To the casual observer, the pseudo-mysticism surrounding barbecue makes for an easy target of ridicule. You know, the secretive, self-aggrandizing pitmaster who talks about the smoking process as if it were a holy communion between him and the elements rather than the seemingly mindless method that some outsiders consider it: Set fire. Throw meat on grill. Drink beer till meat is done. Brag about how much better your barbecue is than anyone else’s.
Chris Fultz is not that kind of pitmaster. The co-owner of ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque in Richmond has a quiet, studious air about him. The Texas native’s approach to smoked meats — part intuition, part science, all dedication — has led to a rare thing in the Mid-Atlantic region: a destination-worthy barbecue joint. ZZQ is the kind of place that entices Washingtonians to brave the mind-numbing traffic on Interstate 95 just for a taste — and not resent the drive.
Fultz, 52, is a former architect who started smoking meats out of a yearning for Central Texas barbecue, a style conspicuous by its absence in the pork-heavy environs of Central Virginia. More than a dozen years later, he’s now a master of the Lone Star State’s elemental meats: sausage, brisket and pork ribs, otherwise known as the Texas trinity. But he does more than that. He also serves up a pile of pulled pork, smoky and succulent, that would show well on any paper plate in the Carolinas.
Don’t believe the hype? Well, consider what Daniel Vaughn, the respected barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, wrote in July about ZZQ:
“I travel Texas searching for the best barbecue it has to offer, and sometimes I venture beyond our border to find how pitmasters are interpreting our beloved style of barbecue across the country. I don’t think anyone outside Texas does it any better than ZZQ in Richmond, Virginia.”
The legend of ZZQ had been building long before Vaughn gave the place his blessing. For months, some Richmond locals encouraged me to make a trip to one of ZZQ’s weekend pop-ups at Ardent Craft Ales. I never could make it happen. It was only after Fultz — along with self-described pitmistress Alex Graf, 50, his wife and business partner — opened their bricks-and-mortar smokehouse this year next to Ardent that I finally pointed the car in the direction of ZZQ, named for that Little Ol’ Band from Texas, ZZ Top.
I’m not sure what made me do this — probably some combination of immaturity, orneriness and a journalist’s curiosity — but for one of my first trips to ZZQ, I wore a Houston Astros T-shirt and trucker cap from Killen’s Barbecue, a Texas smokehouse so good it’s listed among the top 10 restaurants in the Houston area. I guess I wanted to see if my garb would generate any response, a backhanded Texas cultural-
When I arrived at ZZQ that day, there was a line, which has become the norm since Vaughn and others have ranked the place among the best smokehouses in the country, only months after the restaurant opened in March. The line is not Franklin Barbecue-long, but it often winds from the meat counter, out the front door and down the sidewalk in front of the free-standing building.
Before a friend and I had even reached the front door, we ran into Graf, who greets customers on the sidewalk when not managing everything else in the spacious, barnyard-chic dining room, with its weather-beaten wood, rusted metal and nonstop Texas music soundtrack. She immediately asked me about the hat. Killen’s, she said, is one of her and Fultz’s favorite barbecue stops in Texas. They went there on their honeymoon in 2014. I knew right then I was among my people.
ZZQ relies on the Central Texas meat market approach, which has been an education for some customers in Virginia. There are no combination platters or french fries. There are just meats by the pound, a few sandwich options, a handful of side dishes and a daily selection of desserts. It took a few weeks for some customers, conditioned over a lifetime to seek out pulled pork, to realize that brisket is king at ZZQ.
They slice your meats to order, each pulled from an Alto-Shaam warming unit, which holds the cuts at an ideal 150 degrees Fahrenheit, even hotter for the sausages. While you wait, the meat cutters will usually offer you some burnt ends, these melt-in-your-mouth nuggets of beef and seasonings cut from the fatty side of the brisket. I can pop these puppies like candy at the movies.
The obvious order here is the Texas trinity: thick slices of brisket, whether from the lean or fatty side; a half rack of glistening spareribs; and a link or two of ZZQ’s custom-made sausages, including its take on coarsely ground beef hot guts, which are spicy enough to clear your sinuses. The only problem is that ZZQ is now without its sausagemaking company, forcing Fultz and Graf to scramble for a backup. For now, they’re making small batches in-house, which, I’m afraid, is not enough to last throughout the day.
The brisket is the thing of beauty. It shows more restraint than some versions back in Texas. Its bark is not a black-pepper bomb but features a more attenuated rub moderated with small amounts of garlic and sweet paprika. The meaty spareribs are these lacquered bones whose sweetness resolves to this small punch of coarse black pepper, perfect in every way. The unmistakable aroma of wood smoke — white oak, to be exact — lightly perfumes every meat.
Though ZZQ is branded as a Texas smokehouse — an homage to all the briskets Fultz has loved before — it also prides itself on meats not common to the Lone Star State. Given their proximity to the Carolinas, where the pig rules, Fultz and ZZQ assistant pitmaster Brian Dolenti have devoted many hours to their pulled pork, these ropy strands of shoulder meat studded with smoky sections of outside brown. Lightly sauced and a little spicy, their pulled pork ranks among the finest I’ve ever had. Their spatchcocked chicken, the skin smoky but counterbalanced with an herbal bouquet, is almost the pork’s equal. The only thing I can’t fully endorse is the smoked seitan, which I found crumbly and unremarkable.
This kind of barbecue does not happen by accident. It is the result of countless hours of tinkering with every facet of the process, from the construction of ZZQ’s 1,000-gallon smokers to the way the meats are cooked, wrapped, rested and held. Not surprisingly, Fultz calls himself a perfectionist. He might even come across as professorial if he weren’t always covered with an apron the color of butcher paper, his silver hair tucked behind his ears underneath a gimme cap from Louie Mueller Barbecue, the celebrated smokehouse in Taylor, Tex.
The guy really can’t be mistaken for anything but a pitmaster.
Yet his notebooks are a testament to something else: They’re filled with notes on the weather, the temperature ranges inside his smokers and the rotation times of his briskets. There are even rough sketches depicting what part of the brisket dried out during the cook.
Fultz’s peculiar approach draws from his previous life as an architect. Like many of his smokehouse peers, Fultz has learned from the pitmasters who went before him, but he also relies on the tools of science — experimentation, observation, data, repetition — to help control the most elusive quality in all of barbecue: consistency.
“I was always the kind of designer who was influenced deeply by my gut and intuition, and that would be informed by research and mathematics,” Fultz says. “I approach [barbecue] in very similar ways.”
Though largely self-taught, Fultz has had mentors along his path from backyard smoker to professional bricks-and-mortar pitmaster. Not only has John Lewis, the owner and pitmaster behind Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C., shared some of his earned wisdom, but he and his father, John Lewis Sr., have also built ZZQ’s three offset smokers, which puff away in a room off the patio. Fultz also credits financial analyst John Singh — the brother of Amrit Singh, Fultz’s partner in their architecture firm — for helping him and Graf navigate the byzantine world of business plans and investment fundraising.
But the person who has really given shape and form to Fultz’s dream is Graf, another former architect who found an outlet for her own considerable skills in this project. Once a skater with the River City Rollergirls, Graf is, as her husband notes, the face of ZZQ. She greets diners. She checks on diners. She has even helped feed them: She has been part of the team — along with Fultz and culinary director Russell Cook — that has developed the exquisite side dishes, including a decadent mac and cheese spiked with jalapeños and a red cabbage coleslaw sweetened with pineapple. Cook’s banana pudding is the ideal ending to any meal here.
“It’s new every day,” Fultz says about his partner in life and business. “It’s the bond that made all of this take off.”
Their bond is made clear throughout ZZQ. You can see it in the wall of black-and-white photos depicting their barbecue adventures. You can see it in an unorthodox math equation in neon lights above the cash register: Texas + Orange = Heart. It doesn’t make any sense until you know the story of Chris Fultz and Alex Graf.
Fultz is the native son of the state. Graf skated roller derby under the name Orangyna. The heart, of course, is the symbol for what brought them together and what brought this barbecue destination into existence. It’s all so easy to love.