In The Pit with Aron Baynes
By: Lorne Chan Spurs.com
Franklin Barbecue in Austin has been recognized as the best barbecue in the nation, creating slabs of brisket so delicious that waiting in line for hours has become part of the restaurant's experience.
A couple of weeks ago, that line included a 6-foot-10 Australian with a swollen right ankle.
Out of action with an injury, Aron Baynes drove to Austin after a rehab session to join about 250 other brisket buffs at Franklin. As he waited for two and a half hours, Baynes hobbled to the car every 30 minutes to ice and retreat his ankle.
“The wait was worth it,” Baynes said. “You have to do it at least once. It’s a barbecue pilgrimage.”
Basketball is a game of mistakes, Baynes says. It’s about making the fewest mistakes, adjusting when mistakes are made, and putting in the time and practice to avoid the same mistakes.
He sees a lot of the same elements in Texas barbecue.
Depending on the wood, temperature, cut of meat, the barbecue pit and slew of other variables, every brisket is cooked differently. Every pitmaster is putting their talent on display in each bite, often spending 15 hours or more tending to a cut of meat.
"The Big Banger" doesn’t consider himself to be a barbecue critic. He isn’t a run-of-the-mill, Yelp-reviewing foodie. He said he’s just a guy who appreciates great work.
“Brisket is an imperfect, tougher cut of meat, and smoking is an imperfect method of cooking, but the end product can be perfect,” Baynes said. “That’s what I love. Experiencing everyone’s version of perfection.”
Baynes’ wife Rachel is pregnant, and a few months ago, she couldn’t stand the smell or taste of barbecue.
So Aron would eat barbecue alone, then shower and change clothes when he got home.
“Sometimes at home, I’ll roll over and say to my wife, ‘babe, have you thought about barbecue lately?’” Aron said.
After the Spurs’ win against Phoenix on Sunday, Baynes and his wife took the 75-mile drive to Austin to try the Rollin’ Smoke BBQ food truck. They arrived just before midnight.
Any time the Spurs have two days off at home between games, it’s circled on the Baynes calendar as a barbecue road trip. In addition to being a regular at San Antonio barbecue joints, Baynes has been to Austin to try Micklethwait Craft Meats and La Barbecue, or to Taylor, the home of Louie Mueller Barbecue.
The trips also became a way for him to see a large chunk of Texas and spend time with his wife on “barbecue dates” during the busy season.
Aron made a small order on a trip to Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, about 55 miles north of San Antonio. Rachel was concerned that he wasn’t hungry, until they stopped at two other Lockhart barbecue stop (Smitty’s and Kreuz Market) over the course of the lunch.
“The ‘guess what I’m thinking’ game is easy for us,” Rachel said. “I’ll guess barbecue for him, and I’ll be right 99 percent of the time.”
At 6-foot-10 and 260 pounds, Baynes’ carnivorous roots start with the Barbie, which - aside from getting an Australian to roll their eyes by saying, “shrimp on the Barbie” - is the Australian term for grilling. His first taste Texas barbecue came when he was playing college basketball for Washington State, and the team traveled to Waco for a game against Baylor.
But he wasn’t impressed until he joined the Spurs in 2013, during a barbecue renaissance for San Antonio. The Granary, called “the future of barbecue” by Esquire Magazine, had just opened near downtown. The Smoke Shack was a food truck selling out so quickly that they opened a brick-and-mortar spot last year.
Barbecue is serious business in Texas, sometimes discussed with the same passion as professional sports. Texas Monthly magazine employs a Barbecue editor.
“I watch my diet very closely, so I’m going to eat the best quality stuff for the calories I’m going to consume,” Baynes said. “Texans are putting so much time and energy into making the best meat. “
Baynes doesn’t eat red meat on the night before or the day of a game, which limits his brisket windows during the season. He also doesn’t eat any sides, opting for healthier steamed vegetables at home.
Baynes will often order three of four pounds of brisket, heavy on the bark, because “if I get the end of one brisket, I’ll get the start of another one.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t eat it all at once,” he said.
The next step in Baynes’ barbecue odyssey will be making his own. He hasn’t had a chance to get a pit, because the Spurs’ playoff runs and Australian national team commitments have kept him busy year-round. It’s a good problem to have.
When his playing career is over, Baynes’ dream is to open a barbecue restaurant in Australia.
“I’ll have to do it right, though,” Baynes said. “There are different smokes, different woods, different methods, and I’ll have to find my own. That’s what makes barbecue great.”
Aron Baynes' San Antonio BBQ Picks
From a Laotian BBQ restaurant to a BBQ joint that has an AT&T Center location, Aron Baynes picked eight local barbecue restaurants he frequents and selected some favorite cuts of meat at each restaurant:
Smoke Shack BBQ - 3714 Broadway St. Aron recommends: brisket, pork ribs and chicken quarters
Old Smokehouse - 5145 Fredericksburg Rd. Aron recommends: lamb ribs and pork shoulder
Bucket Brigade - 18770 FM 2252. Aron recommends: beef ribs and brisket
Specht's Store Restaurant and Saloon- 112 Specht Rd. Aron recommends: sausage and chicken breast
The Big Bib - 104 Lanark Dr. Aron recommends: pulled pork and turkey legs
Rudy's - four area locations. Aron recommends: pork ribs and sausage
Long Tieng BBQ - 10259 O'Connor Rd #4. Aron recommends: brisket and baby back ribs
Texas Pride BBQ - 2980 East Texas 1604 Loop South. Aron recommends: brisket and sausage