“It’s never about the pit but the pitmaster”
I awoke with great excitement as Day 2 of my Austin crawl would begin with the best barbecue restaurant in America. I was told by many that I had better be in line early if I wanted to get any barbecue because the lines would be insanely long at Aaron Franklin’s restaurant of the same name. To play it safe, I figured 8:30 am would be early enough as the restaurant did not open until 11 am. Besides in the sub-30’s weather, who would be crazy enough to stand so long in the cold?
Boy, was I surprised that more than a dozen were already in line by the time I got to Franklins around 8:20 am. Folks had come prepared with folding chairs and bundled up to survive the cold wait. These were pros including the young child bundled up like a little fur bunny. By about 9:30 am, the line snaked from the front door around to the parking lot like a giant boa constrictor. Everyone in line seemed to be in jovial spirits and from the chatter and photographs being taken, it seemed like many were tourists like me. Locals and visitors alike waited patiently for the 11 am opening to get their much-desired barbecue fix.
The folks behind me were from New York and had come to hang out with their Austin friends. They brought their own bubbly and were toasting each other with Mimosas to make the hours pass quicker. The Austin gentlemen in front of me said he was turned away the day before because he got there around 10 am and missed the last-person-cutoff. That is, a store employee would come out around 9:30 and inquire down the line as to how much each guest was going to purchase. As she walked down the line, she counted down the pounds of meat that Aaron had cooked and when she ran out of meat, she would inform the last person standing to tell the person behind to come back another time. So this restaurant is the first place I’ve eaten I’ve stood in line for almost 3 hours and where the food runs out even before the restaurant opens despite the 1,600 lbs of meat and 55+ briskets they cooked from Tuesday through Sunday.
As we got closer to 11 am, you could feel a mixture of relief that the long wait was soon to be over and the breathless anticipation of the most amazing barbecue. I recall the door opening and being buoyed into the restaurant by the surging throng of people eager to get out of the cold.
Holding back the long line was a sole meat cutter whose job was to individually slice and serve each customer their order of meat. It would take more than 3 hours for satiate the long line of meat lovers. When I got up to the counter, the crew recognized me and gave me a combo platter of their best cuts and sides. When I tried to pay, they politely refused citing that they were my fans and wanted me to have my Franklin experience on the house. Wow! I was very touched and grateful beyond words.
As I sat down to eat Aaron’s barbecue, I bit into the brisket first. I kid you not when I say that I felt a ray of light shining from above and a hymn playing as I closed my eyes to enjoy the brisket. It was moist, had phenomenal bark, and great beefy taste. I was speechless as I devoured my Franklin platter. It’s so amazingly good that I wanted to cry as this caliber of barbecue is possible only from the best barbecue teams in America and not something I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant. The rest of the platter from the ribs, sausage, pork butt, and turkey were also excellent.
Of all the barbecue restaurants I’ve been fortunate to try, Franklins is the best restaurant BBQ I’ve eaten hands down. The wait was worth every minute. Now I know why Franklin is #1 in Austin and it was no surprise it was #1 on my crawl score sheet.
I left Franklins smiling from ear to ear and the second of my five stops for the day was La Barbecue “Cuisine Texicana” which was previously JMeuller BBQ.
The ownership and pedigree of this restaurant is a bit confusing and I’ll let you read Donna’s article further down in this blog. The line was not too long and after a 20-minute wait, we were at the trailer counter where John Lewis proceeded to pile on the barbecue meats of brisket, sausage, ribs, and Creole coleslaw.
My taste buds were singing again as I bit into John Lewis’ brisket. It was every bit as juicy, moist, and flavorful as Franklins.
The piece I ate was just a smidgen less tender so I gave LA barbecue a 9 9 8 versus a 9 9 9 for Franklins. On another day and another plate of meat, it might be the other way around. For the ribs, I judged the ribs at LA barbecue a smidgen better at 8 8 8 versus 7 8 8 for Franklins. Again, it might have been the ribs that ended up on my plate that day and the results could have been reversed. Overall, I think LA Barbecue is very comparable to Franklins and within the big picture of the 15 places I ate at, these two are in the top tier. I would consider the other 13 in a second tier. Both LA Barbecue and Franklins were out of this world! When the dust settled, Franklin edged out LA Barbecue to first place with a score of 210.2860 versus 209.7146.
After LA barbecue, it was a long 45-minute drive in the direction of Lockhart, another bastion of good barbecue restaurants. The eat list took us past Lockhart however to the town of Luling to the City Market which was in a charming red brick shopping center replete with real wooden booths and black and white photographs from the oil and cattle era on the walls.
The enclosed room where the meat was served was darkened from all the soot kissed years of smoking barbecue meats.
It was late afternoon so they were sold out of brisket. Dang! I didn’t come 1,500 miles to be denied so I made friends with a family at our communal table and told them of my predicament. Texas folks are really friendly and they offered me some of their brisket which I gratefully accepted. Hey, no shame no gain! I’m glad I did because the brisket was excellent, enough to earn Luling City Market third place in my brisket rankings. It was smoky, juicy, and beefy flavored. The ribs and sausage that day were so-so and that pulled down the overall score to put Luling mid-pack amid the 15 places visited.
It was getting late in the day and the next stop was back to Lockhart to sample the three top places: Smitty’s, Black’s, and Kreutz. Smitty’s was first and it was a large red-brick complex replete with a tall smokestack with the restaurant name.
I had high hopes for this place having seen it on TV. I also heard that this place is often voted the favorite barbecue joint in Lockhart by Austin folks. When you walk into meat cutting room, there is a raging open fire that feeds the enormous pits behind the counter manned by white shirted ladies.
Since 1924, the walls have been blackened by the decades of smoke that give this place a unique vibe. I ordered a bit of everything including some beef clod that was quite good 7 8 8. The clod is a triple-muscle beef shoulder cut that’s not common in barbecue restaurants in California.
The brisket was tasty but not too tender 7 8 6. The rib was OK in flavor and had good tenderness 6 7 8. I didn’t care for my sausage as it had a powdery texture when I bit into it 8 7 6. Overall, for me this may have been just an “off” day for Smitty’s as the meat I was served was a bit underwhelming as it finished 11 of 15 overall.
My story for the other two famous Lockhart restaurants continues in Part 4 of 4. Meanwhile, I’ve included my fiancé Donna of Butcher’s Daughter BBQ article written from her point of view as my partner on the crawl
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A BBQ Pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, Part 3 of 4
by Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ Team, Alameda, CA; December, 2012
It was difficult to figure out what time to stand in line at Franklin BBQ. Most said 9:30AM would be fine. The idea of standing in 30°F weather for 2 hours did not sound enticing. It might be fine in the summer but in the winter, it seemed tough. I packed our luggage with gloves, scarves, a thick coat and thermal underwear, just to wait in line. Non-BBQ friends thought I was insane. Even BBQ friends asked me if it was worth the fuss.
We got word from a good source that we should be in line by 8:45AM. I brought an overly expensive Honeycrisp apple for breakfast which I bought at HEB the night before. I’d eat an apple each morning just to keep myself in balance. We arrived at 8:20AM to find 12 men, 2 women and 16-month-old baby girl in line ahead of us.
The small aqua colored building shielded us from the morning sun. Those ahead of us had folding chairs and those behind us were not committed enough to bring them. By 9:30AM, I had counted 77 people in line.
A young woman came by and asked each of us how much meat we would be ordering. This was to determine who would be the last person to be guaranteed meat. Once that person was determined, he was given the job of informing others behind him the bad news. Generally, this kept the line from growing much further than the end of the block. The Austin native named Michael who stood in line ahead of us told us he came the day before at 9:30AM. He was behind the “last man standing”, as he’d like to say. So he tried again on this morning. When we appeared, he assured us we were making an “investment” by getting here early. “Man, these people are hard core.” I thought.
During the 2.5 hours that we spent waiting for Franklin to open, we learned about Austin BBQ. We were surrounded by a mixture of returning locals and BBQ tourists like ourselves. With a united goal, the camaraderie in line was high. Time flew. The tempo was high. After the first hour, staff members began putting out garbage cans and informed patrons that the restroom was available. 10 minutes prior to opening time, I sensibly ran into the place, not wanting to waste any precious eating time on anything else. Others followed my lead. Smelling the inside of the restaurant made me realize that I was actually hungry. The staff was already behind the counter, ready for the onslaught which would only last 3 hours before the 1,600 lbs of meat would disappear into our collective bellies.
Benji Jacobs, who worked inside, pulled down the sign from yesterday. A black sharpie on butcher paper said “meat sold out” on the front door. The guys in front of us folded up their chairs. The 16month old girl ran around and jumped. Truth be told, we were all excited. The crowd hushed when our cell phones told us it was 11AM. At 11:01AM, I wondered when the doors would actually open.
The doors finally opened and we patiently walked in and formed another line counterclockwise around the room which led to the back of the restaurant. The walls were lined with articles about Franklin. A large earthy wooden butcher block greeted us at the corner before we made our way down to the one man who would slice our order.
The line was slow. The man cutting the BBQ took his time with each patron, with the understanding that we all knew this was not to be taken lightly. None of us minded. I heard that people were given samples if they weren’t sure what to order. Unlike in the four previous restaurants, we were recognized by the staff (I told them we were coming) and they apologized that Aaron and Stacy Franklin were still vacationing. I could understand needing the break.
We were going to order the three-meat combination but the man suggested that we just get a sample of everything so we did. The BBQ glistened on the pink paper. We hustled to a table next to the window and tried not to notice the crowd in line staring at us as we ate. I didn’t open my notebook. I wanted to eat like a normal person. I could record the scores later. On our plate was generously sliced brisket point, sausage, slices of turkey, pork ribs, some coleslaw and pickles. Nothing had sauce on it.
They gave us the best meat they had. I was sure of it. I paused a moment to let it sink in before taking a bite. I was one lucky lady. Then I tore a piece of the dark fatty brisket and put it in my mouth. It was not what I expected. I thought Texas BBQ was supposed to be bold – full of pepper and salt. This was subtle, almost conservative but delicious. The point was perfectly rendered. It was clear that it would not have passed the KCBS judges pull test for tenderness, but it was tender. It was as tender as one could get it. I began to question the usefulness of the pull test altogether.
The pork rib was solid as was the mild tasting sausage. The sliced turkey breast which was served brushed with some kind of light oil was heavenly. It was clearly the best turkey breast we’d ever had at any restaurant. Next, we tried the sauces. There were 3 sauces offered on each table. There was an average light-colored sauce. There was a very dark more complex sauce. And lastly, there was a light Carolina style sauce. All sauces were vinegary and none were notably sweet. None of the meat sweet either. As a matter of fact, we never ran into any sweet BBQ in central Texas. We also didn’t run into any super salty or peppery BBQ. I was amazed. Only once did I have any BBQ that was spicy and that was made by someone from Utah. I was expecting the proximity of Mexico would have more of an influence the way it does in Arizona or California but I was wrong.
Franklin was collectively the best I have ever had at any establishment. I’ve had good pieces here and there but to have all of it as good as it was, smoked in quantities that they have to each day, was impressive. When I realized this, I paused for a moment and wondered if I was going to shed a BBQ tear of joy. I hadn’t cried since the Oakland A’s beat the Texas Rangers for the AL West earlier in October. I didn’t end up crying, but I was grateful to have experienced what I came for. Was it the best BBQ in America? I’m not sure but probably. If someone can do it better AND serve it in a restaurant, I’d like to taste that!
We jotted down our scores, and ate more than we should have. When we were done, Benji was nice enough to offer us a tour of the smokers in the back. There were four old propane tanks repurposed into smokers.
Benji pointed to their first and second smokers. The third smoker had no name but Benji thought Rusty was a good name for the smoker that sat on top of the small hill that staggered each pit. My mind couldn’t wrap around the thought of lugging 1600 pounds of meat on terraced smokers.
Benji Jacob, a childhood friend of Aaron and one of 3 or4 pitmasters who run the pits each night. Franklin cooks on average 52 briskets each day. They take catering orders but for no more than 150lbs day. Benji had a warm and unassuming demeanor, never taking himself too seriously. It was a good trait to have working there. I convinced myself that I’d be a nervous wreck if I were him.
It was past noon when we finished our tour. We packed our leftovers into the trunk and drove 2.5 miles southwest across town to la BBQ “Cuisine Texicana”. It is not LA like Los Angeles BBQ, but la, like la comida, to give it a Tex-Mex feel. Two months prior, la BBQ was JMueller BBQ.
JMueller BBQ was owned by LeAnn Mueller, the daughter of Bobby Mueller (who ran his father’s restaurant, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor). LeAnn’s talented brother, John Muller was the pit boss of JMueller for about a year before he left. In his place, LeAnn hired pit assistant, John Lewis of Porky’s Revenge competition team and then changed the name of the place to la BBQ. As I understand it, John Mueller, John Lewis, Aaron Franklin and Lance Kirkpatrick (of Stiles) all have intertwined roots. It gets complicated fast. John Lewis worked with Aaron Franklin at Franklin and then at JMueller before John Mueller left in October. That’s when John Lewis filled in at what is now la BBQ. As far as I know, John Mueller isn’t currently working anywhere. So how does Lance fit in? Lance worked at Louie Mueller as an assistant and when John Mueller left his dad’s place, Lance eventually became the new pit boss. Lance is now the pit boss at Stiles in Austin which we visited the next day.
So it is no coincidence when Franklin, la BBQ and Stiles ended up being a tier above all of the other restaurants we tried in Austin. I was unaware of the intricacy of the connection between the three restaurants before eating at each of them.
When we arrived at la BBQ, there was a line of 15 people. A most unusual greeting was the small cooler to our right that was filled with FREE Lone Star Beer, which I decided against so as not to fill any of my BBQ waiting belly space. The menu was written on butcher paper taped to the side of the trailer serving food. By 12:30PM, the beef ribs were gone. As we waited in line, we chatted with Kamal, a slender techie guy ahead of us. He worked at Advanced Micro Devices and lived in the neighborhood. We told him we just came over from Franklin. He asked if it was worth the wait. We told him yes. He hadn’t tried it, saying that the BBQ here was plenty good enough without the wait. We figured out later that he was right. I was impressed with his knowledge of places to eat in Austin. When he told me he was originally from New Jersey, I let on that I was surprised how comfortable I felt in Texas. He said in Austin, it was okay to wear boots and vote for Obama. People in Austin didn’t necessary reflect the tastes of the state. After another 10 minutes, I trusted him with our experience at Salt Lick. He said we should try the prime rib on Sunday mornings next time. Having heard that he once traveled on a steak tour of America with his brother, we convinced ourselves we’d try again and to go early because they run out quickly. We were getting use to that in Austin.
When we made it to the front of the line, we greeted John Lewis the man in charge. He recognized us, said hi and gave us some nice slices of brisket, sausage and pork ribs. We sat down outside in the gravel lot on a wooden picnic table and enjoyed a meal comparable to what we had just eaten an hour earlier. It was an exceptional morning of BBQ. I wished I had saved a few more wows for la BBQ because I spent most of them already. Though John Mueller was no longer at the helm, John Lewis held up his end of the deal and was continuing to serve some of the best BBQ in Texas from south Austin.
From here, we decided a long drive was in order to give our stomachs a break. The smallest joints were at the top since they ran out of food the fastest. The bigger the place, the lower on the list they placed. We drove 45 minutes south to City Market in Luling, Texas. The city of Luling is14 miles south of Lockhart. We heard about City Market from our line buddy at Franklin so we added it to our list.
City Market had an interesting setup and feel from all of the other places we went to in central Texas. First off, it was the only place we visited that didn’t feel like it was overrun by tourists. I noticed cowboy hats for the first time and there were more people of color. There weren’t any hipsters to be found (aka foodies). And we were finally well in the median age of the average customer. There were two large dining rooms. The main dining room housed a counter in the front where you order your sides and drinks separately. Unusual sides were thick slices of Longhorn cheese and potato chips The line snaked through the first room and overflowed into the second. We struck up another conversation with the people behind us who told us how to order. It was 20 minutes before we entered a small smoke-filled room set in the corner. Once we made it in, we ordered what we could. There was no more brisket so we stuck to pork ribs and sausage. A bit confusing were the BBQ sauces on the table that were repackaged in hot sauce bottles that were so small the staff had to constantly refill them. As we ate, Harry noticed our neighbors were almost done and asked if it was okay to try some of their brisket, explaining our predicament. I looked down and away from embarrassment.
Fortunately, for Harry, they were nice and didn’t mind sharing. The brisket was good and so were the ribs and sausage. Once again, the lines were justified. What we learned today was that standing in line for BBQ is an experience in and of itself. By meeting people who also love BBQ, you can enjoy it even more. BBQ was communal and I’ve seen this happen even in my small town of Alameda where the guy next to me can’t help himself by sharing his expression of excitement when he bites into a slice of brisket. We did exactly the same when we took a bite.
At 3:55PM, we stumbled out of City Market, rolled into our car and drove back into Lockhart, wishing it were more than 14 miles away.
Even though it was mid-day the parking lot at Smitty’s Market was full. We entered through the back like everyone does. The line starts there and is warmed by an open fire on the floor at your feet. The logs feed the waist high brick smokers. These pits open from the top via weighted steel doors. The custom-made smokers run along the back wall making an L shape with both ends being fueled by burning post oak. In the middle of the L is the meat slicing person who takes orders from the two gals that bark out what we want. The gals used two dough scrapers like bear claws to pick up, weigh and assemble your order. The cashier in the middle only handles money. Both City Market and Smitty’s Market had blackened walls filled with smoky aroma. If there is a sentimental favorite in Texas, it would have to be Smitty’s. Everyone regards the building that houses Smitty’s as special. And why shouldn’t they? The building has been serving BBQ since 1924. We ordered our Texas trio at 4:40PM and added something called beef clod (aka beef shoulder or beef chuck). We entered the dining room with our butcher paper (aka Texas BBQ plate) full of meat. Our now overfilled stomachs required us to pass on the sides and the Texas Blue Bell ice cream. The beef clod was flavorful and very tender. It is rare to see this in California and surely that was to my regret. The pork ribs, sausage and brisket were all very decent.
We wandered around a bit after our meal and found that there were six visible rooms at Smitty’s: two smoker/meat serving rooms, one dining room, an empty butcher shop/t-shirt room, the original narrow dining hall and a prep kitchen. Outside in the parking lot we were amazed at the beauty and expanse of the huge fortress of neatly stacked post oak logs so much so that we took a self-portrait with a lengthened arm of the logs in the backdrop. It is just what BBQ people do. To us, it was as impressive as the Eiffel tower. Logs, pig heads and aisles of BBQ sauces are all focal points of interest for the camera of a pitmaster. We were being typical BBQ tourists and loving every minute of it.
Our journey continued through the night as we explored Lockhart’s two other famous establishments, Black’s and Kruez. We’ll save those two for next time.