December 26, 2014
By: Steven Raichlen
Ah, the good old days. When legendary masters like Arthur Bryant and Sonny Bryan manned the barbeque pits. A lot of people complain that barbeque just isn’t what it used to be, and they’re right.
It’s better in traditional barbeque hotspots, like Kansas City and Dallas. It’s better in places where you’d never expect to find killer ’que, from Brooklyn to Minneapolis to L.A.
A new generation of pit masters and grill masters has applied time-honored smoking and grilling techniques to the kind of meat most of us want to eat today: humanely and locally raised animals free of growth hormones and antibiotics. We crave bespoke cocktails and wine lists, not cheap beer, and we admire the pit master who goes the extra mile of pickling his own peppers or baking his own sandwich buns.
I had the good fortune to visit more than 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada while on book tour for Man Made Meals.
Herewith, my Top 10 Smoke and Fire Restaurants of 2014.
1. Barrel & Ashes in Los Angeles: Talk about pedigree: chefs Timothy Hollingsworth and Rory Hermann cooked at The French Laundry and Bouchon respectively before launching this new open kitchen barbeque joint in Studio City. The craft cocktails, heirloom vegetable salads, and wood-fired tri-tip alone demand a visit. Don’t miss the smoked chicken sandwich impaled with a paring knife instead of the usual toothpick.
2. Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis: I have two words for you: beef ribs. I have two more words for you: pork chops. Everything at this sprawling roadhouse is smokier than a fireplace and bigger than life, including the buzzy outdoor terrace. Chef Peter Botcher moves adroitly between the smoker and wood-burning grill, often using both to prepare a single dish.
3. King + Duke in Atlanta: 24-foot open hearth with monster wood burning grill? Check. Smoker from which emerge home cured bacon, pastrami, and salmon? Check. And while you’re at it, try the coal-roasted onion soup, wood-fired burgers, and a 1 kilo rib steak that bears the imposing name “The King.” Just as you literary types suspected, this Buckhead restaurant is named for two characters in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
4. Eli’s BBQ in Cincinnati: In a city where “barbeque” used to mean oven-baked ribs drowned in sugary barbeque sauce, Elias Leisring burns hardwood logs in mammoth Megatron and Old Hickory pits to serve vinegar-spiked pulled pork, spice- and smoke-blasted turkey breast, and what may be the best double-smoked hot dog in North America. (The secret? A generous sprinkling of pork crispies.) His 1927 former taproom location (music from vinyl only) with its sprawling circus tent seating outdoors is a far cry from the van that once served as his kitchen “dining room” at a local farmers market.
5. Jake’s Handcrafted in Brooklyn: Nepotism alert: Jake Klein, owner of this punk rock bar turned smoked sausage Mecca is my stepson. But the old man had nothing to do with Jake’s imaginative sausages, which range from double-smoked brisket bratwurst to Miami-inspired lechon asado sausage to a Reuben brat made with house-cured corned beef and home-fermented sauerkraut. Dine in the courtyard in the summer and tell Jake I said to take care of you.
6. La Barbecue in Austin: You might remember John Lewis as the former pit master of Franklin Barbecue. So you won’t be surprised by the format of his new solo venture, La Barbecue: open-air pit and trailer “kitchen” in a vacant lot dishing up brisket so moist it squirts and coal-black beef plate ribs so humongous it takes two hands to lift. He opens at 11 a.m., but the waiting line starts at 8. Doesn’t anyone in Austin work?
7. Miller’s Guild in Seattle: Head-to-tail butchery. 75-day aged prime beef. A fire-belching wood burning grill that would make the mouth of hell seem like a campfire. Hey, they had me at the strip steak—smoked daily in a smoke chamber before grilling over fruitwood. No down home joint this—it’s a high design restaurant where venture capitalists would be comfortable wooing startups.
8. NOLA Smokehouse in New Orleans: For all its fabulous food, New Orleans never had much of a tradition of barbeque. Rob Bechtold is determined to change that one brisket chili, one Smokehouse spare rib, and one smoked boudin at a time. The barebones dining room befits the old school barbeque aesthetic, and the chef is so committed, he often spends the night manning his smokers.
9. Pecan Lodge in Dallas: Lucky for me I got to this new Deep Ellum restaurant before it opened its doors to the public. Otherwise, I’d be standing in line with hundreds of other Dallas barbeque fanatics for some of the smokiest brisket and spiciest hot guts this side of the Chisholm Trail. Talk about the American Dream: refugees from corporate consulting, husband-wife team Justin and Diane Fourton got their start serving out of a station wagon at a the Dallas Farmers Market.
10. Q39 in Kansas City: Run by old school chef and competition barbequer Rob Magee, this new school restaurant (open kitchen, industrial dining room) raises the bar in a city already endowed with awesome ’que. The “Best Wings on the Planet” live up to their name, as do the apple-brined pulled pork, wood-grilled brisket burgers, and honey-glazed Q spare ribs. And how many barbeque joints serve a white bean smoked sausage cassoulet?
Finally … I know this highly subjective list will generate controversy. It’s supposed to. I may have left off your favorite new restaurant (sorry) and you may disagree with my choices. So please tell us your favorites (on the Barbecue Board, Facebook, or Twitter) and give me a reason to visit your town in 2015.