Now I know y’all didn’t think I’d venture through the South without trying a little BBQ?! While I did not indulge my gluttonous desires for smoked meat as fully as I expected, I did try a few “legit” spots and had something approximating the concept at least a couple other times. To get straight to the point, Franklin BBQ in Austin slaughtered the competition. It was like me fighting Mike Tyson, and I’m talking back in my prime and when he was already over the hill.
I am certainly not a BBQ expert, but it strikes me that more than most cuisine types BBQ is judged on factors beyond how good it tastes. This may seem odd to the casual observer, and it merits philosophical debate beyond the scope of this post. By way of example, Houston’s ribs might not earn high praise at a BBQ competition, despite that many find them delicious!
Let’s start with just a few words about the BBQ-resembling meals I had in the South. There was the pulled pork sandwich at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill. It consists of slow roasted pork, house-made beer cheese sauce, garlic sauteed spinach and frizzled red onions. Hard to judge the quality of the meat with those accoutrements, but beer cheese sauce was interesting. I enjoyed it, despite that I felt my arteries hardening with each bite. Then there was the pulled pork po’boy at Parasol’s in New Orleans. Parasol’s is phenomenal, and this sandwich was delicious. But again, we are not talking pure BBQ. On to that…
The Brick Pit is in a small house-like structure in a fairly nice part of Mobile, Alabama. Like most places outside Texas, the emphasis is on hog. The walls inside are covered with writing from patrons. They had TV screens on CSS Encore showing an old college football game with Auburn dominating. One orders inside at a pass-through counter, I got the combo plate with ribs and pulled pork, and it comes with coleslaw, BBQ beans and a piece of Texas toast (basically extra thick white bread). The pit master uses 75% pecan (which is all over the Southeast) and 25% hickory for smoke. He goes 3.5 and below, meaning the rack should weigh less than 3.5 pounds.
The ribs were smoky and fairly good, as was the pulled pork. But this was perhaps the clearest illustration to me of the “good BBQ” vs. “tastes great” issue above. My meal did not taste great. It may be good, true BBQ, but it just was not supremely enjoyable. Perhaps my biggest beef (haha) is they do not season the meat, instead choosing to let the smoke impart all the flavor. The result is meat that is just not THAT tasty. I think I prefer the Memphis style with a nice dry rub, where sauce is pretty much optional. They also did not remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs. This is a controversial subject, but I think I prefer it removed. The beans here were smoky and excellent, definitely the best of the beans I had. The cole slaw was pretty heavy on the mayo and also quite good. Jenni went with the sourdough brick bites which is a $4 slider that was actually a decent-sized sandwich. Unsweetenened iced tea is available here, and pretty much everywhere in the South.
Next up was Iron Works BBQ in Austin, Texas. I think it is widely believed at this point that Franklin is superior, but Iron Works gets mad respect. There are framed pictures of George Bush and of Barack Obama eating there. Parking is ample and the inside is old-looking and charming. I got the combo plate with beef brisket, a beef rib and sausage. It also came with potato salad and beans. Here again, the distinction arose. This brisket was sliced thin, and while enjoyable to be sure, I have enjoyed more a brisket I cooked in my oven from a Jewish recipe book. The sausage was quite tasty, and the beef rib was delicious. I did not realize until I was in Austin in March 2013 for Josh’s bachelor party how much I like good BBQ beef ribs. That time I visited Salt Lick at its Round Rock location, and I would say that was the second best BBQ after Franklin.
And now for the champion. Franklin BBQ is not merely a meal, it is an experience. It opens at 11 am and I am told it has sold out every day since it opened in 2009. Having been told by a local that we could safely arrive at 10:30 am, we showed up at 10:10 am for extra caution. We were met by a line halfway through the parking lot. I parked the car and returned to find Jenni standing directly BEHIND a group holding the “Last Man Standing” piece of cardboard. OH, THE HORROR! The woman working the line informed us there was no guarantee we would get any food, and the kicker was that we probably would not know until after 1 pm. The likelihood of getting ribs was almost non-existent. It seems there is a concept of pre-ordering, but I do not know how this works.
We thus faced one of the hardest decisions of our lives. Cut our losses and move on, or tough it out and go for the glory? To my everlasting relief, while we debated she informed us that the owner had decided to push back the line and we were now safe. Hallelujah!!
We broke out the boat chairs for the first time in ages and read and made some phone calls. At 11 am the doors opened and the first large group entered the restaurant. But things move very slowly from there. So at several minute intervals the line would move up a handful of feet, meaning you have to pick up your chairs etc. and relocate. There was a guy across the street actually renting folding chairs for $5. Supply and demand at its finest. There was another Franklin employee walking the line and selling beer and soft drinks so Jenni got a blonde ale and I a lemonade. Some groups also brought their own beer for the wait.
We entered the structure at about 1:10 pm and got served at 1:30 pm. So here is the secret: show up early! Like 8 am. If you show up at that time, your overall commitment is actually equal if not less and you are guaranteed a selection of anything on the menu. Plus, you would never have to move your waiting position as long as you are far enough up in the line to enter with the first group. So show up at 8 am and order at 11 am from the full menu, or show up at 10:10 am and order at 1:30 pm with NO RIBS available. By the way, Franklin serves pork ribs even though this is Texas.
Upon reaching the counter, your order is taken and filled (i.e. sliced, cut, etc.) by the owner and legend himself, Aaron Franklin. Despite the immense popularity and praise (Bon Appetit declared it the best in the country), Aaron could not be nicer. He does not subscribe to the theory of “my food is amazing, therefore I can be a dick.” He asked whether we wanted fatty or lean brisket, and before we even answered he confirmed our suspicion by murmuring his own response of “fatty.” Obviously. He hooked us up with a couple large bites laid on the counter, which reminded me of Katz’s Deli in New York. It was at this very moment we knew the nearly 3.5 hour wait was worth every minute.
There were three guys sequentially working the counter, and we had pleasant exchanges with each. First with Aaron himself who asked where we were from etc. The next guy on the line overheard us mention we had been to a Packers game and then said the prior night’s game was his favorite because he is a Bears fan. The third guy told us a story about how he ordered a salad at a Whataburger in Oklahoma and the woman asked if he was from Los Angeles.
Back to the food…Jenni and I each got a two meat plate which comes with two sides. One plate was brisket and turkey with cole slaw and potato salad. The other was brisket and pulled pork with beans and potato salad. The beans were good, the cole slaw was very good and the potato salad was OK. The turkey was sliced white meat and very good, considering the materials. The pulled pork was delicious, nice and moist and peppery. I found it far better than the Brick Pit, which is known more for pork vs. beef. The brisket, though, was fall out of your chair good. I mean just ridiculously scrumptious. It was cut very thick and was incredibly moist and flavorful. They have three BBQ sauce options: a Carolina style vinegary sauce, an espresso flavored sauce, and a Texas style sauce that was a little tangier and spicier. Sometimes with BBQ I want almost all my bites with sauce but make sure to try some naked bites to savor the pure dead animal. At Franklin, this was reversed. We also ate a banana bourbon pie that was yummy.
I would note that we did not order one, but the Tipsy Texan sandwich looked great. It is chopped brisket and sliced sausage on a white roll with cole slaw and pickles. There are several tables inside and a handful of picnic tables on a deck outside, which is where we sat. Folks, when you are next in Austin, do yourself a favor and get to Franklin early (and often).