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The Rolling Barbecue Revue

Low, slow and mobile with Franklin Barbecue, the Shed, Bee Caves BBQ, Bar-B-Q Heaven, Muck-n-Dave's and Old School

Mike Sutter
Brett Orrison drives to his home state of Mississippi regularly to get the sauces and dry rubs that his restaurateur father makes. The pulled pork in the sandwich, above, is one of the highlights.

Substitute the idea of 'ribs' for 'green eggs and ham,' and I think we're onto something: 'I would eat them in a boat. And I would eat them with a goat. And I will eat them in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train.'

And on a schoolbus, next to a train.

The past year has seen the rise of five mobile barbecue joints around the city and the pioneering endurance of one on the outskirts. It's hardly surprising that the national meat of Texas would become a white-hot piece of the trailer-food boom. The surprise is how some of these low-and-slow rollers are challenging the notion that to have legendary barbecue, you have to have, you know, a legend.

Brett Orrison of the Shed BBQ's Rolling Joint (serving Central Texas since March 2010!) has an opinion about how that works. 'I actually talked with Aaron (Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue) about this. In a trailer, you have a lot less quantity, so every little piece of meat that you're cooking, you're staring at it for 13 hours. You're putting all your mojo, all your love into just a few pieces of meat.'

And I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them anywhere!

Franklin Barbecue

3421 N. Interstate 35. 653-1187, www.franklinbarbecue.com. Hours: 11 a.m. until the food runs out (usually around 2 p.m.) Wednesdays-Sundays.

This is possibly the epicenter of the New Barbecue Nerd movement.

A cheeky, retro trailer with plastic patio lanterns? Check. Open just a few hours at a time, with no guarantee that there'll be any meat left by the time you get to the window? Check and check. Run by a young guy with muttonchops and granddad glasses? Absolutely.

The best barbecue you've had in the past year? To quote a well-smoked colleague: 'I think my days of driving to Taylor or Lockhart may be over.'

Franklin Barbecue sprang up as a Christmas present in the parking lot of Owl Tree Roasting in 2009, but Aaron Franklin's overnight success started awhile back.

'When I was kid, my parents had a barbecue place for a few years,' Franklin said. 'My dad ran it, and I talked him into letting me home-school so I could work there when I was about 9 years old.

'Years later, my wife and I bought a little backyard smoker,' Franklin said, accelerating the story from his smoky memories of Bryan to his life in Austin. 'It kind of like rekindled some nostalgia. And that brisket, aahhh, it was so terrible. Kept on working at it, and it was kind of like, "This might be something I might like to do for a career." My other options were pretty nil, really, outside of playing music, and that doesn't pay much.'

So he got a job at barbecue scion John Mueller's short-lived place on Manor Road, then returned to backyard barbecuing and building houses. But fate and the Owl Tree coffee guy intervened.

Franklin had worked with Owl Tree's Travis Kizer at Little City years ago. Kizer asked Franklin to help change out a window, then Franklin stayed on to help with Owl Tree's buildout. 'We were drinking beer one Saturday night out there, and he's like, "Hey, you should finish that camper that's in your backyard and park it back here." ' That's exactly what he did.

Every morning before 11 except Monday and Tuesday, people start milling around outside the gate. At 11:01, the line is a dozen people long. A two-meat plate is $8.75 with two sides, sandwiches around $4.75. There's pulled pork, pork ribs, sausage and thick-crusted brisket. Franklin turns the brisket in his hand and asks me how much fat I'd like. 'All of it,' I say.

What he cuts is a slippery, marbled masterpiece. The muscled beef has just enough give, the fat hovers a few impure thoughts away from rendering. The smoke curls though it like a beach campfire from a 1970s Coke commercial, the crust a reminder of why we started applying heat to meat in the first place.

The other meat is good. Pork ribs with a balance of easy slide and primal chew, sausage that pops with tight-grained texture and fleeting sweetness, pulled pork as proud as ribbons at a county fair. But the brisket. The brisket is epic.

Franklin's not a sauce guy: 'I'm definitely of the camp that it should be good enough without sauce.' Even so, he stocks every picnic table with bottles of the stuff, from hot to sweet to 'pork' and espresso.

The espresso sauce was born of nights staying up tending the fire, taking shots of coffee to stay awake. It's as deep and ruddy brown as a GTO's motor oil, its roasty base an accelerator for the sin and satisfaction of sweet, smoky fat.

The real-life limitations of running a small barbecue business mean Franklin has to let the smoker cool down for a day so he can scrub it clean for the next week. He's looking for a building. When he adds capacity, he can add days and hours. 'We make as much food as I can fit on the smoker,' he said.

The line forms here.

The Shed BBQ's Rolling Joint

In the lot at Rabbit's Lounge at 1816 E. Sixth St. On the Internet at Facebook. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.

It took a hurricane to get Brett Orrison into the serious business of smoking meat.

His family's Shed BBQ & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs, Miss., was among the first restaurants to reopen after Hurricane Katrina. 'We just started cooking and feeding all the rescue people for free,' Orrison said. 'That's how I started smoking meat, actually, because I was just doing the entertainment.'

The Shed has become a cottage industry for the Orrison family, with five restaurants in the South and now the Rolling Joint in Austin, where Brett Orrison sells pulled pork and pulled brisket sandwiches three nights a week at $6 a pop, or $10 with two sides (beans and sweet macaroni salad, for my money).

About once a month, Orrison makes the nine-hour haul to Mississippi to bring back the sauces and dry rubs made by his dad, Craig. In May, the family took third place in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, and their pulled-pork sandwich landed a mention in the June issue of Better Homes and Gardens after winning a contest put on by, oddly enough, 'Live with Regis and Kelly.'

But right now, Orrison's focused on his corrugated metal trailer at East Sixth and Chicon streets in the parking lot of Rabbit's Lounge, where you can duck in and bring out a Bud Light (or a set-up for something harder) to go with your barbecue and catch some live music. The plan is to add more hours and build the menu. But the pork isn't a bad place to start.

Pulled from the bone in thick shreds, the meat is an affirmation of the porky arts, pink blossoms of melting smoke flecked with crunchy and chewy nuggets of charred crust. It's better than the brisket, but then again it's better than a lot of things, even if those things were covered in the same Southern-style sauce, a belle's ball of brown sugar, molasses and a little hot flash.

It's worth tracking down, even if you have to eat it in the car with the AC running.

Bee Caves BBQ

8414 W. Bee Cave Road. 306-9040. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays.

Sherry Waldrop was my daughter's piano teacher for a few years, out at her family's rural spread in what used to be the country before suburbia caught up. After a couple of months of lessons, I figured out where I'd seen her face before: In the window of a blue, wood-sided trailer selling barbecue at Loop 360 and Bee Cave Road.

The Waldrops - mom Sherry, daddy Jack and kids Jack Jr., Michael and Tracy - rolled into the barbecue business on July 4, 1997. But Sherry and Jack Waldrop's families have been part of Travis County for so long that they sometimes rode their horses to Eanes Elementary. Even now, they're people of the outdoors. On weekends, Jack and the boys disappear for their double lives as tournament fishermen.

The Waldrops' trailer, Bee Caves BBQ, has moved a little farther west, to where Bee Cave and River Hills roads intersect. The old site houses a bank now. A sort of compound has evolved around the trailer, its terraced yard fenced in, with tables made from wooden cable spools and chairs sliced like sausage from old tree trunks. The menu boards are crackled with sunburn.

The food has changed hardly at all, except for the addition of a chopped-pork sandwich on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. It's sweet and tender shoulder-meat confetti. I like it with a splash of their second barbecue sauce, thin and blazing-hot. Their roster of regular meats has few equals for variety, with brisket, thin-sliced pork loin, Taylor sausage, pork ribs, even turkey breast for the vegetarians (that one never gets old). A two-meat plate is $9.75, and a lunch sack with a sandwich, bag of chips and a drink is $6.50.

My favorite is a big country-style pork rib on Wednesdays and Thursdays, an expression of fat and lean more refined in texture and taste than a standard pork rib, more like a barbecued steak. My family goes for the thinly charred brisket and sliced, lean sausage links.

We all agree on Sherry Waldrop's blackberry and peach cobblers, every bit as sweet and country as she is.

Bar-B-Q Heaven

Seventh and Red River streets. 945-8970. Hours: 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays.

Glenn Simms sees his big blue-and-white trailer as part restaurant, part mission, a way station where after-hours party people can have a sandwich and a bottle of water and think about their next move.

Don't dismiss this as food for the sobriety-impaired. If you're going to remember one part of your Sixth Street bender, let it be the smoked bone-in pork chop. Let the running of the osteo-obstacle course to get every scrap of meat be the lone, blinking beacon of what went right that night.

Simms and his brother, Darrell, also smoke brisket, ribs and even turkey legs at the trailer. Fried catfish is a big seller at $6 with fries, and sandwiches start at $3. But even at 3 in the morning, a handshake and a few words of blessing are free.

Muck-N-Dave's Texas BBQ

1603 S. Congress Ave. Hours: Opens at 11 a.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Until 9 or 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. otherwise.

Missing from the Weird Austin theme park of Hudson's chicken cones and Airstream cupcakes along South Congress Avenue was a barbecue theater. Muck-N-Dave's has filled that role with medicine-show lettering, lots of corrugated steel and a steady haze of temptation from the smoker box on the side.

Like a carnival, the meat has a sideshow glow. From the sunset corona on the char-slicked brisket to the ruddy-orange blush of sausage to the lacquered patina of the ribs, it's all ready for its close-up.

But after a couple of visits, I'd say it all needs more time. More time for the marvelous fatty rind of the brisket to melt into and soften up the meat. More time for the ribs to let go of the bone. More time for the sausage to pick up the smoke and lose its waxy pearls of unmelted fat.

If this strolling trailer court is a touristy version of the Austin vibe - right down to the guy playing sleepy acoustic covers of '70s folk-rock biscuits - then I suppose there should be a barbecue booth. Just as long as we know the difference.

Old School BBQ & Grill

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Clifford Lane. 947-6830. Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. On Mondays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the bus parks in the lot at East Side Lumber, 3001 E. Cesar Chavez St.

The most truly mobile outlet of this Rolling Barbecue Revue, Old School commutes, smokes and sells from a big yellow school bus no different than the ones we just sent to the barns for the summer. Except for the smokestack and the long, inky streak falling like a veil from a side window.

These are some of the friendliest people you could meet on a bus, even as they blink away the heat and haze on a verdant stretch of road next to the Metro Rail track. And this is some of the most challenging barbecue in the city, the most aggressively smoked meat you'll ever find. It follows you like a swarm of cartoon bees, from the bus to the car, from the car to your office, in your hair, on your clothes, in your pores. People will stand aside to let you pass, waving you away like a walking house fire.

If smoke is your preferred poison, Old School is your hotline. I'm not the man dialing that number. But on the edges of the menu, I found a truly fine hamburger for $6, a dripping half-pound of shredded beef dressed with caramelized onions (ask for them).

And there's another thing, a side dish truly among the best at any joint, transient or steadfast: a wedge of macaroni and cheese, cut like a pie, held together by melted magic and shot through with a velvety cream sauce and a kiss of oregano. If the meat is Al Pacino at his frothy apex in 'Scent of a Woman,' the mac is Michael Corleone in the first movie: subtle, nuanced, ready for bigger things.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902