Less than half a mile from famed brisket mecca Franklin Barbecue, a tiny trailer that goes by the name of Micklethwait Craft Meats is providing one of Austin's best barbecue experiences. In a city where you can hardly walk down the street without tripping over some noteworthy smoked meats, that's no small feat.
While you won't find folks camped out in five-hour lines with lawn chairs and coolers of beer here, Micklethwait has certainly garnered a sizable following since it served its very first plate of barbecue in the midst of an exceptionally rainy and cold December. That was back in 2012, and as owner Tom Micklethwait (the "th" is silent) tells it, his barbecue biz has been steadily growing all the while.
After consulting with Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, Food & Wine recently proclaimed a three-meat plate from Micklethwait one of the 20 Best Dishes in Texas, right alongside a mention of the much-lauded, Obama-approved brisket from Franklin. "Many barbecue joints focus their attention on the meat alone, but this trailer pays attention to the entire menu," Vaughn wrote.
Micklethwait’s business doubled after Jimmy Kimmel’s visit.
It's hardly the first accolade that's been lavished on the trailer, though. Great barbecue never stays a secret for long, and by the time Micklethwait celebrated its first year in business, it had already been visited by television crews filming for shows like the Cooking Channel's Eat St. and Food Paradise on the Travel Channel.
"You get a lot of buzz just from the fact that someone was here taping, even if it hasn't aired yet," says owner and pitmaster Tom Micklethwait. Each time the media came calling it resulted in a dramatic uptick in business for the trailer, and then in the springtime, Jimmy Kimmel dropped in for some barbecue during the all-encompassing SXSW festival. Micklethwait's business doubled after the late-night host's visit. The trailer's crew has since swelled to ten staffers, including partner Mark Fagan, who left his job as a sports columnist at the Austin Chronicle to help out full-time with the business side of things.
Tom left a baking gig at Vespaio, a popular Italian restaurant on Austin's bustling South Congress Avenue, to launch his trailer, but he'd had his eye on barbecue all along. "I think for me it wasn't so much working in a kitchen and then deciding I wanted to do barbecue, but deciding to do barbecue and thinking I should probably work in a kitchen and get some restaurant experience before I opened a restaurant of my own," he explains.
Baking and barbecue may seem like two opposite ends of the culinary spectrum, but according to Tom, there are plenty of parallels between the two. "Barbecue is sort of similar to baking bread — there's a lot of stuff that's time-sensitive and temperature-sensitive," he explains. "A small difference in temperature for a long period of time when you're proofing a dough can make a huge difference. Same thing with barbecue. When you're looking at a 12 hour or even a 24 hour cooking process, small variations in temperature can make or break it. Just like in baking, there's a lot of weird variables - the wood's not always the same, the weather's not always the same."
With startup costs that pale in comparison to the amount of money it takes to fund a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Austin's vibrant food trailer scene serves as an affordable, accessible way for ambitious chefs with more creativity than capital to get their product in the mouths of the masses. In comparison to many other major cities, Austin's laws surrounding mobile food operations are relatively lenient. In Chicago, for example, food trucks are prohibited from operating within 200 feet of any business that serves food; trucks and trailers must be outfitted with GPS trackers to enforce the rule. In Dallas, food trucks are banned from most public property and the city requires both written permission and a schedule from private property owners who will allow them. Such stringent regulations have served to stifle the food trailer scenes in both cities. In contrast, over 1,400 mobile food vendors are currently registered in Travis County. A diverse array of trailers can be found scattered all over Austin, offering a kaleidoscope of different cuisines from Detroit-style pizza to Malaysian street food and everything in between.
Food trailers have proved popular amongst pitmasters, too. Brisket superstar Aaron Franklin originally launched his place as a trailer in 2009 before moving on up to brick-and-mortar in 2011, and several of Austin's other most raved about barbecue places operate out of trailers as well, including the acclaimed La Barbecue and John Mueller Meat Co.
There’s a lot in the 112 square-foot space: a convection oven, three two-door coolers, a 20-quart mixer that’s also a meat grinder, and a sausage stuffer.
Operating a barbecue business out of a 16 foot by 7 foot trailer has its own set of challenges, though, particularly if, like Tom, you're dead-set on making everything from scratch. He's managed to cram an impressive amount of equipment into the diminutive 112 square-foot space, though, including a half-size convection oven, three two-door coolers, a 20-quart mixer that does double duty as a meat grinder, and a sausage stuffer.
"It's kind of a requirement to work for Micklethwait that you are not claustrophobic and do not mind having people in your personal space," Tom laughs. "Once you have more than four people working in this trailer, it gets so crowded that you actually become less productive because everyone's just bumping elbows."
Tom purchased the vintage 1960 Comet trailer that currently houses the majority of his barbecue operation off Craigslist for a whopping $600. "It needed a lot of work, it was falling apart," he admits. The same friend who would later build Micklethwait's barbecue pit helped Tom tow said trailer out of the woods near Lake Travis where it had been languishing. Over the next nine months, Tom spent his days off from work completely gutting and renovating the trailer, which still boasted its original retro kitchen and bedroom.
When asked how much money he poured into the project, Tom shrugs. "I couldn't say, because a lot of things I had to do more than once because I didn't know what the hell I was doing." He estimates he spent anywhere from three to six thousand dollars, reasoning that even with mistakes that were made, it was still much cheaper in the end than buying a brand new trailer.
Asked where his initial desire to open a barbecue trailer stemmed from, the Austin native says, "It just seemed like a good idea at the time. At the time it was sort of this romanticized idea of life or something, I don't know." Tom laughs. "But the reality of it is like oh, you get to work 80 hours a week for over a year. And it's hot. I think the hottest I've temped the inside of the trailer at was 145 or 150 degrees. Working in there is kind of miserable sometimes, but it's also fun."
Like any native Texan, the Austin-born pitmaster grew up on barbecue. He has fond childhood memories of eating at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, an experience that helped form his frame of reference for what good barbecue is. "They have a totally different cooking style and we're not going to emulate that, but when I was just figuring out how to cook barbecue, the measure of quality for me was Cooper's because that's what I liked and that's what I grew up eating," he says.
"The hottest I’ve temped the inside of the trailer at was 145 or 150 degrees."
Tom describes the Micklethwait style of barbecue as "trying to make it work and make it nice." "I don't have a particular style I'm going for," he laughs. "I have personal tastes and preferences like everybody does, but to me it's pointless to visit other barbecue places so I can emulate that. In the end it's better to just do what you're doing and not worry about emulating what other people are doing. Do your own thing. It's more fun."
Of course, Tom's desire to blaze his own barbecue trail wasn't without opposition. "When we first opened we didn't sell brisket at lunch. People were almost offended by that. Offended as Texans. Like, how can you not sell brisket at lunch? Not having Big Red and Dr Pepper was a big thing in the beginning, too," he reminisces. "People would be like, don't you know this is Texas? How can you not have Big Red? But that's sort of the conservative nature of barbecue in general. The perception that you need to adhere to some sort of unwritten code or traditions. The worst was some guy that insisted we had to get Diet Dr Pepper. I don't necessarily associate diet soda with Texas, so that was a bit much," he laughs. "To each their own. You just do what you do, and hope people like it."
When it comes to wood, though, Tom keeps it traditional. Like most of its Central Texas barbecue brethren, Micklethwait exclusively uses post oak to smoke its meats. "We get ours from Bastrop, we have a guy who works on a ranch there," says Tom. "Whenever they clear land he'll take down the dead trees and split them for me." Since the trees have typically been dead for quite some time by the time they make their way to the trailer, no further aging of the wood is required. (Fresh cut, or "green" woods, don't burn as hot or as consistently, and have a tendency to impart smoked meats with unwanted flavors.)
Tom says he's played around with using other types of wood at home, but as far as the Micklethwait smoker goes, the only thing that's ever been burned in the pit is oak. "I'm kind of partial to mesquite, that's why I like Cooper's in Llano. They burn theirs separately and just cook with the coal, which is West Texas-style, cowboy-style. I think it's really good for pork and lighter meats but I think oak is better for beef, it's a bit heavier. Post oak is dense, so it'll burn slow and really hot."
Housed in a small screened-in smokehouse just a few feet from the main trailer, the Micklethwait pit is a DIY workhorse assembled from various parts and pieces. "It's kind of a clunker," Tom says affectionately. "A friend of mine who's a welder built this on real short notice — we had a catering job for a big wedding, bigger than what we could fit in our old smoker. So I had him build this one and he literally brought it to me six hours before I had to use it to cook for this wedding. So it's kind of pieced together out of shit from his backyard."
Despite its humble origins, Micklethwait's rusty-colored oblong pit is still a textbook example of the indirect heat method that dominates the local barbecue landscape; an offset smoker, even when it's assembled from an old fireplace box and two pieces of pipe found on Craigslist, is a common sight in Texas smokehouses. Fattier meats like pork can be cooked over direct heat; think North Carolina whole hog barbecue. But more finicky cuts like brisket — the king of Texas barbecue meats — require the long, slow smoke bath and more precise temperature control that offset smokers provide.
Much like Dallas' Pecan Lodge is synonymous with stellar brisket and Black's Barbecue draws crowds for its beef ribs, Micklethwait is known for its sausages. The sausage selections are constantly in flux, but previous iterations have included lamb with tangerine zest and duck with cherries — a far cry from the simply seasoned, mostly-beef links that dominate the Central Texas sausage landscape.
Consistency is key when it comes to achieving top-notch brisket, ribs, and pork, but sausage is an arena where Tom can really get creative. He doesn't use any recipes and says he has a tendency to just grab stuff off the shelf and add whatever sounds good. "I've never written down a recipe for sausage, so that's on my to do list," he admits. "Someday it'll happen."
Tom's sausage obsession began when he was 20. "I saw they had sausage casings at the grocery store and I was thought oh, this is pretty cool. I think the first time I made it I used a pastry piping bag to stuff it. It was really messy and I think it took me an hour to make 10 links of sausage," he recalls. "Then I just kept doing it and doing it. A weird hobby, maybe, but it's fun to me. Handmade sausage is just better than processed sausage, there's no mystery meats."
"Handmade sausage is just better than processed sausage: no mystery meat."
At any given time, trailer patrons can pick from four or five sausage varieties. The garlicky kielbasa is a favorite of Tom's. It's made with an approximate 50/50 mix of pork and beef, including beef hearts, and is seasoned with fresh sage, black pepper, coriander, mace, cardamom, allspice, a generous amount of garlic, and mustard. Tom likes to use the trailer-made mustard that goes into the potato salad as a little extra flavor builder in the kielbasa, which brings us to a Micklethwait pro tip: "Some customers know we have housemade mustard on hand, so they'll ask for it on the side."
When it comes to cooking sausage, Tom says that much like with brisket, low and slow is key. "You don't want sausage to get over 165 degrees," he instructs. "You're not trying to break anything down, so 155 to 160 degrees when you're dealing with fresh sausage is ideal. Anything hotter than that, the fat cooks out and it starts to shrivel and gets mealy."
According to Tom, natural casings and a long, slow cook are the tricks for achieving that oh-so-desirable "snap" that smoked sausage fanatics are always raving about. "In a perfect world we'd be able to air-dry the sausage before it went into the pit," he muses. "Smoke adheres differently to a dry surface, you get a better color on it and the casing will be a little more crisp." While hanging sausage to air-dry inside the smokehouse is certainly an effective — and time-honored — technique, he reasons the health department probably wouldn't be too happy if they spotted a bunch of meat hanging up in a trailer.
Of course, this is Texas, so alongside the sausages you'll also find some damn fine brisket. Lined with a blushing crimson smoke ring and a generous layer of crusty obsidian bark that clings to a generous border of glistening fat, it's often lauded as some of the best to be had in Austin's crowded barbecue scene.
In light of the trailer's extremely limited storage space, brisket deliveries are received daily; Tom doesn't provide the name of his purveyor, but insists it's "nowhere special." The meat is trimmed and seasoned before being tossed on the pit. His rub of choice is considerably more complex than many — the legendary Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas uses a simple blend of 90 percent black pepper and 10 percent salt, for example — with some ingredients that would be considered downright exotic by Central Texas barbecue standards. Like Louie Mueller, Micklethwait's rub also includes approximately 90 percent black pepper, but the remainder is a combination of celery seed, onion powder, garlic, chili flake, chili powder, mustard powder, coriander, and mace. "To me this rub is more or less a universal meat spice," says Tom, and as such, it's used on most of the meats that Micklethwait prepares, including the brisket and pork shoulder. "Coriander and mace are good friends of meat," he proclaims.
Briskets spend anywhere from 10 to 14 hours on the pit, depending on their size, at a cooking temperature that hovers roughly around 275 degrees. Tom advocates a long, slow rest for optimum results, so once the briskets are removed from the smoker they'll be held hot in the smokehouse for a few more hours before being whisked away to the trailer to be sliced and served.
"Thermometers are a crutch."
When asked if he monitors the temperature in the pit, Tom just laughs. "Had I put thermometers in the pit, I probably would have learned things a lot faster and been more consistent," he admits. "But I've never used thermometers. It's kind of hard training people without them, but no matter what, thermometers don't control temperature, people do. It's best to learn by touch and feel and looking at things and knowing how to run the fire to be consistent because in the end, thermometers are pretty slow to react anyway. It's a crutch. I'm sure it's helpful to be able to just look at a thermometer and not open the pit, but if the way you run the fire's consistently the same, then the temperature will be the same. As long as you can teach somebody how to work the fire, then they shouldn't need a thermometer."
Tom does, however, concede to using a thermometer to check the briskets' internal temperature as a final confirmation of doneness, 200 degrees being the sweet spot. "You can do it by feel, but it's better to be precise," he affirms.
Micklethwait's barbecue sauce, which is not used in any of the cooking processes but rather just served on the side, is a pretty straightforward recipe with a few added spices: ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, brown sugar, vinegar, and some of the rub they use on the meats along with some additional allspice, clove, and nutmeg. The result is thin and brightly acidic with a balanced sweetness, and while Tom won't be slathering it on the meats before they're served, he doesn't particularly mind if customers do. "I don't think it's heresy to put sauce on meat or anything," he says. "I like the flavor of sauce, but personally, I don't necessarily want it on my meat. I might dip my bread in it."
In the wake of the current anti-gluten craze, perhaps no food has been vilified more than white bread. Yet in spite of the rapidly growing carb-fearing population, the pillowy packaged slices remain a fixture on barbecue plates. Whether they're used for makeshift sandwiches or merely as an edible surface on which to wipe sauce-stained fingers, it's hard to imagine a proper Texas barbecue feast without at least a slice or two. Micklethwait forgoes the Wonder bread route in favor of baking their own, a soft white loaf with an airy crumb that's got considerably more character than the typical processed version.
Micklethwait forgoes the Wonder bread route in favor of baking their own.
While it might seem logical that a baker-turned-pitmaster would insist on making his own bread, it's hardly commonplace amongst barbecue restaurants. Smoking meats is labor-intensive enough without throwing yeast doughs into the mix, and with the exception of some fancified sit-down places like the Granary in San Antonio, it's a process that very few are willing to undertake — especially when the operation is run out of a cramped trailer.
The bread-making process begins with a pre-fermentation — just flour, water, and yeast — that's assembled in the morning. After dinner service, the dough is mixed in the trailer's 20-quart mixer and left to rise until about midnight, after which it's shaped and wrapped in plastic. In lieu of a proof box, the unbaked loaves are left to sit out overnight at room temperature and then baked in the morning.
"It's really not nice making bread in a trailer," Tom says, laughing. "It definitely takes a chunk out of your day. It was fine when we were doing six to eight loaves a day. Now we're doing 24. Running an oven inside a trailer isn't exactly ideal, especially when it's hot. I do pretty much everything I can to make my life much harder than it has to be, I think."
Sides are precisely the area where many barbecue places choose to take shortcuts, having expended most of their energy slaving over the proteins. When asked about his commitment to making everything right down to the pickles from scratch, Tom just shrugs. "I don't want to serve anything I personally wouldn't want to eat, which would be, you know, Sysco potato salad or pre-made cole slaw."
Indeed, Micklethwait's potato salad is a stepped-up version of the typical barbecue sidekick. As Tom explains, the recipe is loosely based on deviled eggs; cooked egg yolks are blended up with mayonnaise, dill, chili sauce, mustard, honey, vinegar, parsley, and capers. Diced red bell pepper and red onion lend a bit of fresh crunch. Oh, and about that mayonnaise: It's trailer-made, of course. "Honestly, that just comes out of necessity," Tom says. "We're very limited in what we can store, and rather than keeping a giant jug of mayo around that we'll only use two cups of a day, it made more sense to just keep a dozen eggs around and make it every day."
No mayo, housemade or otherwise, is found in the coleslaw. Shredded red and green cabbage are dressed with a light, zingy vinaigrette containing lemon juice and zest, vegetable oil, honey, mustard powder, and poppy seeds for a little visual and textural contrast. It's tasty by the forkful and ideal added to a brisket sandwich (served on a fluffy house-baked bun, naturally).
For being such a Southern kitchen stalwart, you don't see too many grits on the menu at barbecue restaurants. For Tom, the extremely popular jalapeno-cheese grits were another menu item born largely out of convenience: "We used to do mac and cheese but it was too much work," he says. "Making it from scratch here in the trailer was a pain. Grits are fast and easy."
"Sometimes the beans get pretty meaty, but nobody’s gonna complain about meaty beans."
The grits recipe involves not one but three cheeses: cheddar, cream cheese, and gorgonzola. Don't expect fancy, artisan stone-ground grits, though; according to Tom, they use "straight-up bulk bin polenta." Jalapenos are de-seeded before being added to ensure they provide a warm heat rather than a palate-assaulting one. The resulting mixture is luxuriously loose and creamy with a pleasantly toothsome texture that provides a comforting foil to the array of smoky proteins. As Daniel Vaughn asserted in a 2013 review for Texas Monthly, "They'd replace macaroni & cheese on every local menu if everyone could make cheese grits like Micklethwait."
Tom admits to not being much of a bean fan himself, but that hasn't stopped him from elevating the standard baked beans. "I guess it's easier to open cans, but part of it for us is that we really don't waste very much," he explains. "We save all our bones and turn them into stock. We'll start the stock at night, then whoever works in the morning will come in and strain the stock and start with the dried beans. Since we're trimming all our meats before cooking and using that for sausage, there's not a whole lot of scraps, and what there is we chop up and put it into the beans. Sometimes the beans get pretty meaty, but nobody's gonna complain about meaty beans."
As is commonplace at almost all Texas barbecue places, complimentary pickle slices are served on the side of every plate, offering a welcome hit of acidity in the midst of all the smoky meat and luscious fat. As with most everything else that comes out of this tiny trailer, the pickles are scratch-made: Cucumbers are brined for anywhere from a week to ten days in a pickling brine that includes black pepper, coriander, allspice, mustard seed, garlic, bay leaf, and plenty of fresh dill.
Often afterthoughts in the barbecue business, desserts are given extra attention at Micklethwait, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that a good portion of the staff has worked in pastry or baking at some point during their careers.
Leading the charge in the baking department is William Ankeney, a tall, lanky fellow with a shaved head who, following in Tom's footsteps, left a pastry gig at Vespaio to join the Micklethwait team. Credit for the aforementioned bread recipe goes to him, and he's also the guy behind the pie crust, an enviably flaky, all-butter version that serves as a foundation for two varieties of pie: a rich but not-too-sweet version of that Texas standby, pecan, and a traditional Southern favorite, buttermilk. The latter is a custard pie made with buttermilk and plenty of vanilla bean and thickened with flour. Just sweet enough with a little tang, and a firm but creamy texture that stands in contrast to the supremely buttery crust, it makes an ideal finale for a meal of smoked meats and savory sides.
As Micklethwait's fan base steadily grows, so too do the pains of ramping up production in an already-crowded sixteen-by-seven foot trailer. "We're looking to move into a bigger commissary, something with a baking setup," Tom says wistfully. "I want to stop making bread in the trailer, it's kind of a nightmare. That and making sausage, I'd prefer to do both of those off-site."
A New York-themed deli trailer, a commissary and, eventually, a brick-and-mortar are on the way.
A larger off-site production kitchen isn't the only expansion he's eyeing, though. Tom and another ex-Vespaio staffer, Bobby Lovelet (who currently works alongside him at Micklethwait), have forged a plan for a secondary deli-themed trailer, recently making a research expedition to New York. While the deli trailer doesn't yet have a name, folks can expect it to focus on cured and smoked meats like pastrami, hot dogs, and bologna, as well as scratch-made bread and condiments. (Tom has also tossed around ideas for a farmers market trailer that would serve barbecue made with locally sourced meat, though the deli trailer is the current focus.) Renovations on the as-yet-unnamed deli trailer are currently underway, and he estimates that project could launch as soon as January.
"Ultimately what I'd like to do is to get the other trailers up and running and then when those are established, look at doing a brick-and-mortar," he says. "It keeps things interesting if you're not just doing the same thing every day."
However the team's future ventures shape up, it's clear that folks can expect the same level of attention to detail that's made the barbecue trailer such a success. Micklethwait Craft Meats' commitment to scratch-making every element of their menu - tiny trailer be damned - and doing it their own way may be deviating from the norm, but they're hardly bucking Texas barbecue traditions. They're simply helping to elevate them.