New wave of urban barbecue joints sticks with the wood
By Jim Shahin,
At his new BrisketTown barbecue joint, Daniel Delaney is doing something radical: He’s smoking his slabs of pork ribs and hunks of beef brisket for long hours over a smoldering wood-only fire in a converted propane pit that he bought from celebrated Austin pit master Aaron Franklin.
Why would it be so radical to use wood — and nothing else — for barbecue? Because BrisketTown isn’t in Austin, or along a back road somewhere outside Memphis. It’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “People say it’s impossible to smoke the real way in the city,” Delaney says. “It’s not impossible. There are a lot of regulations, but you can do it.”
Delaney’s low-fi approach is part of a craft-barbecue revival. Unlike those behind so many contemporary barbecue restaurants, particularly in big cities, these artisans dismiss the ease of wood-enhanced gas ovens. Like vinyl-music fanatics in a digital world, live-fire acolytes in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the District maintain that enhanced ovens, while turning out a good product, fail to reach the depth of flavor of wood-only cooking.
Cooking with wood is difficult and expensive, which is one reason why wood-enhanced ovens are so popular. Even in tradition-bound Texas, “gassers,” as they’re called, have gained a foothold. About a fifth of the establishments in Texas Monthly’s latest ranking of the state’s Top 50 barbecue restaurants use gas. (A new list comes out in the magazine’s June issue.) But Austin’s Franklin Barbecue and Dallas’s Pecan Lodge are just two of several new wood-only restaurants aiming to reclaim the Lone Star State’s smoking heritage.
The East Coast, however, is where the wood-only trend is most striking. That’s because, for years, they said it couldn’t be done. The laws were too strict. The fumes would bother residents in urban environs. The fire department wouldn’t approve.
They were wrong. A good ventilation system takes care of the smoke problem. Top systems are designed with pinholes and scrubbers to catch and remove particulates. Strict safety measures, such as having well-secured pits and vigilantly cleaning them, can address fire concerns.
Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, which opened in November, cooks over an all-wood fire on a J&R pit, a commercial cooker made in Mesquite, Texas. “It does have a cook-and-hold feature” that uses electricity, says pit master and executive chef Matt Fisher, adding that he uses it only on the rare occasion when the restaurant is so busy he can’t tend the fire. “I don’t want it to be as easy as pushing a button.”
Fisher says he smokes his briskets, St. Louis-cut ribs and pork over a live fire of freshly cut (not seasoned) red oak and sugar maple. It’s more difficult, he acknowledges, but smoking with only wood gives the meats a more distinctive flavor and color — including the pink layer known as the smoke ring — than any other technique.
A subway ride away, in Manhattan’s East Village, Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque, which opened in December and is owned by expatriate Texan Hugh Mangum, also uses a J&R, but its version eschews any electric element. “We thought it was an unnecessary expense, since we knew we were just going to be cooking with wood,” says pitman Alex Stanko, adding that the meats are cooked over oak mixed with a little cherry and apple.
In Philly, Bubba’s Texas BBQ, which opened in October, uses a custom-made all-wood smoker to coddle its 21-spice rubbed brisket, spare ribs and pork into submission.
The trend is a repudiation of the techno-cue helping to propel the astonishing growth of barbecue restaurants around the country. Gas-fired, wood-enhanced ovens, such as those made by Southern Pride and Ole Hickory, are easier and cheaper to use than all-wood smokers. A pitman places a log or two in a fire chamber, sets the temperature and forgets it. The method assures a consistent product at a comparatively low cost.
With wood-only cooking, the variables are enormous. The wood’s moisture content can vary, which affects the cooking time. Availability can be iffy, due to tree diseases and other factors, and the costs keep rising. The cooker’s insulation can make it challenging to maintain a steady fire.
Daunting? Yes. But not insurmountable. John Snedden is proof of that.
The owner of Washington’s four Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Company restaurants has been cooking over an all-wood fire since he opened his first outlet in Glover Park more than 20 years ago.
“I think it was from the experiences of eating in other jurisdictions and being able to differentiate between the augmented and the all-wood experiences,” says Snedden, who sampled barbecue in Texas and throughout the South in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The all-wood experience, you just couldn’t beat it. It was always more unique and more flavorful.”
Snedden, who uses red oak and hickory, says that all-wood cooking is a constant challenge. He cites safety — “we’re dealing with a live fire” — along with labor-intensiveness and ever-rising wood costs. So, why not install an oven? “We ask ourselves that, and it’s very simple,” he says. “At the end of the day, if we do it right, it’s a superior product.”
To help reduce risk, Snedden developed a written protocol about temperature and fire control for all employees. His pit masters are trained to focus attention on the pit and its temperature so that, especially during busy periods when employees can get distracted, the smoker is carefully monitored. Every day, his crew cleans the interior of the smoker and the ventilation filters. And Snedden has strengthened the closing mechanisms of the pit doors so oxygen can quickly be tamped down and the fire rapidly cooled if it begins to get too hot.
While Snedden had been pretty much a lone wolf for the past couple of decades, others have recently joined him in his approach. In August, Reggie Seifu opened Epiphany Open Pit Beef and Subs in Petworth, which cooks over glowing hickory logs in a built-in brick pit.
“A lot of places, they use chunks [of wood] and an oven,” says Seifu, whose pitmen cook Baltimore-style pit beef, slow-smoked brisket and pork ribs. “But I wanted the real deal. No one wants an imitation. You want a Rolex,” not a knock-off.
The newest addition to the area’s artisan barbecue joints is CarnBBQ, which opened this month in Baltimore’s Hollins Market. The bricks-and-mortar outlet is an expansion of the three Carnivore BBQ trucks that troll the District.
“I knew I had to go the next step beyond food trucks in Washington, D.C.,” says owner and pit master Stephen Adelson, who uses hickory he chops himself. “There’s something about loading that wood box. There’s beauty in those coals. The other [ovens] don’t quite get you there. I’m getting a smoke ring now. That’s a real smoke ring. The aroma. The flavor. You just don’t go through as much communion with the other processes.”
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