Five months ago, the James Beard Award-winning duo of Tyson Cole and Aaron Franklin opened the doors of Loro in Austin. The genre-straddling restaurant, described by its owners as an “Asian Smokehouse,” was instantly popular. Customers now line up outside on the weekend, a rope between them and the front door. As other diners leave, those waiting are let into a setting unfamiliar to regulars at both Franklin Barbecue and Cole’s other restaurants Uchi and Uchiko. But for the open-minded, there’s great barbecue to be had.
I asked Franklin, Cole, and pitmaster Bram Tripp separately if they thought of Loro as a barbecue joint. “It smells like a barbecue restaurant,” said Cole. He’s right: Oak smoke from two Oyler smokers perfumes the parking lot that surrounds the restaurant on three sides. Tripp, who left his position as pitmaster at the Pit Room in Houston in February to run the smokers at Loro from the beginning, has no doubts. “Some people didn’t know that we smoked our own brisket,” he said. “They thought that Aaron delivered it every day.” Franklin, more seasoned to the gripes of barbecue traditionalists, hedged a bit with his answer. “It’s definitely not a barbecue joint like we know barbecue joints,” he said, referring to the legions of Franklin barbecue fans, “but it definitely makes barbecue.”
The variety of barbecue at Loro is stunning. There’s smoked steak and salmon, a green curry sausage made locally by Smokey Denmark, and plenty of ways to consume brisket. Smoked brisket scraps are fried and tumbled with popcorn for an appetizer. They also top oddly sweet tostadas during happy hour (2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday). That late afternoon window is also the only time to try the burger, which uses ground brisket and bavette steak scraps. The juicy patty takes on the oak flavor from the grill. I loved the flavor, and for the first time in my life, I wished they’d let it shine without the extra scoop of chopped brisket. The smoky beef works better on its own in the brisket sandwich, which comes with a hefty dose of spicy papaya salad. If you like pickles, pickled jalapeños, and onions on your brisket sandwich, the acid and crunch of the papaya salad will feel right at home.
If you’re coming for Franklin’s sliced brisket, don’t come until 5 p.m. “At 5:01, we’ll get eight to ten tickets for brisket,” said Tripp. Just don’t expect it to be the classic Franklin Barbecue taste. A mix of lean and fatty brisket slices are drizzled with a Thai chili gastrique, house-made ponzu, and nuac mam (a Vietnamese mixed fish sauce), then topped with whole leaves of mint, Thai basil, cilantro, and pickled shallots. “I think of it as Loro’s brisket,” Franklin said. He stressed the collaboration required to get to the final dish and said he was tasked only with getting the barbecue ready for plating. Cole and chef Jack Yoss, who helped develop the menu, “are so good at sauces and compositions,” Franklin said, “I’m not going to step on their toes in that area.” I loved the combination of acid, spice, and herbs on the brisket, but it took some work to ensure those flavors came together in one bite. I started by tearing the herbs into smaller pieces and de-stemming the cilantro. I wished they had been chopped so I could easily get a forkful of brisket along with the other elements. (I usually eat barbecue with my hands, but especially with the fish sauce, this dish calls for a fork.)
The brisket itself is incredible. Franklin insists it tastes different out of the Oylers than it does in his offset smokers at Franklin Barbecue, but it’s certainly recognizable. Tripp said he uses post oak wood, seasons with just salt and pepper, and even wraps them in butcher paper during the cook. He’s using the Franklin method but in an Oyler rotisserie, which Tripp said introduces more moisture and a bit more heat to the bottom of the briskets. Tripp, who is used to smoking on offset smokers, said he’s gotten used to the quirks of the Oylers. “There are points throughout the cook where it will choke the fire off, and it doesn’t get relit immediately,” he said. To counteract it, he keeps a good bed of coals inside the fire box and focuses on maintaining airflow through the smoker.
Tripp is new to the equipment, and to the experience of being a prep cook. Instead of unloading barbecue from the pit to be sliced and served as a finished product, every piece of barbecue on the Loro menu has to be plated with other ingredients. Smoked salmon, a dish done flawlessly on three different visits, has many steps. A whole salmon filet is first cured with salt and sugar overnight, then cold-smoked in the Oyler. After being smoked, the fish is portioned and chilled, and like most of the meats, it hits the wood-fired grill before serving. The fish sits in a bowl with a sweet and acidic broth that complements it well. I enjoyed the broth so much that after finishing the flaky filet, I emptied the bowl of coconut rice (available on the side) into the bowl and finished every drop.
The bavette steak is Franklin’s baby. “I think every restaurant should have a small steak on the menu,” Franklin, the author of an upcoming steak cookbook, told me. This one has been consistently great. A barbecue purist may be more comfortable with the juicy slices of smoked turkey breast or the sweet and mildly spicy bites of char siew pork belly, but the steak is smoked to a texture that exhibits a nice chew and good, melting fat. It was my preferred topper on the rice bowl, a filling full meal option.
Besides the rice bowls, meals here are built to share family-style. Orders for drinks and food are placed at designated spots along the bar, where customers are given plastic buzzers so servers can find their tables. Make sure to grab napkins and silverware, since they won’t be delivered along with the food. Dishes arrive as they’re ready, so don’t expect your table of four to get all four entrees at one time, although they do come out quickly. “We’re putting out pretty task-intensive and work-intensive composed plates at a pretty high rate of speed and volume,” says Cole. Paying when you order, like at most barbecue joints, has one clear upside: There’s no waiting around when you’re done eating.
Besides, there are plenty of good appetizers to help you pass the time waiting for your entrees. The crunch of sweet corn fritters was hard to pass up. Chicken karaage is equally addictive, but those fried nuggets of chicken can be deceptively filling. Grilled snap peas come out nicely charred with plenty of lemon zest. They’re like an easier-to-eat cousin to edamame, and even though they’re smaller than bite-sized, they pack a great smoky punch. It’s already one of my favorite grilled vegetable dishes I’ve had anywhere.
The menu has gotten some minor tweaks since opening. A pork shoulder that was consistently difficult to plate was swapped for pork belly and some dishes that sold poorly were eliminated. During my last visit, Cole, Franklin, and Tripp huddled around a table taste-testing potential new additions to the menu. Tripp had smoked some ribs, a version of which will hit the menu eventually, but Cole said he wasn’t happy with them yet. “We’re going to make them again every day for the next month, and keep trying them and tweaking them and making them better until they go on the menu,” said Cole. He also hinted at the need for another seafood option.
I’ll never be bored eating traditional Texas barbecue, especially if it’s well-made, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy sampling this new vein of Texas barbecue. Like the Japanese-influenced Kemuri Tatsu-Ya across town, the team at Loro is breaking new culinary ground with its barbecue. Cole said they still have work to do to meet their own goals, and admitted that with Franklin on the team, he thought the process would be easier than it has been. He assumed it would go something like, “Take [Franklin’s] food and put it on plates, add flavors to it, sell it, and it would be easy.” But the ways that the dishes and the barbecue inform each other make the food both challenging and approachable.
If you visit Loro looking for a meal you’d find at Franklin Barbecue or at Uchi, you’ll be disappointed. Loro is its own beast, with a great foundation of smoked meats. There are already so many options for solid Texas barbecue in Austin, so the team wanted to add to the conversation and break away from tradition. “The good thing about Loro is we get to decide what kind of barbecue this is,” said Tripp. It’s certainly different, but still fulfilling for those who love Texas barbecue.