Day 3 in Austin (pt I of II): Linin’ Up & Franklin BBQ

Our time at Franklin BBQ was about food and craft beer, for sure, but about so much more

Our time at Franklin BBQ was about food and craft beer, for sure, but about so much more

The morning of Day Three in Austin I was pumped.  I’d been looking forward to the trip to Franklin BBQ (hereinafter “FBBQ”) for at least a few months.  In fact, I volunteered among my crew to get up early and go post up in the somewhat legendary line for a few hours to make sure we got our Texas goodness.  I know long lines for food may sound a bit silly, maybe even a little crazy, but, well, let me ‘splain.

First things first, I mentioned that Dominican Joe was my kinda spot (LINK) the last time I went in and so I figured I’d pay it another visit.  It opened at 7:00 so I should be in great shape.  I’d planned to walk down to the Austin B-Cycle then bike share to my coffee and over to Franklin, which I’d found the day before by accident (and it has a B-Cycle station right outside).  Well, about a minute into my walk I spot a Car2Go just parked on the side of the road and decide to make a change on the fly.  For those that don’t know, Car2Go is a car sharing service that lets members use a card-entry (think parking garage) to hop in one of the specially marked Smart Cars, take it where you want and then leave it there.  It’s not cheap, at 41 cents/minute in San Diego, but super-effective and probably cheaper than renting a car if you don’t have much driving to do.  Whatever, so I hopped in and putted my way back to Dominican Joe for my coffee.  So far so good.  Only one small problem.  It opens later on Saturday than Friday.  Damn.  I was good for being first in line (I thought).  Instead, I’m standing outside, by now desperately in need of the restroom, watching the morning crew open up.  Fortunately, it was a quick wait, I snatched up my coffee and some little baked good, hit the restroom and I was off.

Quick Twitter Aside: While waiting for my coffee I quickly checked the Franklin BBQ Line Twitter feed.  Yes, there is an actual twitter account for the line itself! Ha.  Perfect.  Here’s a photo from that feed.

Actual line the day we went - that's our crew around guy in bright yellow shirt!

Actual line the day we went – that’s our crew around guy in bright yellow shirt!

Anyway, I checked the feed and there were already 10 people in line…at 5:49AM…FIVE HOURS before it opened.  I should mention that I just scrolled through the Twitter feed and found that photo above from the day we went. Very cool. I had been popping in on the Franklin BBQ line feed basically since we got to town just to have a sense of how early I really needed to get there.  You can consult blogs and such, but none I found were specific enough for my tastes, so this real-time feed was kinda nice.  By the way, one of the first pictures I took when I got to Franklin was the one below of the condo I assume the Franklin BBQ Line Twitter feed operator must live in.

Condo where I imagine Franklin BBQ Twitter person must live

Condo where I imagine Franklin BBQ Twitter person must live

Okay, so the first thing I noticed when I parked my Car2Go and started heading to the line was the smell.  Somebody ought to make that an air-freshner.  Maybe not for your house, but like a semi-enclosed porch when you’re trying to do your own cook-out but it doesn’t smell quite as good as you like.  This smell of smokey meat and burnt Post Oak (Aaron Franklin gives tips here) was a nice amuse bouche for my olfactories.  I also spotted this little gem

African-American Cultural & Heritage Facility has a nice lunch spot, no?

African-American Cultural & Heritage Facility has a nice lunch spot, no?

Next time I go back I’ll check that out. More information about that facility HERE.  So, I pass the very  conspicuously burnt-orange clad UT fan group at the start of the line, a handful of others who look like they’ve been posted up overnight, some cool alternative/indie rock types and pull up my spot on the gravel along the street running in front FBBQ. Before I move onto the most interesting part of my morning, here are 10 helpful tips should you decide to have some FBBQ on the weekend:

  1. Arrival. If it is a weekend, get there by 8:00 a.m.-ish. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but trust me, as I’ll explain below, there are some upsides to this approach.
  2. Shade. The first 80 or so spots in line are on the side of the building that is shaded all morning.  You may have heard that Texas can get hot.  I didn’t plan to have the shade, but was super glad when the sun came up that I had it to keep the sun off my neck.
  3. Line-stepping. I consulted several blogs and locals on this point. Generally you can hold a spot for about 3-4 people. After that you are stepping dangerously close to the douchy end of the line-etiquette spectrum.  There are some exceptions, and having a good relationship with the the linemates behind you can mitigate the problem, but better to err on the side of planning for the event and waiting.
  4. Tail-gating.  As I’ll explain below, this is really just one big-ass tailgate.  So it’s not like waiting in an 8-hour line for an iPhone 3G at a mall where you can’t have an inappropriately early beer only to find out that when you get inside the system is down and you can’t actually use the phone yet.  Oh wait, did that happen? Point is, bring a football or Cards Against Humanity or some work (yeah, right) and relax.
  5. Beer. Apparently the Texas Department of beverage control or the Austin PD have a more refined relationship with the citizens of Austin than other places I’ve been.  All of my linemates had coolers that contained beer. The rule seems to be that if you are on private property it is perfectly acceptable to consume alcohol outside.  Score! Not that I need alcohol to have a good time, but it did give me a nice conversation starter and let’s face it, good beer (like the Deep Ellum IPA pictured at the top) is tasty.
  6. Restrooms.  So, perhaps not coincidentally my note about beer leads me to this helpful note about the loo.  FBBQ actually lets you use the inside restrooms before they are open.  These are quite clean and well-stocked.  So just know that you are not on your own when nature calls.
  7. The Chair Guy. This is cool.  There’s a dude (with a Facebook page and Twitter account), known conveniently as Chair Guy ATX, who rents chairs for $5 while you are in line.  Brilliant! I quite stupidly passed on one when I had the chance.  But I was pleased to see such industriousness.
  8. Sharing Beer. I mentioned the existence of beer in the line.  I tried a few local beers while waiting.  Fortunately, I even had some Stone Go-To IPA to trade (hey, their like Baseball Cards!).  I swapped its Session IPA for a Deep Ellum Brewing beer that I found favor with (pictured above), and made a new line-friend along the way.  Sharing is good.
  9. Late-arriving friends.  If you have friends who sleep in and decide to arrive closer to the time FBBQ opens, you’ll want them to walk from the front of the line back, not the reverse.  It’s quite important.  Coming from the back, everyone you pass is going to have to wait just a little bit longer than they would have. And, as I learned, some would actually no longer get food – yes, even after waiting.
  10. The Line Lady. Emily was the FBBQ employee who managed the line on the day I was there.  She was really charming.  Easygoing, but firm, friendly and helpful.  This is one tip I found nowhere, so listen up.  A woman comes around and asks you approximately how much food you will be ordering.  This happens well before the place opens.  You are generally not held to buying as much as you tell her but it is very poor form to add more food at the counter.  There are no “food ordering police” or anything to make sure you don’t ratchet up your order, but try to get it right because a) someone who has been waiting a really long time and thinking they would get food will get screwed if you don’t, and b) do you really want to be that girl/guy?

Now, about the line, something seemed a little familiar about the Longhorn fans I mentioned seeing when I first arrived.  Not like I knew any of them, but something kind of stuck with me about the experience.  Then I’m sitting in the gravel portion I’ve carved out and up pulls a car, and a woman pops out, car-running, and proceeds to drop out a few folding chairs and a cooler.  Hmm, also familiar.  Dude in the car doesn’t move and she opens up her chairs next to me, taking the subsequent position in line.  Coolers. Folding Chairs. UT Fans.  Something is really familiar about all this.  While waiting and pondering this not-quite-eerie familiarity I spot these two tidbits across the street.

Remember this quote?

Remember this quote?

and

Saw this across the street

Saw this across the street

The first one, you probably recognize from The Help (LINK), the movie that landed Viola Davis an Oscar nomination playing the role of a maid in the segregated south.  I won’t turn this into a screed about Hollywood’s unwillingness to make a big deal out of minorities who do things other than clean houses, serve people (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) or commit crimes (American Gangster).  I took the photo because I liked the message, not because the southern education system that produced that memorable quote set back Aibileen and her peers’ ability to do more than clean house.  The second photo I just found interesting. This LINK has more about the Indian Removal Act, for those curious. People throw the term gentrification around way too easy, in my opinion.  Not every shift in a neighborhood is the result of one group forcing the other to leave or higher rents driving people out.  Sometimes – as I saw in D.C., parts of Maryland, parts of Atlanta and even parts of San Diego – people move because they get offered more money for their house than it was previously worth and they can get more house elsewhere.  I don’t know Austin well enough to say one way or the other.  But there is more than one way to think about this stuff.  I digress.

Back to the BBQ

The remainder of my morning was broken up into three phases: Pre-opening, Opening, Savoring & Consumption.  As I nestled in to my seat after taking the photos above and was getting ready to say hi to my neighbor, two guys started tossing a football on the asphalt.  Waaaait, a minute. Folding chairs, matchy-matchy clothing, coolers, blankets, people everywhere…I’m in a giant, linear tailgate party!?! HFS, this changed the whole experience.  I already mentioned that everyone I met in Austin was super friendly in a previous post.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Austin has its share of douchy-ness like every place else, I just must’ve caught the city on a hot streak because across ages, races, places and times of day everybody I got to chat with or interact with was fan-freakin-tastic.  This broad Austin warmth proved to be important because I was skirting the rules a little with my line protocol (more on that in a moment).

I turn to the woman behind me in line.

I: “Hi, I’m Omar. You done this before?”

She: “Yeah, it’s been awhile.  I’m Xochitl (pronounced. So-Shee, sort of. Named changed to protect the innocent). Nice to meet you. What brought you here?”

I: “You too. My buddies and I flew in from California, the midwest and the D.C. area to have some fun in Austin and this and local craft beer were high on my list.”

Xochitl, it turned out, was a very friendly corrections officer who was in the process of converting over to be Austin PD.  It was great.  She showed me video of her course on emergency driving (looked like fun), described how the neighborhood had changed and answered the question I kept asking locals – what do you think defines Austin?  She said she thought it was just a laid back feel and that people weren’t pretentious.  She and her boyfriend David were lifelong Austinites and although she could see the large number of out-of-towners changing things some, she still liked being in Austin.  We chatted for about 30 minutes until her boyfriend David came back with a few breakfast tacos.  I could write a separate post on the Austin breakfast taco, but I think someone already probably did that…*consulting the Google*…yep, sure did.  Here is the definitive guide to Austin breakfast tacos [LINK].  We were in line quite awhile, so had a good chance to chat with her boyfriend the Cowboys fan and their friend the Houston Texans fan (apparently in Austin you get to choose your team as long as you keep it in-house, so to speak).  Good conversations.

As the morning rolled on, I drifted into three other conversations of note.  One, was a random connection with Katherine from OLP who was visiting from Los Angeles.  OLP, for anyone outside San Diego, is a very small private school at the northern tip of Greater North Park, a community that is helping push San Diego to be a more engaged, transit-friendly version of itself. Talk about a needle in a haystack! Meeting Katherine (and getting that Fireman’s #4 Blonde from Real Ale Brewing from her friend) was a pleasant surprise. There were the four guys in a bridal party who let me sample some generic Duff-style Texas beer called Lone Star. This was not good beer.  But I wasn’t going to go turn my nose at their hospitality, so I rolled with it. And finally, there were my new friends, the alternative kids, who introduced me to Cards Against Humanity.

I’d seen the game, even heard of it before, but never actually played.  I won’t get too far off track with the details, the point is they let me jump right in and be a part of their crew…while I waited for my buddies to get outta bed and join in the fun. I don’t love labels, but I only have so many lines to create an image, so I hope the Daria meets Indie rock meets fuzzy slippers and dark hair sentiment I mean to convey comes across.

BBQ Time

Capturing the arrival of chopped brisket

Capturing the arrival of chopped brisket

I was coming back from a trip to the previously mentioned nice bathrooms when the guy who was first in line was getting his food.  So I took a picture, and then I got the one above when it was my turn.  This scene, of the meat guy hacking off pieces of brisket, was about to play itself out several times over for the next 3 hours.  Yep, the time in line outstripped the time they’d be serving food by a couple hours!  First guy and his family had arrived at around 6AM.

Deep contemplation of barbecue options

Deep contemplation of barbecue options

We finally hit the door and I found this contemplative shot relevant as we prepared to see what all the fuss was about.  As I made my way to the restroom I passed a couple things I found interesting.

Letter, handwritten SIX MONTHS after her visit!

Letter, handwritten SIX MONTHS after her visit!

What struck me about this wasn’t that someone wrote a little note, though this person must have been moved quite a bit to write a letter of thanks for a good meal.  It was how long after the trip to Franklin she wrote the letter.  And, if I’m honest, that she wrote it longhand rather than typing or sending off an email. Almost makes me want to sign up for a penmanship class.  Still, how cool is that to have made such an impression that so long after it happened the customer decided to write a thank you note for a job well done?

Saw on the way to the restroom

Saw on the way to the restroom

This was just funny to me.

Gratuitous brisket shot for good measure

Gratuitous brisket shot for good measure

And in a flash, I was sitting at a table with a nice 512 Brewing Pecan Porter and some of the smokiest, most tender brisket I’d ever had.  Between the eight of us I am afraid we ordered at least a half a steer. It was, in a word, gratifying.  I’m not sure how Aaron Franklin and his team got that salty smoky flavor so far into the meat while keeping it so tender it pulled apart in my fingers without much effort, but I’m glad they did.  And if it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on the brisket, it’s because it was, in fact, the best thing I ate.  I’d absolutely recommend a plate. I’d stack it up against Odd Duck among the best things I had while in Austin, actually.

The original Franklin Trailer

Borrowed from the Franklin BBQ Facebook page from January ’11 – photo by Ryan Schierling

The photo above was taken by this really talented photographer named Ryan Schierling, he is apparently one of the best photographers of live music around, by the way.

No need to get too crazy when ordering, though.  Just have the brisket, a side of pinto beans and potato salad, and keep it moving.  From a price standpoint, I could have gotten out of there for about $15-20.  Not a cheap meal, but definitely a value given the quality and quantity of what FBBQ served.

Click HERE for a video of Mr. Franklin talking about his new BBQ show (I’d embed, but the link won’t load, sorry)

In the end, what I can say about my trip to Franklin BBQ is that as good as the food was, it was decidedly secondary to the experience of the people.  Well, maybe decidedly is too strong, but the experience brought it all together.  Standing in the line at Franklin felt like a cultural touchstone in Austin.  It was a chance to peer into the reality of Austin, at least for the people with enough free time to enjoy it. I got recommendations for Salt Lick and a few other barbecue joints to visit while in town.  Didn’t make it to those and may get a chance to check them out next time around.  But this experience at Franklin turned out to be way more than good barbecue, it was a chance for connection and camaraderie brought about with the backdrop of very, very good food.  For my money, an experience you just can’t beat. Thanks for reading. Back to the Index of Four Days in Austin

2 thoughts on “Day 3 in Austin (pt I of II): Linin’ Up & Franklin BBQ

  1. This is the greatest write up of the FBBQ experience ever! I have one question…I am planning a trip there and will be most likely going solo…So after 3 to 5 hours of drinking beer what are the bathroom rules…in other words folks will hold your spot right? I am planning the 6 am to 7 am arrival and if I have to get up and go I don’t want to loose my spot…any advise

    • Bill – they let you in even before they open. Not for food, but quick bathroom runs. I went twice and had no problems getting in. But make friends with your line mates if you are solo so they’ll keep your place. I had cool people so was able to keep my space before my sleepy friends arrived.

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