TMBBQFest, “23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:” Country Tavern
Fri October 28, 2011 4:05 pm

Editor’s Note: Just a couple more days until the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival! As you surely know by now, we’ve been interviewing all the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog.

Today we’re featuring Toby Pilgrim, 44, of Country Tavern in Kilgore. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com.

What is your heat source?

We use a combination of oak, pine and hickory. These are the ones that work the best, and they’re just the best ones for me. We use different woods for different things. We use oak and hickory for our ribs, and we like to smoke our sausage with pecan.

Who did you learn your craft from?

This is a family deal. I’m the third generation in this restaurant. I learned from my dad, and my dad learned from the man before him. My family acquired it. And my grandmother owned the restaurant, and my dad took over cooking from the original cook, and I cooked after my dad.

What’s your signature meat?

Ribs. As I grew up with this restaurant, all we sold was ribs. We’ve always been known for ribs. We don’t even have a menu. One point as a kid, you came in and got ribs and plate of potato salad. But we’ve grown into other meats over the years. But we sell more ribs than anything else. The ribs are good. They’re better than most I’ve tried at other barbecue restaurants. I think it has a lot to do with our seasoning and how we cook them. We smoke them on the pit just like everybody else does and for the same time and at the same temperature as everybody else does. But we rub them with seasonings the night before.

Do you prefer sauce or no sauce?

I like them both ways, to be honest, and our customers are the same way. The ribs have so much flavor already, but the sauce is good too. The sauce is a kind of a tomato-y, vinegar-based sauce—kind of like a sweet and sour and spicy sauce. It’s not real thick. That’s the best way I can describe it.

Do you make your own sausage?

No, we do not. We buy from somebody nearby.

Do you cook your meat slow and low or high and faster?

It depends on what you’re cooking. You cook brisket slow and low and you cook ribs high and fast. But really, I think you could consider us slow and low too. I consider slow and low to be 200 degrees. We cook our ribs at 235. High and fast might be 300 degrees.

What non-secret ingredients are in your spice rub, if you use one.

We use a spice rub, and I think that’s why our ribs are so good. We probably use more ingredients than we should. A lot of sugar; our ribs are sweet rub ribs. Our rub has a considerable amount of sugar in it. Cayenne pepper, black pepper, basic barbecue seasonings like garlic. Obviously salt.

Do you have a favorite BBQ in Texas other than your own?

I’ve eaten at a lot of different restaurants, and I enjoy their food. To me, everybody is different. I do enjoy eating other restaurants’ food because it’s different from mine and having grown up with mine, I like the different flavor profiles of others. They’re all unique.

Do you start a new fire each day or do you keep the same one going?

We do if we have some good coals that we can get a good fire going with, which we normally do.

Aluminum foil or butcher paper? More generally, what is the secret to holding great barbecue?

We don’t use anything. We pretty much plate our food. We’re not like most of the places. We’re a sit-down restaurant with waitresses. Our food comes out on plates.

What should the home smoker look for when picking out a side of brisket from the market?

You’ve always got to start with a good piece of meat. It costs more, but the end results are always better. It’s the difference between choice and select brisket. You’re always going to get something better with choice.

What’s the one other piece of advice you’d give to someone smoking a brisket at home?

Golly, I just don’t know what to say. I can’t answer that one. I guess, low and slow. Brisket’s pretty simple to cook as long as you don’t overcook it.

Do you use or have you considered using a gas- or electric-fired smoker for any of your meats?

No, it’s just not the way to do it. There are commercial smokers on the market that are gas assisted that use wood as well, and I’ve always heard—and I don’t know this for a fact—with those smokers you can almost taste what the gas does to the meat. I don’t think I’d do anything like that. It’s not really barbecue to me.

Have you ever had any Texas barbecue outside of Texas? What did you think?

Yes, there’s actually a restaurant in New York called Hill Country BBQ, and the whole thing is Texas themed. They even bring the sausage from a restaurant down by Austin. They try to do everything. They bring their wood from Texas, and I think they do a good job. I’ve eaten there. I know there’s more than that out there, but I’ve seen this restaurant, and they do a good job. They did their homework.

How many pounds of meat do you smoke a week?

About 5,000-6,000 pounds of meat. We get stuck with them sometimes, but we try to sell out. We use leftover meat and chop it up and put it in our beans.

(Questions by Jason Cohen, Andrea Valdez, Pat Sharpe, Katy Vine, Sonia Smith, Daniel VaughnJim ShahinJ.C. Reid@stewlevine&@JoePerryinTX.)

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