Saturday, January 24, 2015

Weekend+ in Austin!

Franklin Barbecue Brisket

In mid-December, we spent 5 days in Austin – the BBQ capital of Texas. We hadn’t planned to visit Austin this year but due to a change in our originally scheduled trip to South Africa, we (OK, I) needed a get out of town NOW option. Austin, being one of the four BBQ capitals in the US, was always on our list, and last month it moved up to the top.

Where to begin? It’s easy to get overwhelmed with BBQ choices in Austin so pre-trip research is essential. Of course, Franklin Barbecue was a must even though it required logistics worthy of a military campaign (more on that later!). Barbecue, as you might know, is very subjective (dry rub, sauce/no sauce, pork, beef, brisket, ribs, etc) and you can get dizzy trying to figure out how to get to the top places in a finite amount of time. That’s where logistics come in, but as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men…

Franklin opens at 11am every day but Monday. Lines start forming about 8am. They are usually sold out of brisket by 2pm. Our plane was due to arrive in Austin at 12:30. The plan: get the bags, pick up the rental car, shoot over to Franklin (only a few miles from AUS), be eating brisket by 1:30. Ambitious? Yes. Crazy? Maybe. Do-able? Not. Thanks to United Airlines keeping us on the ground in Newark for a “non-safety” maintenance issue well past our departure time. We landed in Austin at 1:00, high-tailed it over to Franklin by 2pm, only to see the “sold out” sign on the door (imagine our very sad, hungry faces). There were still a few people on line inside so we went on in. The very nice hostess explained that we were welcome to stay and order some of the other menu items, but there was no brisket left. We didn’t come all the way from New Jersey and rush like crazy people from the airport to not get Aaron Franklin’s legendary brisket!
 
Micklethwait 3-Meat Plate

Now what? We were starving for barbecue! On to what most barbecue critics and food writers consider to be right up there with Franklin: Micklethwait Craft Meats, conveniently located one mile away. In a parking lot, sits a trailer where you order, another trailer where the smoking magic happens, and a few picnic tables scattered under trees. Besides his brisket and beef ribs, Tom Micklethwait is known for handmade specialty sausage. We settled into a 3-meat plate and ooh’d and aah’d our way to smoky bliss. I gnawed the rib right down to the bone, while my husband went to town on the juicy brisket (of course, I helped), and we saved the sausage for last, which that day was lamb chipotle – the flavor, the texture - wow! They make everything from scratch and it shows. The cole slaw, pickles, the above average white bread that comes with your plate, the creamy potato salad, and (BOOM!) the jalapeno-cheese grits! You know a shop that places so much emphasis on quality ingredients and house made everything, is going to make their own desserts, and I so wanted to try the buttermilk pie they are famous for, but I was at capacity. Next time!
 
East Side King Pork Belly Buns
East Side King Thai Chicken


Friday lunch saw us searching out one of Paul Qui’s Asian fusion spots. Mr Qui was one of F&W Best New Chefs of 2014 so I was keen to try something from his burgeoning empire. Besides Qui, his fine dining restaurant, he has a fleet of food trucks in Austin, and a brick and mortar location called East Side King. Thanks to GPS & Austin’s easily navigable roads, we soon found ourselves at the South Lamar restaurant. We ordered at the counter, found a table, and waited for our food to arrive. First up, Poor Qui’s Buns (roasted pork belly in a steamed bun with hoisin, cucumber kimchi, and green onion) – whoa, stop the presses! Salty, porky goodness wrapped up in a delicate bun – one was definitely not going to be enough! But before we ran back up to the counter, we dove into the Thai Chicken Kara-age (deep-fried chicken thigh, sweet and spicy sauce, basil, cilantro, mint, onion, jalapeno) – oh yeah!! And because we figured we should have some veggies on this meat-centric trip, we ordered the Brussels Sprout Salad (fried Brussels sprouts, sweet/spicy sauce, shredded cabbage, basil, cilantro, mint, onion, jalapeno). East Side King is casual and funky – perfect for lunch.

We met some terrific new friends for dinner at Blackbird and Henry, a restaurant on Guadalupe Street. Run by chef-owner, Mark Schmidt, this restaurant was a hit. I started with the delicious Candied Pumpkin appetizer (diced pumpkin, speck, Maytag blue, and toasted pumpkin seed oil). I had read that one of the highlights of the menu was their rotisserie items (cider-cured pork loin, buttermilk brined chicken, or leg of Texas lamb) so I had to go with one of those. I never order chicken because nine out of ten times, it is white meat and dry, dry, dry. But something told me go with the chicken here and was I ever glad I did. Moist, flavorful, with super crispy skin, and served with seasonal vegetables covered in those glorious rotisserie drippings… My dining companions all loved their dinners, too. For dessert, Frozen Pistachio Parfait (with burnt honey caramel) – outstanding!
Blackbird & Henry Pistachio Parfait

We took a road trip Saturday to Texas Hill Country, but not before a fabulous brunch at the Hotel Ella, a lovely boutique hotel in a building dating back to 1846. Situated near the University of Texas campus, the hotel opened its doors after extensive renovations in 2013. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday in Goodall’s Kitchen and Bar. I really wanted the Lady Bird cocktail (cream, rum, amaretto, orange juice – good morning!), but since we had a drive ahead of us, I had to pass. Barry, who was conveniently not driving, loved the excellent Bloody Mary made with Dripping Springs vodka. What did we have for brunch? More like, what didn’t we have! People, they offered warm cinnamon-sugar doughnut holes served with soft salted butter and raspberry jam (would I ever pass those up – nevah)! After scarfing every last baby doughnut, I actually had the nerve to order a main dish – Goodall’s take on a breakfast sandwich. Incredible sourdough toast with fried eggs, ham, and Gruyere cheese. I might just have to stay here on our next trip so I’m closer to those doughnuts. After a few cups of good coffee, off we went to hill country!
Hotel Ella Doughnuts


Hotel Ella Breakfast Sandwich
Goodall's Kitchen



About an hour outside Austin our first stop was the LBJ Ranch. Run by the National Park Service, this was a fascinating look into Lyndon Baines Johnson’s childhood, his presidency, and his life after he left office. While the entire property spans 2,600 acres, the NPS manages the 600 acres that encompass the national park (the Johnson family still owns the remaining land, a working ranch). On the tour of the “Texas White House,” I got chills when the NPS Ranger detailed the day President Kennedy was killed and the Secret Service told Vice President and Mrs Johnson (and their staff) that they were now standing in the home of the President of the United States.


Texas White House

After our history lesson, we drove onto Fredericksburg, a little town settled by German immigrants in 1846. I was expecting quaint old-timey shops (think bakeries, butchers, watchmakers, etc), but obviously Fredericksburg has been discovered. Now, granted we visited on a Saturday a few weeks before Christmas, but this town was mobbed! We slowly creeped behind a line of cars down the main street, and drove around a few times before finding a parking space. The sidewalks were jammed with shoppers so we quickly found the Lincoln Street Wine Market, where we settled in comfortably on their outdoor patio with a glass of wine and spent the next hour or so relaxing and listening to a great guitarist/singer.

On the way back to Austin, we decided to sample more barbecue. Many, many publications have written about Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood. Let me just say, this was like a BBQ Disneyland (and not in a good way). Big parties toting coolers of their beverage of choice (Salt Lick is BYO) wait patiently for their beepers to go off so they can be summoned to the trough of BBQ slop. I can’t tell you how disappointed we were in this place (the food was practically unrecognizable). Maybe Salt Lick once served decent Texas BBQ but those days are long gone. We took a few bites and ran to the car.

Sunday, our last day in Austin. Our last chance to get to Franklin. I was not leaving Austin without Franklin’s brisket. Period.

When we were shut out on Day 1, we noticed a pile of folding chairs stacked near the entrance so we were hoping we could snag two of those when we arrived at 7:45am (remember, dear reader, they open at 11am). We were in luck! While I parked the car, Barry grabbed two chairs and got on line (yeah, there were already people on line – at 7:45!). Obviously the 25 barbecue pilgrims ahead of us were way more prepared. They were playing board and card games, reading the paper, making mimosas, and cracking open beers. But we passed the time talking to the nice folks in front and behind us – a nurse in town for work, an Army guy visiting his girlfriend. As we sat, the line kept growing.
The line at Franklin

A nice young woman comes out about 10am to get an idea of what you’ll be ordering so they can plan appropriately. And then, it’s here, 11am! The doors open and the line starts to snake in. The excitement is palpable as you breathe in the smoky air. As we approached the counter, I didn’t see Aaron Franklin slicing up the brisket (as many articles had recounted), and I thought “uh oh, I hope it’s just as good if he’s not here.” The nice man doing the slicing gave us a small morsel of brisket to sample & I knew everything was going to be ok.

Franklin Barbecue makes ribs, pulled pork, turkey, and sausage, in addition to THE brisket. And I’m sure those things are all very good. But we were not wasting our time or appetite on them. No sir, we came for brisket and brisket is what we shall have!

As we started to order, my husband tapped my shoulder to point Aaron Franklin coming out of the kitchen. As I had tweeted to him (@franklinbbq) earlier in the week, I ran over to introduce myself and he couldn’t have been nicer.
Pinto beans at Franklin

Look at that bark!
The brisket was otherworldly. I know that’s pretty gushy, but it’s true. Everything about this brisket was perfect – the bark (crust), the flavor, the texture, the salt. We gorged ourselves on a pound of brisket, some delish cole slaw, and fabulously creamy pinto beans with shards of that brisket mixed in. Unbelievable.

We rolled ourselves outta there & over to a 90-minute Austin city tour (probably not the best idea after that meal), where we saw all kinds of great stuff that we definitely need to do next time!
 
Austin skyline
We had dinner reservations that evening at LaCondesa (one of Austin’s best Mexican restaurants) but I was in a meat coma and could not eat one more thing (really).

So when we returned home and recounted our story of waiting in line three hours for barbecue, everybody had the same response, “are you crazy, was it worth it?” And I had the same answer for all of them, “definitely, would do it again in a minute!”

If you fashion yourself a barbecue lover, you must go to Austin. Don’t wait, leave now.

We have now been to three of the BBQ capitals in the US (the other two being Memphis and North Carolina). Kansas City, you’re next.



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