Eva Wiseman, The Guardian, April 7, 2014
You don't know queues. You don't know queues until you've stood through the hottest hours on the hottest day in a shadeless car park in Texas, all for a sandwich. Four hours in short shorts and factor 50 in a line that doesn't move an inch. Four hours ("And you were lucky!" says a cheery local) shifting from foot to foot, hungry.
We are living in a time of meat. A time of food channels broadcasting sandwiches the size of caravans long into the night. Of status burgers served with champagne, and chicken wings and ribs, and 18 napkins per person per dinner. Steakhouses line British streets; steaks line British guts. In the wake of the "burger revolution", Britain has begun flirting with barbecue. That's "barbecue", rather than barbecues – the first being slow-cooked meat, the likes of which you find in smoky Texas yards; the second a tray of Tesco Finest sausages served on a Leicester patio in between storms.
Last autumn (following National Burger and Bacon Days) the carnivore's carnival that was Meatopia, a festival of barbecue, came to London for the first time. Its founder is Josh Ozersky, who flew over the best barbecuers in the world for a day's cooking in the sun – a rare opportunity for the UK to experience the taste of Texas (to be specific, Austin, one of the new culinary capitals of the US).
Texas is the home of barbecue, says Ozersky. "For one thing," he explains, "Texas BBQ lacks any seasoning beyond salt and pepper, and no sauce whatsoever. It is therefore bold and stark, with no vinegar dressing to hide behind. It requires more real smoke, as opposed to the smouldering embers which half-cook and half-smoke Carolina hogs." The crucial components for great barbecue? "Smoke and time." I like the sound of this. A lot. So, inspired, I went to visit the restaurants themselves. I followed the great barbecue trail to find out what meat is meant to taste like.
As soon as you land in Austin, where live music plays in the airport itself, you see the city's motto painted on a wall. "Keep Austin Weird", it says. Austinites pride themselves on their individuality, their alternative oasis in a desert of conservatism. And, we discover, their haunted hotels. My boyfriend and I check into the Driskill, the oldest hotel in Austin, where they tell you about the ghosts on the way to your room. Outside the door is a shrine containing a lady's glove, ring and fading photo – it's ghost bait.
While the wood-panelled ye olde charm is delightful, we don't hang around. My boyfriend is a meaty guy. He is. His work involves him brining, rubbing and smoking brisket from dawn every day. The restaurant he was most keen to visit was Aaron Franklin's Franklin Barbecue, named by Bon Appétit magazine as the best in the country. Franklin uses a half-salt, half-pepper rub on Montana beef smoked for up to 18 hours until it's coal black and juicy. He's responsible, many say, for what food writers are calling the new golden age of barbecue. But his food sells out before lunchtime, and people have been known to camp overnight to ensure they get served. That's a big commitment to a sandwich, and much as we're dying to try one, we'd like to see more of Austin than the pavement outside his joint. So first we head to Lockhart.
Lockhart is a small wooden town just outside Austin. As we approach with the window open, the hot air smells smoked. There are four barbecue restaurants in this tiny place: Black's Barbecue, Chisholm Trail, Kreuz and Smitty's Market. Every year 250,000 people visit solely for the meat. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson flew a round of Black's barbecued sausage to Washington – the secret service supervised the operation.
We start at Kreuz, a huge barnlike building that serves beef, sausage or pork by the weight on brown butcher paper. On the side, I have an avocado and half a loaf of bread. This is heaven food. We've had similar in Britain – Pitt Cue in London, for instance, is famed for its pork ribs. Tom Adams, Pitt Cue's owner, says good barbecue tastes "complex, smoky – pretty tricky to describe, in fact, without sounding like a wine-tasting snob. Once you've eaten it, you'll know."
We know. Though we're full – properly "don't touch me don't even talk to me" full – we've come a long way for this food, so we're determined to cram as much in as possible. We squeeze into a booth at Black's, the oldest barbecue restaurant in Texas – the sign outside promises it's open "8 days a week". In the 1930s women ordered through a side window, and while much has changed, it is still, today, a room of men, eating sausages. Across the square, Smitty's is more of a family affair – a high-ceilinged old room of noise and chewing. When I leave, my hair smells of beef.
It has been the perfect preparation. The next day – after a night in Austin's W hotel, with its air-conditioned cabanas and state-of-the-art gym – we wake early, ready to join the queue at Franklin at 9am. The sky is a cloudless sapphire blue, and the line is already winding along the wooden porch, down a flight of stairs and 200m down a dusty residential road.
The heat is like nothing we've experienced before and, as the sun rises higher in the sky, it takes on a thick, drunken quality. The people ahead of us have all come prepared, with cool boxes of drinks, parasols and picnic chairs. What is it about this place that means families are happy to wait a whole day in the heat for a sandwich? "It's the best in the world," explains Al, who is queuing in front of us with his wife. "The very, very best."
Over the street, a man has set up a business hiring out umbrella chairs for $5 – we take two, shuffling them up the line as midday approaches. Franklin opens at 11am, with a sweet boy trundling down the line 10 minutes before to take orders (we go for a Tipsy Texan sandwich, a plate of brisket and turkey, and pickles and slaw on the side), and later he's back to sell bottles of beer.
The queue moves slowly. After three hours hunger leads to silence, despite the merriment around us, and the micro-parties. And then, finally, around 1pm we pick up our food from the counter and sit down, sharing a table with two men whose order is twice ours. The food is… The food is… The food is good. It is so good. It is smoky, rich and sweet – the brisket seems to melt on your tongue, and the turkey is moist and thick cut, like no turkey I've ever tasted.
"Was it worth the four-hour wait?" I ask my boyfriend through a mouthful of pork. Was it worth the 11-hour plane ride, the sunburn, arguments, cholesterol issues in later life? He has his eyes closed in a sort of sweaty bliss. "Shh," he says. "Eat."
Meatopia returns to London on 6-7 September (meatopia.co.uk)
Eva Wiseman travelled to Austin with Expedia (expedia.co.uk, 0330 123 1235). It has return direct flights from London, Heathrow to Austin, Texas from £632. Stay at the Driskill hotel from £214 per night, on a room-only basis. Rooms at the W Austin cost from £234, including taxes and charges (whotels.com/austin). Pick-up and drop-off at Austin airport for a five-day car hire from £21 per day with carrentals.co.uk
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk