At Brooklyn-based Carnal, chefs Aaron Saurer and James Zamaroy have fused the New York City and Kentucky cuisines of their hometowns. In a bold business move, the duo has brought their menu of slow cooked meats to Austin, Texas, where barbecue is viewed as nothing less than sacred.
During their three-month southern retreat from Brooklyn’s cold winter, inhospitable to their outdoor market location, Zamaroy and Saurer have set up camp in the kitchen of Austin’s Parlor & Yard.
“We were actually approached about this by someone who wasn’t affiliated with Carnal or Parlor & Yard at all,” Saurer said. “He just came to us and said that we should take over their kitchen to create some sort of draw that the food they were serving wasn’t already.”
Zamaroy said that although it’s still too difficult to have permanent locations in Texas and New York at the same time, he is not totally counting out a possible expansion to Austin in the future.
“We would certainly like a presence here,” Zamaroy said. “You’re seeing a lot of these cool restaurants pop up on the East Side right now, and I don’t think either of us would object to having something there eventually.”
Coming down from New York to Central Texas to try their hand at barbecue may seem foolish to some, but Zamaroy and Saurer said serving barbecue isn’t even their true intention.
“This actually isn’t barbecue at all, and we kind of struggle with how to define it,” Zamaroy said. “What we’re doing here is a mixture of what we learned from working in fine dining and stuff that comes from our own minds. We’re not trying to ‘New York’ anyone’s ‘Texas.’”
The Carnal menu offers a fine-dining take on traditional barbecue cuts of meat that will not step on the toes of any purists in Austin. For one, the meat isn’t even smoked in an offset smoker the way Texans are used to.
Instead, the cuts are cooked in a mixture of fat and marrow in an oven before being thrown on a charcoal grill to add a touch of charred smokiness to the meat before it’s served. This method leaves the food with a flavor unlike anything Texans normally associate with barbecue.
The highlight of Carnal’s Austin menu is undoubtedly the beef short rib. Cooked in bone marrow fat and finished with a peppery charcoal crust, this giant hunk of rib meat delivers a sophisticated flavor usually reserved only for expensive cuts of duck or goose. The rib is further improved with a garnish of tomato relish, which is arguably a better pair with the meat than barbecue sauce.
Another impressive menu item is the two-day pork shoulder. Cooked to optimal tenderness, the shoulder is sliced, stacked on a soft bun and served with toppings of coriander, charred pineapple and onion. The theme of pairing meat with fresh fruits and vegetables instead of strictly sauce works exceptionally well at Carnal.
Even the menu’s sides offer something new and exciting. The spicy potatoes, in particular, pack a flavorful punch courtesy of a delicious chili flake, garlic, thyme and fried egg sauce mixture. The avocado makes for a more refreshing side dish, combining diced avocados with two different tomatillo sauces, fresh jalapeno, epazote and pumpkin seeds.
While it shouldn’t be considered Texas barbecue, Carnal brings to Austin an exceptionally inventive approach to slow-cooking meats, and its refusal to mimic Texas tradition makes it that much more approachable for the locals.
“This food doesn’t really fit a certain category,” Zamaroy said. “It’s really just us trying to make things as good as possible for people to try and enjoy.”
Location: 601 W. Sixth St.
Hours: Monday–Thursday 4 p.m.–10 p.m., Friday–Sunday 2 p.m.–8 p.m.