Monday, April 21, 2014

The winner, and still champion...

The sun not yet risen, my wife and I headed west on I-10, bound for Austin. With a two hour car ride separating my house from the hallowed grounds of Franklin Barbecue, there was no time to waste. As my wife dozed in the passenger seat, I had time to admire the bluebonnets still lining the path through La Grange and reflect on how different this journey had become for me. My first trip to Franklin had been in 2011, and a 9:30 arrival had put me among the first five folks in line. Now, the line itself has a dedicated Twitter account where an apartment resident across the street from the restaurant snaps a photo daily to let you know just how absurd the wait is for Aaron Franklin's smoked meats. Heck, on my first visit, the apartments themselves did not exist. But now thanks to social media, word of mouth, Daniel Vaughn, Bon Appetit Magazine, Texas Monthly and numerous other sources of praise, Franklin Barbecue has become a tourist attraction unlike any other. Despite an 8 o'clock arrival on this Good Friday, there were approximately 60 people ahead of us.

Arrow points to our spot in line. Photo courtesy of @franklinbbqline on Twitter

The crew at Franklin do what they can to make your time in line less miserable; offering drinks, building on additional shade, letting you know approximately when you will be at the ordering counter, but there is only so much that can be done to accommodate the throngs of people that descend on the place daily. Even I, who consider myself in the upper percentile of food waiting patience, could not withstand the wait times in the heat of a Texas summer. I learned that lesson the hard way on a Friday morning late last August, my most recent Franklin excursion until last weekend. Hearing that the line had gotten worse, I arrived with a friend at 9 am, a half an hour earlier than I had in the past. The line was almost 75 deep that day, and the temperature climbed north of 90 degrees by the time they opened for business. Thus, my Franklin trips will now only take place in late March to mid-April or late October to mid-November.

As the clock reached 12:30, we made our way inside the building. Aaron Franklin was not slicing on this day, but instead was beside the register, politely chatting with guests as they paid for their food. With few exceptions, most every guest requested a photo with the pit master, and many asked for an autograph. I couldn't help but be bewildered by this. Before the magazine covers and credit card commercials, he was just a young guy who liked smoking brisket and thought he might be able to make a living doing it. And this wasn't all that long ago. I must say that through all the craziness, he interacts with everyone with a smile and genuine sense of appreciation. I don't know Aaron Franklin personally, of course he could be a colossal narcissist, but the impression I've gotten from every interaction I've had with him is that he is keenly aware of the sacrifice people make just to eat his food. When my wife was getting up from her seat to get some more napkins, he stopped her and insisted on getting them for her. He then came over, noticed my Houston Barbecue Festival t-shirt and spoke with me for a few minutes about my experience at the festival, how he hopes to try Corkscrew BBQ soon, and general chit-chat in which he does not have to partake. Many people have had much less success and portrayed a much greater sense of entitlement than Mr. Franklin.

Moist, fatty brisket.

All of that said, there's one overwhelming reason why I and so many others put ourselves through the ever growing torture that is the Franklin Barbecue line: the food. I concede that when I first tasted Franklin brisket three years ago, my barbecue palette was much less discerning. Since that time I've eaten at dozens of barbecue places, made plenty of my own, and expanded my knowledge on the subject immensely. But I've yet to taste a brisket anywhere else that matches Franklin's. This was approximately my tenth trip, and on only one occasion did the brisket show even the slightest decline in quality. As the popularity of the restaurant continues to increase, I keep waiting for what should be its inevitable fate of becoming "good but not great." Based on this most recent trip, I am happy to report it still has not happened. The brisket I ate this weekend was in the same class of its own that it has been in since my first sampling. Incredibly well-rendered fat, the right amount of smoke, and so full of flavor that your taste buds almost can't handle it, Franklin brisket remains the best piece of beef I've ever tasted. That's not to short change the other menu offerings. Franklin Barbecue's pork ribs are also tops in their category if you ask me. A little more sauced than I remembered on this visit, but the same black pepper beauty that is central Texas' calling card. Their sausage is full of fat and a quality offering, though there are other barbecue sausages that I prefer to Franklin's.

Top left: had to leave a little of my New York roots at this Texas landmark | Top right: the well-known signs for Franklin Barbecue | Bottom: the spread of potato salad, pork ribs, fatty brisket, turkey and sausage

Aside: I originally intended to write a one post recap of my weekend food adventures in Austin, but felt it was time to put my Franklin Barbecue opinion on record. I touched on it when I wrote about My Texas Barbecue Education, but had not been recently enough to give a fresh opinion on the food. There will be a separate post this week chronicling my other excursions in Texas' capitol.

Culture Map's Eric Sandler commented to me on Twitter that it is hard to justify standing in the line when there are so many great barbecue options in Austin. This is a completely valid point of view and I can't fault anyone for not having the patience or desire to devote five hours of their life to eating at one place. It has become a commitment that's harder for even myself to make. But I keep coming back because I've yet to find anything that can top it. La Barbecue on East Sixth Street in Austin is consistently delivering outstanding barbecue. Micklethwait Craft Meats, just down the street from Franklin, has very good brisket and wonderful homemade sausage. Louie Mueller BBQ isn't too far away from Austin, and Wayne Mueller is churning out mind-blowing beef ribs and brisket to carry on the tradition from his father. There is certainly no shortage of great 'cue options these days. But for a barbecue hound such as myself, I strongly believe Franklin Barbecue is the peak of Texas' greatest food tradition right now. I don't know what the future holds for the man or his business. Will he go Euro-Disney on us and have Franklin outposts popping up all over the map until all quality is lost? I sincerely hope not. I would rather wait in his one line for hours on end for a plate of delicious smoked meat than go to my nearest Franklin drive-thru.

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