The Great Texas Barbecue Road Trip from Austin is hereby declared endangered.
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It’s not that pilgrimages to Lockhart, Luling, Taylor, Llano, Lexington or even Driftwood, home of the Salt Lick, have stopped. It’s that the Austin joints are becoming so storied that ravenous out-of-towners who formerly used the capital city as a point of departure are lingering there instead.
Austin’s latest recipient of BBQ love is Franklin Barbecue (900 East 11th Street), which Bon Appétit magazine just named the best in the country. Lines form outside the front door an hour before the 11 a.m. opening, and the “sold out” sign usually goes up around 1 p.m. Customers from as far away as China have been packing whole briskets in their luggage.
Aaron Franklin, 32, and his wife, Stacy, represent a new generation of barbecue cooks who are elevating a food tradition once thought to be timeless and at the same time fading away. Franklin opened as a food trailer in December 2009, quickly becoming one of the stars (along with Torchy’s Tacos) to emerge from Austin’s trailer boomlet and transition to brick-and-mortar locations.
Franklin has recently been joined in East Austin by another market-style, bare-bones establishment, Live Oak Barbecue (2713 East Second Street), overseen by pitmaster Tom Spaulding, while Sam’s BBQ (2000 East 12th Street), a beacon of African-American East Texas wet-style barbecue that has been run by the Mays family since the 1940s, remains the only joint in town with mutton ribs on the menu.
Critical mass will be reached in mid-July, when Mr. Franklin’s former employer, John Mueller, returns to East Austin after a five-year absence. JMueller BBQ will occupy a restored clapboard house (1109 Shady Lane) just off Airport Boulevard.
Mr. Mueller, 42, is something of a barbecue legend. He is the grandson of Louie Mueller, the namesake of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, 40 miles from Austin — one of the oldest and most celebrated barbecue restaurants in the world. In 2001, Mr. Mueller broke away from the family business, set up shop in a cinder-block building on Manor Road and raised the bar for barbecue in Austin, bringing the Taylor style of slow smoking to the city. When Mr. Mueller called it quits in 2005, Mr. Franklin bought one of his pits at auction.
“My goal is to put out some of the best barbecue in the state of Texas,” said Mr. Mueller, who is making his own beef sausage and sticking with brisket, beef and pork ribs, pork loin and turkey breast. (Prime rib will be saved for Fridays.)
And if he reaches that goal? “That’s happiness,” he said. “This is what I was born to do. East Austin is home. I want to finish what we had started there.”
Since 2006, Mr. Mueller has catered events from Taylor while watching the trailer boom that started Mr. Franklin’s career. Mentor and protégé claim mutual respect. “When I’ve been doubled up on catering, I’ve called Stacy,” Mr. Mueller said. The Franklins have returned the favor.
Interestingly, both Mr. Franklin and Mr. Mueller use post-oak wood and a half-salt, half-pepper rub for their brisket. But there are nuanced differences. Mr. Franklin slow-smokes briskets for up to 18 hours and uses natural beef from Montana. Mr. Mueller prefers more direct heat and cooks a brisket “until it’s done,” meaning he doesn’t use a thermometer but thinks his cooking time is somewhere around six hours. “Dad taught me to look at the flame and go from there,” he said.
Mr. Franklin, who grew up in Bryan, where he worked for a couple of years at his father’s barbecue joint, said he learned a lot in Mr. Mueller’s employ about greeting customers, cutting meat and offering complimentary burnt ends — but did not get pit training. “John did all the cooking,” he recalled.
He credits time spent experimenting with an Old Smokey portable cooker with leading him down the path. He clearly figured something out, because his fatty brisket is consistently some of the finest anywhere.
As competition heats up, so does the kitchen. Mr. Franklin is building more pits to expand capacity and eliminate the lines outside the door. “We work 22 hours a day to cook food that lasts two hours and spend the rest of the day explaining why we ran out,” he said. His goal is to remain open into the evening.
Is this the start of Texas’ newest barbecue war? If so, bring it on. And bring extra napkins while you’re at it.
Joe Nick Patoski is a frequent contributor to these pages. He has judged the World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-off in Brady for more than 20 years.