An Austin culinary dream team has been born. Restaurant group Hai Hospitality announced last week that Aaron Franklin will be partnering with chef Tyson Cole on the upcoming restaurant Loro. I reported in September that Cole, the chef and owner at Uchi and Uchiko, sought to meld smoked meats and Asian flavors at the Asian smokehouse, but I didn’t expect he’d land Franklin as a collaborator. Chef Jack Yoss, a part of the Hai Hospitality family who was already on board, completes the chef triumvirate.
With this new project, Franklin will be able to expand his skills beyond the constraints of traditional barbecue. “We just cook five meats, and we do that same thing everyday,” Franklin says. “We’re kinda backed into a corner of what we can and can’t do.” Loro, however, will give him some freedom to explore other flavors. “Our plan is to have super bright and acidic flavors mixed with clean smoke flavors,” Franklin says, mirroring what Cole told me in September.
Franklin has always held firm that there will never be a second location of Franklin Barbecue. “I’ve been saying forever that I never want to open another barbecue joint, and this isn’t a barbecue joint. This is like a real restaurant,” Franklin says. Technically, he’s right. But as a partner—his role goes well beyond consultant—Franklin is the only one at the helm of the Asian-inspired smokehouse who is known for smoked meats.
There’s no word on specific menu items just yet, but Cole says they’ll be in the kitchen in a few weeks to begin putting together a menu of small, focused dishes. Construction is still ongoing at the 200 to 225-person restaurant, but they hope to open in February.
Still, he’s given a few hints. Cole says he’s most excited about pairing Franklin’s smoked meats with Yoss’s sambal, which is kind of like a Southeast Asian version of salsa, but with a complex preparation process that can take as long as a Mexican mole. Although Franklin says that some of the sauces at Loro could eventually find their way to Franklin Barbecue, he stresses that the two restaurants will run independently. They won’t share kitchen staff and the smoking at Loro will be self-sufficient. “I don’t think it’ll taste like Franklin,” Franklin says. “It’ll taste like Loro.”
Franklin, an admirer of Cole’s culinary prowess (“It’s no secret that those guys run my favorite restaurant of all time,” he says), consistently orders the yokai berry and hama chili dishes at Uchiko, which I tried recently to get an idea what we might expect at Loro. The yokai berry pairs cool salmon with crispy kale and crunchy bites of Asian pear, and the hama chili is acidic from oranges and fired up with Thai chili. At Uchiko, Franklin seems to veer toward raw fish dishes with textural variation and plenty of heat—qualities that should go just as well with smoked meat.
Cole is giddy about the project. “I’ve had this concept in my head for so long, and now I’ve been dealt these cards with these two all-stars,” he says. “Now the ball is in my court.” I pointed out that, given the immense talent involved in the project, it’s failure would represent the biggest lost opportunity in Austin restaurant history. Cole agrees. “No pressure,” he said with a sigh.
There’s enough irony in a sushi chef teaming up with a barbecue cook, but a scene I witnessed in 2015 only adds to it. Franklin, fresh off of a nomination for a James Beard award as the best chef in the Southwest region, was serving beef ribs at a private party during SXSW. Cole, a James Beard award winner, and fellow Austin chef David Bull were in attendance, and once Franklin had finished serving they engaged in conversation. I approached the trio and asked what the two old-school chefs thought about this upstart pitmaster bumping his way into their awards turf. Bull was congratulatory, but it seemed Cole hadn’t warmed to the idea. Maybe I caught Cole off guard, but he acted as if he wasn’t sure Franklin belonged in the “chef” category. (Franklin went on to win the award.)
Last week, I asked Cole if he remembered the interaction. He laughed and said it was “amazing that someone could break through like Aaron Franklin did by almost defining his own category.”
Although the final paperwork was hashed out just days ago, the courtship has been years in the making. Cole detailed the concept with Franklin over lunch two years ago, but didn’t think it would be feasible for the pitmaster to be a part of the project. It wasn’t until earlier this year, during Franklin’s ramen pop-up at Top Knot (part of Uchi’s Dallas location) that Hai Hospitality President John Baydale approached him about being involved in Loro. (Neither would say if the smoked brisket ramen that led to their partnership would find its way to Loro’s menu.) Franklin hesitated, but ultimately decided to tackle the different side of the restaurant industry. “One of the most exciting things is that I get to learn,” he says. “I know how to do barbecue, but I don’t know how to do much else.”
One of the next steps, now that Cole and Franklin have officially tied the knot on their partnership, is going shopping for a smoker together. A fleet of offset smokers won’t be practical for the Loro staff, so Franklin figures they will purchase a large capacity smoker like an Oyler rotisserie. Still, he assures that “it won’t be a gasser.”