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Franklin BBQ serves 'Crazy' good brisket


As I finished the last of the brisket I brought home from Franklin BBQ in Austin, I found myself wonderin'.

As in, "wonderin' - what in the world did I do" to deserve the best fatty brisket on the planet.

The short answer is I waited more than four hours in line on a rainy Saturday in October. What I got for my four hours was barbecue as perfect as has ever been pulled from a fiery pit filled with wood embers, and a blog post that took me more than a month to finish.

A fitting result considering Franklin uses old-school methods to make art of something new-school media has made a star.

Before that long wait, I emailed Franklin's an order for a whole chilled brisket and asked for advice on when to arrive at the hottest barbecue joint in the world.

"I know it sounds crazy," the return email stated, "But you'd be best off arriving between 7:30 and 8 a.m."

Crazy it wasn't. I woke up at my sister's house near Buda, closer to the most-recent new “people’s champion” of Texas Hill Country barbecue, The Salt Lick, than Franklin's. A steady rain gave me confidence the line might not form as early. Ill-conceived confidence, as it turns out.

But I didn't know that yet. I learned neither a heavy downpour with unseasonably chilly temperatures nor an 11 a.m. Red River Rivalry kickoff would stop a couple hundred people from showing up at or before 8 a.m. to the doorstep of Franklin BBQ, 900 E 11th St. The line for Franklin's pitch-perfect barbecue shrinks for no man or football game. Even the President of the United States had to pay a toll to jump the line at Franklin's.

So there I sat on my empty Igloo cooler, 40 pages into an 800-page book about Theodore Roosevelt written by a known Texas Aggie in the heart of Longhorn country, beneath a recently added roof extension to cover the area where folks lined up six days a week. The aquamarine-and-white building is equal parts lake marina and old-school barbecue joint, but the crowd was as diverse as the bands playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival that weekend. A couple of guys in front of me were from Boston, making friends with a married couple from Dallas. They shared beer during breakfast hours and spoke with anticipation about the impending gustatory nirvana. The smoking oak aroma was impossible to escape, which made it all the more amazing that I heard nary a peep of complaint in a four-hour slog to the salt lick inside.

As the rain fell and 60 pages flew by, I tried to maintain a positive attitude. It's been more common than not, in my experience, to find a place unable to live up to its hype. By the time a restaurant gets as popular as Franklin BBQ, demand has ravaged the supply so violently compromise becomes necessary. The sublime slips to excellence, in sad cases mediocrity, and we forgive it because we've all lived in a free-market long enough to understand art isn't as convenient for profit as well-crafted commodity.

But the fact folks willfully chose to tail-gate Franklin’s opening over an actual football game of some legend going on in Dallas, and a tour bus dropped off a group to buy T-shirts did instill me with unwanted hope. I know I’m a romantic, but that just means I get let down a lot.

From ground level, we crisscrossed up the stairs at a pace that would've made a hare-racing tortoise blush. Noon passed and it occurred to me the OU-Texas game wasn't being broadcast at Franklin's and nobody cared. The canned old-time country music piped through the sound system and the promise of perfection was enough.

Once inside, tables topped with pornographically titillating beef ribs, German sausage links and brisket cloaked in coal-black bark was almost more than I could handle. Thank goodness there was a rack of T-shirts to distract me a few minutes or I might've stage-dove over the partition between me and those lucky enough to have their faces buried in beef and Shiner Bock.

At last I made it to the counter where meat is cut to order. The friendly, knife-wielding attendant pulled a fresh, black brisket from a warmer and gently pushed his blade through the short corner of the brisket - once, twice, three times. Then a half pound or so of this magnificent meat wept its sweet moisture from the top of its pink smoke ring to bottom, quivering as it was placed between a split bun, wrapped up tight and handed over the counter.

Packed into a bag with an equally sexy pulled pork sandwich, the half-hour drive home felt like half a year. Nearly five hours since my barbecue fandango began, I sat at my sister's kitchen counter with a mouthful of fatty brisket, all I could think about was music.

Perhaps it was because I'd spent three days listening to fantastic music at ACL or because I had a six-hour drive ahead and needed a new playlist, or maybe it was because the hair on the back of my neck was standing up the way it did the first time I listened to The Who's "Live at Leeds."

The sliced brisket sandwich was melody, the pulled pork harmony. Each sandwich was ready, willing and able to compel me to talk dirty to it, leaving me helpless not to comply for fear the flavor was as fickle as the heart of the one who got away.

I looked at my son, who was struck dumb but not stupid enough to stop chewing.

We talked about that brisket a lot on the way home. We talked about it and the chilled brisket packed inside the Igloo with a bag of ice. When I got home, I carefully brought the chilled brisket up to temperature and shared it with chef John Bennett and barbecue pit-master Russ "The Smokin' Okie" Garrett. If the brisket at Franklin's was a 12 on a scale of 1 to 10, the chilled version was a 10.5.

As Russ studied over the brisket, at one point draping a thick slice over his finger to see if it would break - it didn't. After a bite, he calmly conceded, "This is WOW brisket.”

And that got me thinking about music again. What kind of music is brisket? Not just the category of barbecue, I wasn't interested in that broad a stroke to paint this picture. To understand why well-adjusted, no more emotionally scarred or anti-depressant-dependent folks than usual will wait as long as five hours outside a barbecue joint in East Austin for lunch six days a week with the very real chance they won't get fed at all, you must understand pit-smoked brisket is the barbecue gold-standard of the Texas Hill Country.

Others have waxed more poetic and thoroughly than I on the subject. All I can add is, I grew up with barbecue brisket as part of my weekly life from 1976 to 1989. I was shocked to learn anyone ever put any other cut of meat into an oak- or hickory-fueled pit because, well, brisket was it. But life away from the Texas Hill Country taught me the virtues of using that same device to metamorphose a pig into country culinaria.

And that's what made me realize brisket's musical doppelganger was obviously country music. There are obvious geographical and cultural connections, but life has also taught me the public views brisket as skeptically as it does country music. That's not to say country music doesn't have an enormous following. It does. So does brisket. But neither country music nor brisket are first in popularity among music or barbecue fans. In fact, each draws criticism more quickly, acceptance by the masses only comes to the absolute best and impossible to impugn in quality of expression. Pork ribs are rock and roll, accepted almost universally. Brisket is country and western, loved by millions, reviled by just as many - perhaps more.

That is until you get it right. No, perfect.

Brisket is a tough, ornery hunk of meat fraught with peril for those who try to cook it. There is far more bad than good. But when you get it right, it's magic. When you get it right six days a week for five years it's a miracle - not too different from a respected songwriter with a middling career as a singer getting a demo to the grand dame of country music only to have her initially hate the song before recording it so memorably that Rolling Stone magazine (notably uncountry) eventually lists it as the 85th greatest song in the history of recorded music.

Franklin's brisket-breaking skills deliver Patsy Cline singing Willie Nelson's iconic "Crazy" to your palate - lovely, intoxicating, haunting and instantaneously classic.

One bite is a gasp, two bites a toe-curl and beyond that romantic notions of a society in which art is traded for services, hunger is nonexistent, politics are moot, propaganda as news doesn't sell, football rivalries don't turn adults into bratty six-year-olds, and Aaron Franklin caters the last peace summit the Middle East ever needs.

Franklin is a blacksmith in a barbecue world full of steel mills, using prime beef plenty of salt and pepper, wood, fire and patience. His Franklin BBQ restaurant is a slow, smooth oasis for a culture willingly gripped by an ever-tightening, immediate-gratification vice.

Technology isn't the enemy. Without it, you wouldn't be able to watch Patsy Cline singing "Crazy" in her heyday. Technology allows me to write this overly romantic treatise on barbecue for the English-speaking world to read. Technology allows Franklin to be known far and wide with minimal effort so his barbecue endeavors remain without compromise.

Franklin BBQ inspired me to take the time I needed to express my impressions of the experience. It inspired me to reassess how I approach my trade. Franklin puts quality before anything when it comes to barbecue, including profit and growth. He doesn't work for free, but he doesn't work for money. He works for the pleasure of his customers, all of them.

In this excellent Texas Monthly article about Franklin’s background in barbecue, he says, “…I'll look out the window and see the line down the parking lot, starting to go up the street. You know those people are going to wait three hours. You can't serve them crappy or even something below -- well, it's got to be the best thing ever.”

Crazy notion, huh?


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Dave Cathey

The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene. Read more ›