Five Reasons to Get Fired Up for Craft Barbecue
To those that follow food trends closely, know that craft barbecue is having a moment. To those who practice barbecue as a lifestyle, craft barbecue is eternal.
It’s especially prominent in Texas, where young gun pitmasters in Austin, San Antonio and dozens of rural towns have taken over the Texas Monthly rankings from the elder pitmasters who first brought it to national prominence. Here are five reasons why you should pay attention to craft barbecue.
You’ll never call millennials lazy again once you’ve watched a serious young pitmaster at work.
Starting the day before sunrise, presiding over the smoker for hours, and then serving folks personally until the food runs out is standard daily practice. Many of them operate from food trucks or backyard setups until they’ve raised enough money for brick-and-mortar spaces.
“More and more ‘mom and pop’ places are getting recognized, and chains are having to keep up,” says Nichole Buckman, who ran Corkscrew BBQ with her husband, pitmaster Will Buckman, out of a trailer in a parking lot until they were able to open a restaurant.
Craft barbecue is defined by a deep respect for traditional methods.
From hand trimming brisket to caramelizing burnt ends to perfecting whole hog roasting, craft pitmasters tend to have a “no automation, no shortcuts” approach. This actually compels customers to respect the kitchen’s schedule instead of expecting to be served anything at any hour.
"Craft barbecue is the love of taking quality meat, trimming it down and smoking it for a long time,” explains Matt Blanchard of Blanchard’s Barbeque in Lafayette, La. “It’s the time and love that make a difference from the mass-produced barbecue you find at chain restaurants. I feel like it’s so popular right now because that’s what people are really looking for: real, authentic love and connection to traditions and supporting family businesses that carry on those traditions.”
At a time when many restaurateurs are scrambling to appease special dietary trends, craft barbecue places tend to keep their menus tightly focused on their signature dishes that have loyal followers.
You don’t see many offering a vegan alternative among the entrees, though places may have meat-free offerings elsewhere on the menu, generally to showcase some type of special culinary expertise the owners have. Examples are Truth BBQ in Brenham, which serves the pitmaster’s mother’s homemade pies; or Feges BBQ in Houston, which is known for its creative veggie sides like kale salad, sweet ‘n spicy sprouts and Moroccan spiced carrots.
The ideology of “craft” for barbecue applies to a lot of meat products that most restaurants have simply given up on doing in-house: sausage, bacon, brined turkey breast.
This school of barbecue doesn’t stick with the holy meat trinity of brisket, pulled pork and ribs.
Just like the craft-beer movement encourages small-batch brewers to experiment with flavors and styles, craft barbecue encourages diverse culinary influences when it’s authentic to the pitmaster.
For example, 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio has garnered a huge following for Esaul Ramos’ Mexican-influenced specialties, especially the once-a-month Sunday barbacoa. At St. Louis’ Sugarfire Smoke House, where owner Mike Johnson went from fine dining chef to pitmaster to owner of a booming regional Sugarfire chain, meat main plates are mainly traditional, but chefs go wild with sandwiches and daily specials.
“Part of the fun of Sugarfire is being able to come up with our crazy, chef-driven specials we serve each day,” says Johnson. “But at the base of each special is slow-roasted meats and the best ingredients we can find.”