Accepting the fact that all regional BBQ styles within the US are different, if you speak to any neutral American BBQ enthusiast, most will suggest that Texas is definitely worth a visit. Only those who are born and raised in North Carolina or Kansas would deny it a 'look in'. The decision to visit Austin, Texas as the first and longest part of my trip was a function of a few factors. Firstly, some of the best American BBQ I have tasted in London (Smokestak) and New York (Hometown BBQ) claims to be, or seems to be Texas style, and Austin seems to be the coolest and most liberal part of Texas. The second reason is that it is home to Franklin BBQ, which is commonly regarded as one of the best, if not the best, BBQ restaurants in Texas, and therefore the world. The third reason is that Austin has a wealth of other food, beer, music and cultural influences which i thought would compliment eating shed loads of meat. Poor me. I settled into Austin by supping on a few of their incredible beers, some of which were also incredibly strong (8-9% at times). The next day my BBQ research really began. I tried to hit one venue a day, sometimes 2 and had a couple of days off also but in that first week I sampled Mickelthwait Craft Meats, John Mueller Meat Co, Franklin BBQ, La Barbecue, Stiles Switch Brew and Cue. Just outside of Austin there are a few small towns, which are legendary in BBQ terms, and of these I visited Southside Market in Elgin, John Mueller BBQ in Taylor, as well as Smittys BBQ and Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Below is a summary, full reviews to be written in due course.
Franklin BBQ requires customers to get in a queue (or a 'line', in American) at 8am to be in with a chance of having the best brisket in the world when the restaurant opens at 11am. They sell out every day they are open, and they sell a lot of meat. Most locals I spoke to hadn't ever been to Franklin's as they felt the queue was prohibitively long to be worth be worth the wait. However, I can safely say that thanks to meeting some very nice people in th queue (Chris & Dan), and having mild weather, the time flew past. And, more importantly the food was easily worth it.The beef brisket is what Aaron Franklin is famous for, and I have to say it was so good it was both inspiring and demoralising at the same time. On the one hand, this was exactly why I am interested in BBQ, to show how a so-called lesser cut can be elevated to such heavenly heights. On the other hand, it is just so far away from anything I've cooked to date it is a little daunting to say the least. I had the chance to meet Aaron (one of my food heroes), his wife Stacey and a few of their staff and I was blown away with how nice, and accomodating they were. Here is a restaurant that is swarming with probably 300-500 people every day from 8am, still delivering top notch product and still happy to chew the fat (and a beef rib, thanks) with a travelling enthusiast like me.
[Photos below are of the queue, one of Franklin's homemade horizontal offset smokers, and Aaron himself]
La Barbecue and Stiles Switch had some seriously good meat, the best I tasted in some categories (pulled pork and beef ribs respectively) and the side dishes at both were a refreshing change from the norm. It's fair to say that side dishes, and vegetables generally do not claim much limelight in Texas. Here, meat is king and eating anything else is just taking up space that could be being used for meat. So anything other than the normal potato salad, (cole)slaw and pinto beans is always welcome.
Most, if not all the places I visited in Austin were only too happy to indulge my questions and show me their set-up. The all used the horizontal offset cookers with a firebox at the side and a chimney, or smokestack, at the other end to draw the smoke over the meat.
[Photos below are some of the briskets from La Barbecue, shown to me by Pitmaster Esaul; and me with the pit crew at Stiles Switch]
Just outside of Austin there are numerous towns which are home to some of the oldest, most famous BBQ restaurants. First up was Southside Market in Elgin, famous for its sausages which I was eager to visit as sausage, unlike brisket and ribs, is something I feel us Brits can be proud of. As a voiciferous advocate of the Lincolnshire Pork Sausage, I thought this was a subject matter I could hold my own on. Well, after spending a good hour with two of the main guys at Southside, Rich and Josh, I can safely say that we(/I) have a lot to learn. It became clear that the sausages I was supporting (coarsely ground pork, with sage), were actually 'breakfast sausages', a different entity to the spiced, smoked, dried, and smoked-again beef beauties that these guys specialise in.
[Photos below of Me and Josh, the chief sausage maker at Southside; Rich the guy who cooks them; and the sausages drying after the first smoke]
In Lockhart, I visited Kreuz Market, Smittys Market and Blacks, although I was too full to actually eat at the latter. It's hard work trying to order small enough portions that enable you to eat at 3 places in one lunchtime because a.) everyone else is ordering shed loads and ordering volume is clearly a sign of masculinity, and b.) it is all so good so is pretty difficult to not finish everything on the plate. These places were so old school that the walls in some of them are actually black with smoke. They are all 'market style' which means you choose your meats by the pound, or qtr pound in my case. They are such a world away from the hyperbole that is the London food scene; people here aren't following a trend or a review, they come here because these places have been cooking great food for 70 odd years. This is honest food for families of modest living. I met a range of families here, young familes on their way to/from camping holidays, and also other multi-generational tables of middle-aged types taking their ageing parents out. Perhaps they were comfortable in a place that seemed unchanged from year to year, or perhaps the food itself was the constant. I really got a sense of this being what American BBQ is all about; this is everyone's food. Whatever your ethnicity, whatever your age, whatever your wealth, all seemed to appreciate that this was 'good BBQ', and that's all that mattered.... That, and trying to get a decent instagram photo without looking like another f***ing tourist. FAIL.
[Photos below are of the chopping board at Kreuz Market, and the fire at Smitty's]