Smoked beef short ribs at Franklin Barbecue in Austin might just be the most difficult bite of barbecue to score in Texas. They’re served only on Saturdays, which is usually the busiest day with the longest lines at Franklin. I’ve tried bites of the beef rib at festivals but never ate one in the dining room, so on a recent Saturday, I grabbed a chair and a book and took my spot at fifteenth in line at 6:15 in the morning.
The beef plate short rib, for the uninitiated, is a cut just behind the brisket and below the ribeye on a steer. A rack contains three bones and plenty of well-marbled beef. The ribs are incredibly rich and can cost a small fortune. Since the end of last year, Franklin has had to increase the price of ribs from $22 per pound to $30 a pound; the average rib size hovers between 1-1/4 and 1-1/2 pounds. Franklin uses all-natural beef from Creekstone Farms for briskets and beef ribs. The cost of beef ribs has gone up across the board, but the increase for this specialty cut has been staggering. Franklin pitmaster Andy Risner told me last year that they paid around $5 per pound for beef ribs, but now the price is $8.60. Aaron Franklin said they looked at their books and determined that “we were actually charging less for beef ribs than it was costing us to make them.” Thus the price hike, which meant that the full rack I bought, at 4.8 pounds, was a whopping $144. This is the part where I’m supposed to write, “It was worth it,” but I can’t tell anyone else whether the time and expense to secure a Franklin Barbecue beef rib will be worth it to them. I can tell you that the smoked beef short rib is the best thing on the Franklin Barbecue menu.
Taking a bit of the stout bark on the beef ribs between my fingers and thumb, I tore off chunk after tender chunk of beef for each bite. This cut is as rich as fatty brisket, but it’s as if the liquid fat and gelatin are clinging to the meat fibers, suspended in between like barbecue sauce on a basting brush, ready to burst into a rush of salt and smoke with the first bit of pressure from your teeth. After a few bites I dipped some beef into the hot sauce I’d pooled onto the butcher paper. Just a hint of heat and some tanginess made the beef even better. It was glorious.
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I had eaten bites of both lean and fatty brisket before diving into the beef rib because I wanted to see whether I preferred one over the other. I was forming a mental comparison when Ivan Vires walked past. Vires has waited in the Franklin Barbecue line at least eighty times and has eaten the beef rib on about twenty of those visits. Because he had been third in line that morning, he had already finished his meal; he asked how I liked the beef rib. “I think it’s better than the brisket,” I blurted out. “It is,” he replied matter-of-factly.
I asked Aaron Franklin for an opinion of his beef ribs versus brisket. I expected some waffling and a judicious answer. “I mean, beef ribs are better,” he replied immediately. “I don’t think there’s any way around it. It’s just a better piece of meat.” He started serving beef ribs at the restaurant in 2011 after Bon Appétit magazine declared Franklin Barbecue, “the best BBQ in the country.” He said the move was all about trying to serve the huge crowds that the story created. “We were running out of [pork] ribs really, really quickly on game day, which of course is Saturday, so I started doing beef ribs to try to offset the pork ribs,” Franklin told me. They’ve remained a Saturday-only item ever since.
Franklin said the beef ribs are treated pretty much the same as the briskets. They get more seasoning because of how thick the meat is, and they’re smoked on Muchacho, which is the first of the 1,000-gallon smokers Franklin built. Risner said he starts them off at a lower heat, around 250, raises the heat to around 275, which is the target for the briskets as well, but at the end of the cook they crank the heat to 290 or even 300 to finish them off. “We push them to break the collagen down before all the fat’s rendered,” Franklin explained.
Risner and the pit crew smoke twenty racks of beef ribs every Saturday. Even though Franklin has just sixty ribs to serve, I needn’t have gotten there so early. Risner said the ribs usually last until about 1:30. I asked the man who spends so much time in the pit room if he still eats the barbecue at Franklin. Risner said, “I still love it.” But does he like the beef ribs or the famous brisket better? “I guess the beef rib,” he said, adding, “It’s less common in my life.”