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Aaron Franklin’s Hot Luck Fest Was the Place to Be

The BBQ Legend and friends brought three days of celebrity chefs, live music, and mouthwatering bites to Austin

Austin takes enormous pride in its BBQ prowess, as it should–we’re legendary for a reason. And one of the biggest reasons is that some of the barbecue industry’s most talented players choose to make their homes and set up their smokehouses right here.

Aaron Franklin, the iconic pit maestro behind Franklin Barbecue (which boasts some of Austin’s most highly-regarded brisket and some of the city’s longest lines), had a dream of bringing chefs and BBQ pros from all over the country together to share their skills and bring their inventive smoked and grilled dishes to Austin diners. In 2017, he made that dream a reality by launching the Hot Luck Fest with another of Austin’s favorite sons: James Moody, founder of Mohawk in East Austin.

This three-day bacchanal packed with food, cocktails, live music, and festive vibes always takes place over Memorial Day weekend, and although Hot Luck needed to press pause during the COVID outbreaks of 2020 and 2021, it came back in full force in 2022. Hot Luck Fest hosted its fourth annual event over Memorial Day Weekend this year with three days of unique culinary gatherings. Tribeza was on the ground for the foodie fest and caught all the scoop on the major happenings from this three BBQ bonanza.  

The Hi, How Are You? launch party at Franklin was the ideal backyard BBQ

Hot Luck kicked off on Thursday evening with the Hi, How Are You? Hootenanny, a rollicking outdoor party that took over the entire parking lot at Franklin Barbecue in East Austin. Each participating chef got their own tented booth where they could craft and serve their dish, and guests moved from one to the next, gathering up as many flavorful bites as they could hold.

The chef lineup for Hi, How Are You? featured both an array of acclaimed kitchen leaders from Austin (like Evan LeRoy of LeRoy & Lewis, Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel of Birdie’s, and Mashama Bailey of Diner Bar) and guest chefs from all over the United States (like Misti Norris of Petra & The Beast in Dallas, Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, and Jeremy Sewall of Row 34 in Boston). The dishes were all designed for easy outdoor eating, and among the highlights were Khmer beef skewers by Chef Sophina Uong of Mister Mao in New Orleans, smoked beef galbi with japchae noodles and salmon roe by Erin Smith & Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ in Houston (and the Feges BBQ team also offered whole beef ribs to the lucky ones who stopped by their booth at the right time), and grilled Alaskan crab with garlic sauce and potato salad by Diner Bar’s Mashama Bailey and Kristine Kittrell.

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Of course, Aaron Franklin offered his signature brisket, presented simply on a slice of white bread and dressed with a drizzle of BBQ sauce. The lines at the event were generally brief, but in true Franklin Barbecue fashion, diners were willing to join a queue for Franklin’s legendary brisket that wrapped all around the lot. Hi, How Are You?’s other notable line could be found at the bar tent hosted by Chase Sapphire, where expert Austin mixologist Robert Björn Taylor (whose talents can be experienced at hotspots like Uptown Sports Club and The Equipment Room) whipped up inventive drinks that fit seamlessly into Hot Luck’s BBQ theme with ingredients like brisket-washed whiskey.

Hi, How Are You? set a high-energy and playful tone for the festival weekend, and attendees left the Franklin parking lot feeling full, happy, and ready to continue Hot Luck’s celebration of all things BBQ.

Friday’s Big Top event gave circus, carnival, and fair food a barbecue makeover

Hot Luck’s second party of the weekend took place at Fair Market, an indoor-outdoor event space on East 5th Street. The theme was “Big Top,” and participating chefs were encouraged to use classic “carnival” dishes (think giant pretzels, popcorn, and deep-fried everything) as their inspiration for the food items they’d serve to guests.

As with Hi, How Are You?, the chef roster for Big Top proved impressive, both on the local end (Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria, Krystal Craig & Ian Thurwachter of Intero, Laura Sawicki of Oseyo, and Sarah McIntosh of Épicerie, among others) and the out-of-towner side (including Stuart Brioza of The Anchovy Bar in San Francisco, Paola Velez of Bakers Against Racism, and Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon).

The Big Top chefs used carnival food as a very loose model for their dishes, but the resulting bites were every bit as fun and whimsical as anything you’d pick up at the county fair. Tavel Bristol-Joseph of Canje loaded up a Trinidad-style flatbread “double” with brisket, vinegary “pikliz” slaw, and pineapple hot sauce, while lauded pizzaiolo Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix offered up his spin on a deli classic: smoked roast beef on a rye-sesame roll and topped with horseradish and grilled onions. And North Carolina culinary icon Ashley Christensen served a creative interpretation of fried cheese in the form of a ball of buttermilk cheddar breaded with blue cornmeal, fried, and served with ramp-infused ranch dip.

Al Fuego, Hot Luck’s marquee event, was an open-fire extravaganza

Hot Luck’s final event is always Al Fuego, an outdoor party devoted to all forms of open-fire cooking. Al Fuego happens at Wild Onion Ranch, a private venue in the town of Menchaca just south of the Austin city line. Wild Onion Ranch’s serious acreage and beautiful landscaping make it a big favorite for local weddings, and these characteristics also worked to its benefit as Al Fuego’s home site. While Hi, How Are You? and Big Top could feel cramped at times, Al Fuego offered plenty of room to move, areas to sit and enjoy the dishes, and the ability to space out the booths and their lines.

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The scent of smoke was everywhere as chefs set up smokers and open grills alongside their stations. Some chose to create more elaborate cooking systems; for instance, Andy Knudson of Tillie’s in Dripping Springs used a large hanging rack to smoke ribs and pineapple, which he then translated into a “Texas Shawarma” with homemade pita, “white sauce,” Israeli salad, and spicy schug. But the most show-stopping cook station had to be the huge fire pit built by Carpenter Hall chef Thomas Malz’s team, which Malz used to slow-cook an entire Gyulais cow over fragrant oak coals. Al Fuego attendees could watch Maltz and his crew butcher the meat and serve it on rolls with simple pickle-and-onion garnishes, and some lucky folks got the chance to sample pieces of beef as soon as they were cut away from the roasted cow.

Cocktails, beer, and natural wine (courtesy of East Austin’s LoLo) flowed freely, chefs served up lively grilled dishes with international influences (like the prime rib with oyster cream and Yorkshire pudding made by Olamaie’s Amanda Turner and the sumac and cinnamon-rubbed lamb shoulder with yogurt sauce and mint chimichurri by Kareem Al-Ghayesh of KG BBQ), and the balmy weather and stunning surroundings made for an unforgettable evening.

Hot Luck 2023 was a shining example of everything that makes Austin a prime locale for culinary innovation and next-level barbecue. We’ll see what Franklin & Co. has in store for Hot Luck 2024.

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