It isn't only that his brisket is so silken that, beyond the charred exterior, it has an almost pudding-like texture. Franklin's masterwork is also incredibly consistent. And the other meats — peppery pork ribs, hog meat pulled into dewy threads, turkey bathing in butter to counteract its leanness, beef and pork sausages that pop against the teeth — achieve similar levels of splendor. Dabs of calibrated, espresso-laced sauce is just gravy. Throw on sides of mustardy potato salad, meat-flecked pinto beans, and a slice of bourbon-banana pie to an already crowded tray and you have one of America's totemic lunches.
Of course, there's the legendary, morning-long wait — the serpentine zigzag of bodies that stretches past the restaurant's porch and turquoise walls and onto its cracked parking lot. Arrive at 8 a.m. (on a weekday) if you want to be among the first served when the doors unlock at 11 a.m. Like the lines at Disney World, it is a cultural rite of passage. Strangers become acquaintances. People bring lawn chairs like they're claiming spots along a parade route. They hide from the sun under umbrellas. A staffer wanders down the row, quizzing customers on how much they're planning to order to glean an idea of when the day's meat will run out. A couple of years back, one could request an advance to-go order two days out to avoid the line, but that process now requires about one month's planning.
Is it worth standing in the Franklin line at least once? Or once a year, even? Absolutely. But I also hear my Austin friend when she says, "I don't want to have to take the morning off of work to eat amazing barbecue." Pre-Franklin, finding smoked meat divinity in Central Texas meant trekking to satellite towns for places like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, City Market in Luling, and Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Those exemplars remain destinations, but remarkable barbecue also flourishes in Austin proper these days — much of it served from permanently parked trailers. The greatest among these is probably La Barbecue, owned by LeAnn Mueller, granddaughter of Louie Mueller. John Lewis oversees the pit; he previously worked for Aaron Franklin. (Franklin bought his first pit from John Mueller, LeAnn's brother; he currently operates John Mueller Meat Co. Yes, the Austin barbecue lineage is small and inbred.) At lunch a line also stretches from La Barbecue's order window, though you can expect to stand for thirty minutes rather than the two to four hours at Franklin. Find a seat at one of the picnic tables sheltered under covered tents.
Lewis' brisket reveals an especially crimson ring underneath its crusty, piquant bark. The fat is exquisitely rendered, the texture less crumbly than when I first tried it over a year ago. Velvety pulled pork, tinged with vinegar, reinforces how Texans have taken hold of the pig and now often smoke it with more finesse than counterparts in the Deep South. Cole slaw offers layers of heat from flakes of black pepper and jolts of chipotle in the mayo dressing.
Micklethwait Craft Meats
La Barbecue's beef rib is righteous, but it sells out quickly. You stand a better chance of nabbing that Flinstonian cut at Micklethwait Craft Meats, a trailer that opened in East Austin in 2012. It receives plenty of attention but still smokes relatively low under the radar. Tom Micklethwait serves the expected meats but also breaks from tradition by concocting sausages made with goat or lamb and occasionally serving a gussied up take on Frito pie. I arrived around 1:15 p.m. on a weekday to find no line. The brisket skewed dry, but the beef rib was sumptuous, like eating pot roast cooked over a campfire. Potato salad, a few degrees from being mashed, was flecked with onion and bell pepper, and the cole slaw's light dressing crunched with poppy seeds. Micklethwait and his crew even bake loaves of fluffy white bread. Tempting carbs are dangerous when trying to consume as much protein as possible, but the effort nonetheless impressed.
In Austin, it isn't just remarkable barbecue that emerges from doublewides. Bryce Gilmore is the most renowned example: He started Odd Duck Farm to Trailer in 2009, prepping meats and vegetables at the restaurant Jack Allen's Kitchen (run by his father, Jack Gilmore) and turning out smart creations like grilled romaine lettuce with goat's milk ricotta and poached egg or pulled duck over ciabatta. Booming success led Gilmore to open Barley Swine in December 2010, a tiny space with thick wooden beams, craggy stone walls, and an open kitchen. Pig trotters and pork belly shared the menu with grilled broccoli with fermented chile and duck egg or pasta filled with smoked fish and pureed potato. Servers knew as much about the far-flung beer list as they did about the food.
My meal at Odd Duck was buoyed by the giddiness of cooks who know they're grooving in a creative sweet spot.
A year ago, Barley Swine shifted to a $75 tasting menu format in anticipation of this year's resurrection of Odd Duck, now a brick-and-mortar owned by Bryce Gilmore, his brother Dylan, and chefs Mark Buley and Sam Hellman-Mass. I dined at both recently and found the cooking on equal footing. Which experience is more enjoyable depends on your format preferences. My meal at Odd Duck was buoyed by the giddiness of cooks who know they're grooving in a creative sweet spot. They took turns coming out of the kitchen to present their latest alchemies. Tender goat confit bathed in red chile starred in a wonderfully gloppy tower anchored by a gordita, scattered with popcorn, and sauced with thinned goat cheese. "Pig face Cuban sandwich" was forward in all the right ways — crisp, unctuous, mustardy. The kichen showed its (relative) demure side with lemony shrimp salad, nestled in Bibb lettuce leaves with fried potato and tangles of red onion. The nuttiness of mesquite bean ice cream elevated an already striking apple cake doughnut dripping with cider glaze.
Cider also sparked the first bite of 15 courses at Barley Swine — a plump Gigamoto oyster glossed with the fermented apple juice blended with wasabi. It set the tone for the series of one- to three-bite dishes that comprised the meal. The cooks elegantly volleyed between compositions that evoked Texas and elsewhere. Texas: A corn muffin piled with velvety pork shoulder ham. Cured goat loin served like tartare and layered with eggplant, pine nuts, and minced rings of shishito pepper. One beautifully seared Gulf shrimp in a ceramic bowl over corn and sliced okra. Elsewhere: roasted chicken dumpling served on a spoon with sorghum vinegar. A gorgeous salmon chip with yogurt and smoked roe. And a strange rectangle of brioche spread with fig jam draped with a lobe of sea urchin. The restaurant nailed the beverage pairings by alternating between wines and beers: Spanish cava, Japanese red rice ale, Hungarian furmint (citrusy and sweet), Belgian ale. The ingredient combinations may occasionally surprise, but Barley Swine couldn't make a tasting menu experience any more accessible.
Paul Qui's seven-course menus, on the other hand, dangle diners just over the edge of comfort. Qui has long had an instinct for knowing when and how to prod palates into bolder frontiers. For eight years he worked with Tyson Cole at Uchi, the Japanese restaurant that put Austin on the culinary map as a city for more than barbecue. Cole made Qui at executive chef at Uchiko, the finer dining spinoff serving beauties like karaage with green apple and pickled watermelon rind that brought Qui a James Beard award for Best Southwestern Chef in 2012. (He also took the crown on Top Chef's ninth season that year.) Under a national spotlight, he opened his own restaurant, Qui, in East Austin last June. The white-walled renovated house looks like a modest affair from the exterior. Inside, the sweeping kitchen resembles a workshop, with more than a dozen staffers hustling behind the line at any given time.
It was hard to be squeamish about pork blood when its primal funk melded so seamlessly with earthy maitake mushrooms and garlic.
Qui's imagination circles the globe, and his menus (one omnivorous and the other dedicated to vegetables) rove with it. The first courses from a recent meal recalled Spain. Marcona almond gazpacho, one of the few standards in Qui's repertoire, provided a launching pad for gelee made from Pedro Ximenez sherry, fennel fronds, and foie gras terrine presented to resemble white chocolate shavings. On the vegetarian side, a duly compelling bowl of caramelized onion jus with another sherry gelee (this one made with nutty Amontillado), Valdeon cheese, and ciabatta croutons. Japanese influences came in the forms of yuzu caramel, ono (a Hawaiian fish) grilled over Binchotan coals, and the attuned ponzu that brightened mackerel crudo.
But the most exhilarating dishes drew on Qui's Filipino heritage. It was hard to be squeamish about pork blood when its primal funk melded so seamlessly with earthy maitake mushrooms and garlic. Peanut curry with green beans and puffed rice satisfied with its direct flavors. And a separate patio menu pulled from the Filipino lexicon in clever ways: I loved the pork and shrimp lumpia, a Southeast Asian spring roll, presented unfolded like a taco. Even a cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich, which sounds like wackiness culled from a grocery store's frozen food aisle, was inspired by the frozen cheese treats Qui snacked on as a child in the Philippines. Qui uses clothbound cheddar from Vermont's Cabot Creamery to make the confection, and he gilds it with goat's milk cajeta. Such a universally appealing dessert, born of several cultures, is as American in its own way as barbecue.
Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.
Food Photos: Bill Addison