The Texas BBQ Posse dives into a spread of sausage, brisket, ribs and turkey at La Barbecue in Austin.
(Photo by Tom Fox/DMN)
Story by Gary Jacobson
It would be easy to get carried away by what’s happening in Austin barbecue.
Amid a fertile startup environment, young pitmasters are creating a smoked-meat renaissance, using only wood-fired pits and adopting old-school ways to cook for a new generation. A case could even be made that Austin has replaced Lockhart as the capital of Texas barbecue.
We’ll leave that big-think stuff for another time. This is a story about barbecue tourism.
The Texas BBQ Posse has been riding since 2009, and the mission on its most recent tour was to sample as much of that good Austin barbecue as possible during a day trip from Dallas, covering 400 miles in 13 hours.
The five places we visited were all located within a 5-mile radius of the state Capitol building.
However, the harsh reality of long lines and sold-out signs caught up with us even on a slow Wednesday.
We only got to eat at four: Franklin Barbecue, La Barbecue, John Mueller Meat Co. and Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew.
When we arrived at Micklethwait Craft Meats just after 2 p.m., owner and pitmaster Tom Micklethwait was cleaning up and loading the back of his pickup with the day’s trash.
“We opened at 11 and sold out at 1,” he said. The word craft in the joint’s name means just that.
Micklethwait cooks a limited amount of meat, and it goes fast.
Open just a few months, Micklethwait is a classic trailer operation in a parklike setting a few blocks from Franklin, the critically acclaimed and popular joint that was our first stop a few hours earlier.
While workers nearby built additional picnic tables, Micklethwait told us about his expansion plans and said that Franklin sometimes sends its overflow to him. What? Had we been aware of such valuable information, we would have moved Micklethwait’s way up in the tour itinerary.
Knowing that some people happily wait in line three hours at Franklin, and that there can also be lengthy queues at La Barbecue and John Mueller’s, posse co-founder Chris Wilkins organized this trip for midweek. He also wanted to get to those three places as early in the day as possible.
|A long line forms outside of Franklin Barbecue on a Wednesday morning. (Photo by Tom Fox/DMN)|
Attempting such a tour on a Friday or a weekend day would probably be impossible. Just a few Fridays earlier, about noon, I was 40th in line at La Barbecue, immediately behind a person who had bailed on Franklin because the line was too long. He was quite content to be No. 39 at a place just across downtown.
It’s the theory of relativity, Austin barbecue style.
On our tour, we arrived at Franklin, not far from the Capitol, about 9:20 a.m. Thirty people were ahead of us, the first arriving at 8 a.m. By 10:30, still a half-hour before opening, more than 100 were in line.
“They should set up a webcam,” posse member Jim Rossman said, indicating the mid-rise building going up across the street. “If the line is short, then people would know to hurry right over.”
At this stop, we had nine posse members, several armed with cameras. Aaron Franklin spotted us as he was getting his patio ready for customers and came over to talk. We have been eating at his place since its trailer days. Franklin said that on a typical Wednesday, he serves 400 to 500 people, compared with 800 or more on a Saturday.
When the doors finally opened, it took 40 minutes to reach the ordering counter, meaning our total wait was about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
After eating, we left Franklin and headed to La Barbecue, a trailer operation about 2.5 miles away on South First Street.
Surprisingly, there was no line. Nor was there a line at John Mueller’s, another trailer operation just 3 miles from La Barbecue, though Mueller did say that he was down to his last brisket.
Our good fortune lasted only until the next stop, Micklethwait’s, where we struck out.
We finished the tour at Stiles Switch, scheduled last because it’s open late and tries to minimize lines and never run out of meat. It’s located in a small shopping center about 5 miles north of the Capitol.
“I waited in line at Aaron’s a few times, and it was just more than I could take,” owner Shane Stiles told us.
And what about the food we ate?
“I think this is the best single day of barbecue we’ve ever had, bar none,” Wilkins said.
|John Mueller Meat Co. recently opened on an empty lot on E. 6th Street in Austin. (Photo by Tom Fox/DMN)|
He said that the weakest of the places during this visit was still very good, and better than most in Texas.
At each place, we ordered the same four meats: brisket, pork ribs, sausage and turkey breast.
For the day, pit master John Lewis at La Barbecue served our favorite brisket and sausage, Lance Kirkpatrick at Stiles Switch our favorite ribs and Franklin our favorite turkey.
Lewis’ all-beef sausage is a blend of brisket, heart, liver and fat. It received four perfect-10 scores from posse members, the most of any meat on the day.
“I think that’s the best sausage I’ve had on the road,” said posse member Bryan Gooding, who makes his own sausage and finished first in sausage at the Blues, Bandits & BBQ cookoff in Oak Cliff last year.
“I love the variety of textures,” he said. “That’s a whole new area I hadn’t even thought of.”
One of the surprises of the tour was that Franklin didn’t really stand out. The ribs were overcooked, almost mushy, and the sausage lacked snap.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever been a little disappointed in Franklin,” Rossman said.
“It was very good,” posse member Bruce Tomaso said, “but it wasn’t uniformly excellent.”
Still, Franklin had plenty of satisfied customers. As we neared the serving counter, we talked to a longtime barbecue restaurant owner from Arizona. With a tray full of food on his table, Tad Peelen and his group from Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert were doing some competitive benchmarking.
“We think this is some of the best brisket we’ve ever had in our mouths,” Peelen said.
|Pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick shows his beef ribs at Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew. (Photo by Tom Fox/DMN)|
The Austin barbecue tour
6:30 a.m.: Leave Dallas
9:30 a.m.: Franklin Barbecue, 900 E. 11th St.; 512-653-1187. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until the meat runs out.
Noon: La Barbecue, 1502 S. First St.; 512-605-9696. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. until sold out.
1 p.m.: John Mueller Meat Co., 2500 E. Sixth St. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:30 a.m. until sold out.
2 p.m.: Micklethwait Craft Meats, 1309 Rosewood Ave.; 512-791-5961. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
3:30 p.m.: Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew, 6610 N. Lamar Blvd.; 512-380-9199. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
5:00 p.m.: Wheels up for Dallas
Tips for barbecue tourists
Like the lines at Disney World, the lines at Austin’s most popular barbecue joints are shortest when it rains. If you don’t like the thought of getting wet as you wait, here are some tips from the posse about how to plan your tour:
- Take a lightweight, foldable chair and maybe a good book, although part of the line experience is talking to your neighbors.
- Go midweek; avoid Fridays and weekends, when lines are longer.
- Get to Micklethwait Craft Meats early. Franklin Barbecue, just a few blocks away, sends its overflow there.
- Spread your tour over a couple of days.
- Consider using the preorder option at Franklin Barbecue; email franklinbbq@ gmail.com. You have to pick up before the place opens, and you can’t eat there.
- Schedule Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew last. It’s open late and tries to never run out of meat.