To launch his barbecue side hustle, Edward Reavis had to reconfigure the kitchen at All Set Restaurant and Bar so that he could squeeze a pellet smoker under his ventilation hood. His choice of smokers was wise for a chef already charged with overseeing the New England seafood menu at All Set: He wouldn’t have to act like a helicopter parent with his large-capacity Meatlocker, a vertical cooker from Pitts and Spitts in Houston. He could, as they say in barbecue circles, set it and forget it.
A formally trained chef, with lots of experience in high-end steakhouses, Reavis sold meats from his Money Muscle BBQ truck (and takeout operation) that marked him as pitmaster with serious game. His brisket was so tender you could tug at a slice and it would expand and contract like an accordion, textbook beef texture. His pulled pork made a compelling case that a vinegar-based sauce should be seamlessly integrated into the fatty strands, as if the meat played the role of binder in a dressing. His baby backs shed their bones with no resistance, so you could better appreciate the orchestration between succulent pork and savory dry rub.
Yet for all the skill that Reavis brought to his barbecue, his meats were missing the element that practically defines the cuisine: There was barely a whiff of wood smoke on his food. I noted as much last fall in the barbecue guide, basically as a way to justify my exclusion of Money Muscle from the annual list. That single sentence, more or less a parenthetical clearing of the throat, made an impression on Reavis and his wife and business partner, Jennifer Meltzer.
Two months later, on New Year’s Day no less, Reavis posted an Instagram photo of his latest purchase: a gorgeous, 500-gallon, offset smoker from Meadow Creek, the respected manufacturer located in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. “New year, new smoker,” the team wrote on the post.
“When I heard you say we need a stronger wood presence, it was immediately like, he’s so right,” Reavis said. “And I went on a worldwide chase to find the right smoker.”
I was slightly taken aback by Reavis’s honesty. His comment reminded me about a conversation I had years ago with Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, during one of his pilgrimages to D.C. to tell Washingtonians how terrible our barbecue scene is. Vaughn told me that his affection for banana pudding had a predictable side effect: It basically required every smokehouse in the Lone Star State to add the dessert to the menu, lest the influential critic find himself without a spoonful of chilled vanilla custard with bananas and Nilla wafers.
It can be a fine line between a critic covering a scene — and a critic creating one to cater to his or her tastes.
These thoughts raced through my head in a nanosecond as I was on the phone with Reavis and Meltzer, but all I said was this:
“Well, I’m sorry.”
They laughed. I laughed. We all knew it was a hollow sentiment. I couldn’t be happier that the couple invested in a smoker that burns nothing but hardwoods. In fact, they recently purchased a second offset from Meadow Creek, which now sits next to the original rig in the empty parking lot adjacent to All Set. In the coming weeks, Reavis and Meltzer plan to turn that lot into an open-air smokehouse, a six-month experiment with tents, tables, games and strings of lights to provide something approximating ambiance. It sounds like a little taste of Austin right in downtown Silver Spring.
“I forced myself to start cooking with wood,” Reavis told me, “and it’s been an amazing experience. I mean, it’s like I’m like a chef reborn, to be honest.”
Anyone who has had to tend a fire box knows that it takes time — and the kind of 24/7 attention that even a helicopter parent would find exhausting — to master the craft. Reavis has seemingly found his touch in a matter of months. If he has been reborn as a chef, his barbecue has likewise been given a new lease on life. Everything that emerges from his offsets — brisket, bone-in short rib, pulled pork, chicken, wings — comes swathed in invisible layers of smoke, the byproduct of spent white and red oak, and sometimes a little cherry wood.
With his background, Reavis is the ideal pitmaster to push barbecue beyond its hidebound impulses. As a native son of Emporia, Va., just 10 miles or so from the North Carolina border, Reavis has an easy affinity for pork. Yet his approach to preparing pork butts — the “money muscle” — borrows from time-honored smoking traditions and modern chef techniques. After the pork bathes in wood smoke for 12 hours, Reavis pulls the meat and hits it with a North Carolina sauce, a kaleidoscopic condiment that rotates from sweetness to acidity to heat, over and over again. He’ll then vacuum-seal the combination, allowing the vinegar, fat and smoke to fuse into a kind of pulled-pork vinaigrette. It’s unforgettable.
Reavis is equally adept with other meats. His bone-in short rib looks like a beast, this tomahawk of crusty beef, but it goes down like butter. His brisket expands on the classic Texas salt-and-pepper rub to include dried oregano and smoked paprika, which enhances both the color and flavor of the beef, though I should point out that his slices can sometimes arrive dehydrated, probably from repeated trips in and out of the holding unit. His quarter chicken is a visually arresting plate, the bird’s skin tinted crimson from paprika and cherry wood smoke, interrupted only by dark patches of char. It’s as easy to eat as it is to look at.
The sides don’t venture much beyond the smokehouse staples, but each is executed with care. The mac and cheese, prepared with campanelle pasta with its distinctive ruffled edges, boasts a lusty, four-cheese blend, including Gruyere, aged Parmesan and sharp white cheddar. His collards still have tooth, their texture almost meaty against a braising liquid spiked with just enough black and white pepper to give it some heat. Reavis’s crusty skillet cornbread meets people in the middle, neither caky sweet nor jalapeño spicy. It is my kind of cornbread, finished with a light sprinkle of flaked salt.
Money Muscle BBQ has lived up to its name in more ways than one. The ghost kitchen has flexed its muscles to help prevent All Set from being another pandemic-related fatality. It has produced enough revenue to give Reavis and Meltzer hope that they will see the other side of this plague.
Money Muscle BBQ
8630 Fenton St., Plaza 5, Silver Spring, Md., 301-646-7006; moneymusclebbq.com.
Hours: Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Silver Spring, with a half-mile walk to the business.
Prices: $1 to $30 for sides, sandwiches and meats.