It all started with a pit repossession a few years back. A smoker from Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, was on loan to a museum in New Orleans. Aaron Franklin became unhappy after learning that a nearby establishment was using the smoker for its restaurant dishes. “It was never lent to be used for someone to make money on,” Franklin said, so he hauled a trailer from Austin to New Orleans to retrieve it.
While in town, Franklin met up with Sandy Whann, owner of Leidenheimer Baking Company—which first opened in 1896—to talk about a restaurant concept Franklin was planning back in Austin. He wanted to make New Orleans–style po’ boys, and he needed Leidenheimer’s French bread, which wasn’t yet available in Texas. The crusty, airy loaves are the gold standard, and crucial for most every restaurant serving po’ boys in New Orleans. “They were happy to help us figure out how to get Leidenheimer bread to Texas,” Franklin said. After several years of planning and renovations, he’s now serving po’ boys on that famous French bread at Uptown Sports Club, which opened at the end of March in East Austin.
It doesn’t serve Franklin brisket, but there’s some included in a few menu items. My first visit there (I went four times in three days) included an interview with Franklin over a roast-beef po’ boy, with slices of meat drenched in a debris gravy made with chopped smoked brisket. Three other filling options are available for po’ boys, including plump fried shrimp and fried green tomatoes, which are improved (and made nonvegetarian) by adding a couple slices of crisp bacon. I loved them all, though folks who are used to the traditional, shatteringly crunchy crust on Leidenheimer bread may notice a difference. The way the Uptown bakes the frozen loaves leaves them softer.
The sandwiches all come dressed. In New Orleans, that means with mayo, tomato, shredded lettuce, and pickles, but Uptown subs in Thousand Island dressing for mayo on the roast-beef po’ boy and green goddess ranch on the tomato one. The lettuce also comes tossed with a vinaigrette made with Crystal Hot Sauce—another New Orleans company that boasts at least a century in business—which brings a mild heat.
I asked Franklin last year about the progress on the restaurant. The building required some serious renovations, but the recipes were coming along well. “Gumbo is my liquid brisket,” he told me then. I had to laugh at the Texas native’s boast. I ordered a cup at Uptown, and before I took a bite, I asked Franklin if he was still as confident. “I was until I had to make a forty-gallon batch,” he said, adding that it’s 93 percent of the way there. My cup of gumbo was loaded with shredded chicken and chunks of Franklin Barbecue smoked sausage.
The menu says the gumbo takes three days to prepare, and it begins with an oven-cooked roux of sunflower oil and flour. The kitchen also adds the collected fat from cooked roast beef and chopped brisket from Franklin Barbecue. It’s a dark roux, with plenty of filé powder and hot sauce. There’s a good hint of smoke, but Franklin said it’s not quite enough. I loved it.
There are several seafood dishes, like a liberally dressed and thoroughly enjoyable Crab Louie and an addictive smoked trout dip. I enjoyed the shrimp cocktail, but I’d have left a couple of the raw oysters off our tray of a dozen. Still, Franklin said raw bar orders have equaled the po’ boys in sales, so the restaurant will be adding a larger selection, including crab legs, soon. It will also add a dinner menu. Right now, Uptown serves coffee and pastries from 8 to 11 a.m., then goes to one menu for the rest of the day, which will become the lunch menu in a few weeks. Dinner will have more of a French bistro feel, with grilled fish and steak frites. No steak was available yet when I visited, but the fries were incredible. Franklin said boudin will also be added, and he was testing a burger-patty blend on the wood-fired grill during my third visit, but he wouldn’t let me have a bite. “The bun isn’t right yet,” he said.
This is Franklin’s second foray into restaurant expansion. He has long said there would never be another Franklin Barbecue, which opened in 2009, but 2018 saw the opening of Loro, his joint venture with chef Tyson Cole that now boasts four locations statewide. The partnership at Uptown Sports Club is with James Moody, who is also a partner with Franklin in the Hot Luck food and music festival coming up next month in Austin.
This isn’t the first time we’ve written about this concept. Back when there was speculation about Franklin Barbecue closing in 2018, the theory was that Franklin and Stacy, his wife and co-owner, would decamp from the barbecue joint and open a steakhouse. “We’ve got something fun up our sleeve,” he told me back then, “but we can’t say what just yet.” Well, the word is out, and Uptown Sports Club is a great spot for a taste of New Orleans in Austin. There will indeed be steak, but the couple’s gotta keep Franklin Barbecue around, if only to make all the smoked brisket required for that gumbo.