Preview: Of Meat and Men

An early look at the cover—and the cover story—of our February issue.

February 2012By Comments

Our cover story for the February issue, on newsstands this week, is billed on the cover (which you can get a sneak peek at above) as “the greatest BBQ story ever told.” It won’t disappoint. Usually, when we write about smoked meat, it’s in the context of our quinquennial—a.k.a. “every five years”—round-up of the state’s top 50 joints (the next one’s coming in 2013). But this is a true barbecue story, a beautifully-written, impeccably-reported, and surprisingly moving account of the personal, professional, and culinary drama behind two relatively new Austin barbecue joints, Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ. The author, senior editor Katy Vine, knows a thing or two about the subject. She was the one who, with her husband, discovered the great Snow’s BBQ for our 2008 top 50 list. Here’s an early look at her piece, which begins, fittingly, with the line at Franklin Barbecue.

The line, explained the men, had become an entity unto itself. “The restaurant is closed, so the line is separate,” Kellis said. “The line has its own mores, its own ethics.” There were some, Margrave added, who did not appreciate its connective powers. He had heard of people, for example, who advertised their services as Franklin Barbecue placeholders on Craigslist, requesting their payment in brisket. (“If you got paid in money,” a barbecue aficionado later told me, “you’d just be a barbecue gigolo.”) In other cases, Margrave said, “I have seen people holding a place in the line for a Suburban with about ten people in it who will pile out to take one spot.” He pitied them. “They are missing out on the experience,” he said.

By 10:58, the line had grown to about 250 people. From the front door of the low-slung, turquoise-and-white concrete-block building on East Eleventh Street, it snaked down a wheelchair ramp and around the back of the parking lot. Suddenly, Aaron Franklin emerged from somewhere behind the building. A 34-year-old of medium build with black hair, he was wearing his usual attire: a white Hanes V-neck T-shirt and cutoff dress slacks. A murmur arose as he made his way around the string of customers. “That’s the proprietor,” Kellis whispered. The “line manager,” a restaurant employee tasked with ascertaining the exact place in line at which the meat would run out, came outside and began taking preorders from the hopefuls, warning those standing beyond a certain point that they could be wasting their time. Two minutes later, Aaron went inside and swung open the front door. “Let’s get this party started,” he announced. A sign on the door read “Sold Out.”

Fanatical enthusiasm is not unusual for devotees of Texas barbecue, who are known to be demanding, well informed, and capable of consuming very large piles of meat. By the seventies, this loose assembly of eaters had reached an agreement as to the most outstanding joints, a small and accepted canon: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart; Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor; and City Market, in Luling. Enthusiasts traveled to these Central Texas outposts as if to sites of pilgrimage, waiting for that moment in a smoke-filled pit room when the most tender brisket in the world would be sliced before their eyes.

In the decades since, there have been slight adjustments to the canon. People flocked to Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, in Llano, and then began talking about Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason. In 1999 the heirs of Kreuz Market split, leading to two restaurants—one at a new site with the original name (Kreuz Market) and one with a new name at the original site (Smitty’s Market)—half a mile apart from each other, both reverently attended. Almost a decade later, a little shack in Lexington called Snow’s BBQ flared into the spotlight and quickly developed a following of its own (a process helped along by this magazine’s naming of Snow’s as the state’s best barbecue restaurant in 2008). These new barbecue joints had managed to crack the smoked ceiling and join the uppermost tier, a rare occurrence.

Then an amazing thing happened. In 2009 a trailer appeared on the side of Interstate 35 in Austin and began producing a brisket that nobody could believe. Word spread on social media sites, blogs, and message boards. Everything about this joint was unlikely. To begin with, truly great Texas barbecue traditionally appears only in rural areas. This place was about two miles from the Capitol, behind a coffee-roasting shop on the frontage road. And the owner did not look like a traditional pitmaster. He was young, with trim sideburns and black-rimmed glasses. His trailer was painted a modish aqua color, and though his meats were served on traditional butcher paper, he offered a sauce spiked with espresso. The barbecue world was skeptical. Surely this was just another trendy Austin development—a fun place to go before a football game perhaps, but nothing to challenge the established order.

Yet word of the pitmaster’s mystical accomplishments continued to spread, and the skepticism was quickly overcome. The line began to grow, and increasingly people who knew what they were talking about were proclaiming the youngster’s meat to be as good as the old masters’ and maybe (heresy!) better. It was as if a high school freshman had walked on at Cowboys training camp and, by the start of the season, replaced Tony Romo. In time, the non-Texas media picked up the story, and excited reviews began to appear around the country, leading to more visitors and a longer line. In the history of barbecue—a tradition in which cooks take years to establish the quality of their product and their customer base—a meteoric rise like this was unheard of.

For fans, the mystery was as delicious as the meat. Where did this barbecue savant come from? How had he perfected the highly complex art of smoking in such a short amount of time? Aaron Franklin’s past was scoured for clues, and among the most often cited was that he had previously worked for John Mueller, a descendant of the legendary Mueller barbecue clan of Taylor. John had operated a well-regarded joint on Austin’s East Side from 2001 to 2006 before flaming out, plagued by personal demons and money troubles. At which point Aaron had purchased his pit. Perhaps, the barbecue cognoscenti mused, there was something in that pit.

Throughout the first half of 2010, as the buzz built around Franklin Barbecue, John remained a ghostly presence, a name on the lips of traditionalists waiting in line by I-35 (“Well, you know, he’s got John Mueller’s pit back there”). He’d been an irascible presence in his old joint, and after it shut down, stories had proliferated. According to one, he had run off to Mexico. Another had it that he’d been shot and was recuperating. A third claimed that he’d succumbed to cancer and died. Then rumors began to fly that John was returning to claim his crown as the best in town. A Twitter account for @JMuellerBBQ appeared, with a tweet in May 2011 declaring, “This is happening.” When it finally did, in October, a large crowd was waiting in the rain in front of John’s new joint, a small trailer in South Austin. The first customer in line, who arrived an hour and a half early, had already been to Snow’s and Franklin’s that morning and had brought along some leftovers for a head-to-head comparison. All the meat was sold out within two hours.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

[The full story will be on newsstands this week.]

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