Eight Things You’re Doing Wrong When You Go Out for Barbecue

When it comes to smoked meats, there are right ways—and wrong ones. Smoked-meat master Aaron Franklin tells how to avoid common missteps.
Illustration: Timo Kuilder

When people line up for hours to get barbecue, you know that place is doing it right. At Franklin Barbecue in Austin, it can take more than three hours—the restaurant is only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.—for customers to get a plate of the fat-laced, pepper-crusted brisket and the meaty ribs and sausages that chef Aaron Franklin has been painstakingly smoking since he opened his original barbecue joint in a trailer in 2009.

He is most famous for his brisket: On a typical day, Franklin goes through about 2,500 pounds of meat, 1,600 pounds of which is brisket. 

This is what happens when you do barbecue right.

Photograph Courtesy of Franklin BBQ

On May 18, Franklin will kick off his inaugural Hot Luck food and music festival. He’s labeling it an “anti-food-festival festival” with plenty of barbecue, music, and a “what got you into cooking” party. He’ll show off his pot roast-making skills alongside such stellar chefs as New York’s Alex Stupak, Houston’s Chris Shepherd, and Roy Choi from Los Angeles.

Ahead of the festival, we interviewed Franklin about the etiquette of barbecue. When eating with your hands, or standing up, is allowed, it may feel like there are no rules. But the cuisine has definite no-nos. Here are Franklin’s: 

 1. A good barbecue place will have a line. Wait, don’t hate.

“Don’t look at that line as a reason not to go, look at it as a tailgating opportunity,” says Franklin. “You’ll have a good time with whoever you’re there with; if you’re not, make new friends. It’s like the old tradition of sitting on a porch—and a good excuse to slow down. People have met and gotten engaged on the Franklin line. We had a couple get married in our line. A judge from town performed the service; my wife Stacy and I were the witnesses. We turned off the music at the restaurant so they could play the Wedding March. They hung out afterwards, and bought the judge lunch. If you feel the need, you can even schedule work meetings on a line. My favorite is when people meet with a beer in their hand.”

 2. Barbecue requires research.

The end of the legendary line at Franklin Barbecue is in sight.
Photograph Courtesy of Franklin BBQ

“When I travel, I do research beforehand because I want to know what I’m getting into. It’s exactly the same for barbecue, especially if you’re headed somewhere with a decent reputation. The only complaints I hear are when people show up at 11:30, starving, and they have to eat right now. Sorry, there are 400 people on line ahead of you. We’re equal-opportunity here. If you’ve got access to internet, you know that we have a line. 

“Everyone stands in line at Franklin. Except President Obama. He started out on the line but worked his way to the front. He talked to people, shook a lot of hands, and bought some folks lunch. It was expertly done. But if you’re not the president, bring some snacks if you know you’re going to a place where you won’t eat for a while.”

 3. If you’re ordering only ribs, you’re missing the best surprises.

Get psyched for brisket, but have a plan B.

Photograph Courtesy of Franklin BBQ

“Waiting on a barbecue line, you have plenty of time to get your heart set on something. However, things change: Those ribs you wanted so badly, they might be gone when you get to the counter. Maybe this is when you’ll find out that you love the turkey.

“At our place, I’d definitely get the turkey. We started serving it because we were running out of ribs and needed something to offset that. I hate smoking chickens; I’ve never barbecued a chicken in my life. But turkey is bigger and easier to cook. It’s got a clean smoke flavor, and we baste them in butter. Believe me, it’s knockout. Does that mean I’ll get turkey at any barbecue place I go? No way. But I will recommend the turkey, if you ask me at Franklin. And at someone else’s place, I will ask them what they like that doesn’t get a lot of airtime.”

 4. Don’t forget to ask questions.

Don't be afraid to ask Aaron Franklin your barbecue questions.
Source: Franklin Barbecue

“That leads me to this advice, which should be true everywhere: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I like it when people ask questions. 'What’s a burnt end?' 'How do you make those beans?' That minute or so you have at the counter, that is your time. If you want to have a heart-to-heart, we’re here for you, at least for a few minutes. There’s a lot of heart around barbecue.”

 5. Worried about overeating? Then go somewhere else.

“I like to think of Franklin as a well-orchestrated trip to a grandma’s house that you’ve never met before. Most grandmas are going to overfeed you, and that’s a good mentality to have at a place like Franklin. Here’s my ultimate order: an end, cut off the lean side of brisket. Brisket is a huge piece of meat—you might not get that piece—but hey, why not try? Get a couple pieces of lean brisket so you can tell how well it’s cooked, plus one slice of fatty brisket; one link or ring of sausage; one pork rib, and then whatever else they have. Maybe a little bit of pulled pork. Essentially, my order is a little bit of everything. You might as well get all the sides, too.” 

 6. Don’t take your time with your food.

“Don’t talk; get on the food. Barbecue ages quickly. The fans are blowing on the meat, cooling it right down, while you’re standing around having a conversation. We set up our restaurant precisely this way: You stand in line, we slice it for you when you get to us, so it’s the juiciest piece of meat possible. As soon as you cut that brisket, it starts to dry out, and that pretty fat on the brisket, the grease on the pork, it starts to congeal. The meat starts to discolor. That’s why we don’t ship our meat, and that’s why we don’t stay open at night. Our brisket won’t be as good all those hours later.”

7. Never leave leftovers behind.

“In spite of Rule No. 6: Since you’ve invested some time on the line, it’s not a bad idea to get a couple pounds to take home. Leftovers get tricky. If I know I’m taking some home, I ask for a chunk of barbecue, rather than pre-cut. Then reheat it slowly, wrapped in foil, until you’ve got it hot and juicy. It won’t be as good, but your friends probably won’t know the difference.”

8. Look for hidden clues.

Don't be afraid to ask for a tour of the smokers at Franklin.
Photograph Courtesy of Franklin BBQ

“I’ve been in this game for a while, so I usually know any barbecue places I go to. But if I am scouting out a spot, I first look at the smoke stack—it tells you a lot about a place and its barbecue. If the smoke smells good, I’ll walk in. If it’s dark black and nasty, and if it doesn’t smell good, then I move along.

"I also want to see what cookers they’ve got. If it’s a rotisserie gas oven, then I will get back in my car. You should check out the cookers, even if you know you’re at a good place. It’s part of the magic, part of the experience. We will always give customers a tour of Franklin. Eat your food first, then wrap it up, holler at us, and we’ll take you back.”

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