The ‘best in the world’ lists it features on are definitely deserved.
“So where are you guys from?” grins Aaron Franklin as he de-foils a healthy looking brisket and brandishes a rather large knife. He asks me how I like my brisket. I immediately respond by asking him how I should like it.
Fatty, he says. You want the fatty end. He slices it in half, lifts it up and gives it a little squeeze. Juices run clear. My hours of waiting melt away. It all suddenly seems worth it. It is shortly after midday. And fuck me I’m starving.
I completely over order.
“You guys don’t have anything like this at home.” he says, with a glint in his eye. “You can only get this in Texas.”
Naturally I bristle a tad at that comment. I don’t think he’d be very interested in me extolling the virtues of Pitt Cue Co. I take my big tray of meat and sit on the terrace outside. John Hodgman of the Daily Show and various podcastery goodness is there eating ribs. Anthony Bourdain is there too with his “No Reservations” film crew. He’s holding court in the centre of the room with a healthy plate of meat, posing for photos with fans. It’s all a bit Rolling Stones, but with more sausage. I analyse the three different bottles of sauce on the table. I take some photos. Before I’ve eaten anything it’s already a unique experience.
The important thing to remember is that as Brits, we collectively know fuck all about proper barbeque. Nothing. We’re a nation of grillers, of carbon charrers and of awful supermarket sauce. The opportunity to taste one of the absolute best in the heart of BBQ country is very exciting. It’s also our duty to report back and help influence what’s being done at home.
Much of my memory of Franklin BBQ is the waiting. Of anticipation. Of worry that Bourdain’s SLR-toting crew will have polished it all off before I get in there. They did have to queue with everyone else, there is no quick way to get in. My first queue pal is a New York startup guy in boxfresh Vans who’s just sold his company and isn’t sure what to do next. Something to do with ads. B2B. “You wouldnt have heard of it”. Very South By.
Behind me is a woman with two kids, both under five. She is married to someone that works here but doesn’t confess to “being a BBQ person”. She’s still enough of one to brave this line though. And again, marriage doesn’t entitle you to a queue dodge.
It’s 10.45am when I arrive. The queue has already snaked down the hill into the car park. I’m flabbergasted. I knew it would be busy, especially during festival week, but this is ridiculous. The two students in front of me say that on weekends, a 9am start is required if you want some of the fabled brisket. There is much chatter about Bourdain, who is a good sixty to seventy people in front of us. I can just about make out his silver head in the distance. The queue doesn’t seem to be moving much. I don’t really understand why, since there’s no enforced sit-down policy here. Surely some of these folks must be getting take-out.
I turn to Twitter.
If that Bourdain guy eats all the brisket before I get in there, I will fight him.— Burger Anarchy (@BurgerAnarchy) March 13, 2012
A pixie-faced girl appears from the building dressed in an apron, Converse, stripy tights and a snug woollen beanie hat. It’s over eighty degrees. And it’s humid.
She tells us that the ‘Last Man Standing’ is a good twenty people ahead. It’s very unlikely we’ll get any brisket. Maybe some pulled pork or turkey if we’re lucky. Up until this point I thought Last Man Standing was a fairly poor Bruce Willis movie. But no, there is a guy and he is wearing a sign emblazoned with those three words. Whispers spread up and down the queue. The thirty people behind me disappear almost immediately. I choose to stay, knowing that this is my last chance to eat here for the foreseeable future. More people appear, some willing to risk it, others immediately getting back into the cars and heading somewhere else. By the time we reach the stairs I know my queue buddies fairly well. We all share a passion for meat - the tourists are long gone - so the conversation is good. A member of staff appears with an icebox of beer, a $2 Lone Star is mine. It’s 11.30.
Once we’re into the afternoon the door gets tantalisingly close. We’re still not guaranteed a full menu. The beanie girl pixie reappears out of nowhere and screams at the top of her voice “More brisket!”. The queue roars in response. We are all relieved. Maybe Bourdain wasn’t very hungry.
Spirits now lifted by the promise of a full menu, we get inside. The menu is stuck up on the wall, written on the same paper they use to wrap up the takeaway meat.
Immediately I’m over-excited. This is a once-off opportunity, so I should order nearly everything. I discuss menu strategy with my queue buddies. The brisket is certainly the most famous and geographically relevant (Texas is all about the beef), but there’s pork, beef ribs, turkey and sausages too. Not that interested in the sides. Startup guy says he’s just going to order all the meats. It’s his birthday. He’s here on his own. I offer a slightly weak ‘Happy Birthday’ in response.
Once we’re at the front, we’re amazed that it is actually the Aaron Franklin serving all the meat. Every customer is given his full attention. There’s idle chit-chat. Everyone tells him how excited they are to be there. Regulars are greeted like family. There’s absolutely no urgency despite the queue. I guess it’s such a super-advanced queue, it’s evolved way beyond any other queue.
We buy all the meat we can and find a nice spot on the deck.
First I try everything without any sauce. The brisket is indeed special. Back home it’s become all trendy again which is at odds with the nice rolled pink Sunday roast ideal. Most brisket I’ve had is hard to get the best out of. It’s leathery. It’s easy to over season it. It’s hard to get the smoky flavour to penetrate sufficiently. Aaron’s brisket is soft. It’s oozing. The fibres break apart in a way I’ve not experienced before. The meat itself has that deep smoke flavour you’ve always dreamed was possible.
The pork ribs are pink. They’ve been cooked so incredibly slowly that the bone flops out when I pick them up. Pork isn’t standard BBQ fare here in Texas so it’s great to see so many pork dishes here. The pulled pork (which we’ve seen Aaron pull by hand in front of us) is superb. I get into the sauces - the darkest of which is my immediate favourite. It’s all coffee and treacle.
The meat doesn’t even need it but the sauce tops off each meat and accentuates flavour rather than disguising it. The only real disappointment is the turkey. Because it’s, well, turkey.
Aaron is a relative newbie. Austin locals are notoriously hard on new restaurants, especially BBQ. What he’s achieved in the space of three short years has taken everyone else decades. This makes him the posterchild of new wave BBQ, and the fact he’s done it in the heartland is all the more impressive. It just goes to show, after all the talk and posturing and secret recipes, it’s nerdy food obsession that wins plaudits, fans, ‘top 5’ magazine articles and the mother of all queues.
If you’re in Austin (blag a SXSW trip, seriously) and you care enough about meat, or at least want to know just how good BBQ can get, then I wholeheartedly recommend the Franklin experience. The ‘best in the world’ lists it features on are definitely deserved. If you’re a queue hater and don’t understand why the hell someone would wait that long for a bog standard cut of beef they’re forced to eat for elevenses, then you probably haven’t read this far.