As Waylon Jennings once sang, Austin, Texas, is "the home of Willie Nelson, it's the home of Western swing..." And today, it's also home to the famed Franklin BBQ.
This will not be your "off the beaten path"–type story, or some hidden secret that's finally being let out of the bag. The function of this article is simply to rub it in (pun intended?) and gloat that I've tasted and experienced one of the greatest barbecue destinations in the world.
I'm not going to pretend I was sitting in a local dive bar, seated next to Sam Elliott and chomping on some fine Texas barbecue when I first heard of this place. This would not be true. The voyage that led me to this tiny trailer of a barbecue joint started simple; a buddy of mine told me about it and said it's "insanely delicious barbecue." From this piece of information, I quickly did a search and found that Franklin is the pinnacle of Texas barbecue.
That's it, I told myself. If I had one "must-do" while in Austin, it was this.
My plan was to visit on Saturday morning, which gave me a couple of days to chat with locals and learn more about the place. Immediately, the advice was that it’s imperative to arrive early, due to the long line. A line for food? I've done it before, but not too often.
Seldom is a place worthy of a line. It's like going to the Louvre in Paris and seeing the Mona Lisa. You wait in line, battle the crowds and finally after wading through a beehive of art freaks, you arrive. It's one of the most famous paintings in the world, and there it is. Okay, cool. I just passed about 400 other stunning paintings, and now this one doesn't seem all that impressive.
At those times when something is overhyped and doesn't meet or exceed expectations, there's a lingering sense of disappointment – a.k.a. the Mona Lisa Syndrome. This is always my greatest concern when standing in line, and something I hoped to avoid.
Just about everybody I met raved about the place, but it wasn't necessarily everyone's favorite. For some people, it's just personal preference. Some like their barbecue spicy or slathered with sauce, but Franklin only uses salt and pepper, and relies on its oak-fired pit to smoke and flavor the meat.
Over the course of three days, people explained the ins and outs of Texas barbecue: the different types of woods used for flavor, the difference between a fatty and lean brisket, and even proper cooking temperatures. School was in session, and this student was soaking it all up.
Saturday morning arrived, and my plan was to get there no later than 10 a.m. (it opens at 11). I was up and at em' early, so I made my way over, getting there just before 9:30.
What's this? There was already a line zigzagging down the ramp from the front door, along the side of the restaurant and out across the parking lot. Throngs of people lined the pavement, seated in fold-out lawn chairs, hiding under umbrellas and sipping beverages from their tailgate-sized coolers.
Was this a restaurant we were waiting for, or a UT Longhorns football game? It was unbelievable. There had to be 150 people already in front of me.
I took my spot, amazed by the size of the line. A hundred and fifty may not seem like too many – but by the look of the outside, the inside can’t hold more than 50 people. It resembled a mobile home and appeared to be about the same size.
Shortly after, a woman walked down the line and informed us that we would not be eating until about two hours after they opened. Two hours? After they opened? They don't even open for another hour and a half. "So let me get this straight," I thought to myself, "I will be waiting nearly four hours to get a slab of brisket?"
That's nuts. I thought for sure this type of information would deter a lot of people, but not a single person budged. Oh well...it was a nice day in Austin, and I had heard so many great things that I had no choice but to wait. No big deal.
During the long morning that spilled over into early afternoon, I chatted with people mostly about Austin and barbecue. I met one guy who drove all the way from Houston to visit this place. Clearly the dedication to good BBQ was not lacking. Once opening, the line slowly inched forward and a couple of the employees came out offering drinks. They even brought us some small sausage wraps to quell our hunger until we made it inside.
We finally made our way inside. As I imagined, it was small, with one long bench table that ran along the window and seven or eight smaller tables scattered about. I approached the front and felt like Sir Edmund Hillary conquering Mt. Everest. Overhead, George Jones music (who had passed away the day before) played through the speakers.
- "He stopped loving her today
- They placed a wreath upon his door
- And soon they'll carry him away
- He stopped loving her today."
Placed in front of me on the cutting board was a giant, uncut slab of brisket, charred and glistening, just waiting to be consumed. It was sliced in half, and the man behind the counter held it up, showed it to me, and asked if I liked my brisket with a bit of fat. I'd heard the fattier part is the best, and what he was showing me looked perfect, so I confirmed. He sliced off a few pieces, tossing them onto a paper plate, and then filled the plate with some beef ribs. I added a side of potato salad and beans.
I took a seat and immediately began to consume my feast. Sinking my fangs into the brisket, it was clear that I would not be struck by Mona Lisa Syndrome. This was fantastic.