An unexpected bounty of barbecue awaits in the farthest northwestern reaches of the lower 48. Uprooted pitmasters and chefs from distant lands have converged here, between Seattle and Canada, to create everything from destinations where you can dine by firelight with a glass of cabernet franc to shacks with picnic tables just outside the front door.

A decade ago, Dallas native and Texas A&M grad Jack Timmons opened the first Jack’s BBQ location in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood. Today he’s working on his seventh location, and has added Jack’s Chicken Shack and Jackalope, a Tex-Mex restaurant, to the fold. The local appetite for Timmons’s oak-smoked barbecue is still strong, though he was forced to close a poorly performing location in Bellingham, about ninety minutes north, last December. Timmons told me during my recent visit that he’s considering new locations outside the state, but wasn’t ready to announce anything specific.

When I wrote about the restaurant back in 2016, I called it “an honest and diligent copy of a quality Texas barbecue joint.” That remains true at the original restaurant. The Texas Trinity plate ($37) featured smoky, tender slices of a brisket, one each from the fatty and lean sides; two hefty spare ribs; and two links of smoked sausage. The last came from Syracuse Sausage in Ponder, in Denton County, and was a fine version, but I’ve gotten accustomed to house-made sausages at most of the newer Texas barbecue joints around the country.

The Texas messaging on the menu is assertive: there’s a ground brisket burger called the Whatabrisket; “all meat, no beans!” describes Jack’s Texas chili; and the pecan pie is called the Texas State Fair Champ. But Jack’s BBQ isn’t all hat and no cattle. All the meats are smoked in steel offset smokers with a mix of Washington applewood and post oak brought in from Texas. Timmons recently added a wood-fired Oyler rotisserie to the fleet as well. And while Texas caviar is rarely found as a side at barbecue joints in Texas (for reasons I can’t explain), Jack’s has an excellent version, as well as a corn pudding.

A similar expansion is underway for Jack’s BBQ’s neighbor, Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que. Ron Wise, a Texas native, and his wife, Debra, opened their barbecue takeout window in SoDo in 1980, before the neighborhood had its current NFL and MLB stadiums, or even the SoDo name. Gerry Kingen, founder of the Red Robin chain, bought the rights to expand the brand in 2011. Kingen has opened three new locations since then, and operates a Pecos Pit food truck. The original location, though, is still operated by Debra Wise, and it feels like anything but a chain.

I found an empty picnic table under the big, red awning and opened my paper bag. “A deliciously sloppy sandwich” was promised on the red-checked paper wrapping my chopped brisket sandwich. The place was built on brisket and pork sandwiches, but now smoked sausage and poultry are also available. Saucy chunks of chopped brisket spilled out from the onion bun when I unwrapped it. Another diner used the provided spork to eat his sandwich, and I followed suit. It was smoky and satisfying, but it’s obvious the sauce is as much the focus as the meat. The sauce can be ordered in heat levels on a five-point scale, from mild to hot. I had to down my entire Arnold Palmer to extinguish the heat from the medium sauce.

North of Seattle, in Marysville, Jeff Knoch also likes to bring the heat. He had to tone down his smoked brisket chili recipe five times before most customers at Jeff’s Texas Style BBQ could tolerate it. I couldn’t offer any room for improvement on my bowl. He’s not from Texas, and neither is his wife, Kim, but she convinced him the barbecue he smoked in their backyard was good enough to sell. He quit his job, and opened the restaurant with his trusty Houston-built Klose pit in 2016.

Jeff's Texas Style BBQ.
Jeff’s Texas Style BBQ. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
Jeff Knoch of Jeff's Texas Style BBQ.
Jeff Knoch of Jeff’s Texas Style BBQ. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Photos of Texas pitmasters, all taken by Austin photographer Wyatt McSpadden, line every wall of the restaurant. Knoch sat with me in a booth with his Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue hoodie on, and told me tales of exploring the barbecue trails of Texas. His first trip in the mid-nineties changed his perception of barbecue. “It was the first time I really ever tasted smoked meat,” Knoch said.

After Jeff’s was named the best barbecue joint in Washington by Food & Wine back in 2018, business really spiked. The article came out over a weekend, and Knoch didn’t see it. While preparing to open for the week, he got a surprise. “On Tuesday morning we had a hundred and fifty people standing at the front door waiting to come in at nine-thirty,” Knoch said. He was confused, as he’d never had a line before opening. “I had to go out and ask them what the hell they were there for,” he said with a laugh.

On my recent visit, Richie Amos, Knoch’s pit boss, produced some admirable smoked brisket with a peppery bark. The same can be said for the tender pork ribs. I loved the turkey too. Knoch said he watched cooks dip smoked turkey into a vat of butter at Franklin Barbecue. He went two steps further by clarifying and smoking the butter he baptizes his turkey in. For dessert, get the Elvis, which is a banana cake with chocolate chips and a whipped peanut butter icing. After I sampled from a loaded tray of meats, sides, and dessert, the chunk of smoked pork belly Knoch offered me just before I left gave me the most lasting impression. It was perfectly smoked with a slightly sweet rub, and layers of tender pork and rendered fat.

The post oak Knoch orders from Lometa, Texas, comes from the brother-in-law of fellow Washington pitmaster Mike Harbin. A year before Jeff’s opened, Harbin and his wife, Heather, were serving Texas barbecue from their Mo-Chilli BBQ food truck (the name is a combination of their two sons’ nicknames). Two years ago they renovated a former bagel shop into their brick-and-mortar, which sits on a secluded peninsula in the town of Port Townsend. You’ll need a ferry to get there from Marysville, and it gets busy in the summer with tourists coming to visit the quaint town.

The Harbins left their insurance jobs in Round Rock to be closer to Heather’s family. “This was a way for us to make a lifestyle change,” Harbin said, and after years of cooking in barbecue competitions and hosting pop-ups in their driveway, he thought opening their own place would be a natural transition. Little did they know, the health department regulations in rural Washington hadn’t quite caught up to the Texas barbecue boom. The Harbins fought to use their offset smoker. Regulations forbade them from smoking meats over an inch thick unless they sought special permission, which they got, but only if Harbin logged the internal temperature of every piece of meat every hour. He kept the years of hand-written logs as a memento, but thankfully is no longer required to take those tedious measurements.

Flying the Texas flag in the pit room is one way for the Harbins to show their roots. Harbin said you just need to advertise that you’re serving Texas-style barbecue to bring the Texpats out of the woodwork, but plenty of them arrive skeptical. “We’re not known for barbecue in this part of the country,” Harbin said, so he has watched plenty of joints come and go because they didn’t really understand how to smoke good barbecue. He said one owner was smoking with fir trees, an evergreen, which would leave a terrible flavor on the meat.

The lean slices of brisket on my three-meat combo plate ($19) at Mo-Chilli were tender, juicy, and just the right amount of smoky. A heavily rubbed chicken thigh was also good, but it was the pork ribs that shined. They get plenty of seasoning and a glaze before resting for several hours in the warmer. They come out tender, but not falling off the bone. On Thursdays, the cooks push a few racks past that point so they can debone them for the rib sandwich special. The rib meat gets a slathering of sauce, and is topped with dill pickle chips and chunks of raw white onion on a soft hoagie roll. It’s a whole lot better than the McRib it mimics.

Harbin runs the smoker while Heather makes the sides and desserts. I especially enjoyed the jalapeño creamed corn, and the simple pinto beans were a true nod to Texas barbecue. Snacking on one of her pecan bars while on the road was an extra treat.

Port Townsend is isolated, so the Harbins have few peers in the area besides Knoch, and he’s more than two hours away. Harbin said he relies on his barbecue friends in Texas for support. Before opening, he learned techniques from Roy Perez at Kreuz Market and Kerry Bexley at Snow’s BBQ, and he would talk through the business side with the late John Brotherton. After meeting Bill Dumas, he learned they had both been in the Marines and were from Lampasas. “It’s good to be part of the barbecue community where these guys are willing to help you,” Harbin said.

Of all the places I visited, Carnal in Bellingham, was by far the outlier. Chefs James Zamory, Aaron Saurer, and Sean McDermott were drawn across the country from New York to this coastal city that’s closer to Vancouver than Seattle by investor and film producer Skip Williamson. None of them have strong ties to Texas, but I first encountered their food seven years ago when Zamory and Saurer brought Carnal to Austin through a residency at Parlor and Yard.

Zamory says the restaurant “blurs the line between fine dining and barbecue.” Most items on the menu are finished over a wood grill fueled with alder and maple wood, but nothing is smoked, even the famous beef short rib. Instead, they season rendered fat from bone marrow and use it to confit the ribs via sous vide. After two days, the ribs are ready for the fire, where they’re spritzed with pickling liquids made in-house. It sounds fancy, but it’s not far from direct-heat barbecue getting doused with a vinegar-based mop sauce.

“We’re taking some aspects of traditional barbecue, but also incorporating some of the finer techniques we’ve learned along the way,” Zamory said. The chefs have experience at revered New York restaurants like Nomad, Roberta’s, and Eleven Madison Park. Zamory said the proteins they served at those restaurants were usually finished with a brush of brown butter just before going out to diners. At Carnal, they’ve replaced that with a seasoned marrow fat. That fat also holds together the salsa verde—made with Swiss chard, Thai basil, and garlic—that garnishes the short rib. It brought a bright element to the perfectly tender chunks that had a well-developed bark from that wood fire.

A perfectly grilled hangar steak was also a stunner, served over a rich veal jus. Oyster mushrooms on the side were seared in beef tallow, then brushed with a hearty glaze made from roasted beef bones and lightened with tart verjus, made from the juice of unripened grapes. The stems from the mushrooms are cooked down and pureed with smoked butter to form a sort of umami mousse that’s spooned onto the plate. The combination of the heavily seared beef, the veal jus, and the mushroom mousse was startling in its complexity. “Each dish has kind of a wild-card flavor,” Zamory said, such as the black cod served with crispy fennel and harissa made with dates and candied fennel. 

The group behind Carnal opened Estelle in 2022, which recently got a nod from Esquire as one of the best new restaurants in the country. They’re also serving burgers and chicken sandwiches at their casual spot, Accomplice, next door to Carnal. They’ll soon launch a premium beef jerky brand that uses no sugar, and is seasoned with black truffle, black garlic, and charred scallions. (I was given a sample pack, and it tasted more like steak than any jerky I’ve tried.) Even with everything surrounding it, Carnal remains the flagship, and seeing the full realization of the project was rewarding after the promising preview I got in 2017. “We have a lot more time and a lot more equipment,” Zamory said, adding, “we’ve left room for more innovation.”