AUSTIN, Texas – Ranking barbecue joints feels an awful lot like ranking college football teams. Each ranking is purely subjective. Each ranking is based on potentially dubious criteria unique to the individual doing the ranking. Each ranking, in the grand scheme, is utterly meaningless. (Except in college football, where the convoluted system makes subjective, dubious rankings meaningful.) In the end, a few of you will read the rankings and click away smiling. Most of you will think I’m an idiot.
So it is with great trepidation that I make this announcement. We have a new barbecue national champion.Trust me, I understand the gravity of ranking Austin’s Franklin Barbecue ahead of previous national champs Sweatman’s (Holly Hill, S.C.) and Archibald’s (Northport, Ala.). I’ve abandoned the states of my birth and my mother’s birth and the sanctity of pork to embrace a bunch of Texas brisket-eaters. I realize that by doing this, some family members may no longer wish to speak to me. That’s OK. I’ve grown accustomed to being ostracized by my fellow Southerners. This same phenomenon takes place whenever I rank Boise State above an SEC power while doing my real job.
In my defense, all I can say is this: If you haven’t tasted Franklin’s brisket, you can’t possibly understand. There is a reason diners line up outside as many as two hours before Franklin opens at 11 a.m. There is a reason the place sometimes shuts down before the lunch hour ends at most companies, and it isn’t because Franklin serves honest-to-God brewed sweet tea in a region where sweet tea availability is hit-or-miss. The brisket is the reason.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m way behind on Franklin. Foodies have worshipped the place since pitmaster Aaron Franklin started his business in a trailer in 2009. Last month, Georgian Andrew Knowlton also turned his back on his roots and named Franklin the nation’s best barbecue joint in Bon Appétit. In Knowlton’s story, Franklin admits that his initial effort at brisket was “awfully terrible.” He also claims to only use salt and pepper to spice the meat before it embarks on an 18-hour smoke at 250-270 degrees.
The wait outside Franklin feels like 18 hours. When I spent 80 minutes in line last week as the temperature climbed toward triple digits, the aroma wafting across the building nearly drove me insane. I envied the veterans who brought their folding chairs as much as Patrick Bateman envied subtle off-white business cards with watermarks. (Oh my God. He even has a Kindle.) But once I bit into that first piece of brisket, everything melted away.
If Franklin speaks the truth about the spices, then he’s a wizard on the same level as grass-munching, time-bending LSU football coach Les Miles. Whatever he uses produces a bark laden with spicy, sweet and savory notes. The nearly daylong cooking process allows almost every cubic millimeter of fat to render through the meat, basting it continuously until it oozes glory. Also, Franklin wisely counsels his employees to cut the brisket in thick slices. That preserves much of the moisture so many places simply waste when they slice too thin or – even worse – chop the meat.
If you’ve read the earlier posts here, you know how I feel about sauce. If Franklin offered nary a drop of sauce, it wouldn’t matter. The brisket comes so close to perfection that it requires no adornment. That doesn’t stop Franklin from trying to completely blow his customers’ minds. His signature espresso sauce adds even more complexity to the taste. While the concept may sound odd, consider an espresso rub on an aged steak. Espresso mingles with beef just as well as espresso mingles with the steamed milk in a soccer mom’s $5 drink.
At this point, the people from my side of the Mississippi have got to be howling. Brisket? Espresso sauce? Have I lost my mind?
To that, I pose my own questions. Would a lothario limit himself to only blondes? Why wouldn’t he also want to sample brunettes and redheads? Would a thrillseeker limit himself to jumping out of planes? Why wouldn’t he also want to climb mountains or swim with sharks?
Just because I was born a few miles from Williams-Brice Stadium doesn’t mean barbecue has to be a pulled pork sandwich drenched in mustard-based sauce. Regional barbecue pride/snobbery has its place, just as regional football pride/snobbery has its place. But if we don’t expand our horizons, we might miss something magical.
Had I never watched Boise State play football, I never would have seen the American Dream wrapped up in one down from scrimmage. Had I limited myself to the barbecue of my forefathers, I never would have tasted dry rub ribs in Memphis, ribs in a gas station in Kansas City, a fried-biscuit side in Indiana, the Badwich in Tulsa or the brisket at Franklin, which was worth every second of the wait.
Pre-meal workout: Six-mile run in Austin’s Town Lake Park (One of the best jogs in America.)
Featured workout tune: Dreams by Van Hagar