An establishment must have a certain amount of self-respect to set up shop in a historic landmark, particularly the Franzetti Store, a piece of real estate dating back to 1869. Newly opened barbecue restaurant and bar Freedmen’s has that self-respect, and a name paying tribute to the building’s history as a centerpiece of Wheatville, a community many of the University area’s freed slaves called home.
Perhaps it is easier to start off with what Freedmen’s is not. It is not your Rudy’s or Bill Miller sort of barbecue joint. It is not part of the culturally bland restaurant/bar scene that prevails among its neighbors in West Campus (I’m looking at you, Cain & Abel’s), which specifically caters to that “college experience” ideology. In fact, as a more upscale dining experience, Freedmen’s seems out of place in the middle of a neighborhood of frat houses, high-density apartment complexes and loud college students.
What Freedman’s is, is an oasis in the midst of West Campus. The restaurant itself is tiny. The few tables indoors have rich, black leather cushions and candles as centerpieces. A large fixture over the bar area provides most of the light in the dining area, bathing the tables in a warm golden glow.
Freedmen's serves a variety of barbeque entrees such as the Holy Trinity Plate, which consists of brisket, pork ribs and sausage. - Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff
The cocktail menu includes selections created by Freedmen’s mixologists. Prices are conveniently excluded. The gin-based Lavender Collins tastes like what perfume ought to taste like; light and floral, with no particular taste too overwhelming. The restaurant’s take on the Bloody Mary, the Bloody Swine, uses a combination of bacon, whiskey and citrus flavors, and is somehow simultaneously savory and sweet. But it works.
Executive chef and pitmaster Evan LeRoy knows how to do his job. While “melt in your mouth” is too often used to describe good barbecue, LeRoy’s pork belly is so flavorful and tender it is like a hybrid of meat and a stick of butter. The seemingly innocent pork ribs are only decent, until a surprising spicy aftertaste kicks in and lingers for a while. The slightly dry brisket finds redemption in the addition of house barbecue sauce.
The plates are served with sweet, yet slightly spicy pickled vegetables, all presented unpretentiously on tin trays lined with brown parchment and a roll of paper towels on the table to wipe up with: a charming recognition of how barbecue is supposed to be served.
Side dish offerings are upgraded from standard barbecue joint fare. Delicious German potatoes with bacon and caramelized onions stand in for potato salad, and offal beans, cooked with sausage and beef heart, take the place of standard baked beans. Vegetarians needn’t feel left out: The smoked beets are enough to turn even a devout carnivore into a veggie lover. The herbed chevre pairs nicely with the earthy beets, and is topped with a tart balsamic glaze, creating an intense combination of flavors.
The smoked banana pudding is served in an almost offensively small mason jar, but one bite proves that a little goes a long way. Exceptionally sweet and rich, it is almost too heavy to top off the hearty barbecue dinner. Splitting it with someone is a must.
Only time will tell if Freedmen’s can carve out a niche in a neighborhood densely populated by college students who likely don’t have a lot of disposable income. However, for those looking to experience finer tastes without venturing too far from home, Freedmen’s provides an opportunity to try new flavors in a relatively casual setting.