Vail Daily travel story: Two perfect Texas bites
December 5, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas — Smoked barbecue brisket is as special to the state of Texas as cowboy hats or the lone star on the state flag. Ask 10 Texans where to get the best beef brisket and you'll likely get 10 different answers.
On a visit to Austin for the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix two weekends ago, I had one mission to squeeze into the jam-packed racing schedule: try some Texas barbecue brisket.
Foodies know that a visit to any city requires a certain amount of food research. What kind of food is the city known for and which restaurant does it best?
My food research pointed me toward one place: Franklin Barbecue. This is the holy grail of Texas brisket, according to just about every respectable food writer who has eaten there. It's supposedly the best — so good that folks line up for it six days a week (they're closed on Mondays) beginning as early as 7 a.m. The joint doesn't even open until 11 a.m.
Then I took a bite and I realized why Texans get so worked up over barbecue. This stuff is really great.
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While that might seem insane to most people, I was excited to wait in line that long for something so reportedly delicious. But with Formula 1 taking up my Saturday and Sunday mornings and afternoons, the only other day I could wait would be Monday, the one day of the week Franklin Barbecue is closed.
To add insult to injury, I see chef Nobu Matsuhisa on a Chase Sapphire commercial waiting in line at a restaurant, presumably for something delicious. A sign flashes through the frame — it's Franklin Barbecue — and Matsuhisa then makes it to the front of the line where pit master Aaron Franklin slices him off a piece of succulent brisket. Matsuhisa looks impressed when he tastes it.
I write about a place I did not try because it pained me to miss it. If you're reading this before a trip to Austin and you're crazy enough about food to wait three-plus hours for it, go there. But if you either don't have the time or just can't justify waiting that long for a meal, do what I did and head to Lockhart.
Lockhart, about 30 miles south of Austin, is known as the barbecue capital of Texas. There are three notable places to try: Black's Barbecue, Smitty's Market and Kreuz Market. Again, if you ask three locals which is best, you'll likely get three different answers.
At some point, you just have to make a decision and stick with it. I needed someone to help sway me toward mine. Which one should I try?
Two local Austin guys told me Black's would be the best choice. OK, OK — I'll go to Black's.
I had dinner reservations in downtown Austin less than 3 hours later, so my mission was to try the brisket and that's all — I didn't want to fill up.
It was hard to walk past the sides — mashed potatoes and gravy, pickles, cole slaw, potato salad and deviled eggs. They looked great, but I just needed some brisket.
At the front of the line, which was almost to the door, the man slicing brisket asked if I wanted lean or fatty slices. I can't imagine who would ever order the lean.
He sliced off three pieces of fatty brisket and put them on a Styrofoam plate. I sat down, placed the plate on the red and white-checkered tablecloth and could smell the smokiness right away.
Then I took a bite and I realized why Texans get so worked up over barbecue. This stuff is really great. There's love that goes into making something this flavorful with such a silky, unctuous texture. It way too easy to ruin brisket and dry it out, but Black's version was excellent.
Maybe Kreuz or Smitty's is better, I don't know. One Texan friend of mine immediately commented on my Facebook check-in at Black's and told me I chose wrong. What can you do other than attempt to try them all and come up with your own favorite? I wish I had enough time for that.
And just like there are many great barbecue joints in and around Austin, there are also many places to find great live entertainment and good restaurants. With limited time, you tend to go for what's most popular.
Heaven in a bowl
I strolled down 6th Street and soaked in the live music blaring out of the open windows and doors at the countless watering holes. The road was blocked off and pedestrians spilled out into the street, many of them donning their favorite Formula 1 race gear.
Parkside was my destination, a restaurant in the thick of it all that had rave reviews on Yelp and also an impressive accolade from Food & Wine Magazine, which rated its mac-n-cheese among the best in the United States. The atmosphere was lively and dark — perfect.
Before digging into the rich mac-n-cheese, I started off with a couple of oysters, both of which were exceptionally fresh and silky smooth. Then I had a kampachi dish that exuded elegance on a plate. It was fresh and delicate, served atop mango with yuzu and a light cashew sauce. I thought it was food perfection until the mac-n-cheese came out.
Parkside's mac-n-cheese is a side dish, so it's served in a relatively small crock-looking pot. The noodles are packed in tight and the gooey Gruyere and cheddar cheese bubble over the edges. It's sprinkled with Parmesan and bread crumbs and topped with parsley.
A woman at the table to my left was eating one, then a man at the table to my right ordered one and devoured it. I, on the other hand, savored it. Its rich and creamy texture, combined with the sharp flavors of the cheese, were heaven in a bowl. I ate it with a spoon, slowly. Each bite sent me into a temporary state of euphoria, and the lovely little crock dish kept it all hot as I took my time. It was rich and filling — and as much as I wanted to finish it, I couldn't. Perhaps I should have only had two slices of brisket earlier that evening instead of three.
All in all, I went two-for-two with my meals. I can only imagine all of the interesting and delicious things I would have found in and around Austin if I would have had more time to explore.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.