Chilebrown at home

Saturday, February 9, 2013


A BBQ Pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, Part 3 of 4 
by Donna Fong
image by Harry Soo

It was difficult to figure out what time to stand in line at Franklin BBQ. Most said 9:30AM would be fine. The idea of standing in 30°F weather for 2 hours did not sound enticing. It might be fine in the summer but in the winter, it seemed tough. I packed our luggage with gloves, scarves, a thick coat and thermal underwear, just to wait in line. Non-BBQ friends thought I was insane. Even BBQ friends asked me if it was worth the fuss.

We got word from a good source that we should be in line by 8:45AM. I brought an overly expensive honeycrisp apple for breakfast which I bought at HEB the night before. I’d eat an apple each morning just to keep myself in balance. We arrived at 8:20AM to find 12 men, 2 women and 16 month old baby girl in line ahead of us.

The small aqua colored building shielded us from the morning sun. Those ahead of us had folding chairs and those behind us were not committed enough to bring them. By 9:30AM, I had counted 77 people in line.

A young woman came by and asked each of us how much meat we would be ordering. This was to determine who would be the last person to be guaranteed meat. Once that person was determined, he was given the job of informing others behind him the bad news. Generally, this kept the line from growing much further than the end of the block. The Austin native named Michael who stood in line ahead of us told us he came the day before at 9:30AM. He was behind the "last man standing", as he’d like to say. So he tried again on this morning. When we appeared, he assured us we were making an "investment" by getting here early. "Man, these people are hard core." I thought.
During the 2.5 hours that we spent waiting for Franklin to open, we learned about Austin BBQ. We were surrounded by a mixture of returning locals and BBQ tourists like ourselves. With a united goal, the camaraderie in line was high. Time flew. The tempo was high. After the first hour, staff members began putting out garbage cans and informed patrons that the restroom was available. 10min prior to opening time, I sensibly ran into the place, not wanting to waste any precious eating time on anything else. Others followed my lead. The restaurant smelled terrific. The staff was already behind the counter, ready for the onslaught which would only last 3 hours before the 1,600 lbs of meat would disappear into our collective bellies.

Benji Jacobs, who worked inside, pulled down the sign from yesterday. A black sharpie on butcher paper said "meat sold out" on the front door. The guys in front of us folded up their chairs. The 16month old girl ran around and jumped. She was the toughest of us, preserving the wait and looking bright and happy. Truth be told, we were all excited. The crowd hushed when our cell phones told us it was 11AM. At 11:01AM, I wondered when the doors would actually open.  

The doors finally opened and we patiently walked in and formed another line counterclockwise around the room which led to the back of the restaurant. The walls were lined with articles about Franklin. A large earthy wooden butcher block greeted us at the corner before we made our way down to the one man who would slice our order.

The line was slow. The man cutting the BBQ took his time with each patron, with the understanding that we all knew this was not to be taken lightly. None of us minded. I heard that people were given samples if they weren’t sure what to order. Unlike in the four previous restaurants, we were recognized by the staff (I told them we were coming) and they apologized that Aaron and Stacy Franklin were still vacationing. I could understand needing the break.

We were going to order the three meat combination but the man suggested that we just get a sample of everything so we did. The BBQ glistened on the pink paper. We hustled to a table next to the window and tried not to notice the crowd in line staring at us as we ate. I didn’t open my notebook. I wanted to eat like a normal person. I could record the scores later. One our plate was generously sliced brisket point, sausage, slices of turkey, pork ribs, some coleslaw and pickles. Nothing had sauce on it.

They gave us the best meat they had. I was sure of it. I paused a moment to let it sink in before taking a bite. I was one lucky lady. Then I tore a piece of the dark fatty brisket and put it in my mouth. It was not what I expected. I thought Texas BBQ was supposed to be bold – full of pepper and salt. This was subtle, almost conservative but delicious. The point was perfectly rendered. It was clear that it would not have passed the KCBS pull test for tenderness, but it was tender. It was as tender as one could get it. I began to question the utility of the pull test altogether.

The pork rib was solid as was the mild tasting sausage. The sliced turkey breast which was served brushed with some kind of light oil was heavenly. It was clearly the best turkey breast we’d ever had at any restaurant. Next we tried the sauces. There were 3 sauces offered on each table. There was a light colored normal sauce. There was a very dark more complex sauce. And lastly, there was a light Carolina style sauce. All sauces were vinegary and none were notably sweet. Neither was any of the meat sweet either. As a matter of fact, we never ran into any sweet BBQ in central Texas. We also didn’t run into any super salty or peppery BBQ. I was amazed. Only once did I have any BBQ that was spicy and that was made by someone from Utah. I thought the proximity of Mexico would have more of an influence the way it does in Arizona or California but I was wrong.

Even so, the BBQ was collectively the best I have ever had at any establishment. I’ve had good pieces here and there but to have all of it as good as it was, smoked in quantities that they have to each day, was impressive. When I realized this, I paused for a moment and wondered if I was going to shed a BBQ tear for joy. I hadn’t cried since the Oakland A’s beat the Texas Rangers for the AL West earlier in October. I didn’t end up crying, but I was grateful to have experienced what I came for. Was it the best BBQ in America? I’m not sure but probably. If someone can do it better and serve it in a restaurant, I’d like to taste that!
We jotted down our scores, and ate more than we should have eaten. When we were done, Benji was nice enough to offer us a tour of the smokers in the back. There were four old propane tanks fashioned into smokers.

There was #1 and #2 smoker. The third smoker had no name but Benji thought Rusty was a good name for the smoker that sat on top of the small hill that staggered each pit. In my mind, I couldn’t imagine my back managing 1600lbs of meat on terraced smokers.
Benji is Aaron’s childhood friend and one of 3-4 pitmasters who run the pits each night in order to put out the 52 briskets they sell each day. They do take catering orders but not more than 150lbs total a day. Benji had a warm and unassuming demeanor, never taking himself too seriously. It was a good trait to have working there. I convinced myself that I’d be a nervous wreck if I were him.

It was past noon when we finished our tour. We packed our leftovers into the trunk and drove 2.5 miles southwest across town to la BBQ "Cuisine Texicana". It is not LA like Los Angeles BBQ, but la, like la comida, to give it a Tex-Mex feel. Two months prior, la BBQ was JMueller BBQ.

JMueller BBQ was owned by LeAnn Mueller, the daughter of Bobby Mueller (who ran his father’s restaurant, Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor). LeAnn’s talented brother, John Muller was the pit boss for about a year before he left. In his place, LeAnn hired pit assistant, John Lewis of Porky’s Revenge competition team and then changed the name of the place to la BBQ. As I understand it, John Mueller, John Lewis, Aaron Franklin and Lance Kirkpatrick (of Stiles) all have intertwined roots. It gets complicated fast. John Lewis worked with Aaron Franklin at Franklin and then at JMueller before John Mueller left in October. That’s when John Lewis filled in at what is now la BBQ. As far as I know, John Mueller isn’t currently working anywhere. So how does Lance fit in? Lance worked at Louie Mueller as an assistant and when John Mueller left his dad’s place, Lance eventually became the new pit boss. Lance is now the pit boss at Stiles in Austin.

So it is no coincidence when all three restaurants ended up being a tier above all of the other restaurants we tried in Austin. I was unaware of the intricacy of the connection between the three restaurants before eating at each of them. I knew Aaron Franklin and John Mueller were connected but nothing beyond that information.

When we arrived at la BBQ, there was a line of 15 people deep. A small cooler to our right was filled with free Lone Star beer. I hesitated and decided not to fill my belly space with beer. The menu was written on butcher paper taped to the side of the trailer serving food. By 12:30PM, the beef ribs were gone. As we waited in line, we chatted with Kamal, the skinny techie guy ahead of us. He worked at Advanced Micro Devices and lived in the neighborhood. We told him we just came over from Franklin. He asked if it was worth the wait. We told him yes. He hadn’t tried it, saying that the BBQ here was plenty good enough without the wait. We figured out later that he was right. I was impressed with his knowledge of places to eat in Austin. When he told me he was originally from New Jersey, I let on that I was surprised how comfortable I felt in Texas. He said in Austin, it was okay to wear boots and vote for Obama. People here do it all the time. After another 10 minutes, I trusted him with our experience at Salt Lick. He said we should try the prime rib on Sunday mornings next time. Seeing that he once traveled on a steak tour of America with his brother, we convinced ourselves we’d try again and to go early because they run out quickly. We were getting use to that in Austin.
We greeted the man in charge, John Lewis, when we made it up to the front of the line. John recognized us, said hi and gave us some nice slices of brisket, sausage and pork ribs. We sat down outside in this gavel lot on a wooden picnic table and enjoyed a meal comparable to what we had just eaten an hour earlier. It was an exceptional morning of BBQ. I wished I had saved a few more wows for la BBQ because I spent most of them already. Though John Mueller was no longer at the helm, Mr. Lewis held up his end of the deal and was continuing to serve some of the best BBQ in Texas from south Austin.

From here, we decided a long drive was in order to give our stomachs a break. The smallest joints were at the top since they ran out of food the fastest. The bigger the place, the lower on the list they placed. We drove 45 minutes south to City Market in Luling, Texas. Luling is only 14 miles south of Lockhart. We heard about City Market from our line buddy at Franklin so we added it to our list.

City Market had an interesting setup and feel from all of the other places we went to in central Texas. First off, it was the only place we visited that didn’t feel like it was over run by tourists. I noticed cowboy hats for the first time and there were more people of color. There weren’t any hipsters to be found (aka foodies). And we were finally well in the median age of your average customer. There were two large dining rooms. The main dining room housed a counter in the front where you order your sides and drinks separately. Unusual sides were thick slices of Longhorn cheese and potato chips. On the tables were bottles of BBQ sauces repackaged in hot sauce bottles which was a little confusing. Because the bottles were so small, the staff was constantly refilling them. I guess tradition must be upheld. The line snaked through the first room and overflowed into the second. We struck up another conversation with the people behind us who told us how to order. It was 20 minutes before we could enter a small smoke filled room set in the corner. Once we made it in we ordered what we could. There was no more brisket so we stuck to pork ribs and sausage. As we ate, my partner noticed our neighbors were almost done and asked if it was okay to try some of their brisket, explaining our predicament. I looked down and away from embarrassment.

Fortunately, they were nice and didn’t mind sharing. The brisket was good and so were the ribs and sausage. The lines were justified. What we learned today was that standing in line for BBQ is an experience in and of itself. By meeting people who also love BBQ, you can enjoy it even more. BBQ was communal and I’ve seen this happen even in my small town of Alameda where the guy next to me can’t help himself when he bites into a slice of brisket. He’s got to express his excitement somehow. We were just doing it before we took a bite.
At 3:55PM, we stumbled out of City Market, rolled into our car and drove back into Lockhart, wishing it were more than 14 miles away.

We walked around a bit after our meal and found that there were six visible rooms at Smitty’s: two smoker/meat serving rooms, one dining room, an empty butcher shop/t-shirt room, the original narrow dining hall and a prep kitchen. Outside in the parking lot was a huge fortress of neatly stacked post oak logs. We were breath-taken. We couldn’t help but to admire its beauty and expanse. Standing in front, we took a self portrait with a lengthened arm of the logs in the backdrop. It is just what BBQ people do. To us, it was as impressive as the Eiffel tower. Logs, pig heads, aisles of BBQ sauces are all focal points of interest for the camera of a pitmaster. We were being typical BBQ tourists and loving every minute of it.
Our journey continued through the night as we explored Lockhart’s two other famous establishments, Blacks and Kruez. We’ll save those two for next time.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I can't believe Harry begged brisket off of other diners, that is priceless! Fantastic read.