It's generally assumed that because barbecue is what Mom serves before the apple pie, any red-blooded American has the right to fire up a cooker and sell the results. But the bulk of self-appointed pitmasters around Puget Sound so baldly denigrate the slow-and-low tradition with their microwave ovens and tinfoil that it's astounding they haven't yet been slapped with accusations of cultural misappropriation. Allow me.
Pacific Northwest–born restaurateurs who wouldn't dare stake their reputations on precise replicas of Syrian shawarma or Salvadoran pupusas have no compunctions about mimicking Southern icons. Although the Northwest is home to its own barbecue heritage, involving salmon and wooden frames, the preponderance of hush puppies and slaw on side-dish menus makes clear the target of their culinary minstrelsy. The rip-off might work if local cooks were manufacturing deliciousness or imaginatively improving upon what barbecue fogies would consider "authentic." Instead, they're prone to rush pork shoulders out of the smoker and slather tough briskets with thick, sugary sauces that dishonor generations of folk cooks who fed their communities by chopping wood, hoisting whole hogs, and trading sleep for nights spent tending open flames. Worse still, little of it tastes very good.
A trio of new barbecue joints in Ballard is now trying to correct Seattle's embittered smoked-meat situation. Over the span of a few months this spring, RoRo BBQ & Grill, The Boar's Nest, and Bitterroot transformed a former barbecue wasteland into the city's most densely concentrated barbecue district. Incredibly, the neighborhood's barbecue quotient is set to tick up again this summer when Kickin' Boot Whiskey Kitchen opens alongside Bastille.
Like the Three Little Pigs, the newcomers have undertaken their task with varying degrees of seriousness. RoRo's has constructed the equivalent of a straw house, serving miserable, trucked-in meat that any sentient eater would instantly dismiss. In the spirit of the pig who had the foresight to build his home with sticks, The Boar's Nest is doing nearly everything right—there's Shiner and RC Cola in the cooler, for instance—but its barbecue doesn't always hold up.
Bitterroot isn't flawless, but pitmaster Grant Carter has made impressive strides in areas that reliably stump beginning cooks. The guy can smoke a brisket. At Bitterroot, Carter and his wife, Hannah, have built a strong foundation for Seattle barbecue. Here, we strut through the newest arrivals to Ballard's barbecue game:
RoRo BBQ & Grill
Managing partner Kelli Scott calls RoRo's opening in the squat diner occupied for 63 years by Zesto's Burger & Fish House a "hiccup" in the local chain's short history. "It hasn't been getting the greatest reviews," she admits.
Scott and Rob Carson wanted to spin RoRo's in a younger, more playful direction at their third location, so they initially ditched their meat platters for barbecue sandwiches and burgers. The revised concept felt like a good fit for a room furnished with red vinyl booths, Formica tables, and windows overlooking Ballard High. But loyal customers from Wallingford and Georgetown "freaked out," Scott recalls. "People were being very harsh."
The menu's since been restored, but patrons still have ample reason to gripe. A sauce comb-over can't disguise the fact that the meat here is subjected to so much steaming and baking that even eaters raised on Indian pudding and Boston baked beans wouldn't recognize it as barbecue.
Pork ribs are a travesty of overcooking, with the bones falling from the flesh like tired feet slipping out of shoes. Sliced brisket the color of sweat-stained muslin runs woefully short on smoke and moisture, but might make a decent roast beef with a dollop of horseradish. Chicken burdened by a cumin-heavy dry rub is similarly shafted by context: Were the thighs served on baked-chicken day at a nursing-home cafeteria, they probably could spur calls for seconds.
When RoRo's opened its first restaurant in Wallingford six years ago, its meat was smoked onsite. Now, Scott explains, the operation's grown so big that they rent space in South Lake Union to house a massive smoking machine. "We have a gas-fired cooker that's roughly the size of a bedroom," she says. "We don't smoke it as long as, for instance, in Texas, but the smoke permeates the meat."
After the meat completes its stay in the smoker, it's delivered to the restaurants in hotel pans. To reheat the meat, the restaurants add water to the pan, cover it with foil, and stick it in the oven for about 25 minutes. The meat's then held in steam tables.
Depending on how you count, there are at least seven significant departures from barbecue tradition in RoRo's standard process. Less-kind observers might call them mistakes. "We don't really profess to be experts on barbecue," Scott says. "We're not trying to impress people. We're trying to feed people the best we can afford."
RORO BBQ & GRILL 6416 15th Ave. N.W., 783-3350, rorobbqwebs.com. 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily.
Pork ribs $15.95/Chicken $10.95/Beef brisket sandwich $11.95
The Boar's Nest
The menu at The Boar's Nest includes a quote from noted barbecue chronicler John Shelton Reed, which speaks to the scholarship underlying this relaxed counter-service restaurant. "Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe's wines and cheeses," Reed wrote. "Drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes."
In acknowledgment of that diversity, owners Mike Dahm and Gabe Gagliardi have developed a series of sauces meant to salute five leading regional barbecue styles: a mustard-based sauce for South Carolina, a vinegar-based sauce for North Carolina, a tomato-based sauce for Memphis, a sweeter tomato-based sauce for Kansas City, and a spicier tomato-based sauce for Texas. Purists will point out that Texas might be better represented by an empty space in the six-pack that serves as a sauce caddy, but perhaps Dahm and Gagliardi are paying tribute to east Texas' oft-neglected tradition of slathering meat with thick sauce.
Polyamory is usually a losing strategy at barbecue joints, but the housemade sauces bring a smattering of dignity to the practice. Fresh and focused, their dominant flavors undimmed by salt and sugar, the sauces serve as excellent accompaniments to the meat, of course, but they're equally handy for revving up a clump of tired collards or doubling as a fry dip.
The most popular side dish at The Boar's Nest is the fried mac-and-cheese, a novelty that could have been swiped from a tailgating show on the Food Network. Picture doughnut holes crammed with soft noodles and mild cheese. I much preferred a crisp slaw, finished with caraway seeds and cream.
My portion of sliced brisket at The Boar's Nest was shorn of its deckle, but perhaps I'm to blame for not specifying a fatty cut. Although the meat was rigid and dry, it sported a pretty pink smoke ring. And while pork ribs were chewy, they also had an engaging smokiness.
The pulled pork is the most accomplished of the meats on The Boar's Nest menu. While barbecue may change every time an eater crosses a county line, pork shoulder is a near constant. At The Boar's Nest, the thickly shredded signature is smoky and tender.
THE BOAR'S NEST 2008 N.W. 56th St., 973-1970, ballardbbq.com. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri., noon–8 p.m. Sat.–Sun.
Pulled pork $12/Beef brisket $12/Half-slab ribs $15
Unlike its fellow new barbecue practitioners, Bitterroot is a sit-down restaurant with an ambitious cocktail list. With its wire lattice chairs, silver-topped tables, and wood-paneled walls, the restaurant looks as if it could be serving nettle gnocchi or sustainable sushi. Instead, it serves meats smoked over Washington-grown apple wood. And because it's not unheard-of for an enthusiastic Seattle eater to have a vegetarian friend, Bitterroot has an extensive menu of plant-based items too.
There are grits and Brussels sprouts and what would amount to a mac-and-cheese bar if a bride requested it for her wedding reception: Diners can customize their thinly sauced, al dente elbow noodles with eight different fixings, including braised greens and English peas. Our order was sadly under-cheesed and came with the wrong toppings, but the concept's smart.
Other toppings come straight from the smoker, including jalapeños and bacon lardons. Grant Carter cooked on a small backyard smoker when he was a caterer, and says it took "a lot of trial and error" to adjust to his commercial Old Hickory unit. "It was quite a process," he says. "But I'm really enjoying the brisket right now, because we've got it pretty dialed-in."
Carter smokes a near-textbook brisket, leaving it in the smoker a full 18 hours to absorb its many blessings. The well-seasoned beef has a fine crust and appealing pockets of flavorful fat. It's by far the best meat on the sampler platter, which also includes a chicken that tastes mostly of its citric brine; dry, cottony pulled pork; and ribs that needed a more exacting trim. Bitterroot also serves a slightly bitter sausage and a wonderfully rich pork belly that shudders with smoke.
The brisket and pork belly may be the most legitimate excuses for venturing beyond the starters menu, which features a party tray of pulled-pork nachos agreeably slammed with a sweet, tomato-based sauce (an eye-rubbing bargain at $9), mustardy deviled eggs, and Buffalo chicken livers that should make every chicken-wing joint rethink its business plan. The subtly breaded livers—which should be ordered only if your tablemates are generous and good, since there's bound to be an apportioning dispute—blend offal butteriness with heat to winning effect. It's not smoked, and it's not exactly Southern, but it's terrific.
BITTERROOT 5239 Ballard Ave. N.W., 588-1577, bitterrootbbq.com. 11 a.m.–2 a.m. daily.
Beef brisket $17/Half-rack ribs $16/Mac-and-cheese $10/Chicken livers $8