The Texas BBQ landscape changes more often than you might think, but it’s rare that a serious contender appears on the map overnight. In fact, if our Manic crew hadn’t turned to some local Texas blogs while planning our third annual trip, we would never have heard of Franklin Barbecue. The place, which is really just two trailers and some chairs in a former gas station parking lot, didn’t even exist two years ago.
Enter the Full Custom Gospel BBQ Blog. Naturally, the blogs are updated a lot more frequently than the “quinquennial” Texas Monthly Top 50 rankings. And the Full Custom guys had recently given Aaron and Stacy Franklin’s joint their only six-star review, ever.
That accolade was and is well-deserved: Franklin Barbecue simply serves the best barbecue in the city of Austin, a town so spoiled by the smoked offerings of the surrounding country that barely anyone within the city limits even tries to cook decent barbecue anymore. Franklin is one of two new contenders—the other being Old School BBQ and Grill—who are trying to counteract the dearth of great Q in the city.
Despite its urban location, Franklin shares something with the rarest, most elusive beasts of rural barbecue legend: it’s one of those places that only stays open until the meat sells out. One almost-nearby example of a get-there-before-close joint would be Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, TX, the #1-ranked Texas joint that Franklin may ever-so-quietly be trying to unseat.
Though Franklin’s staff tends the pits around the clock, the trailer opens to the public at 11am and closes whenever. The Manic crew arrived around 11:50 on a Friday morning and, after two more people got in line behind our group, the gate to the parking lot was drawn closed and the sold-out sign put on display.
Once the gate was closed, we waited a nerve-wracking half hour while the men in the trailer, led by proprietor Aaron Franklin, doled out the remaining meat to the handful of would-be patrons still waiting around. We were nervous, but the two local guys behind us seemed a bit more relaxed. If you make it into the lot before the gate closes, that must be a good sign.
For the remaining patrons, the menu was set by committee. Franklin called out to the small crowd to see if there were any special requests. “Are you looking for poundage,” he asked. It turned out we were the only lunchers seeking large amounts of meat (go figure). The handful of individuals before and after us in line received sandwiches that used up the last of the hot links (damn).
Franklin himself, seeming somewhat apologetic that we weren’t getting the best of what his shop had to offer, riffled and ruffled through a giant pile of grease-soaked butcher paper, looking for serviceable ends of brisket and pork. “It’s gonna be some hodge-podgin’ through this massive lump of meat,” he said almost dejectedly. But the hodgepodge he served us was worthy of barbecue champions.
Franklin’s brisket has a thick, heavy bark of caramelized fat and black pepper that pairs almost unfathomably well with the joint’s trademark espresso BBQ sauce. That sauce manages to be both sweet and vinegary without an overpowering coffee taste. But, more importantly, it doesn’t overpower the smoky flavor of the brisket. Thinking back to our first bites, it’s no surprise that Man Up Texas BBQ voters just named Franklin’s brisket the best in Texas (though we think that Snow’s could still lay claim to that honor).
Franklin’s pork is just as good as the brisket: huge chunks of shoulder smoked to perfection, Texas-style. Just like the brisket, the pork bears Franklin’s trademark peppercorn crust, albeit with a bit of a lighter touch. As all pork does, Franklin’s paired perfectly with the most vinegary of his sauces.
Sensing that the nerds with cameras were from out of town, Aaron Franklin came over to chat with us. Apparently, Franklin’s parents had owned a BBQ joint in the “[awful] town about an hour from here” where he grew up. He wouldn’t tell us the name of the town, though we guessed every one we could. It turned out, unsurprisingly, that he had been everywhere on the BBQ map where we’d been. He gave us some suggestions for stuff to do about town, then returned to the trailer to clean up.
After we checked out the gas-station-turned-coffee roastery next-door, the Franklin guys made us a gift intended to keep us well-fed during our travels: a plastic container stuffed with all the pork left over that day. Once again, Texas hospitality at its finest.
Side note: the take-out pork paired disturbingly well with the Lone Star in our hotel microfridge much later that night.
Franklin has since moved from the gas station parking lot to a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 900 E. 11th Street. We’ll be sure to check them out again when we return to Austin in December for our 4th Annual Central Texas Barbecue Tour.
Essay by Rob Bellinger
Photos by Rob Bellinger & Dan Meade
Date of visit: 12/10/2010
Date of publication: 2/13/2011