Saturday, March 15, 2014

#BBQPalooza2014 : The Decision

Sometimes things just come together: the 1995 Rockets playoff run, the Sgt. Peppers album, the cast of Breaking Bad, and the 2014 #BBQPalooza. All epic. All spectacular. All full of several important decisions. We arrived bright and early in Austin on Tuesday to get into the world famous Franklin's BBQ line. We had a tight itinerary that had been perfected over several weeks. When we turned the corner at 8:20 am to see the longest line we'd ever encountered, the wind flew out of our sails. We decided to get in line anyway, but a Franklin employee came by to get our order and said we'd be eating around 1 pm. There we were in a figurative BBQ studio with a sauce slathered Jim Gray anxiously awaiting our decision. Would we stay in line and possibly have to scratch several plans (probably the uneducated decision we would have made a few years ago), or would we scratch the plans and embrace a new path? Like LeBron we decided to "take our talents" elsewhere and that was the domino which started a chain reaction of great decisions, great timing, and most importantly great barbecue.

We left the line vowing to wake up early the next morning and be at the front. Franklin's could wait until tomorrow. We would be heading for John Mueller Meat Co. Now it is widely known that John is the unchallenged bad boy of Texas BBQ, which some complain about, but I've always thought only adds to his mystique. He didn't disappoint. We made the slight mistake of standing by his fence too early and he snapped a pic of us (one member had a @BBQsnob t shirt on), "I'm sending a picture of you jackasses to Daniel. He'll get a kick out of that shirt." He may or may not have intimidated a few of our group. One thing John is always hospitable about.....MEAT. You don't like your BBQ with a little attitude? Fine, go somewhere else, but know that your search for the best Q in Texas is severely lacking if you've never sampled John Mueller's smoked offerings. His brisket was tremendous, ribs were delicious, and we were all blown away by the meat consistency of his sausage this year. Like any good Texan I'm not big on sauce, but if that's your thing then John's dipping sauce was tremendous as well (I mostly used it on bread to cleanse the palate after the meat fest). As he usually does he showed that his love for those who appreciate good BBQ is barely masked by that bad boy exterior when he gave a young kid at the front of the line his last t shirt, "Just don't wear that one to school bud.....they won't let ya." It featured his signature motto, "You can all go to hell....I'm going to 6th and Pedernales" (I was jealous of that kid). He also sought us out to offer some expert advice on our itinerary and visit for a minute before commenting, "Well.....I'm bored with you guys now." John's the best... and his Q is a must.....and I'm not even saying that out of fear that he may stab me with a beef rib through the heart on my next visit.

Once we finished at John's we got into the truck to head to the next spot when I happened to see a tweet from la barbecue. I quickly hit them back asking if they were open that day (usually they are closed on Tuesdays), and within a minute Ali (who does a terrific job running their twitter) replied they were open for SXSW! We saw an opening to knock out another big spot without even fighting a line. This was our first trip to the new location on E. 6th St., and I must admit we all preferred their previous spot. Parking was a little difficult and the area felt more crowded, but on the upside there was no line! John Lewis is still cranking out some of the best smoked meats in the world. We got our first beef rib of the trip, and it was exceptional. The moist brisket melted in your mouth and the side of chipotle cole slaw was a perfect choice. Last year la barbecue was the biggest eye opener for me trying it for the first time, and the change in venue has done nothing to water down the quality of barbecue that is being cranked out at this paradise of Q. La barbecue was the only spot in Austin that we visited still offering free beverages to its patrons. It's a great laid back spot to get some of the finest food in the world!

Next we decided to head on over to Stiles Switch BBQ and Brew to spend the rest of the afternoon. We had been in contact with Shane and Lance through twitter (I believe Shane's wife runs the account.....and she does a tremendous job promoting the restaurant) so we were excited about the possibility of meeting the two men behind this Austin landmark. If you don't know, the building where Stiles Switch is located was none other than the Emporium that Matthew McConaughey famously hung out at in Dazed and Confused. The vibe that existed in that legendary film still lingers over this mecca of hangout spots today. If perfect BBQ, large screen televisions, washers on a beautiful patio, local craft beers on tap, and a guaranteed enjoyable atmosphere are your can't do better than Stiles Switch! It was the perfect spot to sit on the patio a while and throw some washers while our Mueller double header digested. Unfortunately, I lost at washers and had to pay for the Q when we were ready to eat (although I would gladly fork over any amount of cash for the opportunity to partake in some of pit master Lance Kirkpatrick's exceptional food). Don't be fooled by the relaxed atmosphere or the fact they rarely sell out like other spots (by design ....these guys work their tails off to smoke enough meat to ensure their patrons can eat through the evening), YOU WILL NOT EAT BETTER Q THAN STILES SWITCH. We threw down a trinity plate and Lance's succulent beef rib and it was tremendous. We all agreed that the brisket was even better than we remembered last year and the ribs were perfectly rubbed. We would have left happy right then and there, but then Shane Stiles came out to the patio and took us back for a pit tour. We got the opportunity to see Lance at work and talk BBQ with two of the giants in the industry! Getting to hear Lance tell us a bit about his approach to smoking meat and seeing him rubbing down a few briskets was truly a priceless experience. Shane was extremely candid with us about everything from how he got started, his business strategy, thoughts on other Texas BBQ spots, and even football. You can tell that the enthusiasm for good barbecue and mutual respect these two have toward each other really translates into the restaurant as a whole. There's not two more genuine guys in the barbecue business than Shane and Lance, and there isn't a better atmosphere to eat World Class BBQ than Stiles Switch. It was easily the best experience we had on a trip.

After a short regroup at the hotel it was time to head out to our first new spot of the year....Freedmen's Bar. Admittedly I was a little skeptical about this so called "fancy" BBQ spot that doubles as a retro-inspired cocktail lounge. There was even a short argument over whether we would partake in a 4th plate of BBQ for the day or just sample some of the fancy sides and desserts, but the honorary Texan in our group demanded, "Guys....we came to eat barbecue!" And eat barbecue we did my friend. We sampled the holy trinity plate with German potatoes, grilled cabbage slaw, and house pickles. Quite frankly this was the revelation of our 2014 trip. Pit master Evan LeRoy is one of Zagat's 30 under 30, and I must say we severely underrated him. We have never made a better choice than ordering that holy trinity plate. Despite being full of smoked meats, there was not a single morsel of food left on our beautifully laid out tray. I can't recommend Freedmen's Bar WILL NOT find a better meal being offered of any type than what Evan is churning out here. We are putting this spot firmly in the annual rotation and I for one can't wait to return for a second meal at this "fancy" Q establishment. It might be fancier than your run of the mill backyard BBQ, but I would challenge any died in the wool BBQ redneck to sample Freedmen's delicious brisket and ribs and claim that they are not authentic enough or worthy of being in the top echelon of barbecue in the world. We all left after some smoked chocolate mousse singing descriptive adjectives for the food experience of Freedmen's. Go there.

After a "short" 2 mile hike that has since been affectionately dubbed the "Bataan Death March", we finally stumbled upon Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ. What better way to end a perfect day of smoked meats than topping it off with some brisket tacos. This is the perfect late night snack truck for true Texans! Anybody that knows me knows I love BBQ and Mexican food, so Valentina's is like heaven in a food truck. They've got great barbecue, great tacos, and a friendly staff to meet all your late night food needs. Those tacos were the perfect topper to a great first day, but now it was time to get some shut eye.....Franklin's round 2 would commence early the next morning.

What a difference one day and one hour makes. This time we got up early and showed up to Franklin BBQ at 7:20. Only a few people were waiting in their car (it was colder and very windy), so we braved the elements to stake claim to our first ever "first in line at Franklin's" experience. As always we met some great people in line to discuss barbecue, this time some fine folks from Georgia who admitted their barbecue usually existed solely on chopped pork! Boy were they in for an experience. A lot of people bag on Franklin for having such a ridiculously long line, and I admit if I were a native of Austin there are other less crowded spots I would frequent far more often, but everyone should do Franklin BBQ at least once. People wait in line because as Texas Monthly has proclaimed twice now....It's the best. Aaron deserves all the attention he is getting. When he showed up at our table to see how things were.....I have to admit a small part of me knew what teenage girls at a Beiber concert feel like. If anyone is the rock star of Texas Q it's Aaron Franklin....not because he sells out everyday.....because his barbecue will bring grown men to tears. I have never been to Franklin BBQ and left feeling like I had wasted my time waiting in line for food.

After dining at the most famous BBQ spot in the world it was off to last year's diamond in the rough Micklethwait Craft Meats. Last year the now famous Mr. "Microwave" (courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel) was hardly a household name, but just like we figured after sampling his meats......he's a reluctant rock star in his own right now. There was a far bigger line this year, but the iconic food truck was still churning out lots of "craft meats" for the fans. We were disappointed when we heard they were out of sausage (widely considered by us the best in town), but when they offered to throw in the last link of kielbasa....we were stoked. It was very easy to see how Tom recently won the Austin Beef Rib Challenge....his offering was roughly the size of my 2 year old son and nearly as tender as the brisket! Tom and his staff are some of the nicest people you can meet and we were all excited to see the much deserved success that Micklethwait (the th is silent) is enjoying. This year we followed up our meat splurge with some of his world famous homemade Moon Pies.....Sweet Mother of all things Holy!!! that was the greatest ending to a BBQ feast I've ever had. I've already promised to try to throw one in an ice chest for my wife next year.

From last year's diamond in the rough we traveled to our last stop and probably best chance at this year's soon to explode spot... Kerlin BBQ. Again we had a small debate on whether we would head back home or try out this new spot we had heard a lot about, and I am glad we made the trip! Get to Kerlin BBQ now before the lines do. They were the only spot we visited with live music, and the bluesy rock was a perfect compliment to their moist brisket, tasty ribs, flavorful sausage, and pickled jalapenos. They have a great outdoor seating area where you can hang out and throw some ladder golf (which we did). The highlight here was a middle aged man who rode up on his bike and asked, "Is this John Mueller's spot?" HAHAHAHAHA....We all had a great laugh thinking about him finding John's spot and asking the man himself that silly question. No sir....this isn't John's spot, but if Kerlin BBQ keeps cranking out the kind of meat we tasted on this day people might just be riding around Austin in the very near future asking,"is this the famous Kerlin BBQ?"

One place you never have to wonder if you are at the right spot is Louie Mueller BBQ. Our last stop on the way home was at the iconic granddaddy of them all in Taylor, Texas. If you have never been to Taylor then your BBQ resume is severely lacking my friend. Nothing says Texas BBQ like the historic Louie Mueller building. Last time we came Lance himself was serving the meat and John and LeAnn both learned the ropes here as well. Mueller's is still in the Texas Monthly top 5, and while we feel like there is no place in Texas boasting BBQ quite like Austin anymore.....Louie Mueller and our hometown spot of Killen's BBQ are two of the few joints that can serve the rest of Texas world class cue. It was an excellent last meal of the trip and in a way an opportunity to end where it all started. I'm never more proud to be a Texan than during my annual BBQ pilgrimage and the environment at Louie Mueller's sums that feeling up to a T.

In life we're often faced with forks in the road and #BBQPalooza was no exception. At 8:20 on a Tuesday morning we wisely chose to leave the line at Franklin's and go off the plan for our annual trip. Dangerous? Possibly. Daring? Maybe. Genius? Absolutely.....and much like LeBron quickly turned his doubters into fans, our decision led us down a path of World Championship BBQ that we will never forget. Easily one of our best trips due to chance, experience, and more than a little luck.....#BBQPalooza will be remembered as an epic trip of smoked meat goodness. Hope you had as much fun reading about it as we did living go get some Q!

1 comment:

  1. Nice job. Congrats on the mention on Texas Monthly!