Is BBQ ever worth a two hour line?
The short answer is yes, but not why you may think.
Everyone warned me, including the travel and food shows it's been featured on, that you have to come to Franklin Barbecue prepared to wait in line. Prepared for this line means folding chairs, coolers packed with beer and sunscreen. It's a line stretching through the parking lot, even by 10am, when I get there. Franklin opens at 11am, but Corey the "line manager" tells us that people started arriving around 8am this morning. I see college students with a portable foosball table. Today is a normal day.
The line is so infamous, that it has spawned its own cottage industry of a coffee shack (slowest server on earth), people renting out chairs and selling cold drinks. There's quite a lot of drinking going on, for any time of day. UT is up the street, so that may explain a lot. If you're standing in line here, that means you are not at a job.
The line 'experience' is also an inherently social one. All of us standing in line obviously have something in common. We've come seeking this 'life changing' meat. First we must endure the anticipation, boredom, anxiety (Corey occasionally comes out and informs us which meats have run out), and just straight up bullshitting.
My line mate is Greg from "Chicagoland" - what, it's not big enough of a city? They have to make an entire land of it?- and now living in Wisconsin. He's visiting his son in Austin, but he stands in line solo. The first thing people in line connect over is food, specifically barbecue and more exact still, any previous experience with Franklin's version. I noticed a lot of out-of-towners in this line. It's probably the same law of locals in every city, as how you won't catch a New Yorker standing in line for the Statue of Liberty, or Los Angelinos never go to Grauman's Chinese Theater. If Franklin is the reserve for tourists, then lucky us.
The two hours are pleasant enough precisely because of the folks in line. We're all happy to be there (though still incredulous that we will actually wait that long, short of a natural disaster). After about an hour, Greg's wife Deb joins him in line, and we chat about road tripping, both mine and theirs. They are retired and considering their next step. Greg's vote is for buying an RV and criss-crossing the continent. Deb isn't so sure. One thing they can agree on is it's high time to get out of Wis-cahn-sin. My fondness for them grows further when I catch them graffitiing their names, and something about Packer pride, onto the wood beams of the overhang. It's already a collage of scribbling and stickers left by line-waiters past.
Contrary to what we were told, there are ribs still available when it comes time to order. I get two of those, pulled pork and brisket. The carver at the counter gives me the option of lean or fatty brisket. I opt for the former. I think he liked my enthusiasm and refusal of sides ("just the meat") so he layers an extra slice of the fatty.
I hold off on digging into the brisket for as long as I can, as if it were desert. You'd think the ribs are beef, sheerly from their size, but prove to be pork in how easily the meat comes off the bone. It tastes of smoke mixed with brine, and that fatty porcine flavor preserved by slow cooking. It's a great effort. The pulled pork is less satisfying; it's one note (however a tasty one). I douse it with one of three sauces on the table. I always thought Texans abhorred sauces, but here are, seemingly house-made in unmarked bottles. This one is a tangy, vineagary red, that compliments the pork nicely. There's also complimentary pickles and onions that achieve a similar end.
Finally, the beef. Both the fatty and "lean" pieces fall apart easily at the touch of the plastic fork. One of the articles framed on the wall marveled that the only seasonings on the brisket are salt and pepper, and went on to cast doubt as to whether this was true. I can see why. Just beyond the great smoke flavor, there's an acidic bite, like when you get to the bottom of a cup of coffee. It could be the bark of the meat itself, I suppose. The brisket is a pleasure to eat, not just for that essence of oak smoke in meat form, but the mouth feel of fat just melting away (if only it were that easy!) on the tongue.
So worth the wait? If only done once in a lifetime, I'd say yes. As you can see, the wait becomes part of the story. A badge of honor. And if I ever dared to take away from Chef Aaron Franklin's obvious talents, which I don't, I would say that the wait (and hours of inhaling smoker exhaust) actually enhanced the food. Let's hope other restaurants don't catch on.