I rode in such great anticipation I could hardly contain myself. The stars had aligned, and I stood to benefit, living a dream I could only imagine a few months earlier. It was not long ago Rosi, A.K.A. the Donut Girl at Yo-Yo Coffee and Donut bar in Minnetonka, Minnesota had arrived back from Austin, Texas crooning, crooning about Franklin Barbecue.
As she put it, “I’d go back to Texas” just to go to Franklin Barbecue again. At Franklin the wait in line to get in is legendary. And she participated in that line along with every other fan of barbecue. But she got sold on their service, the way they treated their customers baking in the hot sun. Employees stopped by frequently to inquire as their needs. They were asked how they were doing. Cold drinks were sold. Awnings provided if they need them. In short, Franklin cared about them. And the food fantastic. The ambience, to die for.
This is what rang through my mind as I rode with Lisa Ocone and her family on I-10 from Houston to Austin, a short, whirling, 162 miles. They had to go anyways for they were purchasing bikes for their little ones. Before we left for Austin I hounded them to head over to Franklin while we were there. It didn’t take too much convincing.
“Look at any top barbecue list in the country,” I told Lisa Ocone as she bolted down the road at a speedster clip. “They are always in the top five. Always.” She acknowledged my point, but I didn’t gather she fully appreciated what she was about to experience.
It wasn’t to0 hard to Franklin as they are on the edge of downtown Austin, with a clear view of the Texas State Capitol in the not-too-far distance. As we pulled up I observed a film crew set up. Wow, I thought, I’m not the only one with a camera. I hopped in line as Lisa Ocone parked the car. The air hung hot and the building old, but the adrenaline ran full steam.
I inquired with the film crew, letting them know I too was to be filming with my ever handy Kodak Playsport. Turns out they were students at the University of Texas, Austin. They were impressed, and I heard them whisper to each other about me. I smiled silently. What they don’t know is how impressed i was of them, with their high tech cameras and super cool mic and boom. Inside, I drooled.
Lisa Ocone and I had researched Franklin’s hours and what day might be best to come. We concluded Tuesday, as they were closed Monday’s. In our minds this meant only one thing. Shorter lines. I won’t go over all the reasons, but they seamed reasonable conclusions. As she sped down the freeway I had legitimate concerns we were going to miss the action, as we didn’t leave until sometime after 11 am. Franklin closes when they sell out. All sorts of doomsday scenarios played in my mind, and her husband Steve confirmed to her the nervous timing of our mission. But she stayed optimistic against our dark colored scenario.
When I hopped into line it didn’t seem all that long. At least not as long as the horror stories I’d heard. A brief moment after I got in line I heard a Franklin employee bellow that the wait would be an hour and a half, and that they still have everything, but turkey. He rotated as he yelled this, so all could hear. Good job. Lisa Ocone proved correct. We were to live the dream.
Not too long after him a blond female employee in a ponytail came with a tray of liquid refreshments for sale, and calmly with a tinge of politeness explained all she had for sale and how much. I recruited her for my YouTube video of which she gladly obliged. A college student, or should I say, a student taking a pause, for she works at Franklin full-time.
She confirmed that the line “is kind of short” today, and delivered an optimism that I would be able to order my customary half-slab ribs, although they were out of turkey. Not a concern for me. Meanwhile, Lisa Ocone joined the fray, allowing for concern that her husband Steve was behind us and working to park the SUV he drove.
While Lisa Ocone didn’t understand the historic situation we were in, she appreciated that we had chosen the right day to come, gleefully acknowledging the shortness of the line. Which, by the way, snaked at ground level up a ramp, winding down, making a u-turn and heading straight for the entrance. Friendly and attentive, the Donut Girl proved correct, Franklin rocks when it comes to how they treat their customers.
Best of all, the crowd proved friendly too. I recruited some to take our picture as we plowed through the entrance. Some just were chatty. Others, not so much. My personal favorite were the two people at the end of the line, where the cutoff is for the day. A man and a woman, both from Georgia, who each held a sign given to them by a Franklin employee. For him, LAST MAN STANDIN. For her, LAST WOMAN STANDIN. They each stood for a picture and the man gave me an interview. Of course, I let him know I was in Atlanta a few summers ago and the Southern Hospitality was stunning. He didn’t disappoint. and for a brief moment in time I lived genuine, gracious, sincere Southern Hospitality one more time. Fabulous.
Steve, Lisa’s husband, eventually joined us, but as he couldn’t join us in line as cutting in is isn’t allowed, Lisa Ocone concocted a plan for him to surreptitiously hang out at a picnic table with one of their kids. It worked. When the time came to enter all in line were more than gracious and enthusiastic for him to join us. No need to separate, plenty of room for all. That Southern Hospitality extended to Texas too!
The building from the outside looks like a rundown storage garage, and is actually a split level type setup with the main action on the upper floor. Upon entering through the magic door ones first imitation is that of a hole-in-the-wall, but a bit on the larger side. Old, misty, rundown, dimly lit, it’s all a lover of barbecue could dream about. And of course the line snaked by shelves of merchandise, of which yours truly couldn’t resist temptation and grabbed a t-shirt to purchase. But not without first surveying nearby patrons. I chose a black t-shirt with FRANKLIN in teal and BARBECUE underneath it in a bright orange. I went for fun and festive and colorful.
Snaking through in line one cannot ignore the interminable chatter in the room. Tables were packed, families were engaged, with ribs, beef brisket, sausage links along with sides all heading down the hatch. We had legitimate concerns about getting a table. The option of heading outside into the blistering sun to sit at a picnic table looked like it might become our reality. As with any packed situation we scouted openings, and conversed in game plans to alleviate the situation. Heck, we might as well plastered maps on the wall and with pointer in hand, engage in strategy and tactical maneuvers as far as scoring a table.
Along the walls were newspaper articles highlighting the history of Franklin Barbecue. His story, Aaron Franklin’s, is the stuff of legend, and something we all dream of happening to us. He comes from a barbecue family, and got interested himself in the fine art of barbecue himself, experimenting and making various delights on a trial and error basis, scouring sources for the best way to do it and learning his craft from experienced veterans. Prior to this experimentation he had no experience in this arena. Nada. He got the idea to open a trailer, a small modest one, to make a few extra bucks. So in 2009 he opened his trailer with his girlfriend, now wife.
A Black Swan moment soon occurred for Aaron, one that couldn’t be planned for. A stroke of luck, a bit of goodwill, a slaying of the dragon if you will. In 2010 Bon Appetit magazine declared Franklin Barbecue the best in the country. Well, they didn’t keep that opinion to themselves. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Since then, Aaron Franklin’s barbecue blew up, exploded, took of, soon outgrowing that little trailer on the corner. That is when he purchased (or leased) the current building, one that defies modernization, and keeps the barbecue right where it belongs….in the hallowed ground of down-in-the-pit, hole-in-the-wall, backyard, neighborhood barbecue. Rundown, dim, beat up, but authentic to the core, with a line down the block on your average day, and around the corner on weekends. Yes it’s true, we are talking a 3-4 hour wait.
But that is part of the lure of coming here. The long wait, the camaraderie, the spirit of barbecue that extends down around the corner. We have to put up with scorching heat, dripping humidity, sore feet, blistering sun. But that is what we live for. The experience. And only at Franklin Barbecue are we going to get that.
After snaking through the line the best was to come, getting our food. It’s cafeteria style there at Franklin and, just like outdoor customer service, the pit masters and servers stashed behind the counter go out of their way to make your visit friendly and fun. In simple terms, they care. The pit master working the meat greeted me with a more than friendly smile and asked what I wanted. Oh, before I forget. In Texas they sell meet by the pound. Not half-slab or Full-slab or based on number of ribs like 4-bone or 6-bone, but by the pound. It’s a Texas thing I tell’ya.
One cannot enter Franklin without being accosted by the aromas that circulate. I’d like to say they have some sort of air circulation system that shoots the aroma to the far corners of the establishment and is designed with that particular purpose. But I’d be lying. It’s the natural course of events for the aroma to lure you. It’s part of the experience.
Of course, I went for half-slab ribs, which the chef plopped on a tray lined with brown paper, and he did something I didn’t know he was going to do. He asked me if I wanted to try their beef brisket. I don’t normally try this, but since he asked, I said, sure, why not? I could see immediately from the way he cut it that, my gosh, that’s soft. Their customer service is legendary and in my short time there they didn’t disappoint.
Their sides person matched his friendliness, too. I couldn’t ask for more. They make ordering fun. That may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but it’s these little moments that I remember. In the end I got ribs, a sample of beef brisket, potato salad, bread, a diet coke, baked beans, a few pickles, and I grabbled a Texas sized dose of onions too. Yeah!
At first Lisa Ocone, her family, and myself had to scramble between tables. It looked like we’d be split up. But at a large table near the back a patron left, and we wasted no time in hobnobbing it. We were a little packed in, but it didn’t matter. Oh, before I forget, I went back up and grabbled a slice of pecan pie.
I’ve learned that pecan pie is a big Texas thing, and a heavy dose of Texas pride packaged with a good sized ego goes into each and every slice. At our table we had every conceivable combination, from beef brisket to sausage links to ribs. I dug in.
I learned something at that moment I didn’t know before. Peppery, gritty rib is popular in Central Texas. I’ve never seen it anywhere before except here, right that very moment. The ribs were large, as in long, with a lot of meat on them, and tender. But that rub added a new dimension. Plus I slopped on their sauce, their one and only sauce, direct from the container. That bottle of sauce had a raw quality to it, rugged, rough. Something I’d expect from a gritty hole in the wall such as here. The sauce flavor didn’t move in one direction or the other. Kind of a solid, original flavor. I couldn’t promote it as tangy on one end or sweet on the other. Solid original is the best way to describe it. Before I forget, that beef brisket melted in my mouth. No kidding. It just dissolved into my taste bud. Boy oh boy, what a pleasant experience. And they’ve got that darn smokiness down to a fine art. No wonder Bon Appetit went bananas.
Now Lisa Ocone was thrown for a bit of a loop by the peppery, gritty rub on the meat. She tends more towards sweet. And she thought the potato salad was extra chunky, maybe even too chunky, and more on the dry side. All of this is true, and it depends on what a person favors. The beans offered a sharp chili cut to its flavor. At Franklin, they don’t hold back.
Her kids, Evan, Alex, and Ethan, devoured to their hearts delight, not too particular in their tastes. If it’s good, they ate it.
Steve on the other hand, held a more discerning tongue. For he and I had been to Jack Stack in Kansas City on the way down to Texas. While there he munched on burnt ends, a Kansas City tradition, and invention, for which Jack Stack is known for. I really didn’t need to ask him to offer a few comments about Franklin. All I had to do was observe his body language. Peaceful, joyful, delightful, at one with the world. His face told even more. The best ever! he boomed, with not an ounce of remorse. When asked to compare Franklin to Jack Stack he stared straight in the camera, and with serious expression of truth he declared blasted a volcanic, “FRANKLIN IS THE BEST! JACK STACK IS GARBAGE!!” Any attempts to get him to reconcile and reconsider met with this same recourse. There was no denying him. He dictated that at Franklin the atmosphere is what it should be: dim, rundown, hole-in-the-wall. The perfect venue, the Coup de Grace against all others. There was no turning back.
Logistics and timing forced us to leave. But not before I discovered the smoker room! They were generous to let me enter and take a peak. Wow! Inside this dark, hot, humid hallowed ground were 5, maybe six, stoked up, rolling hot torpedo shaped smokers, along with a more traditional one for brisket. I didn’t stay long, but long enough to appreciate the dark, dank, dirty work it takes to make the feast out front. I gingerly walked about, afraid to burn myself, but amazed like a little kid. I should have asked a whole bunch of questions, but was too mesmerized to ask. Instead, I gaped in awe, and asked the pit master in there about the fact it’s kind of hot, and doesn’t he get thirsty. His reply, “I drank 8 gallons of water just so far today,” Okay, I get it.
You know business is good when you are able to have rules such as, no standing for someone in line, no holding a picnic table, you must order takeout a month in advance (yes, a month). And when you pick it up you have half an hour to get it on your scheduled day or back to the end of the line you go.
On young enterprising fan got the brilliant idea to advertise. He’d stand in line and take orders for $50 as so you don’t have to. All as fundraiser for his school stuff. Business boomed! Until Franklin put an end to it, also declaring that a person can only place 1 order for themselves, and not others, for they can hardly keep up as it is. Yes, business is indeed good. Well, we know it’s good because patrons line up and wait 3-4 hours on a regular basis! They don’t have they strict rules to be mean, but to enhance the customer experience by being fair to everyone.
Logistics and timing forced us to leave. And as Steve is 6′ 4″ and I’m only 5′ “8 I recruited him to take a magic marker and let the world know I, Tim Yearneau, had visited Franklin Barbecue. He obliged with outsized enthusiasm. I recorded everything. At Franklin, it’s all about the experience. So I left with t-shirt in one hand, and memories in the other. And for all eternity when future patrons look up they’ll see high up on a beam just outside the front door, an inscription that reads: “T-BONE Yearneau” was here 6/21/16.
I couldn’t be happier.
I ate more in Texas
I didn’t just go to Brooks’ Place BBQ in Cypress, Texas. No, I surfed around. How about Rudy’s, Franklin’s, Spring Creek, and Goode Co. for size. Only Franklin’s was outside of the Cypress area. For those in the know it’s all the way in Austin, with a reputation that precedes itself.
Rudy’s is well known, too. If you remember, it’s underneath the St. Louis Arch, where I conversed with a couple from Spring, Texas, where I first learned about Rudy’s. I discovered Goode Co. from an internet search of the Houston area, and I drove by Spring Creek Barbecue so very frequently as I went to and fro to the local shops.
There so much more barbecue per capita here than I care to admit. And so many places I didn’t make it, and won’t make it on this trip. Carl’s Barbecue, for example, is right along 290 leading up to Cypress. I’ve seen it a million times, and my cousin wanted to take me there.
My cousin? Yep, Tim Finnerty. He’s lived in Houston for over 20 years, and I had no idea. I got a text from my sister Jenny in Minneapolis that Tim Finnerty had been attempting to contact them about a family reunion between all the relatives. In those conversations she learned he lived in Houston, and let him know I was there!
My relatives on the Finnerty side hail from New Mexico, Deming to be exact. I have another set that are in Seattle Washington, the Lautman’s. And then there are the Yearneau’s in Minneapolis. For years we’ve been talking about having a family renunion. And for year’s it hasn’t happen. So Tim Finnerty has been hard at work connecting with all of us and by golly I think he’s going to pull it off! At one point in the distant past it looked like we were going to meet in Boulder, Colorado. But alas, it did not happen. And as things stand Les Lautman, my uncle, is the last Patriarch of our family’s. As Tim Finnerty’s parents have passed away, my mom and recently my dad passed away, and my Aunt Lordie, of the Lautman’s passed not too long ago too. So Les is it, and the decision has been made to meet in Seattle summer of 2017 because of this. See you there.
When I met him and his wife Vicki, I hadn’t seen him since I was a teenager when he spent a summer at my Grandma’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota. As he relates it, he was on his way to an internship in Washington D.C. and stayed in St. Paul that one summer. My mom and dad would take him out and that’s where I came in as us kids would tag along.
Small world indeed. Now Tim Finnerty and his wife really wanted to take me out to Carl’s Barbecue as we’re in Texas and Texas is barbecue. But upon learning I had already eaten a fair amount of barbecue here they offered to take me somewhere else. So we settled on Soto’s, a Mexican restaurant. Fun had by all. P.S. I have a confession to make. On the day we met, when they wanted to take me to Carl’s, I had already chowed down on barbecue from Brooks’ Place. It’s where I sat in the parking stall at the Irish Pub and finished it off.
Well, back to barbecue. There are so many places to eat barbecue here in the Houston area, and so little time. I learned from customers at Brooks’ Place that Gatlin’s, Killen’s, and Virgie’s are 3 must eat places. That’s just for starters. All a person has to do is drive along 290 from Cypress to Houston and the barbecue just pops at you. Take any road, any, and a feast for the senses awaits.
One of my little life’s dream is to take a road trip to Austin again, along 10, and stop at every barbecue place I saw. It’d certainly take me more than a day, try a week, to hit them all. And then I’d be in Austin. Home of Franklin. And that’s just for starters.
Well, my time in Houston is coming to an end. I spent far long than I anticipated here. I’ve met so many cool people here, but I want to give a special shout out to the friend’s I’ve made at Kluge Tennis Ranch in Cypress, Texas.
My friend Lisa Ocone is possessed by tennis and has been taking lessons and attending doubles mixers at Kluge Tennis Ranch. She dragged me there to play. As I played tennis in high school and last played Tennis when I played Lisa Ocone and her husband Steve in Indonesia about 5 years ago, I was very much on the rusty side. We’ve been playing these mixers every week on Tuesdays and Fridays. And every week I feel I’m getting incrementally better.
I find myself getting in better Tennis shape too, shagging down balls I wasn’t reaching before, and volleying a few more winners into the far corners of the court. I’m happy about this increase, but even more tickled pink over who I’ve met.
Okay, let me go down the list (hope I get them all). Mohan and Lekha, Alejandra, Jose, Nicki, Lien, Tony, Dillon, Trent, Stewart, Ron, and more. They’ve opened their arms to me and made me welcome. They’ve pushed me, challenged me, and made me a better player, and brought their fun spirit and warm personas to the court each and every week.
If you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player, it doesn’t matter, Mohan and Lekha (the owners), and Kluge Tennis Ranch are waiting with open arms to help improve your game. It doesn’t matter your age either. From 5 year olds to my age, over fifty….wait! I can’t tell the truth on this. For all ages, they are waiting for you!
Soon I’ll tell you all about Franklins, Rudy’s, Spring Creek, and Goode Co. Later.
P.S. NEWSFLASH Since I’ve posted on Twitter about the local Houstonian’s BBQ recommendations I’ve gotten other recommendations from the Twittersphere! And here are a few:
Scott Sandlin (@TxArch), an architect here in Texas is obsessed with Texas BBQ. And he’s a Kansas City Barbeque Society BBQ judge too, so he knows what he is talking about. He not only recommends Gatlin’s BBQ and Killen’s Barbecue, but also CorkScrew BBQ, ThePigOnVoss, Pappa Charlie’s BBQ, and Tejas Chocolate Craftory (this is a new one on me, combining chocolate and BBQ under one roof!)
Read some of Scott Sandlin’s Texas BBQ adventures on his blog at: Texas Pit Quest