Kyle Rensmeyer missed Texas barbecue dearly when he left Dallas in 2014 for a job in Portland, Oregon. Finding brisket to match what he’d enjoyed at Lockhart Smokehouse and Pecan Lodge was a struggle. “There was nothing like that up here,” he said, so he bought a smoker for his backyard and started making his own barbecue. In May, he started selling barbecue as a weekend side gig. Two months later, he quit his day job and opened up four days a week at his Holy Trinity Barbecue trailer. Now he’s one of several impressive barbecue operations in a city that might have the best Texas-style lineup in the country outside the Lone Star State.
The rise of Portland barbecue began in May 2015 with the opening of Matt’s BBQ. The food truck parked behind a pawn shop was operated, almost single-handedly, by Matt Vicedomini. He was churning out notably good brisket from an offset smoker sized more appropriately for home use rather than a business. I visited a few months after it first opened and was excited by the potential of this pitmaster without much of a pedigree.
Long Island native Vicedomini had married an Australian and got his first job in barbecue at Melbourne’s Gem Bar with a chef who’d done a bit of barbecue training in Austin. It wasn’t exactly an apprenticeship in a Texas pit room, but it was a start. Vicedomini and his wife decided to move back to the States, and they chose Portland. A month before Matt’s BBQ opened, Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue published his barbecue manifesto. Vicedomini soaked in all he could from it, but he admits that his early barbecue needed refinement. “It sucked,” he said bluntly. Still, a year after opening, Matt’s BBQ was named the food cart of the year by the Oregonian.
Last year Matt’s BBQ found a new location in the Prost Marketplace. I visited there a few weeks ago to see how the quality was holding up. Nick Sherbo was working the pit, a much larger offset smoker than the original one. (Vicedomini calls himself “head administrator” and rarely cooks barbecue anymore.) Sweet-glazed pork belly burnt ends had been added to the menu, and Sherbo was trying out a new sausage recipe that needed tweaking, but I was there for brisket. It was phenomenal. Slices of lean brisket had just the right amount of oak smoke and were perfectly tender and ridiculously juicy. Sherbo said the team was planning a barbecue tour through Texas for training after New Year’s. With all sincerity, I told him not to spend too much time researching smoked brisket. Matt’s BBQ was already up there with some of the best briskets in our state.
Matt’s BBQ isn’t actually where Texas barbecue began in Portland. Waxahachie native Rodney Muirhead made a splash when he opened Podnah’s Pit Barbecue in 2006. Before the barbecue boom, his was one of the few respectable Texas barbecue joints outside the state. I didn’t revisit it on this latest trip, but I’ve enjoyed solid barbecue and otherworldly cornbread at Podnah’s in the past. The new joints in Portland respect Podnah’s, but they’re not looking to the restaurant’s table service and rotisserie smoker for inspiration. They want steel offset smokers. They want to send heaping trays of sliced barbecue by the pound out the window of their food trucks. It’s basically Austin in 2013. Heck, Portland’s even got a new barbecue taco truck, from Matt Vicedomini.
The old smoker from the original location of Matt’s BBQ now sits behind the taco truck, predictably named Matt’s BBQ Tacos. They smoke brisket and pork belly for both breakfast and lunch tacos. Flour tortillas are made by Sherbo, a man of many talents, at a commissary kitchen. They’re incredibly fluffy, as are the scrambled eggs inside the breakfast tacos. The barbecue has more of a smoky bite than at Matt’s BBQ. Vicedomini said he hopes to change that soon when he gets a new smoking warehouse operational and cooks all the barbecue for his three restaurants (he’s also a partner in Eem, a Thai barbecue restaurant) in one place. But the tacos are impressive, especially for Portland. They were good enough to get Matt’s BBQ Tacos on the list of the 10 best new restaurants in the country by Bon Appétit.
Vicedomini has gone from upstart to influential in just four years. Not only is his barbecue considered the measuring stick for all the joints that have come after, but he’s noticed lots of Portland restaurants getting ideas from his other food truck too. “Even in the last six months, all the bars have breakfast tacos now,” he said. He doesn’t mind, and he admits that he never dreamed he’d be in this position when he opened his first place with just $10,000. “I honestly didn’t expect to have any employees when I opened Matt’s BBQ,” he said. Vicedomini wasn’t much of a local barbecue Nostradamus, either. “I thought pulled pork would be the number one seller because this is Portland,” he said, but brisket has become the undisputed king.
Holy Trinity Barbecue takes its name from the trio of brisket, pork ribs, and sausage ubiquitous on barbecue menus across Texas. Rensmeyer puts all three onto the Holy Trinity platter along with two sides for $22. “We try to average about a pound of meat,” he said. The sausage has a little kick and a smattering of mustard seeds. Rensmeyer, who makes the links himself, credits the pitmasters behind the soon-to-open Goldee’s BBQ in Fort Worth for helping him with that recipe. The seasoning of just salt and pepper for both the ribs and brisket, and smoke from a five-hundred-gallon Moberg pit, is about as austere as you can get, but neither need anything more.
Rensmeyer will get more creative with his next collaboration. He’s become buddies with Michael Keskin, who owns the Bark City BBQ truck, and they get together once a month to create a themed barbecue dinner. The next one will feature pork ribs with a Jamaican jerk rub, a sweet bourbon version, and one with an al pastor seasoning. It’s the sort of cooperation that builds a barbecue community.
Keskin’s Bark City is another new bright spot in Portland’s barbecue scene. An offset smoker made by Primitive Pits in Georgia sits next to the trailer that opened in 2017. I watched as a man was wrapping briskets in butcher paper on a table while I waited for my order. The “Pitmaster Nap” came with four meats and two sides and a slice of savory cornbread for $24. Some of the sides were like nothing I’d seen. Slices of pickled avocado were bracingly acidic. The soft texture didn’t align with my concept of a pickle, so I still can’t say whether I liked it. There was no doubt though that I would return just for more of the diced sweet potatoes sautéed in beef tallow until crisp and the creamy mac and cheese topped with bits of bacon.
Bark City earned its name with the best ribs I had in Portland. The St. Louis cut ribs were tender and smoky with a sweet glaze over top a stout, black bark. The brisket had a similar bark but could have used a bit more time on the pit to render out the fat. I also really enjoyed the beer bratwurst, which Keskin makes himself. It’s smoked but then finished in a hot skillet to crisp the outside.
Across town is another barbecue truck with unique sides. Botto’s BBQ was resurrected earlier this year after owner Darren Bottinelli was released from federal prison. After some early praise when it first opened in 2016, Botto’s sat dormant while Bottinelli served time for stealing millions from a health care fund he managed. Now he’s back to selling admirable smoked brisket and tender ribs with too much sauce. I was most drawn to the house-made brisket pastrami and a side dish called cheesy brisket hash. It’s basically a smoked meat casserole with a crusty topping of browned cheese and fried onions, and it’s heavenly.
A cluster of really good barbecue joints is no longer unique in American cities, but Portland has pushed beyond the basics. Vicedomini teamed up with Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom and Eric Nelson to open Portland Monthly’s restaurant of the year, Eem. It marries Vicedomini’s barbecue with Ninsom’s Thai cooking for a barbecue experience like none other in America. (I’ll focus more on Eem in a feature later this week.) At Bullard in the Woodlark Hotel in downtown Portland, chef Doug Adams has paired smoked meats and steakhouse favorites in what Esquire calls one of the best new restaurants of the year.
“It’s like a modern Texas steakhouse,” is how Adams describes it. The star of the dinner menu is a massive smoked beef short rib. The kitchen makes the corn tortillas served alongside it. Diners are encouraged to stuff the tortillas with the smoked Painted Hills beef and top it with salsa verde, pickles, and guacamole. It’s a dining experience that feels like it belongs in Texas (Adams is a Texas native, and the restaurant’s motto is “Where Texas Meats Oregon”), but the flavor and texture of the beef rib fell short of revelatory, especially for $59. Although that perhaps depends on the audience. As diners left a table next to us, they commented that the beef rib was the best barbecue they’d ever eaten. The hits at our table came before and after it, like the smoked beef carpaccio appetizer topped with lemon, chile, crispy potato sticks, basil, and smoked cotija cheese. Also, don’t leave without trying the Texas sheet cake. The presentation is a little haughty for this Texas staple, but you’ll forget all about looks after the first decadent bite.
I’d sooner return to Bullard at lunch for the simpler smoked meat plates. Smoked pork belly was seared before serving. It tasted like a successful compromise between standard pork belly and bacon. Smoked brisket is understandably missing in favor of smoked trip-tip. Adams said he’s trying to get a new smoker into the hotel’s basement, but he lacks the freedom of a food truck. Three sides come with every lunch plate, but one is always Texas caviar. Adams said the dish is too hard for the waitstaff to quickly explain, but he wants the diners to experience it.
There were too many barbecue joints to cover in the two days I spent in Portland. That’s a good problem for any city to have, especially one outside Texas. The bad dishes were minimal, and the good ones represented a burgeoning barbecue scene of which the city should be proud. I asked Vicedomini if he could explain why Portland, a city far from traditional barbecue regions, had become a destination so quickly. He was too modest to give himself well-deserved credit for his own influence, but he noted how friendly the municipal government has been to food trucks. Portland is often referred to as the Austin of Oregon, and Austin the Portland of Texas, and that’s certainly one quality they share. He also said a new cuisine can flourish in the city because “Portland is willing to try new things.” Rensmeyer echoed that point. He said knew his barbecue truck would be successful because “everybody wants this. They just don’t know they want it until they have it.”