Tuesday, September 13, 2011
AUSTIN: Franklin Barbecue
900 E 11th St
Austin, TX 78702
Open Tues-Sun 11-meat runs out
Update: The music was blaring and my regard for the speed limit was waning. I'd just finished a hearty breakfast of brisket and brisket at Snow's in Lexington, and I was racing time to get a spot in line at Franklin Barbecue on a Saturday morning. I'd heard from the Twitterverse that lines were still sane one hour before opening at 10:00 am, but I hadn't factored in the start of another semester at UT. Hungry folks had already filled the entry ramp and the line was slinking down the parking area to a spot beyond the building when I arrived at 10:15. I couldn't count how many were in front of me, but when Aaron Franklin spotted me in line and came over to chat, he said that I didn't want to know the truth about when I'd probably eat. A nice girl came through the line asking for orders, but only to estimate how long the food would last. At opening time there were probably seventy people behind me. Some of them would get the bad news that the meat wouldn't hold out that long and had to leave. Just before noon I made it inside the door just after watching a few disappointed carloads pull up to be met with the infamous "SOLD OUT" sign. They had not been informed of the dedication required to get a taste of this meat made famous all over the country by the likes of the New York Times, the San Francisco Gate and Bon Appetit.
Over 100 degrees outside
About 90 degrees inside
I was meeting a Swedish photographer interested in Texas BBQ, but I'm not sure if he knew what he was in for in regards to the line or the food, but the black jeans and boots coupled with the look on his face after the first bite told me 'no' on both counts.
Aaron Franklin, owner and pitmaster
Finally at the counter at 12:25, owner and pitmaster Aaron Franklin was a busy man wielding a large knife. I won't pretend that I was there unnoticed. Aaron and I know each other well after running into one another at various BBQ events and many visits to his old trailer up the road. My friend, on the other hand, was a new face so he suggested we get a taste of everything. I agreed and made a special request for a thick end cut from the coal black brisket.
Photo by C.C Ekström
A few slices of both fatty and lean brisket were included along with a thick pork rib, a juicy sausage link and a generous helping of pulled pork. We downed a few fist fulls of the moist pork that is truly pulled from whole shoulders. The meat has a subtle smoke with great seasoning and a splash of vinegar sauce just before serving to finish it. Thick pork spare ribs are much more aggressively seasoned with black pepper and smoke. The meat came easily from the bone, and it is incredible moist from all that perfectly rendered fat. The sausage isn't house made, but made especially for Franklin to their owns specifications. The links had great snap, were nicely moist and had great beefy flavor.
Photo by C.C Ekström
After plowing through the other meat selections, it was time for the highlight of the visit and the best brisket in Texas. As my Swedish friend reached for the brisket slices, I stopped him short in order to taste a chunk of the burnt end. His eyes had the look of a smoked meat epiphany, and I too was enjoying a moment across the table. The luscious fat, the thick smoky crust, the black pepper and the tender beef made for one perfect bite of smoked brisket. The slices, while a bit less potent, were no less incredible and truly worth the wait.
Photo by C.C Ekström
As I left I wondered if I would brave that line again. I passed that old trailer now on display and remembered a time where my group sat alone in that old gravel lot enjoying some fine brisket. Hopefully that new behemoth smoker really does cut down on that line.
Already garnering the highest rating on this blog, I found no reason to cut their score even with the new location. Aaron Franklin, it seems, can do no wrong with a smoker.
Rating ****** (still 6)
2010: Just before the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, I met up with John Morthland at Franklin Barbecue to talk BBQ, and get some breakfast. I knew I'd be stuffing myself silly in an hour or so, but I can't rightly pass a chance to get some of Aaron Franklin's brisket when I'm mere minutes away. A line had already formed 15 minutes before opening on Sunday morning, but the line moved quickly once the gate was slid open. With two combo plates between us, John and were able to sample all four meats.
Just watching the brisket being cut here is like having a preview bite. I've seen so many sad looking slices of smoked beef, that I can already tell it's going to taste bad. On the other side of the spectrum, with the smell and the dripping juices, I felt like I could taste this stuff just because it looks so damn good. Thankfully I got a real live taste, and it was glorious. The fat at the end of the thick slice had melted into the peppery rub to create and airy, juicy, salty flavor bomb of a bite. Every bite thereafter was perfectly smokey and silky tender with plenty of rendered fat to keep things well lubed.
Aaron is no less talented with his pork. The salt and pepper rub on each rib acts as the natural compliment to the smokiness that permeates the meat. The ribs are well cooked with a level of tenderness that finds the right balance where just a slight tug is required to release meat cleanly from bone. Pulled pork has even more intense flavor. A mixture of pork, fat, crust and a finishing sauce create the right balance of flavors. It's moist without being soggy, and has just the right touch on the seasoning. I kept shoveling fork fulls even after I'd determined to save room for the meat coming at the Festival.
The sausage is made by the Texas Sausage Company in Austin. After trying dozens of homemade sausages in the area, this one had a flavor I just couldn't pin down. The juiciness gave away the high level of pork, and the flavor of beef was evident, but there was a richness that I could only equate to organ meat (I guessed liver). Aaron Franklin confirmed in an email conversation that he has them add some beef heart in there for the added twist. This surely doesn't please every palate, but I find this bold move a good way to make a personal mark on the local sausage scene. Aaron also mentioned he's still not satisfied with the grind, and they're trying to work out that final kink. Still tweaking in pursuit of ultimate perfection.
Over at the Festival, John and I tried and tried to find a sample that matched the quality at Franklin. I know they were all cooking remotely at the Long Center, but even the best of the best in Texas could not surpass what that little trailer can put out, and it's that good on every visit. Based on such high quality and dogged consistency, this is nothing short of the best brisket in Texas.
With all the success, and the growing lines, I had to ask when the expansion is coming. Aaron's quick response was "Actually, I'm welding on the new smoker right now...should be ready next week....and we are planning on being in a building by the end of the year! That trailer was great way to start but has really become a limiting factor....I can't wait to make things bigger, better, easier and more consistent..." Now that's what a dedicated pitmaster does on his day off, but I'm not sure there's much room for improvement.
03/2010: Just before the Gettin' Sauced event, I stopped in again at Franklin Barbecue to try the ribs and pulled pork. I knew the brisket was stellar from previous visits (I stole a bite or two from the Patron Saint on this trip too), so I wanted to check on the other meats.
The ribs were just as good as the first visit. A well formed bark was covered with a rub heavy in black pepper. The meat came easily from the bone with just a little tooth tug, and the flavor was incredible. The pulled pork equaled the ribs in flavor. The mixture of moist fat, smoky bark and tender meat came together for a taste explosion. This was some of the best pork I've eaten. It seems there's nothing Aaron Franklin hasn't mastered.
01/2010: I stopped in at Franklin BBQ on my way back from San Antonio one Sunday morning about a month ago. I'm just now getting to write about it, but the flavor of that brisket lingers in my mind still. It was 10:45 when I stepped up to the locked chain link gate and Aaron, the owner, was arranging picnic tables in the front getting ready for his 11:00 opening bell. I sat there like a sad puppy dog until he unlocked the gate and happily invited me in for a few slices off the brisket he was just pulling from the pit.
We chatted for a bit as he unwrapped and sliced the meat, but I cut the conversation short knowing he had to get back to work, and I had to have some alone time with this beautiful beef in my front seat (too cold for picnic tables). I took a few bites, and the flavor was incredible. I had ordered the fatty cut on my previous visit, but lean cuts are more suited for brunch. The heavy black pepper rub helped create a crispy crust on the meat that also packed a wallop of smoke. Although this was lean brisket, the meat was incredibly moist and perfectly tender. After a few luxurious slices, I wrapped it back up and headed out onto I-35 back to Dallas.
As the radio played, I contemplated if this was the finest brisket that I've ever eaten as it called to me beneath the thin, greasy, and now transparent yellow paper. As I eyed the interstate with one eye, the other was watching as I carefully unwrapped the meat for another go. As the salty flesh passed my lips, I realized how an appropriate song can add so much to a special moment.
Now there are songs with a manufactured timeliness like playing Brad Paisley's "Alcohol" during an all night kegger. Of course it fits when everyone's already consuming the title. But then there's the true timeliness of a song like when you've suffered through years of mediocre smoked beef and you're driving in the car and a perfect sugar cookie from a perfect slice of brisket melts on your tongue, and as it traces down your throat you hear Eddie Money shout "I think I'm in love!" That's timeliness.
01/2010: It's been a while since I've found an honest "sugar cookie" on my brisket, but as I waited for my order to be filled, owner and pitmaster Aaron Franklin handed me a preview morsel from the fatty end of the brisket and the flavor was transcendent. If I lived in Austin, I would go here everyday if I could be guaranteed a bite like that one.
The other exciting part about this visit was that it became the first official joint review for FCGBBQ and the boys over at Man Up Texas BBQ. Drew and Brad met me in the cold weather to dine alfresco, but our hearts were soon warmed by some excellent smoked meat.
Brisket can be ordered fatty or lean, so we tried both. The fatty brisket had lots of beautifully rendered fat throughout the meat, and nearly melted in the mouth. The smokiness along with the great flavor from the rub created nearly perfect slices...just nearly perfect because the lean slices were the definition of perfection. Each slice had an great crust, a beautiful smokering and a nice morsel of buttery fat clinging to the meat.
A heavy salt and black pepper covered the large spare ribs. Each rib had not a speck of unrendered fat, and the meat pulled from the bone with just a slight tug from the teeth. The texture of the meat was great, but it was bettered by the intense flavor.
Side items included a good potato salad very heavy on the mustard, and some fairly bland pintos. A bourbon banana pudding put a fitting cap on the meal, as Aaron passed out large free samples to the group. Afterward, he showed us his pit enclosed in the sheet metal shed. He brought the pit over from John Mueller's old place on Manor Road, where he got his introduction into BBQ.
Aaron spent a few years perfecting his craft while smoking in the backyard until the crowds that gathered started to outgrow his space. At that point he knew it was the right time to open up a place of his own. Lucky for us.