For as long as pitmasters have cooked meats, low and slow, over smoldering coals, the mantra has remained the same: The best barbecue belongs to the country or in small towns, far removed from potentially punishing city regulations or reproving urbanites who enjoy their brisket only when the smoke exhaust floats into someone else’s neighborhood.
But in recent years, pitmasters in Brooklyn, Phoenix and other metropolitan areas, including Washington, have taken that old mantra and ripped it to shreds, tossing the torn pieces into their wood-fired smokers. The man leading the charge for new traditionalist barbecue is Aaron Franklin, who was once just another Austin-based rocker looking for his break in the music business.
But during the 2000s, Franklin gradually rechanneled his obsessive tendencies from music to urban barbecue. In late 2009, he opened Franklin Barbecue in Austin, initially in a trailer, and four years later, he earned the top spot on Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 best barbecue joints (or, as the magazine notes in its wry, hyperbolic, Texas-centric view, the “50 Best BBQ Joints in the World!”). Earlier this month, Franklin also became the first pitmaster to win a James Beard Award in a regional chef category.
“It’s undeniable what he did in Austin,” says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. “It made all other cities wake up and realize all their excuses about making good barbecue [are] moot.”
Barbecue has always been available in and around the concrete-and-glass towers of American cities, some of it even legendary. Think Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis or Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, Mo., places with charcoal- or wood-burning pits that pre-date the high-tech commercial smokers that now dominate our city meat markets. The modern set-it-and-forget it smoker has taken much of the stress out of producing barbecue, depending how much a pitmaster relies on the supplemental gas or electric heat.
Franklin, by contrast, avoids pits connected to a utility line. He custom-builds smokers from used 1,000-gallon propane tanks. He cooks with only wood, relying on his ability to source well-seasoned post oak and burn those logs evenly over the many hours required to smoke brisket, pork and other large cuts of meat. He has, over time, developed his own style. Take his brisket, the pride and joy of Franklin Barbecue: He buys only prime meat, aggressively trims it and wraps it in butcher paper, not foil, at some point during the smoking process. His is an artisanal method, not interested in concessions to either time or labor.
Customers eat it up, standing in line for hours to get a taste of Franklin’s juicy, salt-and-pepper briskets. The place sells out every day it opens for business. It has also inspired pitmasters, both in Austin and in cities far removed from Central Texas, to ditch the gas-assisted smokers and adopt a more traditional approach to barbecue. You can feel the Franklin influence at places such as Delaney Barbecue/BrisketTown in Brooklyn, Little Miss BBQ in Phoenix or Killen’s Barbecue outside Houston. In fact, Ronnie Killen, pitmaster at Killen’s, called out Franklin in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.
“I’m coming after you,” Killen promised, threatening one day to better Franklin as the king of Texas barbecue.
Pitmasters at the District’s two leading barbecue joints have made pilgrimages to Franklin Barbecue. Robert Sonderman at DCity Smokehouse on Florida Avenue NW and Brendan Woody at Fat Pete’s in Cleveland Park made separate visits to the Austin establishment as part of research trips when they tended the smokers at Hill Country, that Penn Quarter homage to Central Texas barbecue, which opened in 2011.
“It was pretty damn awesome,” Sonderman recalls of his meal at Franklin.
Although neither Sonderman nor Woody calls Aaron Franklin a direct influence, both pitmasters have adopted a similar traditionalist’s approach to barbecue. They haven’t custom-welded their own smokers yet, as Franklin does by outfitting used 1,000-gallon propane tanks with fireboxes, smoke stacks and cooking grates. But Sonderman and Woody, like Franklin, rely on machines that burn wood only. Both use J&R smokers, and both, not coincidentally, produce meats with an exceptional hardwood perfume.
“You get a better smoke ring and better smoke development” with an all-wood smoker, Woody says.
Unsurprisingly, the brisket at DCity and Fat Pete’s put all others to shame: Their slices are moist and rich with rendered fat, and they pull apart with the slightest tug; they’re also encrusted in bark, an explosive fusion of fat, moisture, smoke, seasoning and spices. You don’t need a drop of sauce to savor these briskets.
Operating all-wood smokers, of course, requires more babysitting than machines that can kick on gas or electrical heat when the internal cooking temperature dips below the desired one. With gas-assisted smokers, pitmasters can load their machines with meat (likely briskets and pork shoulders) at the end of service, add a few logs, and sleep soundly without fear the fire will die during the night. This high-tech approach typically eats up less wood and requires fewer employees to watch over the smoker, two significant pluses in a competitive urban marketplace where skilled pitmasters can be hard to find. Certainly harder to find than in Texas.
But a wood smoker is still only a tool, not a guarantee of quality barbecue. The greater Washington region is packed with smokers of all shapes and sizes. Electric smokers outfitted with wood chip boxes. Gas smokers that burn logs, too. Smokers fueled by wood pellets. Pure wood smokers. Each can, at least theoretically, produce good barbecue.
In many ways, it’s never been easier to find barbecue in the DMV, even if many of us are still mourning the loss of Mr. P’s Ribs and Fish, the legendary smokehouse caravan that went dormant when its founder, Fate Pittman Jr., died in February.
Washingtonians can now devour barbecue while sitting in a beer garden, standing next to a food truck, sipping barrel-aged cocktails, even while contributing to injured veterans. Barbecue is also expanding in scope and reach: The owners of Urban Bar-B-Que Company sold a minority stake to Ledo Pizza to expand their smoked meats concept beyond its suburban D.C. base, and Jim Foss, former director of D.C. operations for Hill Country, expects to open Smokehouse Live, a 16,000-square-foot barbecue and music joint in Leesburg, sometime after Memorial Day.
But with so many options, how can you be sure you’re not wasting cash on inferior barbecue? In short: You can’t. Good barbecue remains a fickle tyrant, demanding attention, patience and pitmasters willing to give themselves over to the higher calling of smoked meats. A true enthusiast asks questions wherever he or she eats: What kind of smoker does the pitmaster use, and how does he or she use it? Just because a pitmaster can burn logs doesn’t mean he will rely on wood. He may, in fact, cook mostly with gas, using hardwoods as essentially an aromatic.
“The machine can only do so much for you,” says DCity’s Sonderman. “You still got to have some know-how.”
Know-how comes with time and practice. The pitmaster’s skill set doesn’t begin and end with the ability to build and maintain a strong, clean fire. Pitmasters also develop rubs and marinades that accent the different meats. They learn to trim and cook everything from brisket to spare ribs. They know when meats are finished, often by touch only. And perhaps most important of all, they understand how to maintain the succulence of meats pulled fresh from the smoker. Nothing can kill good barbecue faster than meats allowed to dry out in a warming unit, the wood smoke diminishing and the bark disintegrating with each passing hour.
As such, you’ll want to know how a joint keeps its smoked meats warm, which leads to a related question: How often do they refresh the smoker with new meat? A barbecue joint that constantly sells out may be discouraging to late afternoon diners, but it indicates a place that smokes meats daily. Also: Beware the pitmaster or barbecue employee who deflects too many questions. They may be protecting proprietary information, but just as likely, they’re hiding inferior craft.
One recent afternoon in Woodbridge, as I pulled into Dixie Bones BBQ for lunch, I asked the host if the Southern Pride smoker sitting in the parking lot cooked with only wood, or with a wood-and-gas combination. He said the smoker was just one of several on premise, none of which burned only logs.
“We cheat,” he said with a hearty laugh and smile. The comment was disarming. It was also honest and gave me a good idea of what to expect.