I also know about the barbecue. Not only did I eat at countless barbecue joints during my years in Texas, but I also served as Robb Walsh’s editor at the Houston Press. The Texans among you might recognize Walsh’s name. He is, arguably, the state’s preeminent food writer. We worked on some barbecue features during our time at the Press, such as The Art of Smoke.
In short, I don’t take my Texas barbecue lightly. It’s still my preferred style when smoking in my own backyard.
So when I wrote in this year’s barbecue rankings that the brisket at Hill Country in Washington is “as good or better than Franklin’s” in Austin, I knew it would provoke outrage from people in the Lone Star State. Sure enough, within hours, Matthew Odam, the restaurant critic at the Austin American-Statesman, had penned these words:
Look, I’ve never been to Hill Country barbecue in D.C., or the flagship in Manhattan opened by a man with Texas roots who modeled his restaurant on Kreuz Market in his family’s hometown of Lockhart. But I don’t need to to know that the brisket there, or anywhere in D.C., can’t touch that at Franklin Barbecue.
I’m not sure what you call an opinion that’s based on comparing two briskets — one of which you haven’t sampled — but I think it’s food chauvinism.
I have tasted both briskets. My last visit to Austin was as in October, when I was scouting dive bars. I got up early on a Saturday to visit Franklin Barbecue, the mecca of barbecue pilgrims everywhere. I arrived around 9 a.m., which, as it turned out, wasn’t early enough. The famously long line already stretched well past the restaurant. The folks in front of me had brought chairs, coolers, inflatable hammocks and reading materials. One group of bros had even brought a keg of beer to help pass the time.
It made me miss Texas something fierce.
Six hours and 10 minutes later, I was eating the barbecue of Aaron Franklin, the James Beard Award-winning pitmaster behind the place. I loved the beef short rib and the sausage. But here’s what I wrote about the brisket to my friends on Facebook back in October:
The brisket had a deep smoke ring. The slices were plenty moist, too, both those from the deckle and those from the point. My issue with the brisket was the seasoning (way under-seasoned) and the bark development (not much). It made for mediocre brisket eating.
In his post, the Stateman’s restaurant critic also contacted Daniel Vaughn, the respected barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, who was quoted as saying, “Anytime I read someone who writes that the brisket they had was as good as Franklin’s, then I just know that it’s been too long since they’ve been to Franklin. That same happens to me.”
Vaughn called me from the road to clarify exactly what he meant. Vaughn says that he will regularly sample a brisket at some new smokehouse and think (I’m paraphrasing here), “Wow, this is as good as Franklin’s.” But then Vaughn will circle back to Franklin, order the brisket and get a fresh reminder about the superiority of Aaron Franklin’s brisket.
“I really do find that it holds up, once I’ve jogged my memory of Franklin Barbecue,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn, of course, has the benefit of easy access to Franklin Barbecue. I do not. I just have my experience from October, and based on that, it was an easy call: Now that Hill Country smokes only with wood, and not a combination of gas and wood, its brisket was the superior one. Vaughn couldn’t offer an opinion on the matter. He’s never visited the Hill Country in Washington.
As Vaughn and I talked, he reminded me of a story he wrote in 2013, when Aaron Franklin traveled to Manhattan for a special event at Hill Country. The celebrated pitmaster smoked the meats himself. Diners, including Dan Rather, were apparently blown away by the results.
Wrote Vaughn at the time of the dinner:
This would all be easy enough to explain if I told you that Franklin hauled up one of [his] steel offset pits and [a] trailer full of post oak, but he didn’t. These results were from the same equipment used at Hill Country daily. This includes an Ole Hickory gas-fired rotisserie smoker. Yes, a gasser.
In other words, a dedicated pitmaster can turn out great briskets from a Hill Country cooker.