Aaron Franklin | Hot Meat in Austin
Texas is known for being hotter than hot.
The best way to beat the heat is to slow down: slow walking, slow cooking, and even slow waiting in line. One of Austin’s hottest restaurants has customers patiently waiting their turn: the five hour wait isn’t for the faint of heart—especially when you consider they may have sold out before you reach the register.
When wood and wind fuel fire, creating heat and smoke, they can transform a piece of dumb meat into something absolutely beautiful. A raw hunk of protein, in time, develops a crust (called bark), which is enriched with a deep color, and transfused with a hearty flavor. The product is Central Texas BBQ, juicy and worth salivating over, perhaps waiting several hours for. When Franklin BBQ was first brought to my attention, although intrigued, once I heard about the line I was completely deterred. Who has time for that?
Apparently, a lot of people do. There are hordes of hopefuls who show up every day the restaurant is open, and those hordes empty the restaurant of nearly a ton of meat every day. Not everyone is a local who could try another day. I met students from Korea, a family from India, a group of foodies from Philly, and even two New Yorkers sporting their Rangers jackets.
Fast forward three hours, twenty four minutes, and eight seconds: the first bite converted me. I’m now a devout believer. I tried a bit of everything but spent the big money on two pounds of brisket and two pounds of ribs. Lost in the moment and slightly disconnected from my environment thanks to the intense feast, I couldn’t really think—I could only try to enjoy as much of the flavor and texture for as long as possible. All my brain could manage to process was, “How in the—? Ugh.”
How? Let’s start with fire. Fire provides heat, which cooks, and smoke, which flavors. The fire never touches the brisket nor is it underneath the meat the way you would barbeque Kalbi short ribs on a backyard grill (which was my idea of BBQ growing up in Los Angeles). Instead, the flames are kept in a compartment called a firebox, adjacent to the cooking chamber where the meat is stored. A constant supply of heat and smoke is propagated by a consistent wind flow meticulously calibrated by a vigilant pitmaster. And this is where owner Aaron Franklin wins the awards, because really, anyone can barbeque. The difference is that he approaches the firebox as a chessboard, a battlefield. When checking the fiery pit he’ll decide if now is a good time to throw in a large log or green wood or perhaps shovel the already burning pieces into a position to stifle or enable the fire.
“We pitmasters are more thermal engineers than we are cooks. Anyone can light a fire and burn wood, but doing it well, on demand, over and over again in whatever conditions are present” is what makes the difference, according to Franklin. Not to mention that tending the fire pretty much equates itself to pulling a long graveyard shift.
Clean smoke is what makes Central Texas BBQ. All smoke from burned wood carries phenolic compounds (phenols) which flavor the meat. The key is to achieve the cleanest kind of smoke so that soot doesn’t end up in the brisket. Franklin likens his approach to the woodpile as a chef would his spice rack. Now, comparing a woodpile to a spice rack seemed like a little bit of a stretch to me. But after geeking out on an academic paper called "Wood Smoke Components and Functional Properties," I was enlightened. Good smoke, at least the type Franklin is going for, is nearly invisible, like seeing heat against the asphalt on a smoldering day in the city, or a misty mirage in the desert. Obtaining and maintaining this purer form is difficult and requires minute control of temperature, which is why a pitmaster’s job is crucial to the quality of the barbeque.
Fire and smoke, though important, can only be as good as the wood that is used to create them. In his book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat Smoking Manifesto, Franklin dedicates an entire chapter to the hard, fibrous material that feeds his fires. To pitmasters, wood is an ingredient. And sometimes the quality of ingredients bought in bulk can be questionable. Each shipment is a bag of surprises. What Franklin is searching for is post oak, categorized as a smaller white oak that is indigenous to Central Texas. Every piece of wood is different. You’ll find some that is too dry and produces a less flavorful smoke since a lot of the phenolic compounds have withered away. Then there’s green wood which has too much water stored in its cells so it takes a while to catch fire, but when it does it burns bright and super hot. Franklin uses inconsistent green wood like a grenade, throwing it into a dying fire and strategically timing when it will give its burst of heat. Or he’ll season it (dry it out).
Overall, the hype was huge because Franklin BBQ is considered by some to be the world's best barbecue. The hype persists because it isn’t just about the food (even though it is drop dead amazing). Going to Franklin BBQ is an event, if you make it one—like a tailgate before the big game.
Do you think one day technology will be able to remove the human element or perhaps save pitmasters a significant chunk of time?
AARON FRANKLIN: Absolutely not! That is the intricate art of making barbecue. It is a craft that includes a fine balance of science and human touch. Once cannot work without the other.
Two years ago during SXSW, you expressed interest in creating a second line to cut down on the wait. Have you scrapped that thought or is the idea still sitting on the back burner?
AF: While I do have many items on the back burner, the second line is not one of them. But we will have a second area soon for more preorders. It is still in the works in one way or another; good things take time.
I’m curious to know what you’ve got against liquid smoke, if in fact the product is still derived from actual wood, fire, and smoke.
AF: Liquid smoke is usually the result of a dirty fire. I am not really into making super smoky food. Our meat may be smoked, but the smoke should be moving through the cooking chamber fast enough not to linger, which leaves flavors that are off. I do not really get the use of liquid smoke, nor am I a big fan.
You’re a champion for local establishments and a stickler for quality. Where is your favorite place in town to have your beloved espresso?
AF: We have an espresso machine at the restaurant. But when I want to get away or work on my computer I go down the street to Figure 8. Great people and space with a good espresso!
In a hypothetical world, let’s say you were visiting Franklin as a customer, how would you spend your time in line?
AF: I would be sitting in a chair, relaxing with a good local beer. Probably something from Hops & Grain brewery. I would be chatting it up with new friends and hoping the BBQ lives up to the hype!