Of Meat and Men

John Mueller was the heir apparent to a legendary barbecue dynasty. Aaron Franklin was an unknown kid with a smoke-filled dream. This is the story of two pitmasters, their devoted fans, and some of the best brisket you’ll ever eat.
John Mueller (above left) at his trailer, in South Austin. Aaron Franklin (above right) at his restaurant, in East Austin.
Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden

They were the first. At nine o’clock on a cool Friday morning last fall, three young men sat on the ground outside Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, though the restaurant wouldn’t open for another two hours. “If I’m not waiting here, I’m waiting at home,” explained Marcus Kellis. In front of him sat Jonathan Nguyen, a poet studying for his MFA at Texas State University. At the head of what would soon be a line of several hundred people was Chris Margrave. He wore a John Deere cap and was casually reading a copy of Ulysses, with only 545 pages to go.

None of the men knew one another, yet they had come to regard the shared experience of salivating anticipation as part of the trip to Franklin’s, a ritual almost as important as the reward itself: the smoky, silky brisket; the ribs with the perfect combination of sweetness and heft; and the robust sausage made, according to the master’s recipe, with just a small amount of beef heart. The wait gave them time to talk about barbecue with the other enthusiasts—a crew drawn, on any given day, from all over the state, all around the country, and even overseas—and they often ended up eating with total strangers, exchanging emails and promising to send postprandial commentaries and photographs.

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week