It was hard to know exactly what to call the culinary style of the stuff on my plate during a recent dinner at New York’s Fatty ’Cue. Buttermilk pappardelle with smoked goat ragu and roasted chilies? The dish was velvety in texture, the flavor a combination of earth and zing. With each bite, I wondered how the incongruity could be so rapturous. The key element wasn’t the pasta or the meat or the mildly piquant red peppers.
It was the smoke.
“Why does barbecue have to be stuck with sugar, salt and pepper?” pitmaster Steve Haritopoulos asks me as he stands at the back of the restaurant. “We are in no way debasing barbecue. It’s more like . . .” He raises his arms in opposite directions as if to demonstrate the width of Fatty ’Cue’s reach.
“Extending a tradition?” I venture.
Fancy barbecue restaurants still serve the standards: smoked brisket, ribs, pork shoulder. Rather than getting a garlic powder and cayenne rub, though, the meat might be marinated, then coated, in ground house-dried chilies and lime zest. Instead of a slather of tomato-based sauce, ribs might get a treatment involving fermented pastes, anchovies and fish.
Such experimentation is not relegated to the New York food scene, where reinvention is a way of life. It is occurring across the country: at Belly Q in Chicago, which is set to open this spring and is overseen by a former executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s; and out in Phoenix where a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef heads Bryan’s Black Mountain Barbecue, which, despite its tradition-bound menu, offers a vegetarian “pulled squash” sandwich. Change has come even to tradition-bound Texas, where barbecue is practically a religion.
Fatty ’Cue, which has locations in Brooklyn and in the West Village, is a trailblazer in the new hybrid cuisine that pairs slow-smoked meat—the foundation of barbecue—with unlikely flavors. Its smoked brisket comes with aged Gouda, roasted mushrooms and charred onions and its pork ribs get tricked out with Indonesian long pepper, fish sauce and palm sugar.
Chef-owner Zakary Pelaccio, 37, who opened his first Fatty ’Cue in spring 2010 and has just published his first cookbook, “Eat With Your Hands” (Ecco), is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute. He proclaims his love for traditional barbecue and says he has eaten it throughout his wife’s native Texas. But at “Kreuz’s or Smitty’s or City Market,” he says, checking off names of some of the Lone Star State temples, in Lockhart and Luling, “it’s incredible … you order all this stuff. There’s a monotony to it at some point. It’s delicious, but there’s no distinction between the meats. Wouldn’t it be exciting if it went off in this direction and that direction?”
There is a strong Asian influence in Fatty ’Cue’s approach, informed by Pelaccio’s excursions into Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia. A few years ago, he asked himself a question: Wouldn’t it be cool to take barbecue as we know it and throw some Malaysian flavors on it? Fatty ’Cue was born.
Down-home cuisine took a gourmet turn even earlier at Smoke restaurant in Dallas, which opened in 2009. As one might expect in Texas, chef Tim Byres takes wood-smoking seriously. There are neatly stacked woodpiles everywhere you look at Smoke, and they are not for show. He uses a wood-only smoker—built in Texas, of course. He grills with mesquite and smokes with hickory and oak, sometimes pecan. At the back of an outdoor patio, he built a smokehouse where he uses a vintage wood-only oven to gently smoke bacon and ham.
Byres, 36, who has cooked under top Texas toque Stephan Pyles and in Miami and Brussels, had found himself burned out “by the big business of the restaurant business.” In early 2009 (prior to Smoke), the chef took a road trip through the South, looking, as he puts it, “for a roots-Americana kind of thing.”
He found it everywhere: Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta. You name it.
“Everybody talks about the sustainable thing or the farm-to-market thing,” says Byres, this year’s winner of Food and Wine magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” in the Southwest. “But when you hit these little towns, like Helena, Arkansas, they’re using farm-fresh eggs and they all know where their chickens come from. For them, it’s no big deal.”
His restaurant exudes high-end comfort. Its floors and tables are fashioned from reclaimed wood. White-linen tablecloths are topped with butcher paper. “We’re influenced by Mexico and the South and Louisiana,” he says. “The core element is that we’re cooking with wood.”
He says that starting a restaurant of this sort met with local skepticism.
“Everybody’s a critic here, because everybody smokes meat,” says Byres, who is working on a book about wood-fired cooking to be released by Rizzoli next year. “People will say that this brisket isn’t as good as Snow’s or whatever,” a highly rated barbecue restaurant in Lexington. “I never said it was. We’re doing something different.”
One of Smoke’s signature dishes is an appetizer: duck foie gras and chicken liver pâté with “ham jelly” (basically the gelatin from greatly reduced ham stock) topped with smoked red onion marmalade. Another is the gigantic, witheringly tender beef rib (pictured above), brightened with chimichurri sauce. A thin layer of crisped fat takes it over the top.
Byres, though, also keeps things light. His lemony grilled quail with chickpeas and parsley-mint salad is a refreshing alternative to the big-meat dishes. Quail is popular among Texas hunters. “The goal is to be attentive to the culture,” Byres says.
In the neighboring city of Fort Worth, forty-year-old celebrity chef Tim Love is doing his own take on new ’cue at the Woodshed Smokehouse, which opened this year. In bluejeans and a T-shirt, he strolls through the relaxed Austin-esque eatery where patrons dine outdoors at picnic tables overlooking the tree-lined Trinity River. He jaws a little with customers who devour barbecue variants of the “haute cowboy” cuisine Love pioneered at his flagship Lonesome Dove Western Bistro.
Smoked artichokes with lemon and Parmesan and his smoked, marinated olives are decidedly not the sort of appetizers you would find at your average Texas barbecue joint. But then, the Woodshed is anything but ordinary—for Texas or anywhere else.
Love stuffs red piquillo peppers with smoked brisket and serves them in a beef-bone broth with a sprinkling of salty cotija cheese. His redfish en papillote is first cold-smoked, then wrapped in parchment paper. His signature is the sixteen-hour smoked beef shin with ricotta, a mammoth $75 entree meant for four.
One of my favorites there is the oak-smoked cauliflower, a meaty treatment of the whole head exposed to an hour-long oak smoke, then finished with olive oil, lemon and arbol chili. The smoke deepens the flavor while the dressing provides a sprightly, seductive counterpoint.
“Everybody thought, because I was from Texas, I was a barbecue expert,” Love told me, sitting at an outside table on a gorgeous mid-April afternoon. “I’m not. But I finally said, ‘All right, already, I’ll do it.’ But I wanted to do something different with it. This is the food I feel I’ve grown into from all the knowledge I’ve gained and all the people I’ve been around. This is doing modern Texas without being kitschy.”
Like Byres’s setup, Love’s pits are completely wood-fueled. Several smokers kept in an outdoor shack are designated for different purposes. He opens one to reveal a mix of Greek extra-large green olives, black jumbos and kalamatas being smoked; in another smoker, he shows off spareribs, a special cut trimmed to highlight the meatiest part.
Like Fatty ’Cue, the Woodshed Smokehouse experiments with Asian flavors. The kitchen turns out bulgogi beef with house-made kimchi, a pork banh mi with pickled Anaheim, serrano and jalapeno peppers and a spectacular bowl of ramen noodles in meat juices with smoked pulled pork and jalapeno and poblano chilies, topped with a quail egg that gently poaches in the broth.
“We have the Asian culture in Texas, and that’s why I have the banh mi, and the Mexican culture, which is why I have the piquillo peppers and handmade tortillas, and the cowboy cooking, the barbecue,” Love says. “Everything we’re doing, although modern, is still rooted in the people who settled this state. It’s American, but with Texas roots.”
He acknowledges, as do Byres and Pelaccio, that barbecue purists have criticized such experimentation as phony and faddish. Even blasphemous.
Love takes it in stride.
“We’re keeping all the traditions,” he says. “Just doing it a little more worldly. That’s all it is. There’s nothing untraditional with what we’re doing in the smoke shack.”
(Former Texan Jim Shahin, a contributor to TEXAS MONTHLY‘s 1997 barbecue Top 50, writes the “Smoke Signals” barbecue column for the Washington Post, where this story first appeared. It is reprinted with permission. Check back there every Tuesday for his latest column, and follow him on Twitter, @JimShahin.)