This weekend Meatopia is making its first appearance outside of the States. This flesh-eating food celebration in Tobacco Dock, Wapping features big-time chefs and hallowed meat-cooking halls such as Hawksmoor, Pitt Cue, St Johns, Shake Shack and more, all devoted to delicious meats.
One of the featured guests is Aaron Franklin over from Austin. But I have to tell you, something seemed amiss to me when I read earlier this year about his joint Franklin’s Barbecue.
People seem to have lost their minds.
There is no sense of proportion when talking about this meat that’s smoked and eaten off a plastic tray. Aaron, who runs the business with his wife Stacy, is hailed as a “BBQ genius” by Bon Appetit magazine, which named it as possibly the best barbecue in the world. Is this even a category? Oh yeah, they also named it one of the country’s most important restaurants.
In Zagat restaurant guide fans swoon that it’s “exceptional”. Chef Anthony Bourdain came to visit with camera crew in tow.
I grew up in Texas and love good barbecue but wasn’t it time for a reality check?
So on our annual trip to Austin we visited Franklin Barbecue, although “visiting” makes this sound like a more casual outing than it was. To eat at Franklin’s, you have to plan, plot and queue early. We set the alarm for 7:00, drive from North Austin and join the queue at 8am. Already 20 people have arrived before us.
Some sit in folding chairs, their laptops balanced on their knees, or reading the paper. Others sit on the steps leading up to the entrance, chatting or playing with their phones. A 20something woman has laid out a small red piece of cloth on the sidewalk, a bottle of water at her side. At the very front are three University of Texas students in shorts and baseball caps, undoubtedly feeling very early bird smug. One sports a t-shirt promoting a breast cancer charity. It reads: “Save Second Base”.
The queue continues to build behind us, and by 8:30, it runs down the side of the brick building, into the parking lot where the morning sun is already beating down ruthlessly. A few groups have had the foresight to not only set up folding chairs with sun umbrellas but also bring coolers that kept them furnished in ice-cold sodas and beer.
My husband and I had been a bit nervous about keeping the 9- and 11-year-old occupied during the wait. We had fully charged up iPads and phones, with plenty of apps, and the kids’ advanced buy-in. “That looks awesome, can we eat there?” they said when we were looking at an article about Franklin, featuring a picture of glistening brisket.
But we needn’t have worried. The atmosphere is not “hungry masses” but “festival crowd”.
And in the event you didn’t think to bring your own chair to rest your dogs, you can hire one for $5 from across the street, where a man stands with a shopping trolley full of canvas folding chairs, holding a massive umbrella to shield himself from the sun. “I’m just helping a friend out,” says the man running the concession, when I go to rent two for the kids to sit on. “The guy who actually runs this couldn’t come today.” The entrepreneurial endeavor has been running for 8 months, with about 30 chairs. “We get here at 8am and leave at noon”. He would be going on to school to UT on his PhD.
Meanwhile the folks who work at Franklin are keeping the mood chipper. They set up a water dispenser and paper cups and let us know we can go in and use the bathrooms at any time. A woman comes round with a boxful of drinks we can buy. The kids get Coke, I buy a Topo Chico sparkling water, my husband gets a can of beer. Then a tall thin aristocratic looking man in a Franklin t-shirt works his way down the line doing a “meat count”, finding out how much everyone is going to order.
By 10:30 the line of almost 150 people shrinks to 100. There was no use to wait – there wouldn’t be any more meat.
And so it operates like clockwork. At 11am sharp the front door opens and we all stand up and start to file in. We wait an hour in line, inching forward into the building then standing in blessed air-conditioning, reading the articles on the wall, picking out souvenir t-shirts and trying not to salivate when other people sit down with their large plates of barbecue, beans, pickles and potato salad.
Finally we’re at the front and the guy cutting brisket smiles and greets us like he just couldn’t wait until we got to the front. “Want a taste?” he asks the kids, who shyly nod. We nibble on burnt ends of brisket and order.
Plates with potato salad, beans and slaw
Another mightily friendly worker prepares our platters. Another rings us up. They don’t seem at all harried or stressed.
We sit down and dig in and, dear reader: The lean brisket (my personal favourite) is mouth-watering beyond belief – silky and almost sweet. The ribs are smoky and delicious. The sausage, which actually isn’t made in-house, has a tangy kick. The pulled pork is succulent. Even the cole slaw passes muster with my husband, one of the most finicky slaw eaters in the Western world.
It’s turns out it’s not something in the water but something in the smoker. Post Oak wood, fed into an indirect-heat pit…and…that’s the end of my barbecue alchemy knowledge. But I know magic when I taste it.
When Texas Monthly, the award-winning regional magazine (disclosure: I used to work there), named it top in their 5-yearly 50 Best BBQ Joints issue, it analyzed why Franklin is creating such swoon-inducing barbecue and earning raves far and wide. Perhaps it’s the hormone- and antibiotic-free beef? The slow smoking process over 12 to 18 hours at a low temperature? The smokers that Franklin builds himself? The amazing consistency?
One key ingredient is lots of espresso. Aaron drinks multiple cups of the stuff every day, fueling his 2am start, and it’s a key ingredient in his espresso barbecue sauce, now sold in 150 HEB grocery stores across the state.
For me, the key ingredient wasn’t just the astonishingly delicious barbecue. It was also the atmosphere of fun and welcome that’s runs from behind the counter right down through the queue that snakes across the parking lot. To work at Franklin, “[i]t takes being really nice, being a good-hearted person,” Aaron has said in an interview with Zagat.
There’s no snobbery involved and the queue is nothing if not democratic. Arrive early enough; you get to eat barbecue.
The three guys in front of us had decided the night before to drive from Houston. They’d risen at 4am so they could sit down to 3 pounds of ribs and 5 pounds of brisket at noon. Later that weekend they were hitting another barbecue place, John Mueller Meat Co., operated by the tempestuous scion of the Louis Mueller barbecue clan from Taylor (a family of barbecue greats). (Aaron used to work for John Mueller. Read the fascinating story.)
While we’re polishing off our plates and taking pictures, a 30something man leans over the half wall separating the queue from the dining tables and offers to take one of the four of us. “Have y’all eaten here before?” he asks. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
Other people catch our eye and ask, “Is it as good as they say?”
Yes, we reply. Absolutely.