We’ve moved far past the idea that good Texas-style barbecue can only be smoked within the borders of the Lone Star State. I travel Texas searching for the best barbecue it has to offer, and sometimes I venture beyond our border to find how pitmasters are interpreting our beloved style of barbecue across the country. I don’t think anyone outside Texas does it any better than ZZQ in Richmond, Virginia, which architects-and-partners-turned-barbecue-entrepreneurs Chris Fultz and Alex Graf designed and opened in March.
Barbecue brought them together years ago when Fultz handed Graf a rib he’d smoked for a 2011 Memorial Day party. Their first date was a few weeks later. Austin-born, Mesquite-raised Fultz had been trying to capture the flavors of a Texas upbringing that was missing in Virginia, where he had stuck around after grad school and built a successful architecture practice. A cabinet smoker on the back patio fueled his weekend hobby of showing friends and neighbors the beauty of smoked brisket.
Graf wasn’t sold on brisket when Fultz first invited her for a backyard party. “That’s the thing that my Jewish stepmother makes in a crockpot that’s gross,” Graf told me. “You’re staying up all night for that?” Then she tried it. Her thirteen-year-streak as a vegetarian was over. As the brisket got better, Fultz got more serious. He designed a pit in AutoCAD, a computer drafting program used by architects. Some local welders built it, and Fultz named it Mabel. Word got out about their barbecue, which led to a catering gig for a 125-person wedding party. It was a success.
Fultz and Graf didn’t have any restaurant experience, but they were hooked on making folks happy with Texas barbecue. In 2014 they started Come & Brisket events, fulfilling preorders of whole briskets and racks of ribs. One week, they had eight briskets on the pit, and felt like they were onto something. “It was a magical time, but we didn’t know exactly how it would grow,” Graf said. The couple were practicing for something bigger. As Graf remembers, “Chris already had a ZZQ license plate on his truck,” a name derived from Texas band ZZ Top, but they didn’t yet think a restaurant of their own was a real possibility. They both still had secure careers in design, but the barbecue was becoming far more than a hobby.
It was Amrit Singh, Fultz’s partner at his architecture firm, who pushed him to think bigger and start his own place. Fultz had catered the wedding reception of Singh’s brother John, who helped Fultz and Graf develop a business plan. In 2016, the team made plans for a permanent building and began a series of weekend pop-ups hosted in the Beer Garden of Ardent Craft Ales to help finance the project. The restaurant was built from the ground up right next to Ardent, and opened in March 2018.
Their barbecue has a strong influence from John Lewis of Lewis BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina. Graf and Fultz met Lewis in Austin while he was still with La Barbecue. He has acted as a barbecue mentor to the couple ever since. “John Lewis has been an incredible part of our journey,” Graf told me sincerely. That mentorship also reflects in the design of the ZZQ building, which evokes the touches you’ll find during a visit to Lewis BBQ. There’s the massively scaled painting of a steer’s head and stuffed steer heads lined up above the bar, each with a plastic livestock tag in its ear. The design of the ZZQ interior is also similar to Lewis’s, with clean lines and a tall ceiling to make the space seem even larger. One wall is a true Texas tribute, covered with photos from the couple’s Texas barbecue travels.
More importantly than the look of the place, Lewis had a hand in the pits they now cook on. Three 1,000-gallon offset smokers from Austin Smoke Works, owned by Lewis and his father, John Lewis Sr., fill the ZZQ smokehouse. They’re fueled by local white oak, which is stacked to form the rear enclosure of the patio. That’s where I sat to try a bit of everything from the menu.
Both Graf and Fultz came by the table after the meal and asked for pointers, but all I could honestly muster was my general dislike of pineapple in coleslaw. The rest was flawless. The brisket was ridiculously good: Both lean and fatty slices were juicy, tender, smoky, and salty in the best possible combination. Big pork spare ribs were peppery and just a bit sweet, coming off the bone with just a tug of the teeth. A superb link of spicy smoked sausage was made by a local butcher shop. Thankfully, I’d arrived on a Saturday, which was beef rib day. The massive short rib was pull-apart tender with a black pepper bark that bit back.
Another tray held a pulled pork sandwich, which had been the most popular order in the first month or so—the standard local barbecue hound who stopped by this new joint in Richmond clearly wasn’t educated in the ways of brisket, and barbecue in these parts usually comes in the form of a pork sandwich. This was a good one, especially with a splash of their vinegar sauce. Still, Fultz wanted to push the brisket. After running the pop-ups for years, he’d gotten used to regulars who adored their signature meat. “We were accustomed to our die-hard followers and fans for two years,” Fultz said. “When we opened the brick and mortar it exposed us to a whole new audience.” The newbies are coming around, as the day I visited they expected to sell every bit of 44 briskets on the pits. They’ve also been ordering fewer buns as meat-by-the-pound has become more popular. Despite the progress, Fultz admits, “We’re definitely in the guest-training business.”
They also taught me a thing or two. In the spirit of ordering everything, I got the smoked seitan sandwich. The seitan is a vegan option, house-made from a mix of vital wheat gluten and nutritional yeast. The secret ingredient, according to Graf, is fermented black beans. The seitan is poached in soy sauce, seasoned with the brisket rub, and smoked. It’s sliced for sandwiches and topped with slaw, and I’ve got to admit that I enjoyed the sandwich. I also loved the beans, which had a grilled flavor to them. Graf said they start by toasting cumin seeds until they’re dark. The seeds then go into hot bacon fat along with garlic and onion for the base. “You have to cook them very dark,” she instructs. Then they add tomatoes and cook them way down, building layers of flavor before the dry beans ever go in. The result is spectacular.
Graf and Fultz admit their cooking knowledge only went so deep, so they brought on Russell Cook as ZZQ’s culinary director. They credit him with taking their barbecue pop-up concept and turning it into a full-blown barbecue restaurant. The series of excellent sides are mostly his concoctions. I loved the jalapeño mac & cheese and the slightly sweet collard greens. The banana pudding and a chocolate whoopie pie also impressed me, but the dessert that would bring me back is unorthodox for a barbecue joint: the coconut cake. It was as fluffy as angel food, but the coconut added a richness. The thick buttercream icing had gotten glossy while warming in the sun while I ate, and it was pleasantly smooth once I got to it. It was a fine finale to an impressive meal.
Fultz has taken five trips to Texas for barbecue inspiration and research, and Graf has joined him for three of them. After my meal at ZZQ, I feel like they could now provide inspiration to budding pitmasters in the region. Fultz said they already get plenty of folks coming down to visit from D.C., where it’s challenging to find great barbecue. I went to D.C. directly after my visit in Richmond, and ZZQ is worth the two-and-a-half-hour drive. As for branching out to Fultz’s homeland, they wouldn’t rule it out. “I’m happy to bring it to Texas,” Graf said with a smile. “I’m not afraid.”