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I'm not a barbecue expert, although I play one in the national news media.
Having spent a decade in North Carolina, and nearly a year in Texas - two states which harbor a few of the nation's finest pits, as everyone but a few misguided partisans from Memphis and Kansas City would no doubt agree - I have had the good fortune to eat incredible barbecue, and become a card-carrying appreciator of the low-and-slow tradition. I was first certified as a barbecue judge through Memphis in May, and this year earned my judging credentials from the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association.
All that scholarship means I've had the chance to meet and befriend true barbecue experts: I've swapped swine stories with Robb Walsh, John and Dale Reed and Daniel Vaughn, who's writing Prophets of Smoked Meat for Anthony Bourdain's new imprint. After my meal at RoRo's, chronicled in this week's review of new Ballard barbecue joints, I rang up Vaughn to ask for help dissecting the awfulness I experienced there.
There's a saying in certain barbecue circles that "there's no such thing as bad barbecue." It's quoted mostly by folks who haven't eaten much barbecue. There is no shortage of atrocious meat sold under the barbecue label: On the competition circuit and in my travels through the South, I've encountered barbecue thick with gristle; flavored with liquid smoke and massaged with dry rubs that taste like Christmas fruitcakes. But the barbecue at RoRo's - which was notably worse than the purposely ruined samples presented in the "how do you recognize a low scoring entry?" portion of barbecue judging classes - suffered from a whole other set of problems. It wasn't inedible, but it bore zero resemblance to pit-smoked meat.
I'm familiar with a range of barbecue cheats: I know time-crunched pitmasters sometimes boil their ribs before tossing them in a smoker, or shroud their briskets in a tin-foil tent (the flavor-robbing technique is called "the Texas crutch.") But what I ate at RoRo's tasted like it had been pulled from an oven.
"Most likely he's wrapping it in foil, essentially braising the meat in the smoker," Vaughn theorized. Or perhaps it really was baked: "I went to a place in Vernon and watched them open up a residential oven and call it barbecue," he says.
Assuming foil was the most likely culprit, Vaughn and I strategized about how I could get the real story from RoRo's. "Play dumb with the foil thing," Vaughn advised, knowing few pitmasters would freely admit to using the tactic. He also recommended I establish my barbecue bonafides by asking specific questions, such as "Do you season your own wood?"
"You don't season wood," RoRo's co-owner Kelli Scott told me when I asked. That should have been a tip-off.
As it turned out, I didn't need to pry very hard to discover what produced the unique flavor of my RoRo's meal. Scott outlined the process, which includes off-site smoking, hotel pans, tin foil and ovens.
After I spoke to Scott, I got back in touch with Vaughn, who was suitably impressed by Scott's honesty.
"She has no shame!," he e-mailed.
Vaughn suspects there's still hope for the Seattle barbecue scene.
"The existing quality of any food type is the level that is it held to within a community," he writes. "There will always be those that went to Italy who find it harder to appreciate the quality of pasta in Ohio, but for most folks from Ohio it's just fine, because that's all they know. When there's a confluence of a critical mass in the community that understands it can be better, and a proprietor willing to provide it, then expectations begin to shift. It has happened here in Dallas."
"Maybe in a decade I can do a Seattle BBQ crawl," he adds.
I'd suggest he start at Bitterroot. And I have a hunch that The Boar's Nest may have found its legs by then too. For more on both joints, check out my review here. And because smoked meat is terrifically photogenic, don't miss Joshua Huston's slideshow.