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.