson for another time.

A sign on the storefront reads: “You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.”.

The fatty brisket melts on the tongue with the same joy and smoothness of an ice cream cone in July. The smoky smell radiates through the pork rib bones and seeps into the most bulletproof of clothing. Sam’s is not transactional. It’s an experience, and intimately, one that is an onslaught of  all five senses.

The food at Sam’s is unpretentious and unassuming; it speaks for itself.

The care of the experience, however, shouts from the rooftops, out past the condos, above the skyscrapers and beyond the infinite drone of scooters scooting by. While changes continue to push Austin further away from its southern roots, Sam’s is doubling down on what once gave the city its charm. It’s not weird, it’s familiar. It’s the ritual of coming home that developers could never quite fully replicate.