Speaking of cooking steak on computerized grills (and I was), we finally got around to trying the new BBQ place in town. At the risk of leading with the punch line, I will note that it does not use an actual fire in an actual pit. It uses a big, stainless steel box with rotating flat racks inside. The heat is provided by natural gas. The smoke is generated by throwing a couple of logs in a smoker box and letting them smolder while the natural gas oven does the work. A convection fan blows the smoke around as the meat rotates on the ferris-wheel rotisserie.
Cooking meat this way turns out a meticulous, precise, consistent product. You can knock out thirty identical briskets a day. Dial up your desired temperature, throw a couple of logs in the smoker, set the timer, push the "start" button and go do something else for a while. Bingo, exactly barbecue, exactly on time. No skill necessary.
I trust that you recognize this as food-industrial science gone mad. We have one other BBQ place in town called "Smoky Mo's" that uses the same sort of Frankenstein smoker ovens. Like the meats at the Texas Meat Co., the result is sanitized and lacking soul. It's like imitation freeze-dried brisket delivered to the International Space Station.
Brisket is what I had. It was tender and moist, but not really juicy. It had almost zero fat. The essential smoke ring was there. The meat had a nice smoky taste. If you're marking off barbecue checkpoints on your clipboard, it is high-quality brisket. If you're looking for sexy, sensuous, tantalizing, juicy, barbecue, go somewhere else.
Everything about the place screams "Chef," when it should be drunkenly shouting "Pitmaster." The little sandwiches are pristine arrangements—a tidy poppy-seed po-boy bun with one slice of brisket on the left, one slice of brisket on the right, a splash of sauce, and special pickles and onions in the center. I'm not saying that it was a bad sandwich; I'm saying that it needed a gardenia garnish.
What I like is a big piece of butcher paper with a pile of sliced brisket, a half-slab of ribs, and a sausage link, with onions, pickles, jalapeños and sauce on the side. Get a plastic fork and knife, grab some squishy white bread and go to work.
At this new place there are no pork ribs to be had. There's a pig on the sign, but inside no sliced pork, pork chops, pork tenderloins, spare ribs, baby back ribs, or quail breasts wrapped in bacon. No pork, except something called "Kahlua Style" pulled pork. It's Hawaiian, you see. Whole pigs cooked in a pit topped with banana leaves or something. I'm guessing that in this case the hole in the ground is an expensive oven, the leaves are tinfoil, and the pig is a pork butt. Maybe there's a banana leaf somewhere in there. One catch: "Kahlua" is a liqueur; "Kalua" is a Hawaiian style of pork. So for all I know they're pouring Black Russians on their piggie. I didn't try it. I don't think it's very Texas.
Texas Meat Co., right? There are nine lunch-menu plate choices. Three of them are seafood (salmon, shrimp, oysters). Another is an iceberg lettuce wedge. Coming in fifth is a stuffed baked potato with some chopped brisket. That's five of nine, not meat. What you're left with in the meat department is sliced brisket, a chopped brisket taco (taco, I say), smoked turkey, and the Happy Hawaiian pork. (There are a few more meats available by the pound, such as beef short ribs.)
This whole chef thing has gotten out of hand. These guys do not belong anywhere near a brisket. Here's how bad it is: the place is cleaner than a hospital operating room. Tidy, tidy, tidy. One of my favorite BBQ joints, LC's in Kansas City, has a thin coating of grease on everything. It refuses to be cleaned up. You have to wear sneakers and walk carefully or you'll end up skidding across the room. I'm sorry to say that clean seems to be a trend in barbecue. My generation marks the end of the era of smoke and grease, which is where all the flavor comes from.
Sigh. What it is, is big city barbecue. It's culinary-school barbecue. It's institutional barbecue. It's heartless barbecue. It's mass-production barbecue. It's laboratory barbecue. It's airport barbecue. The owners must have dreams of a chain of these things. What they need is a bunch of Millennial customers, and there are plenty of those to be found. They would like the salmon, oysters and shrimp. I'm not sure about the iceberg lettuce wedge. Kale might be more popular.