I’ve never seen anything like it. At 6:00 in the morning, the first truck rolled in, a father and son who started their pilgrimage from their home in Houston at three a.m. to drive west and be first in line at Franklin Barbecue. They didn’t anticipate someone would have beaten them to the punch, our friend Mataio. But, I’ll get to that in a moment. By seven a.m., the line wrapped around the building, and by 9:30, they announced, “Sold out!” And Franklin doesn’t even open until 11:00.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Franklin Barbecue, it’s an Austin smoked meat phenomenon. Aaron Franklin, a native Texan with a penchant for barbecue, opened his first truck in 2009 at the urging of friends and moved to the current space in 2011. Aaron displays a special kind of magic with meats, and Franklin is known to have the best barbecue in America. Followers start lining up early in the morning, bringing lawn chairs, card tables and coolers of beer to pass the time until the doors open.
We visited Austin over the New Year with our friends Jessica and Mataio who own Ciao Thyme, a culinary center in Bellingham with a lunch café, catering, supper club and cooking classes. This was their first New Year’s Eve off since they got married over a decade ago. We were excited to go to Austin to listen to music and eat, and Franklin was definitely on the agenda.
We planned to eat at Franklin on Friday morning, so doing our research, we checked to see what time we should arrive. Since it was a rainy, cold weekday, we didn’t think the line would be as long as usual, so we arrived a little after 9:00 a.m. Sold out. As a chef with half a mind to convince his wife he needs a smoker for the restaurant, Mataio was devastated. He might have cried.
The sweet woman directing the line at Franklin’s told us Saturday would be really busy because of the holiday weekend, and the line would probably start forming around 5:30 a.m. A five hour wait to eat barbecue?
Later that night, after a fun evening playing music with our Austin friends who are local musicians, we were making our plan for Franklin, debating what time to go stand in line.
Suddenly Mataio asks, “What time do they start the smokers?”
“When Anthony Bourdain went to Austin, I think they said they start at 1:00 a.m.”
He looked at his watch. 1:00 a.m.
“I’m going,” he said, as he started gathering his coat and hat. During our visit, Austin was unseasonably cold. Jessica smiled and cheerfully and supportively helped him pack snacks and water for the night. That’s love.
And that is how Mataio ended up talking to Aaron Franklin at 1:30 a.m., who politely told him he didn’t need help with the smokers and that Mataio could “take a nap” before lunch. So Mataio put on his headphones, set up a lawn chair, and was there to cheerfully greet the second people who arrived at 6:00 a.m.
When Elie and I arrived around 7:00 a.m., we were greeted with a jovial tailgating party of Franklin followers. From locals to visitors all the way from Dubai, people were drinking beer or coffee, playing cards, chatting with neighbors and trying to stay warm. The sweet woman who directs the line was there again, and the pit master kept coming out to offer encouragement and appreciation. It was a remarkable experience. The amazing staff at Franklin seemed genuinely grateful of every single person in line, and not at all jaded by their mind-boggling success.
At 11:00 a.m., we were the first ones through the door, and were rewarded with a little taste of burnt ends while we ordered one of everything—brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs, pulled pork, sausages and smoked turkey, served with sides of cole slaw and potato salad and a local IPA.
When we were waiting in line, we talked about whether or not the experience could match the expectation. “I know it will be good," I said. "But there’s just no way it can live up to all the hype. Usually when you’re this excited about something, you’re always a little disappointed. Like the first time I watched Forest Gump.”
I was wrong. It’s every bit as good as you could imagine, and better. If you go to Franklin, and you should, order everything and especially don’t forget the sausages. Juicy and with an incredible snap, they are insanely good. Mataio might have cried again.
Austin has an allure that draws you in. She’s not the showiest city, but with her laid back and funky vibe, pervasive music scene, and food crazy madness, she’s addictive.
Where to Stay
Our favorite neighborhood in Austin is Travis Heights, which is a quaint and quiet tree-lined neighborhood of bungalows located close to the hustle and bustle of South Congress Street. You can find lots of rentals available on Airbnb and VRBO. On this trip, we stayed in the cute Red House of Soco Spaces. The last time we were in town, Elie and I stayed at this house, which is perfect for two people. The house and yard are every bit as charming as they appear to be in the pictures.
What to Do
Just like in any town, the best thing to do is head out on foot and explore. Walk down South Congress and peak into the funky little shops. Don’t miss Allens Boots and Uncommon Objects. Allens Boots has every style and color of cowboy boots you can imagine, and Uncommon Objects is the ultimate thrift store. You can find everything from belt buckles to vintage jewelry to armadillos and Austin kitsch.
As I mentioned, the weather was uncommonly cold and rainy that week, so we didn’t get to explore the outdoors as much as we would have liked. But in a previous visit, we walked the trail at Lady Bird Lake, wandering past the city and out to Barton Springs Pool.
If you like museums, Austin has several. We explored the Gone With the Wind exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center. If you’ve read my About Me page, you might know I used to reenact Gone With the Wind when I was a child, so I was excited to see Vivian Leigh’s dresses in person.
Of course, in Austin, you must listen to music. There’s musicians playing on every street corner and in almost every grocery store, coffee shop and bar. Check the Austin Chronicle for a current schedule, but the Cactus Café, Radio Coffee & Beer, and the Continental Club are all good places to start your search.
If you’re lucky, our dear friends Daisy O’Connor and Shawnee Kilgore will be playing when you’re in town. Check their websites for their show schedules. They are both talented song writers and engaging performers. Even if you don’t go to Austin, you can still enjoy a little piece of Austin music by going to their websites and downloading their albums. We may be just a little biased, but they’re awesome.
It would be a shame to visit Austin without doing a little two-steppin’. Even if you’ve never danced before, head to the Broken Spoke, grab your partner and shuffle around the dance floor, trying not to step on too many toes in the process. And if Dale Watson is playing, you are in for a great show. He’s the real Texas deal.
Where to Eat
Where to begin?
I guess I could begin where we did, with doughnuts. We were on our way to dinner our first night in town, and stumbled upon the Gourdough’s food truck. After a stop for a yellow cake doughnut (the undisputed favorite among our clan) we went on to eat a twelve course dinner and then returned for a post-dessert dessert. Crazy? Yes. Skip this stop if you have diabetes or any issues with blood sugar or concern about your general health and well-being. I couldn’t get down more than one bite, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. Let’s just say there may or may not have been licking of the frosting-coated paper. Enough said.
Since I’m talking about food trucks, let’s move on to Veracruz All Natural and their migas tacos (eggs, tortilla chips, avocado, pico de gallo and cheese), the most-craved taco of the trip. Visit the truck parked at Radio Coffee & Beer, and you can order a taco and then go inside the northwest-feeling wood-paneled space and order a beer to sip while you wait.
Tired of tacos and craving pizza? You have to go to Home Slice on South Congress. You can order a slice from their take-out window or you can eat in the restaurant across the street. Or you can do what we did, which was to end every night around 1 a.m. eating a slice (or two) in the parking lot before heading home.
Want something completely out-of-the-box? East Side King Hole in the Wall on Guadalupe serves really delicious, spicy ramen bowls. It doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but the Chicken Tortilla Ramen was awesome, as are the fried beets with aioli.
Speaking of breakfast, if you need a caffeine pick-me-up, my favorite coffee of the trip can actually be found at Tom’s. Yes, the shoe store. But they also have a café in their sweet little South Congress house. The coffee is really good, they use organic milk, and there’s lovely indoor and outdoor seating. Or, you can drink your coffee and shop for shoes.
If you want your caffeine on the sweet side, stop by Dolce Neve for an affogato (espresso with a scoop of gelato) with their salted caramel.
For the last of the casual restaurants, I’ve already talked about Franklin Barbecue. If you eat meat, you must go. Come hungry, stand in line, make some friends and experience southern hospitality at its finest. It’s an experience, and it’s worth it.
Austin is not all food trucks and diners, however. The Austin food scene has been heating up over the past few years, with many of the nation’s best new chefs coming from this city. We hit as many as we could over the New Year’s holiday, starting with a twelve-course dinner at Barley Swine. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish a food experience from the overall experience of a place, but I loved everything about Barley Swine. Perhaps it was because it was our first night in town, perhaps it was because we sat and told our life stories to each other over the three hour dinner, perhaps it was ‘fine’ food in a very casual and almost bar-like atmosphere, or perhaps it was just good. But that first dinner was really playful and delicious, from the sunchoke tatertot to the fresh crab salad on a fried pork rind to the beer cheese doughnut.
Uchiko, the sister restaurant to Uchi, calls itself a Japanese farmhouse dining and sushi restaurant. Five of us dined together at Uchiko on New Year’s Eve, and we almost ordered everything on the menu. If you were sitting in the table next to us, you might have seen us drinking out of the bowl to get the last drop of fragrant citrus broth from the green papaya dish. If you’re in Austin (and you have a bit of food budget), you must go.
But Austin’s fine dining scene isn’t all small plates and sushi. Go big with brontosaurus-style meats at the butcher and supper club-turned restaurant, Dai Due. Their grilled beef rib served with sauerruben and apricot mustard was spoon-tender. You could insert a fist pump emoji here if you want to. And if, like me, you always shy away from tartare, this is the place to try it. The beef tartare, made with parsley, spicy mustard and pickled kale stems and served with crispy sourdough toast would convert anyone. I’m converted. Okay, maybe only at Dai Due. Plus, the owners, Jesse and Tamara, are really nice people, and they also have nourishing selections on the menu for those who aren’t big meat eaters (kale gratin!).
Lastly, for Mexican fine dining, head over to La Condesa on West 2nd. The guacamole sampler is a must, as are any of the taquitos (little tacos). Even with stiff competition for great meat in town, the carne asada here can stand up. La Condesa is also great for weekend brunch.
That’s it! Those recommendations will get you through four or five days of eating in Austin, at least. I hope you go and visit. And when you do, take time to stop and listen to the music, soak up the sunshine, laugh at the quirkiness and absorb a little bit of Austin magic. And if you’re like us, you’ll be back.