In the past three years, Zac Johnson's Meaty Johnson's BBQ has tested its chops at catering events, rooftop barbecues, parties, festivals, and more recently, during game nights at Cowgirls Inc. But Johnson, known for more than just his uhm, meat, has long been recognized as the man behind the hip hop scene in Seattle, recognized for notable efforts like bringing KRS One to Seattle and securing the first run for Blue Scholars' first CD.
Photo by Lawrence Villasin
On June 8, Meaty Johnson's made it official with Cowgirls Inc., consecrating the marriage with a rib eating contest and of course, lots of barbecue. Though playful with his name, Johnson is serious about his meats, graduating from a backyard grill to a 14-foot trailer smoker. Now who says size don't matter?
How did you get into barbecuing?
It was just kind of something to do at home with friends and family. I got more involved. Generally, I was just doing grilling. You know, steaks and ribs and stuff like that. I started getting into ribs and pulled pork at home, but I didn't actually have a smoker. There are ways you can set up your barbecue to do stuff like that but then, it's not as consistent and the product is not as good. I have a friend, his name is Aaron, and he does competition barbecue. So I asked him like, which way should I go if I want to get more involved in this? He gave me some advice on some tools that I should use. It just evolved from there. That opened up the range of the food I was making, how I was making it, and with different techniques.
My roommate, is or was a chef and he is now a partner in Corfini Gourmet. So I use Painted Hills and Draper Valley and all the natural meat products. He gave me a lot of tips like how different things affect different types of meats, as far as seasons and stuff like that. I got a base from them and I went from making kind of basic or average barbeque to -- between those two helping me out one with the technique of cooking and seasoning techniques -- elevated it to a lot higher than where I was.
How did you go from home barbecuing to putting your barbecue out there?
I'm a promoter, so we would have these house parties and people would come try it and go, "Wow this is good. Every time I come eat here, I can't wait to come back." And it's kind of like, "Yeah yeah, you're my friend. You're supposed to tell me that." Finally, enough people had said it. So I was like, "Alright. I'm going to give it a shot. We'll throw a large barbecue, we'll see what other people have to say about it who aren't really my friends, and let's go from there.
I'm friends with Marcus Lalario. We were partners in Stuck Under the Needle back in the day. He was doing rooftop barbecues every Sunday and we decided on one of the Sundays that I would just come over and do all the cooking and then from there, it was just a hit. Literally waiting in line -- there would be 200 people or something. The minute I came out with the food, it was gone. It wouldn't even get to the table. It was on its way to the table and people were just grabbing it. From that point forward it was like, "Wow, maybe I can do something with this. We did that a couple more time just to get some more feedback and I could kind of refine — I wasn't used to cooking for 100 people, I was more used to cooking for 20 or 30 people. It was different.
From there, I had a couple of people wanting to invest in what I was doing but I wasn't confident in working out of a commercial kitchen. I had never worked in a commercial kitchen. This was just something I fell into. So I was looking into a bunch of different opportunities and options that might be where I could bring my food to the public.
So what about that flattering name, huh?
Well what it was was [that] I was doing the barbecue at the War Room on the rooftop deck and a friend of mine would be like, "Oh, that's Meat Johnson," because my last name is Johnson. People would just jokingly call me that, "Oh here comes Meat Johnson with all the meat." Eventually, it just kind of turned into "Meaty Johnson."
It wasn't necessarily a sexual innuendo to start out with but it's just being playful with the name and not taking ourselves too seriously. That's just kind of how it was with the barbecue and my friends.
So Meaty Johnson's at Cowgirls...
That was not intended. That was not planned! My barbecue was called Meaty Johnson's before Cowgirls [Inc.] was even in the picture so it just kind of happened that way.
I was considering doing a food truck at first because it would be a little bit smaller and I could learn to just work out of it. But then, Dave Tran approached me to do something out of Cowgirls Inc. It's already kind of like a Western saloon. It already has that Western feel, almost like, why didn't they have barbecue in there to begin with? So it was like a perfect fit from that perspective. The biggest challenge is that people normally don't think about Cowgirls Inc. with any kind of food. The challenge now really is to let people know that we have good food there now. Once we get them in, I'm confident they'll enjoy it.
What do you think about barbeque in Seattle?
There's a few good places in Seattle that are decent but I would say that Seattle is not known for barbecue. If you go to most places, you're going to be disappointed. I think any person, if you walk into my place and try my barbecue, you're going to, at the very least, enjoy it. Maybe it wouldn't be the best barbecue you've ever had, I don't know, but it would be significantly better than most people's.
I think the reason behind that is that barbecue takes a lot of energy to do. It takes so long to do each thing. With any restaurant, if you don't have your heart and your soul into it, it's not going to be good. This is something that I've kind of had a passion for and it's something that is new to me, I'm still really involved. Whereas the owners that start barbecue restaurants are probably not the ones in there everyday doing the barbecue.
So, wet or dry?
Me personally, I prefer dry. I smoke everything and I basically put all the sauces on the table and I let you pick all the sauces. It's not that there aren't any sauces; it's that I serve it dry and you can add the amount of sauces you want. I prefer not to drench my meat in sauce 'cause I prefer that you're able to taste the meat, not taste the sauce with a little bit of meat in it.
When I get everything rolling, probably what I'll do is I'll give everyone the option of having their meats pre-sauced or not. Sometimes, I will baste my ribs or my chicken maybe a half hour before they come out of the smoker so they get that glaze on them. Someday, that could be an option but right now, my volume is not high enough to meet that demand. But I'll never take a pulled pork sandwich or a brisket sandwich and smother them with sauce before I give them to the customer.
What advice would you give to people barbecuing at home?
I think patience is probably the biggest key when it comes to BBQing at home. The thing is, good product takes time. Really, if you're trying to get real tender ribs, if you're throwing it over a grill and just grilling it, it's not going to get real tender. My ribs take on average about three to five hours. For the person that's like, "I want my food now," that's probably not the best kind of choice for what you want to do.
They call it slow and low with barbecue so I'd say keep your temps between 225 and 250 [degrees] and use natural wood and charcoal. Use indirect heat. You want the flame away from the food so the smoke can penetrate the meat rather than just searing the food. With smoke, you want to penetrate the meat with the smoke from the different kinds of wood like applewood or cherry. It flavors the meat and tenderizes it. The low temperature gives it time for all the fat in the meat to render and that's what makes it so juicy.
What's the most useful feedback you've gotten in the process of trying to start up the restaurant?
The biggest thing is just never give up. You're going to have failures. We've been open at Cowgirls for a while now, maybe about 6 months, mostly on game days or events. I've done everything from botch an entire cook to where the entire day is a waste and you can't even serve the food, to having everything be perfect. I feel confident now and that's why we're opening now. Consistently, we can perform at the volume that we need to in order to open up the restaurant.
Tell us about that traveling smoker.
We're going to be doing a lot more catering coming up. We're going to be at the Bite of Seattle this year. For me to cook everything for the Bite, I need something that could handle that kind of volume. JJ's Custom Pits out of Houston, Texas built me a custom smoker that is a 14-feet trailer smoker and I should be able to handle a 1000 person party. I just wanted to do events where no party is too big or too small. That was kind of the idea behind doing that. We're probably going to do some kind of a food truck at some point.