BBQ City Limits update: Franklin Barbecue

An ongoing series of barbecue reports from Austin. Not Llano, not Lockhart, not Taylor. Austin.
Franklin Barbecue
900 E. 11th St. 512-653-1187,
Hours: 11am until sold out (around 1:30 pm) Tue-Sun. Closed Mon.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 03.12.13

There’s nothing like standing in the long, static queue at Franklin Barbecue to make you appreciate what a misanthrope you’ve become. Yes, I’m talking about you, guy who let all his friends cut in line five minutes before 11. And you, nonstop Kardashian girls who said “like” seven times in a 12-word sentence. And especially you, sweatsuit guy who parked in the handicapped spot bisecting the line then hopped out and stood in that line for two hours. A got-damn barbecue miracle.
A staffer walked the line selling beer and Big Red; another asked how much meat we planned to order. The line swelled toward 200 before the meat surveyor hit the sellout number and broke the bad news to the outlanders, who blew away like dandelions. It’s all very much like being stuck in traffic, where every unsignaled lane change is a sign of What’s Wrong With Society Today.
The passive-aggressive hours become factors in an equation that measures the relative values of smoked meat and your self-worth against the Franklin Barbecue Experience. F=mc2. Franklin equals Me times ‘Cue squared.
My lesson began at 9:36 and ended at 12:10, when Aaron Franklin started slicing my order. He apologized for the fatty brisket being so ... fatty ... and threw in a few more slices to make up for it. Even as he worked the cutting board solo, Franklin found time to turn the experience of the first-time brisketeer ahead of me into a rite of passage, passing over a burnt end and cutting into a heel piece for the maximum fat, lean and crust experience. Aaron Franklin is a people person, and that makes him a better barbecue person. That was true when he opened his trailer in 2009, then moved to 11th Street in 2011. And it’s still true after Bourdain and Bon Appetit and “BBQ Pitmasters.”
The Franklin factor and the variables of the line were there in full effect last week. But the meat didn’t hold up its end of the equation. Barbecue that has always been tight and etched with paleolithic bark and forged in smoke like Spanish leather had gone soft, like it had come from a steamer pan instead of a pit. The brisket was one consistency, with no difference aside from color to differentiate the bark from the fat from the lean. All of it soft, all of it loosely fibered like Sunday dinner-table chuck, with only the rosy edges to speak for its time in the smoke.
I had to cradle the pork ribs to keep the bones from falling through my fingers like a folded Confederate uniform left in a chest all these years, only to fall into gray decay in the sunlight. The meat itself had more integrity than the quicksilver mass of the whole would have suggested, with gradients of pink and white in firm relief. But the smoke lay in recess, its presence drawn primarily from the smoky incense of the restaurant itself. Blindfolded, I would have said these came from a crockpot.
The qualities that worked against pork ribs played to the strengths of pulled pork, its willowy mass suited for a tangle of floss incorporating shards of lean and ribbons of blackened crust. Even though they outsource its manufacture, Franklin’s sausage is an event. Each link was smoked close to bursting, held in check by a thick casing that held its bubble-gum edge until that last moment before you give up chewing. The dense scrapple of beef and pork was shot through with pepper for a proper hot finish.
Chopped brisket is never the full measure of a barbecue place. But if Franklin sold nothing more than the sandwich it calls the Tipsy Texan ($8), it could still do solid business. Brisket forms the base, chopped with sweet barbecue sauce in a heaving mass that threatens to swamp its white picnic bun. It’s layered with sliced sausage, then piled to a full six inches tall with coleslaw if you want it. And you do, along with pickles and onions, for a combo plate on a bun, my favorite barbecue sandwich in Austin since J.R.’s Texas Style Barbeque closed last year.
All these factors play into the meaty part of the Franklin equation. In the absence of consistently great barbecue, it’s harder to balance. One variable that’s changed since last year is the departure of John Lewis, the pitman who’d been with Franklin since the trailer days. Lewis is cooking brisket, ribs and pulled pork at LeAnn Mueller’s La Barbecue trailer on South First, and the similarities are striking, right down to the table sauce. An alternate theory in the works. Because math is ... complicated.
Prices: Brisket is $16/pound, pork ribs $14, pulled pork and turkey $13. Sausage is $2 a link. Plates are $8-$13 with two sides.
On the side: Not that you need them but they’re around if you want them, Franklin sells mustard potato salad, purple and green cabbage slaw and beans as side dishes for $1.25. The potato salad is just picnic blandishment; the coleslaw is crisp and bright with fleeting sweetness and spice. But the beans are a place to turn when the brisket has a bad day, because when it’s tossed in and bubbled with brown pinto gravy, brisket never has a bad day.
Dessert: There’s something about banana pudding that makes it barbecue’s perfect partner. The same could be said for bourbon. Put the two together, and you have creamy bourbon-banana pie with sweet graham cracker crust from the Austin piemaker Cake & Spoon ($4).
Sauce: You can buy it at the grocery store now. $3.79 for a 12-ounce bottle of espresso sauce, a Franklin original born from all the all-nighters it took to become an overnight success. It’s as deep dusky bronze as a swirled ristretto with lump sugar and a finish like reduced Worcestershire. Franklin’s sweet sauce folds in chili spices among the black pepper and sweet tomato vinegar.
Mike Sutter’s BBQ City Limits
(TOP: Clockwise from top left: Moist and lean brisket; sausage, espresso barbecue sauce, sweet sauce, pulled pork, bourbon-banana pie, pork ribs, beans, coleslaw. FIRST INSET: The Tipsy Texan sandwich with chopped brisket, sliced sausage and coleslaw; from this spot in line, barbecue is another 55 minutes away. SECOND INSET: The dining room seats about 45, and there are picnic tables on a side porch. The Austin brewer Thirsty Planet makes a porter using grain smoked at Franklin. The sign shows co-owners Stacy and Aaron Franklin. Aaron Franklin works the cutting board. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)