Texans are pretty serious about their barbecue and they're not afraid to tell you their 'cue is the best. Period. They scoff at barbecue in places like Kansas City and Memphis, complaining that they cover up poorly smoked meat with way too much sauce. They bend slightly when the Carolinas take credit for inventing barbecue. They'll admit it's probably true but they're quick to remind them that Texans came along and perfected it.
My friend Pete Robbins is a barbecue connoisseur. He's been to serious barbecue meccas such as Smitty's and Kreuz's (both in Lockhart) and when he found out I was headed toward Austin, he asked if I might be stopping off in Lockhart as well.
I regret I didn't have the time. I should have made the time, and after my visit to Franklin's and for the first time in my life enjoying some exceptional barbecue, that regret has deepened.
Joints like Smitty's and Kreuz's Market are long-established shrines dedicated to smoked meat, but Franklin's is relatively new. Aaron Franklin's parents owned a barbecue stand so he pretty much grew up around smoke. He began experimenting with his brisket (which is what he's famous for) and in 2009 he and his wife Stacey opened up a little barbecue stand at an East Austin parking lot. The lines grew longer and the brisket ran out faster, so in May of 2011 they opened their brick and mortar location on 11th Street. They open at 11:00am and if you're not in line by 9:30, you can forget about getting your hands on the pulled pork. They stay open until they run out of meat (pork ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, turkey and sausage) which means they're rarely open past 2:00pm.
I rolled up to Franklin's at 11:30am (remember, I'm a total greenhorn when it comes to barbecue), thinking the mad rush would be finished and I could just saunter in and place my order. The line to get inside was already out to the middle of the parking lot. I secured my place in line, wondering just how long I would be willing to stand there waiting for meat when the couple in front of me turned and introduced themselves. Dennis and his wife, Marti, were passing through Austin on their way home to Ft. Worth. A serious smoker himself, Dennis admitted this was their first visit to Franklin's. No stranger to barbecue, Dennis informed me he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. As we chatted about barbecue and fishing (I was traveling home from covering yet another fishing tournament) two tall and lanky gentleman took their place behind me in line.
I'm a bit shy and introverted and looking back now, I feel downright lucky I got in line next to Dennis who quickly introduced himself to the blokes behind me. When he asked where they were from we discovered they were from Austria and were spending a few weeks in the States going on a barbecue crawl.
They'd just left Kansas City and would be spending a couple days in Texas, then on to Memphis to sample barbecue there. Their goal? Hit as many of the best-of-the-best spots then take that knowledge back home and open up their own barbecue restaurant. They could not have stood in line with a more willing and able Texan - Dennis readily shared what makes Texas barbecue "the best": good quality meat and lots of patience. Before I knew it, we were at the front door and an hour had passed.
I can honestly say when we crossed the threshold into the actual restaurant, all of our eyes twinkled and I may have even rubbed my tummy in anticipation.
You can purchase meat by the pound and add sides, or go with a platter of two meats (with two sides), white bread and pickles. After we made it inside the joint (about an hour to get that far) it was easy to see most folks were buying meat by the pound. While plastic knives and forks were available, meat by the pound is simply slapped on some wax paper alongside your sides and bread. No plates necessary in this establishment.
I went with a platter - pork ribs and brisket with potato salad and cole slaw. If I'd known how good it was truly going to be, I would have ordered two to four pounds of meat to take home with me.
For me, the brisket was the winner. Seasoned simply with just salt and pepper, I have to wonder if it's just smoked low and super slow or if Aaron does something else to the meat to keep it so amazingly moist and tender. Yes, the ribs were glorious - they slid off the bone and into my waiting pie hole too easily, but the brisket ... sweet baby Jesus, the brisket ...
Gaze lovingly and longingly at that smoke ring, dear friends. When I ordered, my server asked if I wanted a lean cut or a fatty cut. I think we all know what my answer was.
Tender, moist, smokey brisket with a crunchy, peppery exterior. I quickly forgot about the potato salad and the slaw, which were just fine, but totally necessary. I think I made it through half a piece of bread ... this was a meal in which I was not missing carbs AT ALL.
And Dennis was right - when you have meat smoked as perfectly as this, it really doesn't require any sauce at all. The meat stands on it's own. By the time we got our food, we were no longer strangers. Dennis invited me to have lunch together with his family and that was pretty much the icing on the cake. Thanks, Dennis and Marti!
So you might not want to wait in line for a couple hours every day or even every weekend for food this good, but you should do it at least once. You'll thank me for it.