Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The End Of The Trail, er, Hajj?

In July 2011, one of the most prominent foodies in this country (restaurant critic Andrew Knowlton) annointed a hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint in East Austin as primus inter pares (first among equals) in the world of smoked meat in Central Texas. Today, this intrepid blogger, with utter disregard for his own comfort, got to the Franklin Barbecue joint more than an hour before the place opened and he was still 10th in line. At 10:45 AM, an employee came out and took a survey of what those in line were going to order after the door opened. A rough tally was made and for those at the middle of the line and beyond, the verdict was "We'll be out of meat before you can get in the door." Back in the summer 2011, just after the article appeared in Bon Appétit, this blogger was at the end of a two-block line. He didn't wait around for the news that there was no more meat that day. Now, drum roll please, this blogger ate Franklin's brisket, a couple of pork ribs, and a ½-link of sausage. Verdict: close, but no cigar for Franklin Barbecue. Not even the best in Central Texas, let alone the US of A. A wait in line at Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas is worth the wait. Franklin Barbecue, not so much. If this is (fair & balanced) foodie savagery, so be it.

[x Bon Appétit]
The Best BBQ Restaurant In America
By Andrew Knowlton

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com
(See a Franklin Barbecue slideshow here.

Long before most people have had their first cup of coffee, Aaron Franklin is on his third espresso. When you're smoking the best BBQ in the country, your day starts very early. In order to get his impossibly tender brisket and ribs ready for the lunch rush, Franklin arrives at his no-frills restaurant, Franklin Barbecue, in East Austin, Texas, at 3:30 a.m. By ten o'clock a line composed of bleary-eyed college kids, office workers abusing their lunch "hour," and BBQ geeks will form; by 1:15 p.m. the dreaded sign will be posted: "Sorry, Sold Out! Come Back Soon."

Franklin's rise to the ranks of pit-master stardom is incredible considering the sanctity (and proximity) of the legendary spots and the loyalists who support them. Even more impressive, Franklin has done in a couple of years what took others decades to achieve. In December 2009, the then-31-year-old opened a food trailer in a vacant lot behind a friend's coffee roastery. Weeks later, his barbecued meats (pulled pork, pork ribs, sausages, and stunning brisket—the pride of Texas-style barbecue) became the focus of camera-toting food bloggers and local media. Now this upstart joint, not even two years old, is mentioned in the same breath as BBQ stalwarts Kreuz Market and Smitty's Market in nearby Lockhart. Some even think it has surpassed the greats. You can count me as a member of that club.

Some experts argue that attaining BBQ-genius status requires a degree of heredity. If that's true, Franklin qualifies. His father owned a spot in Bryan, Texas. It was short-lived, but young Franklin was bitten by the bug. Several years after his dad's place closed, Franklin's wife, Stacy, who now helps run the restaurant, sent him to the hardware store to buy a grill. Except he didn't come back with a grill; he returned with an offset smoker. His first brisket was, by his admission, "awfully terrible." But friends who came over for the couple's backyard barbecues started to heap on the praise. His hobby became a profession, and by March of this year, Franklin had outgrown his tiny trailer's kitchen and opened a bricks-and-mortar location with two commercial smokers. The crowds followed.

Franklin's explanation for his overnight success is almost antithetical. "Patience," he says in his understated way—to which I'd add exacting sourcing and technique. First of all, he uses Meyer Angus beef, which is humanely raised in Montana without hormones or antibiotics. The fires in his pits are started using only post oak wood and butcher paper drenched in the tallow that covered the previous day's brisket. Then, after seasoning the ribs with (of course) a secret spice mix and putting them in the smoker, Franklin grabs a lawn chair, checks his e-mail, and usually works on the New York Times crossword puzzle for an hour. Once the meat is done, he wraps it in foil or butcher paper and sets it aside for that day's service.

His brisket requires even more TLC. Franklin swears he uses only salt and pepper to season it. Judging by the complex flavors of the finished product, I think he's withholding a spice or two, but he promises it's all about time and the temperature of the pits. Whereas most places smoke brisket for seven hours at a blazing 500°, Franklin cooks his for about 18 hours at 250° to 270°. It goes into the pits around 9:00 a.m. and won't come off until about 3:00 a.m. the next day. The meat emerges with a pinkish smoke ring around the interior—the true sign of cared-for barbecue—that's almost a half-inch thick.

Let it be known that before visiting Franklin Barbecue a few months back, I never considered Texas brisket real BBQ. I'm a Georgia native and, like most hardened BBQ regionalists, I was convinced that the best BBQ was what I'd grown up eating. For me, the "real stuff" meant pulled or chopped pork. It was only after I moved to New York City—yes, New York City—some 12 years ago and visited spots that dabbled in all styles that I realized BBQ could involve beef. (I know that sounds crazy, but I'm sure my Southern brethren understand.) Life's too short to get caught up in the debate about what constitutes traditional, authentic BBQ and what does not. As a wise friend said, "If you're talking about it, you're not eating it." Today, I'm more concerned with eating delicious smoked meat than with arguing about its origins. Great BBQ can be found all over the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Manhattan. It also just happens to be at Franklin Barbecue.

So here's my mandate: Go to Austin and queue up at Franklin Barbecue by 10:30 a.m. When you get to the counter, Aaron Franklin will be waiting, knife in hand, ready to slice up his brisket. (Order the fatty end.) Grab a table, a few beers, and lots of napkins and dig in. Take a bite, and don't tell me you're not convinced you've reached the BBQ promised land. But hurry: Franklin's a prizefighter in the prime of his career. There's no telling how long he'll keep up with his schedule. Let's hope, for barbecue lovers' sake, that this man never loses his passion for BBQ, or runs out of espresso. Ω

[Andrew Knowlton is the Restaurant and Drinks Editor of Bon Appétit magazine, where he writes features and monthly columns for both the magazine and the website. Knowlton has appeared as a judge on The Food Network’s "The Next Iron Chef America" and "Iron Chef America" as well as on NBC's "Chopping Block."]

Copyright © 2011 Condé Nast Digital

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

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