Masters of Barbecue

Funky in SoDo or slicked-up for the food court, the secret of barbecue is simple: 'low and slow.'

I hate malls. I especially hate that spawn of the mall, the “food court,” dedicated to the immediate gratification of American consumer appetites. On the other hand, I love barbecue. I love it as much as I hate malls. In fact, barbecue is the polar opposite of mall fooda cuisine that induces pleasures through waiting, through long, slow, patient hours of blissful anticipation.

So imagine my distress when I learned that one of my favorite barbecue joints has just opened a second location . . . in a mallin a mall food courtin Bellevue’s Crossroads Mall. Could such a marriage of spiritual extremes possibly work? I wanted to know. In fact, I had to know. In a way, it was my professional obligation to know. For I happen to be (wait for it) a barbecue judge, certified by the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association.

For moral support, I called chef-friend Danielle Custer, who worked a spell in Texas and knows a thing or two about barbecue, and we set out for Bellevue. Upon entering Crossroads Mall, our skin began to crawl, but we forged ahead until we saw a sign . . . a sign that read, “Jones Barbeque.” We approached their counter, still extremely wary of our surroundings, and asked to try a little bit of everything. The warmth of their greetings began to calm our fears. We grabbed a table, in the middle of the mall’s main corridor, and began to “research.” It must have been 20 minutes later when I raised my eyes from my plate of meat and sides and remembered where I was.

“Danielle,” I exclaimed, with a little disdain, and some pleasant surprise. “We are still in a mall!” It was that goodjust as good as Jones Barbeque’s original location on MLK Way in Columbia City. So good, in fact, that it had made us forget we were eating in a mall food court.

BARBECUE IS A WAY OF LIFE. It is the art and science of cooking tough cuts of meat slowly, over low heat, to tender perfection. It is about community, love, and bragging rights. At its best, it is divine; at its worst, a train wreck. The Seattle area may not be famous for barbecue, but it does have its stars, deserving and otherwise.

Take R & L Home of Good Bar-B-Q, run since 1952 by four generations of the Davis family, the first family of Seattle barbecue. Tucked away on a tree-lined Central District street, R & L still cranks out some of Seattle’s best barbecue, 50 years after owner Mary Davis’ Louisiana-born mother and her friend, the Rev. Mitchell, opened the place out of sheer frustration with Seattle’s lack of barbecue joints.

R & L still smokes its meat in a spectacular brick pit Davis’ dad built in 1967. It’s a classic barbecue joint in style: big, comfy booths, dim lighting, and smoke-darkened walls. It feels like it’s been there awhile, as if it was cooked low and slow like the Davises’ meat. Davis knows her customers, and she knows different people like different things. I like the center cuts of a brisket just out of the pitjuicy, tender, and pulling apart with ease yet not falling apart. Others like the ends, which cook a little more well-done. What’s her secret? Consistency, Davis saysconsistency, sauce, and service. “The sauce is most important. Treat people like you would like to be treated, and take care of your meat.”

In the South, when barbecue lovers see an old, abandoned gas station, they think, “Oh, there’s a good place for a barbecue joint!” Kind of like Pecos Pit in SoDo. In 1980, Debra and Ronald Wise decided that happiness was more important than making lots of money in the rat race. So they opened Pecos Pit, Seattle’s best barbecue sandwich joint, in an old gas station on First Avenue South.

Ronald, from Texas, is the pit master. He has perfected cooking pork butt and beef brisket low and slow until it melts in your mouth. Unlike other barbecue masters, he doesn’t use spice rubs on his meat. He just lets the smoke work its magic on the meat, and only adds his incredible sauce to it when he “pulls” (shreds) or slices the meat to be put on a bun. At Pecos Pit, we said, “Amen!” Their Pecos Pork and Sliced Beef sandwiches are divine. Their secret? Says Debra, “Be blessed by God with great ideas, great people, and great ingredients.” I’d say they are blessed. I know they are happy.

Robert Porter hails from Louisiana via Las Vegas, where he opened his first barbecue joint in 1960. He opened the General’s BBQ in 1980 on East Madison, then moved to Kent early last year. Why the General? Because Porter wanted to outrank “the Colonel.” His food certainly does.

The General is a master of rub, the seasoning rubbed into the meat before it goes in the pit. He lets low-and-slow cooking carry the flavor deep over many hours. His advice to would-be cooks: Don’t sauce too early. Add the sauce after the meat is 95 percent cooked. “I never sauce in the pit,” he says. The General’s meat can stand alone across the board, with the flavor deep in all the meat, even the chicken. But his sauce is good, too.

Willie Turner owns Beacon Hill’s Willie’s Taste of Soul with his wife, Brenda. Willie is a master of barbecuing bird. Also from Louisiana, he cooked for both R & L and the General before opening his own place in 1994. Locals flock to him at the holidays to have him smoke hams and turkeys. “Put quality time into it,” Willie says. “Season your bird right, then cook it slow over alderwood. Slow cooking drives the seasoning deep into the meat.”

Still, Jones Barbeque remains my favorite. The recipe for Jones’ sauce is built upon William Jones’ father’s sauce, back in Arkansas. Jones and his wife, Joyce, opened the MLK location in 1990, and the Crossroads location, under the management of son Lance, on May 9. William Jones’ ribs are always perfect, his hot links mouth-wateringly spicy, and his brisket tasty. Says William, the key is “cooking slow with good smoke to perfect tenderness, and finishing off with good sauce.” “From us, people get a down-home, Southern feeling,” says daughter Leanne, general manager. “We do it all wellkeep it balanced and consistent.”

I WAS ONCE TOLD barbecue is a game of constants and variables. Consistency, therefore, is critical to overcoming variables like changes in weather, meat, wood, and even mood that could otherwise affect the quality of your barbecue. Of course, while meat is king, it’s the sides that add color . . . and fiber.

At the General and Jones, all the sides are great: The baked beans are sweet with molasses and gently smoky, the greens full of flavor with a little spicy kick, the cole slaw simplecabbage and mayothe potato salad light, with the right amount of mustard and paprika, and the cornbread moist, just a touch sweet. And I am in love with Jones’ pecan and sweet-potato pies. . . . R & L’s greens are less spicy than the others, but excellent, and their slaw and potato salad are both good, simple, straight-ahead versions you’d make for a picnic. Willie’s yams and beans are fantastic. Beans are the only option at Pecos Pit, but they’re worth ordering

ALL OF THESE places are deserving local barbecue stars. Other pits, like Woodinville’s Armadillo, Dixie’s in Bellevue, Greenwood’s OK Corral, and giant corporate chain Tony Roma’swhich somehow mysteriously end up year after year on lists of top Seattle barbecue jointsare just not. While Armadillo has shtick and humor to spare, its barbecue carries the taste of creosotethe result of too much heat, too much smoke, and not enough chimney sweeps. Dixie’s bumper stickers say, “I Met ‘the Man’ at Dixie’s,” the Man being a way too hot barbecue sauce, thick with cayenne powder but thin on flavor, only serving to distract from the far below average barbecue. OK Corral consistently fails on the cordiality scoresomething in which all great barbecue joints excel. Unwelcoming, and frankly unsavory, its decor gives way to inconsistent barbecue in a North Seattle devoid of the good stuff. And Tony Roma’s . . . come on, corporate barbecue?!? Their ads show them cooking over flames, for the love of Mike! That’s not barbecue, that’s grilling.

So if you want barbecue in Bellevue, don’t follow the herd to Dixie’s. Go instead to Bellevue’s Crossroads Mall, and wait in a well-deserved line at Jones. In the food court.