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In its July 2011 issue, Bon Appetit magazine declared Franklin Barbecue the best barbecue spot in the country, and Aaron Franklin, his brisket, and his pink butcher paper began their meteoric rise to fame and notoriety. With his wife and business partner, Stacy, Franklin moved the business from a food trailer to a physical restaurant, hosted a Web series about barbecue, then went on to write a best-selling barbecue cookbook and host a PBS barbecue cooking show. He's appeared on numerous television shows, has cooked at countless events and festivals, and in 2015 was the first pitmaster to win a James Beard Award in a "best chef" category for Best Chef - Southwest Region.
At the time of writing, Franklin Barbecue is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am until the meat runs out, usually around 2:00 pm, and is closed on Mondays. Parking is available in a lot behind the building and on the neighborhood streets around the restaurant. Credit cards are accepted and the restaurant is BYOB friendly.
Your Franklin Barbecue experience will begin with the infamous line. There's always a line, every day. A three- to four-hour wait on weekdays is not uncommon. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are said to have the shortest lines; arriving between 8:00 - 9:00 am on these days is fine. Saturdays have the longest lines; arriving by 7:00 am would make sense. And if there's a big event in town like SXSW (the South by Southwest technology/music/film extravaganza), you'd better arrive even earlier.
On any given day, a few people may show up at 6:00 am or even 5:00 am to be first in line. There are advantages to being first in line or at least close to the front of the line: You get in and out of the restaurant quickly once it opens; there's no problem getting a table; you have your choice of everything on the menu (items run out one by one until everything is sold); and if you ask nicely, being first in line may be rewarded with a private tour of the smokehouse.
On the Thursday we visited, we were first in line at 5:55 am. It wasn't our plan to be first in line, I was just paranoid about arriving and finding a long line already forming. Within 10 minutes, we were joined by a mother/son duo from Wisconsin. By 8:00 am, there were about a dozen people in line and the line started growing in earnest. By 9:00 am, the line stretched down the side of the building, and by 10:00 am it reached to the back of the parking lot behind the building.
By the way, at the time we visited there was a Twitter account called Franklin BBQ Line that posted a daily webcam photo of the line taken from a high-rise apartment across the street. It was a cool resource that helped you understand the ebb and flow of the line from day to day. Oddly enough, the account went silent just three days after our visit and stayed that way until April 2016, when a few street-level line photos started to appear. I guess whoever lived across the street moved out and took their webcam with them...it's not the resource it used to be, but you can still browse past photos to get a sense of how the line changes by day of week and by season.
Here's the photo from the day of our visit—the line starts under the kidney-shaped sign at the bottom right of the photo.
To make your wait more comfortable, Franklin has a stash of folding chairs under the outdoor deck that you can borrow for free. Of course, you can bring your own chair or a blanket to sit on the ground; we brought two portable Thermarest lounge chairs. Behind the restaurant, there's a coffee trailer that opens at 8:00 am and a porta-potty. Around 9:00 am, they start playing music on the outdoor speakers and they open the doors so you can go inside to use the restrooms. You can also go inside to get a head start on your souvenir shopping; we were able to buy t-shirts before they started serving food. Don't worry about leaving the line; people are cool about it and as long as you don't wander too far, you're fine.
While you wait, a staff member walks the line several times with bottled waters and drinks for purchase. If it's a hot day, make sure to bring along plenty of water. Another staff member walks the line asking what you plan to order. This does not obligate you to buy exactly what you say, but it does help them estimate when they will run out of meat so they can set expectations for people toward the end of the line.
The good news is that your time in line will seem to pass quickly. Everyone is just as happy as you are to be there, and it's sort of a party atmosphere. Some people bring a football and toss it back and forth in the street, some people bring board games. On the day of our visit, there was a group behind us with a cooler of orange juice and champagne enjoying mimosas for the entire 4 hours they waited! You'll meet lots of nice barbecue enthusiasts like yourself and you'll want to take lots of photos of your experience.
When the doors open at 11:00 am, you'll step up to the counter to order and pay for meat, sides, desserts and drinks. The meat will be cut right in front of you, weighed, and placed on butcher paper on a tray. You'll be offered white bread when you order the meat; pickles and onions are available on a side table beyond the cash register. Don't forget to grab a sheet of butcher paper as your plate at the register.
Three flavors of barbecue sauce are available at the table—a Texas-style sauce, an espresso sauce, and a vinegar sauce—as well as Cajun Chef hot sauce. You can eat inside where it's air-conditioned or outside on the deck with large fans to keep you cool.
The brisket is the star of the show at Franklin Barbecue. Many people say it's the best brisket they've ever tasted, and I would agree with that assessment. It's got a black, shiny crust on the outside...it looks relaxed and actually quivers when placed on the cutting board. It's very moist and tender on the inside—slightly more tender than the KCBS standard for brisket, but not crumbly, and thus it's sliced on the thicker side—and so flavorful that it truly does not need sauce. There's a nice smoke ring and the fat is well rendered and translucent. The smoke flavor is actually quite mild, considering the meat is cooked from beginning to end over a wood fire. This is a testament to the clean fire and massive air flow that Franklin gets in his custom-built pits. The formula is deceptively simple: the highest quality natural briskets, rubbed with kosher salt and coarse black pepper, cooked slowly over post oak, then wrapped in butcher paper and held at temperature for several hours before slicing and serving.
The "Texas Trinity" consists of brisket, ribs and sausage, and you'll want to order all of these at Franklin's. Order several slices of lean and fatty brisket so you can compare them, and ask for some of the dark outside meat. Get a couple of pork ribs and at least one beef sausage. Go ahead and get a sample of the pulled pork, too. On the day we visited, a small amount of smoked turkey breast was available and we got a few slices of that (again, one of the advantages of being at the front of the line). We also ordered a chopped beef sandwich, and while it was good, we sure didn't need it.
Just a side note about sausage: At the time we visited, Franklin was having the beef sausage made to his specifications by an outside company, bringing it in pre-cooked, and heating it in the pit for lunch service. With the expansion of Franklin's smokehouse in 2014, the plan is to begin making and smoking sausage in-house and to experiment with additional flavors in 2015/2016.
Sides include potato salad, cole slaw, and beans, and there are a few pies for dessert, but you'll probably end up focusing on the meats.
If you're into sandwiches, try the Tipsy Texan: a chopped beef sandwich topped with sliced sausage and cole slaw. If you like handcrafted soda, don't missed the Maine Root black cherry soda or root beer at the fountain machine. There were four beers on-tap and about twice that number in cans.
We ended up ordering more brisket than we could eat, and our hotel room did not have a mini refrigerator. As it turned out, there was a CVS pharmacy right around the corner where we bought a Styrofoam cooler and a bag of ice. We were able to hold the leftover brisket on ice in our hotel room, changing the ice every day, until we flew home with it in our suitcase on Sunday.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the advantages of being first in line is that you may be rewarded with a private tour of the smokehouse. The female employee who went through the line taking orders said to me, "Remind me once we open and I'll see if I can get you a look at the barbecue pits." She had no idea who I was or that I would be thrilled by this invitation, and she didn't offer this opportunity to anyone else, so I can only assume she did it because we were first in line. But no matter where you are in line, if you're interested in seeing the pits, you should ask one of the staff if that's possible.
While we were eating, a group of culinary students showed up and Franklin himself gave them a tour of the smokehouse and spoke with them for a while. After the students left, Franklin went into what appeared to be an office and the female employee ushered us into the smokehouse where we spoke with a young man who was running the pits. The room was very hot, as several of the pits were up and running, and we were able to see a new pit that Franklin was building that would be dedicated to smoking fresh sausages.
Once out of the smokehouse, we saw Franklin passing through the dining room and I grabbed him to say hello. We exchanged a few words about The Virtual Weber Bullet, Weber smokers, our lunch experience, what we'd seen in the smokehouse, and we wrapped up with a photo. He was pleasant to talk with and very gracious with his time.
There are two ways to avoid the line at Franklin Barbecue:
After gorging on as much barbecue as possible and putting the leftovers on ice in our rental car, we drove to the Texas State Capitol where we wandered the grounds and inside the capitol building. Next we stopped at the nearby Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library at The University of Texas campus in Austin for a self-guided tour of the life and work of the 36th President of the United States.
Photo of Franklin Barbecue line: 2015 by Franklin BBQ Line
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