Outside of Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

The Birthplace

When the Spanish first arrived, settlers encountered a new style of cooking: barbacoa — the original barbecue.

Indigenous people had developed a method for cooking meat over an indirect flame. Nearly 600 years later, barbecue in this country is booming and is widely considered one of the most distinctive American cuisines.

The “barbecue belt” includes the Carolinas, Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and, finally, Texas, especially Central Texas. Smoked brisket started in Eastern Europe, amongst the Ashkenazi Jewish community. Traditionally a cheap cut, the brisket cut comes from the front of the cow, making it a kosher dish. Now, it is the centerpiece of tradition-bound BBQ spots in Texas, and in Southern California, where smoked meat is flourishing.

In Lockhart, Texas, during the 1950s, Black’s BBQ became the first restaurant to exclusively offer brisket to its customers. The offset smoker became a key ingredient in the barbecue process, utilizing a long horizontal chamber while charcoal and wood burn in a scorching firebox attached to one side.

The smoker is usually made of quarter-inch thick cast iron and old industrial propane tanks. Offset smokers feature shelves in the cooking chamber to roast briskets, fork-tender pork shoulders and bite-through racks of ribs.

My father spent the first 20 years of his life in the port city of Galveston, Texas. Growing up as a Black man in segregated East Texas in the early 1960s, he moved to Compton when he was 20 to escape the racial persecution he faced in his youth. I had been once or twice to Houston and Dallas, but never to Austin. And never for barbecue in this capacity.

Two restaurants were must-visits: Snow’s BBQ in the Central Texas town of Lexington, and Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Snow’s is home to 87-year-old Norma Frances "Tootsie" Tomanetz, who many call the “Queen of Texas Barbecue,” running one of the best ‘cue spots in the country.

Franklin’s is headed by Aaron Franklin, who’s made appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” is featured in his own “Masterclass,” and owns what many consider the best barbecue restaurant in the U.S.A.

The Road To Mecca

Naturally, I also wanted to know from the locals. I stayed in Georgetown, about 30 minutes north of downtown Austin and home to Southwestern University, Texas’ oldest college. When I landed, I began asking around for recommendations.

I was given two suggestions: Salt Lick BBQ and Stiles Switch BBQ.

Day One: Salt Lick BBQ

Nestled in the backcountry of Driftwood, just southwest of Austin, I was teleported into what felt like a winter day in Napa Valley. Surrounded by vineyards, Salt Lick BBQ houses two buildings on the massive property. The dirt road kicked pebbles off the bottom of the Subaru Crosstrek I drove into the massive parking lot.

The smell of locally-sourced live oak wood smoke permeated the air as I walked through the wooden doors of the original 1960s-era cobblestone structure that has been modified.

That’s when I saw it: the famed horseshoe pit. Its roots are from some of the early settlers in Central Texas, by horse and carriage as they headed out west. Dangling above the pit were blackened briskets with opaque crusts, amber pork ribs and cherry red sausage links. Meat and fire, a simple recipe.

At the University of Texas, football season was over. However, on any given Saturday in the Fall, Salt Lick could host nearly 1,000 screaming Longhorn fans wearing the school’s familiar burnt orange and snacking on burnt ends.

Salt Lick BBQ manager Erik Zepeda took me on a walkthrough around the property. Then, it was time to eat. He treated me with the southern hospitality you must truly experience to understand. I was graced with the entire menu, from the well-known bison ribs and the juicy chicken legs, some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had.

Salt Lick BBQ, 18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, https://saltlickbbq.com/

Day Two: Stiles Switch

Stiles Switch BBQ in Cedar Park, Texas.

When I arrived in Georgetown, I stayed with a family friend. Immediately, I was thrust back into the early 1940s. A town square, flat roads, I’m surprised I didn’t see an old Chevrolet parked in every driveway.

Leafless oak trees lined the streets. We dined at a local Italian restaurant, Tony and Luigi’s. Over dinner, my hosts recommended I try Stiles Switch BBQ in the north Austin suburb of Cedar Park.

The original Stiles location is in Violet Crown — one of the oldest shopping centers in Austin. The 1993 film, “Dazed and Confused,” starring Matthew McConaughey, was partly filmed at that location.

Upon arriving in Cedar Park the next morning, I noticed a familiarity. Unlike the rolling green grass of Driftwood, Cedar Park is home to motels, gas stations and all the amenities of a suburb.

You can’t help but notice the off-white water tower, a staple in Central Texas. Every town has one, each with its own charm. As I pulled into the Stiles lot, I was greeted by the scent of burning post oak traveling from the pit in the back. Neon signs line the walls and the black venting snaked across the ceiling.

I popped in during the lunch rush and the restaurant filled up. During the holidays, they celebrate “The 12 Days of Meatmas,” when they offer exclusive dishes such as their French dip tri-tip sandwich.

Some of my favorites included the jalapeño cheddar sausage that was mildly spicy. It walloped me with a smoky richness when I bit through the casing. The brisket was savory and the pork ribs offered hints of pepper, cooked to perfection.

Stiles Switch BBQ, 6610 N Lamar Blvd, Austin, http://www.stilesswitchbbq.com/

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Day Three: Snow's BBQ

A little more than 50 miles east of downtown Austin lies Lexington. With a population of around 1,000 people, Lexington is a picturesque small town. Established in 1848 as String Prairie, it was renamed in 1850, honoring the first battle of the Revolutionary War. The town has one high school, a town square and, of course, a water tower.

Every Saturday, farmers and cattle ranchers come from all over to the livestock auction at 12:30 in the afternoon. Only an hour from College Station, Texas A&M University flags are found on almost every street, hanging from every flagpole.

There’s one more reason people travel here from all over the world on Saturdays: Tootsie.

"Tootsie" Tomanetz is the pitmaster and a co-owner at Snow’s BBQ, along with Kerry Bexley. A school janitor during the week, on Saturdays — the only day Snow’s is open — the 87-year-old Tootsie spends her time burnishing her legend. She places her hands on top of the pits to check the temperature, shovels hot coals into the classic, cabinet-style pits, and poses for photos with the hundreds of patrons who come for some of the most authentic, Central Texas style barbecue you can sink your teeth into.

With the help of the Netflix special, “Chef’s Table,” Snow’s BBQ’s profile exploded after the legend of Tomanetz reached barbecue nerds like me.

I arrived just before sunrise on a cold, windy day. When I got there, I packed up my gear and headed into the darkness. The orange hue from the rustic streetlights tinted every exhale.

Not surprisingly, there was already a long line of at least 100 hungry customers. At the front, the first customers had arrived at midnight, a not too uncommon procedure for one of the more illustrious positions in barbecue culture.

As part of Snow’s tradition, Bexley greeted everyone in the line and handed each person a number. My ripped piece of office paper read “110.” As the sun offered daylight and warmth, Bexley called out a number.

Two patrons in line would have a choice if they were selected: they could win a prize or move to the front of the line. The merchandise line buzzed, as did the bar.

Cornhole and fire pits were some of the amenities. The merchandise line buzzed, as did the bar.

By 7:30 a.m., the doors opened. Brisket is served, plus pork shoulder steak, pork ribs, sausage, potato salad, coleslaw. The brisket was like a roast, as the bark was much softer than a brisket from an offset smoker.

At Snow’s, the famous mop, a mixture of ingredients like water, unsalted butter and Worcestershire sauce, adds tenderness to the outside of every protein.

Snow’s BBQ, 516 Main Street, Lexington, https://snowsbbq.com/

Brisket, Ribs, Pork Steak and Sausage at Snow's BBQ

Day Four: Franklin Barbecue

When I began my own barbecue journey, Aaron Franklin was a name associated with the highest standard. His brisket is legendary, and he is known as one of the kings of Central Texas-style barbecue. I stumbled across his videos on YouTube during my research. Never would have I imagined that’d I’d be sitting inside his restaurant years later, working on this story.

I woke up on Sunday morning as darkness held reign over the sky. I jumped in the car and drove into Austin on IH-35. The sun peeked its head over the horizon to the east of the city skyline.

When I arrived, I was the fifth person in line. At the front of the line were childhood friends who were from Utah. The third and fourth customers were two Australians, who’d met an hour before they became best friends for the day.

The Front

The Food

The Kindness

The Sunrise

Behind me were a couple who had their first date at Panda Express and traveled from Kyle, a suburb just outside of Austin, for another Sunday trip to Franklin Barbecue.

The World Cup final was on, mostly as an undercard to the main event, which would be the restaurant doors opening at 11 a.m. As Argentine icon Lionel Messi cemented his legacy, we became a family in the line, reminiscent of movie theater queues in the days before assigned seating.

Four hours felt like four minutes. Before we all knew it, the doors were open. Inside the seafoam-and-black-lined facility, newly built after a fire destroyed the old structure, was a simple, analogue menu with white letters inserted on every row.

Brisket. Pork Ribs. Sausage. Turkey. Mac and cheese. Baked beans. It was all there. There was one more treat — the beef rib offered exclusively on weekends.

My 10-year pilgrimage led me here, to the epicenter of Central Texas-style barbecue tradition, where it all began.

Franklin Barbecue, 900 E. 11th Austin, https://franklinbbq.com/

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