Bringing Up Barbecue

In observance of Americas independence, a few words about Americas cuisine.

Any zealot with taste buds and a pair of tongs can rightfully claim expertise in barbecue. If you’ve ever cooked meat over an open flame and thought deeply about the outcome, your notion of barbecue is as legitimate as the smoke-stained veteran pit master. Whether your barbecue is as good as his is simply a matter of context. Which isn’t to say that all barbecue is equal, only that you’re the best judge of what you like. From the cinder block smoker to the backyard grill, barbecue is nothing if not egalitarian. It’s folk food.

In that regard, barbecue is like blues music. (It’s no coincidence the two are fraternally paired at festivals and restaurants.) Both are elemental in form: 12 bars for the blues; meat, heat and sauce for barbecue. Both are easy to undertake but hard to master. If you’re not feeling it, you’re faking it.

Poets, purists, competitive chefs and restaurant critics dream of a textbook ideal, upholding a faded orthodoxy that does nothing to progress barbecue into the 21st century. But award-winning barbecue chefs explain that they do what they do because they like the outcome, not because they follow a code. This laissez-faire self-possession is the sign of a true artist. The art is in the practice.

Even rookies can rattle off the tenets of barbecue lore: The four cardinal regions (the Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas), their related sauce types and meat preferences, the distinction between grilling (high heat, fast cooking) and barbecueing (low heat, slow cooking). California gave us the tri-tip cut of beef and the Northwest has barbecued salmon for eons. Oak wood makes wonderful smoke and oak trees grow in every state of the union.

So, despite regional claims to ownership and authenticity (a dangerous word often averred by people with dubious pedigree or an axe to grind), barbecue is an American birthright, as American as the Fourth of July. From coast to coast, a handful of items come standard at every barbecue joint, differing slightly by locale: ribs, chicken, brisket, pulled pork, sausage. They comprise a very limited palette for an entire cuisine, but like the best art, the form’s focus inspires infinite variety.

For the backyard chef, barbecue is its own reward, an opportunity to embody, if for only an afternoon, the role of both caveman and artiste while also feeding family and friends. For the fanatical eater—the one who tragically describes himself as “serious about barbecue”—it’s a quixotic, often disappointing pursuit. At some point in his life, he experienced a barbecue epiphany and recalls it exactly. (Me: brisket from Snow’s in Lexington, Texas, served unrubbed and unsauced over white bread—perfect.) Unfairly, he compares each subsequent barbecue meal to that memory and despairs. Then he eats, moderates his expectations and carries on. It’s a good life lesson.

Barbecue around the Pacific Northwest comes with a caveat about the lack of local barbecue heritage. Barbecue joints develop institutional memory over generations, and there are maybe three generations of southern immigrants in the Northwest. But around here, culture emerges more out of isolation than accumulation, a mushroom after heavy rain. Those who practice the barbecue arts best in these parts give them their own spin.

The locus of Seattle’s barbecue endeavors has recently shifted from the Central District to Ballard—natural, given the rapidly upscaling neighborhood’s retro-rustic affectation. Among a few late arrivals, its preeminent practitioner is Bitterroot, an eight-month-old corner restaurant on Ballard Avenue. Bitterroot wisely taps into the trendy postmodern impulse to gentrify folk food, which in Seattle has somehow ignored or eschewed barbecue up to this point. Artisinal by nature, barbecue begs for studied tinkering and local-sustainable-organic refinement, and Bitterroot nods to tradition while nudging towards innovation.

There’s a lot to like at Bitterroot, not the least of which is well-smoked ribs, pulled pork and chicken that come in heaping portions for moderate prices. Its appetizers are creative and delicious. Its barbecue-friendly cocktails are a positive and challenging step away from rote beer offerings. The husband-and-wife owners (he’s in the kitchen, she the front of the house) cultivated a sleek, smart decor and comfortable ambiance, all minimal design and Mason jar glasses and dishtowel napkins, very apropos of the new Ballard.

There are plenty of other barbecue places around Seattle worth trying. Jones, the Barbecue Pit, Roro, R&L, and the Georgia Gold pulled pork sandwich at Lottie’s Lounge all earn various accolades. But for the area’s best overall barbecue experience, get out of the city.

Forty minutes northeast, past exurbs checkered by gate-guarded McMansions and rolling pastureland, in the riverside hamlet of Duvall, you’ll find Armadillo Barbecue. Though it arrived here only three years ago, Armadillo has been around for 31 years. Previous locations in Woodinville and Kirkland were driven out (in downtown Kirkland, neighboring residents and businesses complained about Armadillo’s ever-smoldering smoker). But Duvall, a quintessentially Northwest hippie-redneck-coot-retiree enclave, has welcomed the smoke, and here Armadillo flourishes.

Flourishes in more ways than one: Right inside the clapboard screen door is a coin-operated rock dispenser. An ancient soda refrigerator hulks at the front, a totemic armadillo mural is painted in the back. Books, board games and flash cards are scattered on shower-curtain-topped tables—all rampant signs of a sense of humor. Across the front counter is emblazoned the Armadillo motto: “We Endeavor to Be Adequate.”

Armadillo’s clever eccentricity would be moot in the face of underwhelming barbecue, but its limited menu wins across the board. Ribs and chicken are toothsome but fall-off-the-bone tender, and prominent smoke flavor (alder wood) confers in the eater a sense of consuming fire itself. On the side in a small paper cup, Armadillo’s sauce is a thin, pungently peppery dip. Yes, this meat is served unrubbed and unsauced. Reminds me of that golden brisket from Snow’s. Which, come to think if it, must be why I like it so much.

5239 Ballard Ave. NW

Armadillo BBQ
15505 Main St.
Duvall, Wash.