Smoke Signals: Behold, the beauty of the Big Chop

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the amount of time it takes to slow-roast the Big Chop served at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, Tex. It is about one hour, not 21 / 2 hours. This version has been corrected.


Texas-Style Mesquite-Grilled Salt-and-Pepper Big Chops with Grilled Apple and Jalapeno Salsa on September 16, 2011. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 27, 2011

Driving northwest out of Austin through Texas Hill Country, a rugged, undulating terrain of limestone canyons bristling with prickly pear cactus and shaggy with cedar trees, you eventually come to the dusty little city of Llano, pop. 3,350.

No matter what else you do there, make a pilgrimage to Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que. Walk past several rectangular pits, admire the small mountain of mesquite wood, and line up at an old steel closed pit, salivating as the aroma of smoking meats wafts through the still Texas air.

When it is your turn, consider the brisket, ribs, sausage, chicken and cabrito (goat) on the pit’s grate. Tell the pitman exactly what you want, and he will slice it to order. No matter what else you choose, though, you must also get the Big Chop. If you don’t, it is as if you had never made the trip to Cooper’s, or to Llano, at all.

In the lexicon of barbecue, there are shrines and temples and meccas. But I think of Cooper’s as a museum. It’s a place where the pits, with the pulley system that opens and closes them, compose a beautiful barbecue still life. Where barbecue hounds come to appreciate a particular style of cooking. And where a rare masterpiece is on display: a  glistening, pepper-flecked, two-inch-thick, bone-in pork chop.

The Big Chop, like the other meats at Cooper’s, is prepared differently from other barbecue in central Texas. Unlike such famous joints as Louie Mueller in Taylor and Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Cooper’s does not use post oak and does not employ indirect cooking, with the meat distanced from the burning wood. Rather, it burns scads of mesquite branches to embers, then shovels the coals into the pits, where they smolder directly beneath the meats. The method, drawing on the cattle drives of bygone years, is called “cowboy style.”

The chop is seasoned with little more than salt and pepper, put over a hot fire for an hour to sear, then moved to a much cooler part of the pit, where it slow-roasts over the mesquite coals for about an hour.

Few barbecue restaurants, even in the pork-centric regions of North Carolina and Memphis, offer pork chops. Ribs, shoulder and even the labor-intensive whole hog are far more common. Perhaps that’s because pork chops, which come from the loin, traditionally have been a costlier cut of meat than the others. Barbecue has long been a culinary folk art, made by commoners from the cheap cuts of meat.

The reason might also have to do with traditional notions of low-and-slow barbecue. Pork chops require only an hour of cooking, in contrast with, say, 18 and up for brisket.

Although Cooper’s other meats are delicious (a visit to Cooper’s is third on Texas Monthly’s “bucket list”), the chop is what landed the place on the barbecue map. But it wasn’t on the menu until Cooper’s was 30 years old.

The place was opened in 1962 by Tommy Cooper, whose friend, Terry Wootan, recalls that he would pester Cooper to serve pork chops, to no avail. Cooper died in an automobile accident in 1979. When Wootan leased and then finally bought the restaurant in 1992, adding the Big Chop to the menu was his first order of business.

“It’s so moist and has a different flavor,” he says. “Everybody in Texas is beef, beef, beef. But we sell close to 50 percent pork. [Beef] brisket is about 35 to 40 percent of our business, but the pork chops are about 20 percent, which is a lot for pork in Texas.”

Cooper’s incinerates the locally plentiful mesquite to embers because using the fast-burning wood “naked,” as is done with slow-burning post oak, for such long periods can give the meat an acrid aftertaste. That means the meat at Cooper’s isn’t as deeply smoky as that at other central Texas barbecue joints.

“All of our meat has a good smoky flavor,” Wootan says. “But it isn’t real smoky. I don’t like it too smoky.”

Soon after returning home to the District from my visit to Cooper’s, I longed to re-create the Big Chop in my back yard. But my Weber is not a giant rectangular pit that can accommodate searing-hot coals at one end and much cooler embers at the other. I don’t have a fireplace to burn down logs of mesquite. And Wootan won’t reveal any spices he deploys beyond salt and pepper.

Still, I figured I could use the basic direct-indirect method of cooking, adjusting the time to compensate for the comparatively hotter temperature of the Weber. And because the Big Chop’s seasoning — whatever it might be — is minimal, I’d choose the central Texas classic rub: just salt and pepper, plus a hint of cayenne.

I seared the chop over charcoal for a few minutes on each side, then added wood chips and calculated that even placed as far from the fire as possible, it would cook relatively quickly. (Hey, even barbecue ain’t rocket science.) Sure enough, after about a half-hour on the cooler side of the grill, the chop came off juicy and just barely pink in the center. When I took a bite: Well, I won’t say it took me back to Cooper’s, but I could taste a resemblance.

Maybe you don’t want something so Flintstonian. In that case, a standard one-inch-thick chop is a fine stand-in — and quicker, too.

What about a sauce?

When you stand at the Cooper’s pit and choose your chop, the pitman will offer to dunk it into a thin vinegar-tomato dipping sauce. But the Hill Country is home to apple orchards, which got me to thinking back home that especially in the fall, when apples are ripe, they would surely make a nice salsa to go with the Big Chop. So I made one. For the one-inch chops, I concocted a cider marinade. But you won’t find any of that city-slicker stuff in Texas. The meat is neither brined nor marinated. And you either assent to the dipping sauce bath or you forgo it and scoot off with your chop into the dining room, decorated with mounted deer heads.

As you slice into the gigantic chop, rivulets of juice run down the meat. You might pause for a second to regard this wonder before biting into it. When you raise to your mouth the forkful of pork, deep brown on the outside and light tan on the inside, everything seems to move in slow motion as you anticipate barbecue rapture.

Then you eat. The flavor of pure pork enhanced by a kiss of smoke, moist but marvelously chewy, transports you from every other barbecue spot you’ve ever visited to this one, here and now.

RECIPES:

Texas-Style Mesquite-Smoked Big Chop

Grilled Mustard-and Cider-Marinated Pork Chops

Grilled Apple and Jalapeno Salsa

Shahin will join today’s Free Range chat on food at live.washingtonpost.com.Follow him on Twitter @jimshahin.

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