BBQ Travels: Austin

Ever since I got into barbecuing, I’ve wanted to travel to central Texas. More specifically, Austin. It is widely considered one of the barbecue havens of the world. Some folks consider it to be Barbecue Mecca. Either way, I kept talking of going but did nothing about it. That is, until one day I was hanging out with a couple of friends at work who also barbecue and I brought up this trip. We were sitting at our desks at work when one started looking up flights and the other checked hotels/AirBnB and the next thing I knew, we were headed to Austin!

Landing in Austin.

We landed in the late afternoon and we were starving. We had a few places in mind to hit up and first was to drive outside of Austin and go to Driftwood to visit the famous Salt Lick.

SALT LICK (Driftwood)

This place is out of the way and sits on acres of land. It’s pretty much a ranch about 20-30 minutes outside of Austin. You pull up into a big gravel parking lot that has no problem filling up, especially on a Friday night. Between the two indoor dining areas (old side and new), there is an outdoor seating place with benches and a stage for live music. All in all, the place can seat 1,000 people at once!

They have outdoor areas on site for people to have picnics, playgrounds for kids to play on, grass to run around and plenty of trees to take shade on those hot Texas summer days. They also have enough outdoor space to hold events such as weddings.

We sat in the old building where there iconic indoor pit is located. The employees were kind enough to let us come behind the counter and take pictures. Just ask and they will let you back.

The iconic pit at the Salt Lick.

The seating, from what I observed, is mostly long wood benches. The walls are made of rock and cement with both normal ceiling fan lights and white Christmas lights draped throughout. This place holds true to their heritage and gives you an authentic experience.

The servers were friendly and fast with bringing out our food, even with it being a busy Friday night. My buddy Corey inquired about their sweet tea and a server named Dixon came and brought him a medium sized cup filled for a sample (not one of those tiny, smaller than Dixie kids cup types). He then asked about lemonade (to make an Arnold Palmer) and Dixon said they didn’t have any but that he would make him a fresh batch because “all I do is mix water, lemons, and sugar.” Excellent customer service!

We had brisket, pulled pork, sausage, Burnt Ends, pork rib, and turkey for meat. The sides were potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, pickles and onions. The potato salad stood out because they used their signature yellow sauce in the mix. It was divine and I don’t like potato salad that much.

Some of the food fare at Salt Lick (pictured: brisket, pulled pork, slaw, potato salad, and beans.

Have I mentioned the place smells like barbecue inside and out? This ambiance, food, and customer service made it feel like barbecue heaven. I would fly back to Austin just to come to Salt Lick!

FRANKLIN

Corey, Matt, and I at the front of Franklin Barbecue.

Us BBQ enthusiasts know all about Franklin Barbecue: the meats, the long lines, the reputation of Aaron Franklin himself. For those who aren’t familiar, Franklin Barbecue has quickly become the Mt. Everest of BBQ joints. It’s quality of barbecue, the limited,  four hour window of time it is open (11:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Tues-Sun), downtown location, and coolness of the pit master himself all drive the demand and make people wait outside in long lines for hours for this stuff.

A portion of the line at Franklin Barbecue. The folks in the front of the line got here at 5:30 a.m.!

Being from out of town and connoisseurs of fine barbecue ourselves, we’ve been chomping at the bit to try this place. To ensure we had a chance of getting to eat here, we showed up at 7:30 a.m. and there were already over 100 people in line! The people at the front of the line said they got there at 5:30 a.m.! Remember, this place opens at 11:00. I felt good about our chances of eating here and that was confirmed when an employee came out and starting sizing up the line, giving estimates as to when we were anticipated to eat. Our spot in line was given a 1-1:30 p.m. window. That will make SIX HOURS of waiting! Man, this place better be worth it.

Most people in line were smart and planned ahead by bringing camping chairs and coolers full of drinks. We, the out-of-towners, brought comfy shoes to stand in. While we couldn’t magically produce chairs for our wait in line, if you need a drink there’s a little coffee shack on premise and the inside of Franklin Barbecue opens for beverage and souvenir sales at 8:30, so you can get your drinks and swag while you wait. There are also port-a-potty’s outside and you can use the bathrooms inside before lunchtime.

A little later in the morning the same worker came out to ask people in line what they planned on ordering so they could set expectations. We said brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, and sausage. She didn’t shoot us down, so I think we have a shot at getting all the stuff we want.

A view from the entrance at Franklin.

Our time in line was quite enjoyable due to the local folks waiting around us. We talked for hours about everything and even played card games with them. Maybe it’s that Texas hospitality, maybe the bond of barbecue, maybe both. Either way, the long wait wasn’t that bad.

Once we got inside the door, we had another 25 minutes to wait before our turn at the counter. You order your food and you get it right there. Then you pay and find a table. Wasn’t hard to find a table because some folks just took their food and left. The seven of us found a table just fine (we sat with the new friends we made in line).

After six hours, we made it to the ordering counter!

Here it is: the moment of truth! The years of hype, the 1,400 miles traveled, the six hours of waiting in line, and now we get to FINALLY sink our teeth into the glorious barbecue we’ve been hearing all about. Truth be told? It was worth it! The brisket was the best I’ve ever had, both the point and the flat! In fact, their flat beats out other BBQ joints’ point. The pulled pork was incredible, too. I also think this was the best I’ve tasted. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone style and very juicy. The turkey and sausage were okay. Same with the sides. But their key lime pie was excellent!

Our glorious spread of meats (and sides) at Franklin.

Turns out I have a follower on Instagram named Bin who works at Franklin Barbecue and even though he wasn’t working during lunch hours he alerted one of his fellow pit crew that I was there. Braun was kind enough to give me and my friends a tour behind the scenes! How cool is that?

They have three 1,000 gallon propane tanks that have all been repurposed as offset smokers. They are already working on the meats for the next day, so these bad boys keep pumping out that white oak smoke around the clock. Braun told us they do 72 briskets a day! Serving up that many briskets in a four hour window is insane (especially when you remember they sometimes run out sooner than that).

One of the three, 1,000 gallon propane tanks that have been repurposed as gargantuan smokers.

This had already been one of the greatest barbecue experiences of my life, but what made it even better was that I go to meet the man, the myth, the legend: Aaron Franklin!

Me with the legendary Aaron Franklin!

Aaron was very down to earth and easy to talk to. He’s a busy man but still makes time to come out from behind the scenes occasionally and chat up customers (and even agree to photo ops with fans who geek out like myself).

Was it worth waiting in line for six hours? Yes. Not sure how often I would do that, but you must experience the greatest brisket and pulled pork at least once in your life.

STILES SWITCH

My feast at Stiles Switch.

After hanging out on 6th St for a little bit, I convinced my friends we should eat barbecue again and this time try Stiles Switch for dinner. When we first pulled up, it was dark in the parking lot and didn’t seem well lit by the restaurant, either. There were plain, rusty metal doors labeled “ENTRANCE” and my buddy Corey said it looked like the entrance to a strip club. We were a bit skeptical going in, but the inside ambiance was the total opposite of outside. It was a lively, down home rustic feel with wood walls, some neon lights, and the aroma of smoked meats.

Corey chillin’ at the Stiles Switch.

The line wasn’t too bad and we got our food quickly. It is the same style as Franklin where they give you your food at the counter and pay there. My buddy and I decided to split a three-meat plate of brisket, ribs, and pulled pork…and a jalapeño sausage on the side. With two sides to choose from, the guy in front of us recommended one called corn casserole. We got that and the pinto beans w/ brisket.

The brisket was pretty solid and the ribs were the best I’ve had. The pulled pork was pretty good. While I appreciate the concept of the different flavor of sausage, it was a bit too spicy for me.

These may have been the best ribs I had in Austin.

The area where Stiles Switch really shines is their sides! That corn casserole was by far the best side I’ve had. Unlike the usual sides of potato salad, beans, and cole slaw, this corn casserole stands alone and had me scraping my plate for every last morsel I could find. My buddy Matt had the potato salad and he loved it. The pinto beans w/ brisket were pretty good, too.

That corn casserole was $$$

Unlike most BBQ joints that offer sauces that all look and taste somewhat similar, Stiles Switch goes out of their way to offer flavors unique from each other in style and appearance.The sauce they give you at the counter for dipping your food in is excellent. It’s a little runny, but pretty good flavor. They have a molasses sauce that was really good in small dosages. The mustard sauce was definitely mustard tasting. They had a peach habanero sauce that I wasn’t in the mood to try, but can appreciate that they were going for sauces that stand out from each other.

My buddies and I decided that Stiles Switch is a great place to go for an overall great barbecue meal.

BLACK’S BARBECUE (Lockhart)

Black’s is a classic in Texas. One of the originals.

While documenting this barbecue trip on Instagram, I received a lot of recommendations to head to Lockhart, TX which is about 30-40 minutes away. It’s a small Texas town with authentic, rustic charm and is known for its barbecue. There are more than a few barbecue places in this town and we decided to go to Black’s. We chose Black’s because it is the oldest barbecue joint in Texas and has quite the reputation. It’s in an old building on an old Main Street looking road, probably been there since they opened.

Behind the counter at Black’s.

You walk in and it feels like a barbecue dining establishment that hasn’t changed much over the years. They have the red checkered picnic cloth table tops but covered in old plastic (kinda like how your grandparents cover their furniture in plastic covers, you know?), stained wood walls with pictures of family and celebrities who’ve come by, and traditional country music blaring. I loved how authentic this place felt and almost felt like a true time warp to 30-40 years ago, but in a good way.

Not much has changed inside over the years.

As far as the food goes, the brisket was really good (which seems to be a common theme down here in central Texas). The ribs were okay, pork was good, and the chicken (I got white meat) was flavorful but a little dry. We only had one type of sauce on our table, which was good. The pecan pie was also good, not great. Sides were pretty good (potato salad, mac n cheese, beans, slaw). Overall, it might have been my least favorite barbecue place to eat in central Texas, but still better than most places that aren’t in central Texas.

Brisket and chicken are the main feature here on this two-meat plate.

To sum things up, this was a dream trip for me. Austin has a ton to offer and wish I could’ve stayed longer than three nights. Also wish we could’ve hit up more places because I received so many recommendations of other BBQ joints out here. For what I was able to experience, I hope I was able to give you all a glimpse of what barbecue is like in central Texas and the places we hit up. I love the passion they have for BBQ there. Til next time, Austin.

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