Some restaurants have a mythology surrounding them. Franklin BBQ, in Austin, Texas, is one such restaurant.
“You have to get there early,” people will say. “They line up starting at 9 o’clock and don’t open their doors until 11.” “It’s because Aaron Franklin carves all the meat by hand and takes his time doing it.” “They’ll ask how much meat you want before you go in so they can figure out when to start turning people away.” “It’s a one hour wait.” “It’s a two hour wait.” “It’s the best BBQ you’ll ever have in your life.” “You’ll want to kill yourself after you eat it because there’ll be nothing left to live for.”
I’m all for BBQ and I’m all for restaurant mythology, but one thing I’m not all about is eating big piles of meat at 11 o’clock in the morning. Nothing about that sounded appealing.
But last night I went to dinner with Raphael Brion and Paula Forbes of Eater.com and they hounded me about not going to Franklin BBQ. “If you tell people you were stranded in Austin for a week because of the hurricane, they’re not going to believe that you didn’t go to Franklin,” said Raphael. “It really is some of the best BBQ you’ll ever have,” said Paula.
Still, this morning, I had my doubts. Did I really want to go, bleary-eyed, at 9:30 AM to stand in line waiting for meat? People on Twitter were relentless. @Temp6868 was the funniest:
That Tweet got through to me and, before I knew it, I was taking a car from the hotel to the famous Franklin BBQ.
The line wasn’t so bad at first. Only a few people ahead of me:
This woman walking by called out to us: “Is the BBQ here really that good? Is that why y’all are lined up?”
“Yes,” said a woman at the front of the line. I kind of shrugged my shoulders because I was dubious myself.
As we waited (I read from “Let The Great World Spin,” the book I’m currently enjoying) the line grew:
A woman came by to find out how much meat we were ordering.
(It’s the woman with the red hair and the pad.)
I told her I was going to have the Tipsy Texan (something the driver from my hotel told me to order) and she said, “Is it your first time here?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then I wouldn’t order that…I’d get the two-meat plate with the ribs and the brisket.” Her matter-of-fact tone was pretty compelling so I said, “Ok.”
At 11 o’clock, pretty much on the nose, the doors opened–the crowd cheered–and in we went.
Country music played inside (most notably Johnny Cash) and the writing was on the wall:
The line moved along steadily, not speedily, but quick enough. These two guys–blue bandana, red bandana–manned the counter.
Were either of them Franklins? I’m not sure.
When it was my turn, the man in the blue bandana offered me a taste of brisket. I ate it and my eyes widened. Then I told him I was having a two-meat plate with brisket and ribs and asked if I could take pictures of him carving. “Sure,” he said. Here’s the maestro at work:
For my two sides, I chose coleslaw and beans and also ordered a sweet tea to drink. “Do you want bread with that?” asked the man at the register. “Ok,” I said and he put a slice of white sandwich bread on top of my tray.
Which I then carried to a table outside, feeling a bit like a kid in a middle school cafeteria for gluttons.
Here’s my plate up close:
I started with that rib on top. I won’t lie, my first bite was underwhelming. A bit dry. It was an exterior portion of meat and, interestingly, as I got closer to the bone the meat got more and more tender and sweeter until I finally got what all the fuss was about. The meat at the interior was as succulent and enjoyable as any BBQ I’ve ever had.
But the truly sublime moment came with the brisket. On the table were various sauces:
And I poured some of the darkest sauce, which contains espresso, over the brisket.
Those bites, with the espresso BBQ sauce on top and the fork-tender brisket are the stuff dreams are made of. In that moment, Franklin BBQ went from myth to reality; this wasn’t some Shangri-La or lost City of Atlantis. Franklin BBQ was a real place and here I was eating some of the best BBQ in the country. I felt very lucky, especially lucky that so many people urged me to go. Everyone was 100% right and I was 100% wrong. I’d get up at 5 AM to eat this again.
I also want to mention the beans, which would’ve been notable just by themselves:
They were firm and slightly sweet but, most importantly, smoky–a flavor, I suspect, achieved by some kind of smoked pork product cooked along with everything. Even though I’ve already made the best beans of your life, these beans were even better. Some day I’m going to hunt down the recipe.
In the meantime, I’m now recovering from my morning at Franklin’s. It was an Austin rite-of-passage, an indoctrination of sorts and I’m so glad I finally stepped up and drank the BBQ sauce (way better than drinking Kool-Aid). Next time I’m in Austin, I can’t imagine not going back… I was a non-believer and now I’m a disciple. It was a baptism by BBQ.