The cult of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go 900 E. 11th St., Austin Hours: 11 a.m. until the food runs out Tuesday-Sunday 512-653-1187; franklinbarbecue.com Twitter: @FranklinBbq Tips Our trip for four to Franklin, which included Star-Telegram Rangers beat writer Jeff Wilson, began with us arriving in line at 8:43 a.m. By the time we exited with full bellies, it was 12:30 p.m. Here is what we learned: DO • Bring chairs. You’re going to wait. That’s part of it. Comfort is key. • Dress appropriately. You might even want to bring a change of clothes. The weather can change a lot in three hours. • Try all the food. Among the four of us, we tried the ribs, brisket and sausage. We skipped the pulled pork and turkey. The specialty is the brisket. And it certainly is special. There are two kinds: lean and moist. I went lean because I’m not a fan of any fat. Wilson went moist. Neither of us was disappointed. • Mix in a side dish. The beans were a big hit. Why? They have brisket in them. You can’t beat beans with meat. There’s also coleslaw and potato salad. DON’T • Eat a big breakfast. We made that mistake with an early-morning run to Torchy’s Tacos. Good tacos for sure, but it may have taken away from the experience because we weren’t 100 percent hungry by the time we ordered. • Get your hopes up just because you have entered the restaurant. We got inside at 11:30 a.m. but didn’t order our food for another 30 minutes. You have to be patient. And your patience will be rewarded. • Order pies. Sure they’re good and all. Wilson’s wife, Jenny, ordered Key lime pie and my wife, Diana, ordered a pecan pie. But pie cuts into your room for brisket.

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Going to lunch at 8:45 a.m. makes almost no sense.

Getting to the lunch spot and finding out that you’re about the 40th person in line makes even less sense.

That’s until you actually get to eat lunch at Franklin Barbecue, arguably the best barbecue spot in the state, country and world. Then the half-day spent waiting to sit down and eat for 30 minutes makes all the sense in the world. And the waiting is half the fun, as it has become almost as enjoyable as eating the barbecue.

Almost.

How good is it?

“The first time I tasted it, I had an existential crisis,” said Austin resident Jordan Maney, who showed up at 7:30 a.m. on a Friday. “It’s that good.”

It was good enough for Maney to make her third career trip to Franklin but not good enough for her to be first in line. She would have had to get to Franklin, located just southeast of the University of Texas campus, around 6 a.m. for that.

That’s when another Austin resident, Linda Chao, made her way to 900 E. 11th St. in the dark with her roommate.

Chao, who had never been to Franklin, had wanted to try the barbecue that Texas Monthly ranked as the best in the state and Bon Appetit considers one of the 20 most important restaurants in the country. So she got up at 5 a.m. and arrived at Franklin when it was pitch-black outside.

She came prepared with the necessities and nothing else. Chao had a jacket, a smart move in the cool November air. But that was it.

She had none of the other extras that many waiting in the long line that snakes down Branch Street and turns onto Juniper have.

They have come prepared. Many brought beverages that help kill time, most of the adult variety. Others have folding chairs, a must if your other option is to stand on the sloping street.

There’s a group with a folding picnic table and the necessary mimosas for the 9 a.m. wait. There’s another group sitting on the concrete, playing cards. Yet another group plays football.

All this before 10 a.m., an hour before Chao even can enter the restaurant.

‘Defies logic’

To owner Aaron Franklin, it’s all a little bit nuts. And awesome.

“It defies logic,” said Franklin, who at 35 has ascended to the throne as the barbecue guy in Texas. “I’m not really sure why they do it. Sure the food’s good. Is it that good? I don’t know. I think it’s something fun to do. I used to go do fun things.”

That was before Franklin became a brisket god.

Franklin grew up in College Station and graduated from A&M Consolidated High School. He moved to Austin along with Benji Jacob, who is now the general manager at Franklin.

About 10 years ago, he started cooking barbecue, which eventually led to a food trailer that they quickly outgrew. In March 2011, the restaurant opened at its current spot, and the rest is smoked-meat history.

Along the way, Franklin has been a judge on BBQ Pitmasters and the subject of a commercial for the Chase Sapphire credit card, which features celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa and is in heavy rotation on TV now (you’ve probably seen it during commercial breaks for Top Chef).

One look at Franklin and you can tell he’s not the commercial kind of guy. But he is a barbecue kind of guy, which led to the commercial.

“Normally I wouldn’t do that kind of thing, but it’s just a commercial,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ We needed a walk-in cooler pretty bad and now we have a walk-in cooler. We previously couldn’t hold food that would last for more than a few days, so that’s awesome.”

Franklin said one of his goals is to make barbecue more efficient so he can get it to his worshippers that much quicker.

But efficiency would detract from the line. And take away from the fun. And maybe hurt the local cab business, which routinely drops off out-of-towners outside the restaurant.

The chair man

And if there were no line, there might not be a need for Derek Kipe. Kipe is an enterprising Austinite who came up with an idea after standing in line twice last year waiting for a little bit of the brisket, ribs, sausage and turkey that everyone wants.

Why should those without the foresight to bring a chair be punished while others sit in comfort? That’s when he started renting chairs. For five bucks, you can rent a chair from Kipe when you get there and return it once you enter the Pearly Barbecue Gates.

Kipe said he’s outside Franklin every day but Monday (the only day the restaurant is closed). And while Kipe has tried the same approach at other venues with mixed success, that hasn’t been the case at Franklin, where he routinely rents out all 30 of his chairs on a busy Saturday.

“I’ve been doing this for about eight months,” said Kipe, who even has a Twitter feed, @ChairGuyATX. “It’s been pretty good. I won’t complain. Saturday’s probably the best day, but I’m here every day unless it’s raining.”

Franklin said he had no idea that Kipe was even outside selling chairs. But that doesn’t mean his company ignores those in line.

If you fail to bring refreshments or snacks, Franklin has you covered. Around 10:30 a.m., an employee brings around a metal tub of soft drinks, Shiner and other drinks.

If you’re not up for that, there’s a CVS Pharmacy right down the street.

Franklin appreciates the following his restaurant has garnered even if he doesn’t quite understand the dedication.

“It makes me nervous that they’re getting here before the food is ready,” he said. “I really don’t pay a lot of attention to it. We mainly stay in the back and just keep cooking and keep trying our best to make good barbecue.”

While foodies line up before the food is ready, they don’t line up before someone is at the restaurant. That’s because it would be impossible.

Franklin said there’s someone at the restaurant 24 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week. The only down time is Sunday evening. That’s a tall order for anyone, and despite the restaurant’s success, Franklin is usually there, too.

That may change eventually — his wife, Stacy, is pregnant, and as of press time, was due any day. But Franklin doubts it. One look at his schedule, and there’s little down time.

That’s because while cooking brisket that borders on a religious experience is great, it’s also time-consuming. And it’s not for those who don’t like to get a little dirty or smell like smoke.

Still small

Because while people from all over the country and the world go to Austin to try Franklin, it’s still a primitive operation.

“Right now everything’s on trailers back there,” said Franklin. “We just run around with five fires, run around in circles and try to keep the fire up. Hopefully here in a few months we’re building a second building. That will be our smokehouse and I can get all the smokers out of a trailer, so we’ll have a roof. That will be cool so we won’t get rained on, and we’ll be out of the wind and the direct sun.”

Putting in a second building might take something away from those who are in line on Juniper Street, which is closest to the smokers. At least if you can see the barbecue being made, you feel like there’s a chance you’ll get fed. But there are no guarantees for the late arrivers.

Once Franklin is out of meat, the restaurant closes. Franklin said he does his best to let those at the back of the line know where they stand.

An employee comes through the line asking what people plan to order, so the restaurant has an idea of how many people it can feed.

But even that’s only a guess. Different-size briskets yield different amounts of meat. And then there are those whose hunger grows while waiting in line.

“It’s as exact as it can be,” Franklin said. “We have a tally sheet of how many pounds we have and then we add a buffer on that. We tell people that ‘You’re the last guy for ribs’ and ‘You’re the last guy for brisket.’ The last guy for brisket is the last guy we’ll guarantee food.”

On a normal day, anyone in line by around noon has a good chance to get his hands on some brisket and sample one of the three sauces to go along with it — espresso, Texas-style or vinegar. The best guess is that the last diner gets food around 2:30 p.m.

That’s why people go to extreme measures to make sure they get their food. Austin resident John White has an ad on Craigslist letting people know that for $40 plus the price of food, he’ll get to Franklin early and stand in line for you. All you have to do is meet him after he gets the food and make the exchange.

While that may sound silly, White said he gets two or three takers a week and also orders his own food while he’s there.

There’s also a college student on Craigslist who is willing to stand in line for $10 an hour plus tips.

Again, that’s the kind of stuff that amazes the owner.

“This is a real commitment here,” Franklin said. “You’ve really got to be unemployed to hang out. You’ve just got to have a lawn chair and a six-pack.”

Chao had heard the stories about the lines, which is why she didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

“This was our first time and we’ve always heard there was such a long line,” said Chao, who was the first through the door at 11 a.m. and still eating at noon. “We just wanted to be here early so they don’t sell out. We didn’t think we’d be the first person.”

There are better days to try your luck at Franklin. Maney said that on Sundays she shows up after church and the line is usually short, giving her a chance to get food around 1 p.m. But on a busy Saturday, especially during college football season, there are no guarantees.

That’s why people get there early. And hope. And wait.

And is it worth it?

“Definitely; it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” Maney said. “Some things are worth the wait, and this is one of them.”

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