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Review: Black Label Icehouse 

Texas-style barbecue in Central City

click to enlarge Damian Brugger smokes meat outside his
Central City restaurant
Black Label Icehouse.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Damian Brugger smokes meat outside his Central City restaurant Black Label Icehouse.

The burger at Black Label Icehouse indicates that every-thing in Texas really is bigger. The burger served at Central City's newest barbecue and beer joint arrives on a towering pretzel bun with whiskey-glazed onions, oozing cheddar cheese and smoked, candied bacon strips. But the house barrel sauce is a sweet and peppery reminder that barbecue is the real draw here, even though the leaning corner building on the corner of Dryades and Seventh streets is first and foremost a bar.

  Owner Damian Brugger started his longstanding pop-up Black Label Barbecue in the parking lot at Ms. Mae's and eventually attracted a following at Barrel Proof, the Lower Garden District whiskey haunt. At his first brick and mortar, Brugger has swapped bourbon for beer, offering 15 local craft beers in addition to a slew of domestic bottle options.

  A former Marine and Texas expat, Brugger infuses his inner badass across the board. While the pitmaster turns out smoked meats by the pound, a heavily tattooed and bearded staff serves up boilermakers, and metal bands are in heavy rotation on the sound system.

  Despite opening more than three months ago, the sprawling 3,000-square-foot space has a raw feel, from corrugated tin accents to the unfinished natural wood infrastructure that smells as fresh as if the doors opened yesterday.

  Navigating which menu items are available can be tricky, and there's a sense that some things are still being finalized. Early weekdays see a cast of rotating specials and the occasional pop-up while the main barbecue fare is served mostly Thursday through Sunday.

  Brugger is a master of the Lone Star state's signature dish — smoked brisket — which is delivered in heaping piles on half-sheet trays in charred, fatty glory. It's a classic central Texas preparation with robust straightforward flavors that render sauce unnecessary, with fatty bits so soft they dissolve in your mouth.

  The Cowboy from Hell sandwich — brisket served on Texas toast with pickles, soft Vidalia onions and barbecue sauce — is a good choice to sample the spot's tour de force.

  St. Louis-style pork ribs and chicken wings are dusted with smoky dry rub and arrive full-flavored and tender, if not exactly falling off the bone. Pulled pork has a soft, pliable quality that hints at a touch of vinegar. Without barbecue sauce, the meat feels naked, but it's vastly improved with a healthy dose of the house's thick, peppery, brick-colored version.

  While Brugger paints inside the lines with traditional takes on Texas-style smoked meats, there's a playfulness in his approach to bar snacks, including the appropriately named "crack" jalapeno poppers. Stuffed with smoked candied bacon and cream cheese, they are utterly addictive. Fries also stray from the norm in delightful fashion — subjected to a light beer batter, cooked in smoked pig and duck fat and tossed with smoked Himalayan salt and a healthy dose of black pepper.

  Sides and condiments could use more attention. They take a backseat to the main attraction, and on some nights, they seem absent from the menu.

  Brugger had designs on giving his barbecue pop-up a permanent home, but reviving a long-standing Central City corner bar was a strong drive as well. After four months, the bar appears to have garnered a local following — evidence that sometimes a plate of meat and a cold beer are all it takes to bring a neighborhood together.

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