BBQ City Limits: Franklin Barbecue

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Franklin Barbecue
900 E. 11th St. 653-1187,
Hours: 11 a.m. until sold out (usually within two or three hours) Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.13.12
I thought that by showing up at 9:45 for Franklin Barbecue’s 11 a.m. opening, I’d at least be close enough to the door to make the jury pool. I’m more like No. 60. A Franklin employee is working her way down the line, asking people how much meat they’ll order. The idea is to save the line from false hope and to give them an idea how long they’ll wait once the doors actually open. About an hour and 10 minutes, by the way, if you’re 60th in line. The last time I waited in line so long that I had to sit down was for Neil Young tickets in 1979. The parallel is not lost here.
In 2010, I ate at the Franklin Barbecue trailer at 35th and Interstate 35 for a Rolling Barbecue Revue in the American-Statesman, then named Franklin Newcomer of the Year on the exploding trailer scene. Aaron Franklin’s backstory is as compelling as his food: His family ran a barbecue shop when he was a kid, and he picked it up later in life, eventually working in Austin for John Mueller, the grandson of Taylor’s Louie Mueller Barbecue founder. The fact that these two men now run separate Austin shops that rank with the nation’s best barbecue is a story brilliantly told by Katy Vine in the February issue of Texas Monthly (read an excerpt here).
Franklin built his own trailer and smoker and opened in late 2009. Overnight success — more accurately, lots-of-all-nighters success — led him to move to East 11th Street, into the building where Ben Wash ran Ben’s Long Branch BBQ in the years before the cool kids lined up for brisket.
Is this the best barbecue in the country, as Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton gushed last year? Hell, I don’t know; I haven’t eaten all the rest of it, and neither has he. The brisket was a game-changer the first time I tried it, by far the best I’d ever seen, tasted or felt in my shiny hands. It had a rippled velvet elasticity like a velour shirt circa 1981 with a crust like salted volcanic rubble. It’s still like that, especially the moist cut, with layers like a mixed-metaphor core sample. Backroads asphalt on top, then a racer-red stripe and a band of late-fall maple brown followed by willowy white-gold fat and finally subterranean ridges shot through with tarnished veins of copper. Even the lean-cut brisket shimmers with glycolic glee under a thin rim of fat whose part-time job is to hold the rub in place. Still a singular experience even if it’s not the haloed brisket of my trailer-tinted memory. But I’ve also been to quite a few rodeos with other stars of the circuit since then. Once you’ve proved you can stay in the saddle for eight seconds and win the buckle, the rest is all about getting ready for the next ride.
A man who rode shotgun in line with me said these are some of the best pork ribs he’s ever had, and that if Franklin opened across the street from any place in Kansas City or St. Louis, that place would have to shut down. Ready ... and ... fight! I’ll sit back and watch, eating one of these long ribs by pulling the meat from the bone with just thumb and forefinger. I get just a little sweetness from the rub. It finishes more like Grade B maple than grain sugar, and you know how good syrup tastes with pork.
There’s no sweet edge to pulled pork here, even if it does tear apart like cotton candy from a midway barbecue stand. It’s torn in shreds so random in size, density and toasted skin that it looks like calculated chaos, built to make sure you could reconstruct the animal in miniature on your tray. Whatever parts were left over could go into the built-for-barbecue pork-and-beef sausage made for Franklin by the Texas Sausage Co. in Austin. A full link assures that you get the compact snap that releases a torrent of fat, heat and pepper.
Franklin lets you order by the plate or the pound, the best kind of bridge between old and new barbecue culture. A two-meat plate with two sides is $13. Brisket is $16/pound, pork ribs $14, pulled pork $13 and sausage $10.
I shared a table with a group of six young Austinites who treated their trip to Franklin with the same open-minded wonder of the barbecue tour of Shiner and Luling and Lockhart they’d taken the week before. In-town tourism is forever the most noble kind of tourism.
And just like in a tourist town, an enterprising Franklinette walked the line selling Shiner by the can, Big Red by the bottle and little bottles of cane-sugar Dr Pepper. It’s not from Dublin anymore, but not everything we love lasts forever. Better to get in line while you can.
Two sides: With all that attention on the meat, you can forgive Franklin for its simple lineup of slaw, beans and potato salad at $1.35 a serving. But forgiveness isn’t an issue with the purple, green and white cole slaw, because a little bright, crispy cabbage in a tangy dressing goes a long way toward clearing the palate between barbecue courses. Mustard potato salad is strictly a prop to balance the cutting-board photo. Just one bite to make sure it’s real, because I’m saving all my love for ‘cue.
Dessert: Because it’s important for a barbecue place to know its strengths, Franklin outsources its pie to Melissa Brinckmann’s Cake and Spoon of Austin. A miniature key lime pie ($4) has just the right tart, acidic citrus finish to remind you that this is a city-kid operation just a few years old and not an old-timer’s joint where you have to pretend you don’t like dessert unless it’s tan. I’d like it even better if the graham cracker crust-to-custard ratio were 1-to-2 instead of the other way around.
Sauce: He’s been celebrated for smoke, but Aaron Franklin’s four sauces could cover up all kinds of mistakes if they had to. Sweet, hot, pork and espresso. That last one — born of the trailer’s early days next to the coffee seller Owl Tree Roasting — is as much a reason to come here as the brisket, bringing an otherworld coffee smoke of its own in a red sauce as strong as a double shot.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)