"For barbecue, if you don't go directly to Franklin then you will have failed miserably," advised native Texan, UT Austin football fanatic, and cousin-in-law Danny Hardeman. "Get you some coffee and go get in line around 9 to 9:30 a.m. to ensure you get some when they open at 11 a.m. Don't b*tch about it. Just do it. You will be handsomely rewarded for your time investment. The lines are crazy and they always sell out within the first 90 minutes of opening. Franklin's brisket is the most amazing brisket in this world and I'm a huge barbecue snob. One of you should also get the Tipsy Texan sandwich. Man, I love barbecue. Now I feel like driving to Austin."
Truer words were never spoken. And that was last December, before South By Southwest or the Austin Food & Wine Festival descended on Austin, certain to make Franklin an even more difficult breakfast achievement. That's breakfast in that you need to arrive when you'd usually be eating breakfast (by the time it opens, it's lunch), and an achievement in that if you don't follow the "Danny Rules," you're going to try more than once to taste brisket.
My first try followed the Danny Rules loosely. "It's Austin and we're up and out the door and in the car at 9:30 am. We're going to get there at 9:50 am. That's not early enough for barbecue?"
Forgive us, Danny, for our naïveté. All it got us was an hour-and-a-half of waiting only to be told by the Franklin staffer taking order estimates that the spot seven ahead was the day's last order. I determined to do better, to follow the Danny Rules to the Tipsy Texan.
That extra day meant I had time to hit Lockhart and try every goddamn piece of storied brisket and sausage I could. The day we failed Danny we used to be indoctrinated into the ways of the Lockhart Four: Kreuz, Smitty's, Black's, and Chisholm Trail.
That meant learning that Kreuz's jalapeño sausage has to be considered one of the best in the world, and that despite what signs there say, there kind of are sides. It's also clear that of the four, Smitty's has the best brisket, Black's has the best ribs, and that if you're looking for the least touristy of the four and want other Texas dishes like chicken-fried steak and fried okra, well, Chisholm is for you (plus they do drive-thru).
All the better informed to return to Franklin.
Round two on Friday morning adhered to the Danny Rules, the secret (save having someone wait for you) to making sure you taste Franklin brisket. Take this successfully navigated line count and timeline as guidance. We arrived at 9:30 am on a Friday only to find 13 people in line. When asked, the first person said he showed up at 9:10 am.
The line is something to behold. Turn around for three minutes and 16 people will have suddenly appeared. Turn around again and there are another 16 people, four at a time and sometimes more, crawling out of their vehicles. It's as though circus cars just showed up filled with barbecue fans.
9:38 a.m. 24 people in line
9:45 a.m. 37 people in line
9:52 a.m. 50 people in line
9:55 a.m. 66 people in line
9:59 a.m. 75 people in line
10:05 a.m. 91 people in line
10:08 a.m. 99 people in line
10:09 a.m. 100 people in line
10:13 a.m. 109 people in line
10:16 a.m. 117 people in line
10:18 a.m. 120 people in line
10:19 a.m. 126 people in line
10:24 a.m. 136 people in line
10:26 a.m. 143 people in line
10:29 a.m. 152 people in line
10:30 a.m. 155 people in line
10:33 a.m. 157 people in line
10:35 a.m. 167 people in line
At 10:26 a.m., you start hearing music and smelling smoke. At 10:38 a.m., with 179 people waiting, a server who has started making her way down the line, gauging orders over the past 20 minutes sends home 83 people, and gives the last man in line who is going to eat Franklin Barbecue that day (the 96th person), a cardboard sign that reads, "Last Man Standing." He gets a free beer for the trouble of turning away everyone who shows up afterward.
At 10:41 a.m., the doors to Franklin finally open. By 11:12 a.m., two parties have been served. And at 12:12 p.m., we'll have eaten and left. So figure on almost a three-hour affair. Here are a few takeaways from observing the experience and talking to people. Franklin supposedly makes more barbecue on Friday and Saturday. People are paid to wait. And late parties of four that show up 20 people ahead of the end of the queue, who step into a place that their early-riser friend was holding, are definitely the wild card.
So how the hell is the barbecue?
While slicing the brisket, Franklin has enough time and character, to ask you what you're going to do with the rest of your day. Your answer should honestly be that you're going to be discussing his brisket. Even the lean stuff falls apart immediately. There's a peppery, savory exterior, and perhaps most impressive, a quarter-inch deep smokeline that's moist long after it's cut. Fat is soft, flavorful, and easy to manage. It comes off proportionately with bits of meat. People often say you don't need sauce with brisket, and that's not always the case, but with Franklin's brisket, it's true.
Speaking of sauces, there are three: a thick espresso (vinegary and sweet but not too much), a thin vinegary sauce that you want to steal, and a thicker similar one.
Then there's the smoked turkey — salt and peppery, sitting in juice. Asked, there seem to be no secrets. Pitmaster Aaron Franklin says that it's just a salt and pepper rub: two parts pepper to one part salt. You smear it with butter, wrap it in foil, and smoke it. Then they dip the slices in the half hotel pan of juices and serve it. First, you get the smoke along with a mellowed pepper flavor on the front of the palate, and then you get a juicy saltiness.
As for the sausage, well, there's not as much jalapeño in it as at Kreuz, and it's more oily. But there's a helluva snap to the casing, with the juice spurting out as you slice in.
Then there are the ribs. You hear about meat falling off the bone, but that doesn't mean it necessarily is going to fall off in one piece. At Franklin, you literally pick up a bone and meat falls completely off in one piece.
There's a long, stringy vinegary mayo slaw and a beautiful mustard-yellow ice cream scoop of potato salad. Onions and pickles are sliced extremely thinly, making for great crunch and flavor — perfect bites with turkey. Beans are the only real disappointment. There's no zip. No deep flavor.
Very likely you won't have room for dessert. But considering the high bar for entry, you should order one. When will you be back? Pecan pie is not overly sweet. It's something you didn't expect to be able to eat — definitely not something you'd be expected to finish after downing more than a pound of meat. But you do.
And this is the kind of place that carries, or at least before big bad corporate Dr Pepper ruined everything (boo, corporate Dr Pepper, why did you kill a good small-town Texas tradition?), carried Dublin Dr Pepper and Mexican Coke. Both?!
America's best brisket? After a day spent in Lockhart, it's hard to argue. Hey Danny, the Yankees believe, and yes, ya'll have to try the Tipsy Texan.