If you love meat... If you love barbecue... If you can think of no greater pleasure than sinking your teeth into thick slices of smoky, tender and fat-ribboned brisket, then Austin, Texas is the place for you.
Aussies might think they love their barbecue, but Texans have a fervour that is indescribable. It's not enough to slap a steak on a gas-fuelled hotplate. Here you'll find an unparalleled level of passion that runs from the perfect blend of dry rub ingredients, to the type of wood used to fuel your smoker, to the times and temperatures it takes to get the perfect barbecued protein. And then there are the barbecue sauces, homemade to secret recipes with more of a vinegary tang than the sweet fruity ones we get in Australia.
We'd eaten enough doughnuts and Mexican in LA. We were ready for meat and determined to find the best barbecue in Austin, Texas.
The queue at Franklin Barbecue at 8.15am - the restaurant opens at 11am!
Mention Austin to most people, and Franklin Barbecue is often high on the must-eat list. Aaron Franklin might have only started serving bbq meats out of a trailer in December 2009, but less than two years later, Bon Appetit magazine pronounced Franklin Barbecue the Best BBQ Restaurant in America.
Franklin Barbecue has such a massive following that its queues are the stuff of legend, trailing around the block by the time the doors open at 11am. There's only a limited quantity of barbecue available each day, with a "sold out" sign invariably being posted by 1.30pm.
We are determined not to miss out and arrive at an insanely early 8.15am to find just two people ahead of us in the queue.
Chairs for hire US$5
Across the road is an entrepreneurial local offering chair rentals. Suze makes no hesitation in heading over and getting chairs for all of us. It is totally worth it. Those chairs make the three hour wait infinitely more bearable.
9.45am: 60 people in the queue - spot Suze and Lex snoozing!
Time ticks slowly and at 9.45am I wander down and count 60 people in the queue. It had been cool in the morning, but the sun starts to crank up around 10am.
10.45am: 150 people in the queue
At 10.45am, we turn around to find a staggering 150 people in the queue. The temperature is tipping 34C by this point. It is crazy hot and the sun beats down mercilessly on the crowd.
Temperature that morning: 34C. It was hot!
Most people come prepared with foldable chairs and umbrellas. There's a broad mix of people, but uni students seem to make up the majority. Franklin Barbecue staff occasionally wander down the queue selling cans of beer or soft drink. They've even installed misters along the restaurant wall, so those who queue early get the benefit of shade and cool sprays of water.
The original trailer in the parking lot out the back
If you wander down the back, you can also check out the original trailer where Franklin Barbecue first started.
Franklin Barbecue menu
At 11am, the doors finally open. Despite an urge to run forth, everyone politely shuffles forward into the restaurant and queues at the service counter. You can choose to have your meat in a sandwich, but most people seem to prefer their bbq meat on a plate or by the pound.
Weighing up the meats
The brisket is sliced to order, big fat slices carved off a whole slab and placed on a scale for weighing. Mounds of pulled pork or shredded turkey are dunked in the pan juices for extra succulence.
Brisket on the scales
I'm blaming the fact we skipped breakfast, plus the anticipation of waiting three hours for brunch that leads us to order a ridiculous 2.5kg of meat between three people.
Oh yes we did.
US$83 of barbecue goodness: brisket, ribs, turkey, pulled pork, sausage, pinto beans, slaw, bread, onions and pickles
We have enough meat here to feed a small village. There are no plates. Just a motherlode of protein piled onto a plastic tray and a couple of forks stabbed into the brisket.
Two pounds of brisket US$32
At Franklin they use very dry Post Oak to fuel their smokers, chosen for its low level of soot and mild smokiness. The brisket is slow-cooked at 120C-130C for 18 hours. There's a magnificent black char to the surface, and the meat - especially the fatty pieces - are carnivorously satisfying.
2.3 pounds of pork ribs US$32.20
We hoe into a springy smoked sausage, pulled pork, pork ribs, turkey (impressively juicy), and sides of slaw and pinto beans studded with bacon. It's a fingers only affair. Who can be bothered with cutlery when faced with this much meat?
Pork rib meat falling off the bone
The pork ribs are a treat, the meat falling clean off the bone with the gentlest of tugs. Pickles and raw onion provide some palate relief but it's not long before we all start breaking out in the meat sweats. Big time.
Pecan pie, lemon chess pie, key lime pie, bourbon banana pie US$4 each
But hey, that doesn't stop us ordering dessert! We order one of everything, a collection of pies and tarts that help everything go down. The bourbon banana pie is my least favourite, but I'm loving the zing of the key lime pie and the tang in the cornmeal-sprinkled lemon chess pie. We also start to notice that pecan pie is on every dessert menu in Austin.
The other amusing anecdote? I'm wearing my Franklin Barbecue t-shirt in New York city and after striking up a conversation with a local, he reveals himself as an Austin-ite. "That's funny you're wearing a Franklin t-shirt," he says. "Noone from Austin eats at Franklin. The only people who eat there are uni students, hipsters and tourists." Touche.
We have just three days in Austin, but we hit the ground running - or should I say rolling? We are determined to eat as much meat as we can but it is HOT in Austin. Temperatures are averaging 34C - not really conducive to heavy meat-fests, but we still manage to hit up five different barbecue joints all over town.
1/4 pound all natural brisket sandwich US$6.95
The restaurant is small and cosy, housed in a rustic building that dates back to 1869. The brisket is one of their specialties, slow cooked for 12-24 hours using "all natural" beef that is hormone- and steroid-free.
The brisket sandwich comes in a soft bun, stuffed with smoky shards of tender beef. The beef they use is leaner than most other bbq joints, but there's some tasty spicy rub and smokiness going on here.
Pork rib and pulled pork 1/2 pound combo plate US$14.95
with collard greens, corn on the cob, bread, pickles and onions
We also dig into the two-meat combo plate. The ribs are a little on the dry side, but we're guessing that's because we're eating at dinner time when most of the meats were finished that morning. For your best guarantee of freshly barbecued meat, it's best to schedule your visit for lunchtime.
And you can't beat pulled pork on fluffy white bread, especially with an extra slosh of barbecue sauce over the top. Vegetables are pretty rare around these parts, so corn on the cob and a serve of collard greens are a welcome novelty.
We move straight from Ruby's BBQ to The Green Mesquite, "horrifying vegetarians since 1988" as proudly proclaimed above the door.
Booth seats and neon lighting at Green Mesquite
It ain't fancy, but I love how the door creaks open when we enter and the way that staff banter playfully with locals. There are booth seats, black-and-white linoleum on the floor and mounted neon signs for Bud Light and Texas barbecue on a massive outline of a steer. Dozens of vintage framed photos line the wood-panelled walls.
Root beer float US$4.59 vs a US pint of local beer
They've got local beers on tap but I order the root beer float, and we can't help but chortle when it arrives in a massive tumbler that looks about 800ml. I only manage to get through about half of it by the end of the night too.
Three meat bbq plate: ribs, brisket and smoked wings with potato salad and slaw US$11.69
Second dinner is a three meat barbecue plate. At Green Mesquite, they use - yep you guessed it - green mesquite wood to fuel their smokers. The menu has all the usual barbecue offerings, but owner Tom Davis makes no apologies for all the other additions, stuff he likes to eat like Texas-style jambalaya, pulled pork tacos, chicken fried steak and frito pie, a Southern US specialty of chilli con carne, cheese and corn chips baked in a casserole dish.
Smoked chicken wings
The smoked chicken wings are a specialty here, marinated in a mix of melted margarine, brown sugar, chilli sauce and Indiana hot sauce then smoked for one hour at 95C. The wings are then deep-fried for 90 seconds and covered in more sauce. They're not overly smoky but they have a lush tenderness with a sticky sweet and spicy sauce.
Brisket and ribs
We're also into the brisket and ribs. The ribs are terrific, flavoured with a dry rub made from brown sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne and paprika. The ribs are smoked at 95C for 4.5 to 5 hours, and almost sweet with smokiness.
Pecan pie US$3.25
For dessert we're into the pecan pie. This is one of my favourites of the many pecan pies we'll eat in Austin, with a filling that is rich and sticky covered with a crackly layer of browned pecans on top. The pastry is also great.
Green Mesquite was featured in the 2009 Smoking' BBQ episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Check out Guy Fieri's tour of the kitchen in the clip below.
The Salt Lick
Open barbecue pit in the kitchen at Salt Lick
If you're a fan of Man vs Food (and let's be honest, who isn't?) you'll recognise The Salt Lick from season one where host Adam Richman requested a private moment after sampling the brisket.
The open pit barbecue is the biggest drawcard here, an eye-catching spectacular on full display in the kitchen.
Ribs, sausages and brisket on the open barbecue pit
They use a heavy oak here to fuel the fire, with buckets of wet pecan shells on-hand to calm down the flames if required. The meats are basted with a wet sauce containing 32 spices.
View into the open kitchen
It's a thirty minute drive from downtown Austin to Driftwood, where the Salt Lick sits on a sprawling ranch. Outside there are picnic tables and a musician. You can order your food takeaway and eat at the tables outside, downed with a bucket of beers from the on-site cellar and souvenir shop.
When we turn up on a Wednesday night at 8.30pm, we're told there'll be a one hour wait and are given a buzzer to let us know when the table will be ready. There are hundreds of people here (the carpark is massive) but it does feel a little touristy and commercialised.
Beef ribs and basting sauce
The open pit provides some entertainment during the long wait, and it's always interesting to watch the kitchen in full flight. Two chefs do most of the chopping, with younger staff in charge of sorting out the breads and salads.
Barbecue meats and salads ready to go on the pass
Salt Lick dining room
By the time we get into the dining room at 9.30pm, the place is starting to clear out. There are plenty of large groups, especially families with kids. Our server is a picture of well-rehearsed - but still genuine - hospitality.
Pork rib and sausage combo plate with potato salad, coleslaw and beans US$13.95
You can order a family-style buffet of all-you-can-eat beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw and beans for US$19.95 per person, but we've learnt our lesson by now and stick with the combo plates.
Brisket and sausage combo plate with potato salad, coleslaw and beans US$13.95
The brisket is sadly more than a little dry by this time of night, and missing the layer of fat we'd come to relish. The sausages fare much better, plump and juicy with a smokiness throughout.
Pork rib and brisket combo plate with potato salad, coleslaw and beans US$13.95
The pork ribs are also tasty, with a marinade that has caramelised to a sticky glaze across the top.
Whole pecan pies US$19.95 takeaway
There are blackberry and peach cobblers on the menu, but we've learnt you can't have Texas barbecue without finishing on a wedge of pecan pie for dessert.
Homemade pecan pie US$4.95
The pecan pie filling is soft and extra sweet here, but nothing that a scoop of ice cream can't rectify.
Ok so I've saved the best for last. Our hands-down favourite barbecue joint in Austin had to be La Barbecue. The photo above is you all need for proof, but ok, let's run through everything anyway.
La Barbecue Cuisine Texicana barbecue trailer
It's a stinking hot day when we turn up to the parking lot that houses La Barbecue. The mercury is tipping a stifling 35C and there's not a breeze to be felt in the dry shimmering heat.
Free beer keg
So the free beer keg at La Barbecue is the first thing that will get you smiling with relief. There's a tip jar on the table alongside the plastic cups, but we love the community spirit that comes with a pour-your-own draught beer for customers.
Slicing up brisket
Stroll up to the La Barbecue trailer and your server will slice your meat of choice from the brown paper menu taped out the front.
Check out the fat on that brisket, baby!
We only have eyes for the brisket, because HELLO is there a sexier brisket is this world? I think not. If there were centrefolds in food magazines, this brisket would be pinned up in bedrooms of carnivores everywhere.
Sliced brisket sandwich US$7.99
Slap that fatty brisket between two halves of a fluffy glazed bun and you've got yourself a hot date with a guaranteed happy ending.
Chopped brisket sandwich US7.99
If you prefer things extra saucy, the chopped brisket sandwich is a mash-up of brisket carvings in a bun that will require you to dislocate your jaw to bite into it.
Outdoor picnic tables
We've arrived for a late lunch so miss the usual crowds that line up from 11am. It does mean that many items are sold out - we're particularly sad about being denied beef short ribs and their homemade hand-minced sausages - but we do have our choice of tables in the oppressive heat.
Sliced brisket sandwich US$7.99 with slaw US$1.99
Like most good barbecue joints, La Barbecue offers its own homemade barbecue sauces, two variations helpfully labelled "sweet" and "tangy". They're an essential seasoning when it comes to barbecue in Austin, and far removed from the thick, viscous and fruity brown barbecue sauces we're used to in Australia.
Chopped brisket sandwich US$7.99 with slaw US$1.99
Slaw is another essential component when it comes to barbecue, a necessary contrast of crunch and acidity for the gluttony of meats.
Fatty brisket! Come to momma!
But oh boy, that brisket sandwich. Hands down the best brisket we ate in all of the USA. Can you see the insane juiciness of that bad boy? The blackened crust imparts a dense smokiness and the flesh is so tender and fatty it's like eating wagyu. They use prime grade Black Angus beef brisket here and you can tell with every succulent juice-dripping mouthful. Thick layers of melting fat will give you shivers down your spine. This is ultimate sensory overload - cholesterol be damned.
Peeking inside the trailer containing the smokers
We're admiring the two on-site smoker trailers when La Barbecue owner and pitmaster John Lewis spots us and offers us an impromptu tour. Score!
Pork shoulders being smoked for pulled pork
Lewis has plenty of barbecue pedigree. He worked at Franklin Barbecue for 2.5 years before leaving to apprentice under John Mueller, grandson of Texas barbecue legend Louie Mueller, at JMuellerBBQ. What happened next is the stuff of soap operas. Sister LeAnn Mueller kicked out her brother from the business after a public spat and installed Lewis as the new pitmaster of what would be renamed La Barbecue.
Whole sides of beef brisket in the smoker
But really all we're obsessed with right now is the magnificent view of meats in Lewis' homemade smoker, an offset convection cooker that uses a firebox situated at one end of the pit. The pit took Lewis three months to build from scratch, designed to maximise the draw of smoke during the cooking process.
He happily opens the lid of each one to show us the beef briskets, pork shoulders and homemade sausages smoking quietly in each one. He even turns on a ventilation fan so the smoke clears for a better view.
John Lewis, pit boss and owner of La Barbecue
John Lewis. We salute you. And if you're looking for the best barbecue brisket in Texas, you know where to go.
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1502 S 1st Street, Austin, Texas, USA
Tel: +1 (512) 605 9696
Wednesday to Sunday 11am until sold out
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900 E11th Street, Austin, Texas, USA
Tel: +1 (512) 653 1187
Tuesday to Sunday 11am - 2pm (usually sells out earlier)
Closed on Mondays
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512 West 29th Street, Austin, Texas, USA
Tel: +1 (512) 477 1651
Sunday to Thursday 11am - 11pm
Friday and Saturday 11am - 12 midnight
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The Green Mesquite BBQ
1400 Barton Springs Road, Austin, Texas, USA
Tel: +1 (512) 479 0485
Sunday to Thursday 11am - 10pm
Friday and Saturday 11am - 11pm
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The Salt Lick
18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, Texas, USA
Tel: +1 (512) 858 4959
Monday to Sunday 11am - 10pm
>> Read the next USA 2013 post: Bacon donut + chicken fried steak, Austin
<< Read the first USA 2013 post: Cronuts at Dominique Ansel Bakery, NYC
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8/12/2013 02:40:00 am