There’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, and that’s especially true when it comes to barbecue. For too long, in the pre-Pecan Lodge era, Dallas was a wasteland of inferior smoked meats, but we have made major strides in the last few years. Now, plenty of excellent barbecue joints are open within the Dallas city limits to whet your brisket whistle any time you want, the newest of which is Maple Avenue’s 18th & Vine.
Unlike the dozens of other restaurants in the city, 18th & Vine’s barbecue isn’t inspired by the Texas Hill Country. Instead, Kansas City native Matt Dallman has brought his mustard mop and vinegary sauce to Dallas, in hopes of bringing a little diversity to Dallas’ smoked meats scene. We sat down to talk with Dallman about the risk of new barbecue in old-school Dallas, working with mega-successful chef and restaurateur Scott Gottlich, and his perspective on what makes great barbecue.
Opening a barbecue restaurant in a place like Dallas seems risky. Did you ever feel like you were bringing sand to the desert?
No, I never felt like that. I felt that we were doing something different, and presenting it in a different way. Our flavor set is different, and our overall concept — what 18th and Vine is — is totally different. 18th & Vine is the historic jazz district in Kansas City, where I grew up, and it’s a part of a culture and a deep history that I have always loved. We knew that when we got this space we would be able to do something totally different. I didn’t ever feel like we were going to be just another barbecue restaurant.
Everyone in Dallas has very rigid definitions of what barbecue means to them, so it seems like it might be a challenge to sell them on something different. How do you do that?
I’ve lived here for the past 13 years, and I’ve been really excited to see how things have changed here. The growing appreciation for barbecue that’s done right and done with love — I think [Texas Monthly's barbecue editor] Daniel Vaughan has had a big part in that, educating people as to how barbecue should be done. I don’t think the style matters. I think if it’s done right, cooked low and slow, and you stick to the roots and traditional methods, you’re good.
Texas barbecue has a place in the national culinary conversation right now, but Kansas City doesn’t seem to carry the same gravitas. Do you feel like your hometown deserves more due?
I don’t think they’ve been slighted. It’s all about your regional perspective. I tell this story all the time, and it’s just part of our training — my wife and I had our first fight over barbecue sauce. My wife is from Dallas, and we moved down here. She was thrilled to take me to a barbecue joint in the Hill Country, and I’d never experienced anything other than Kansas City-style barbecue. If you get rooted in just one way of doing barbecue, you don’t really appreciate other styles. That’s true for other food, too.
It took me changing my stubborn barbecue worldview and appreciating a well-marbled, well-cut slice of Texas brisket. The rubs and the mustard slather are more Kansas City, competition-style barbecue, but it doesn’t have to be done just one way. When I first moved here, I complained about barbecue not tasting like home, and my wife kept telling me over and over that I couldn’t keep driving 8½ hours home to get a side of ribs or a sandwich. I needed to get out there and figure out how to do it on my own.
What was your culinary background before you got interested in barbecue?
I don’t have a culinary background, not in the least. I’ve worked in a few different restaurants, but I’ve done all sorts of random jobs — youth ministry, accounting. I was doing catering and private events on the side. I’ve been working on this concept since 2006, so it’s had a lot of different shapes and forms in that time. This is certainly the biggest one of those ideas. It was going to be a takeout window for a while, but we hit the brakes in 2008 when the market crashed. Then, my wife and I adopted our oldest son from Ethiopia and took a few years off from the restaurant. We almost signed a lease in 2012 and 2014, but it didn’t happen. But we’re here now.
Wait, how did you decide to start a restaurant with no background in the kitchen? That sounds terrifying.
Last week, I had every emotion under the sun. It was a rollercoaster. When I was cooking for people and doing catering, it was always really well-recieved. I always appreciated the hospitality aspect of that. Barbecue is a food that lets you sit down and talk with people. It’s not like making tacos or something that’s really quick. It takes a long time, so it slows people down and you can really talk. I love taking care of the people that come in here, and that’s a big part of how we got to this point in the restaurant. We just sort of had to roll the dice and hope people liked it. Every day so far, I’ve cooked more barbecue than I have the day before. Or in my life ever. If I can just keep that going.
How did you come up with your recipes and figure out how to balance flavors?
My wife is a wonderful woman and allowed me to destroy our kitchen time and time again. A lot of the catering we did in the beginning, we were using my wife’s old chamber stove. It has a tiny oven, you can get two half-pans in there. We were doing catering for a couple hundred people out of that tiny oven! I would just destroy the kitchen for catering jobs and come back five years later and clean it.
My wife’s family is really into food and cooking, so we would just take the first batch to them and try it out. We did a lot of that, working with old family recipes to make them work for what we wanted to do here. We added jalapeños and a lot of cheese to my grandmother’s grits recipe. We found the right apple cider vinegar for the slaw. It all just kind of fell into place.
Did you grow up barbecuing? Learn it from your dad?
My dad smoked. He’d do a turkey, but we never did a brisket. We were always going to Gate’s or Bryan’s or Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City. When I first started catering, I was basically just doing it for entry fees to barbecue competitions. Contests are always a crapshoot — the best we ever did was a third-place brisket in an Oklahoma City contest.
As far as the recipes are concerned, I took a flavor set that I liked and worked from there. That’s kind of how I cook, from a flavor set that’s pretty sentimental to me. It’s built on a lot of memories and memorable meals with my family and friends. Taking ribs to a tailgate party or picking up stuff to take to the ballpark. I have a lot of memories built on barbecue.
How did you get Scott Gottlich involved? That’s a pretty solid restaurant pedigree.
We met through mutual friends, and I already knew that he had some serious chops. When we got into this space, it became clear that we could do something bigger. People traditionally think of barbecue as a lunch business, often times with counter service. We wanted to give people a reason to come back for dinner. We knew that we were going to present the barbecue in a different style, so we figured why not just go all the way?
I first got involved with Scott when I cooked for him at a friend’s house. He really liked my ribs, and we just started a conversation. He didn’t have any real background in barbecue, but obviously he’s a classically trained, really talented French chef. It was fun to teach him about barbecue, and I’ve learned a ton from him. It’s been a good partnership that has been a lot of fun to work with.
Were you intimidated to cook for that guy at first?
It seems like you were playing the long game on the barbecue trend. Is this something that you saw bubbling up about seven years ago? That seems like a lucky guess. You could’ve pinned your dreams on Asian fusion.
When I first moved here, the Pecan Lodges and the Slow Bone and Off The Bone didn’t exist. I loved seeing those places crop up, but part of me was jealous because I wanted to get something of my own going. We also knew that we wanted to create something that wasn’t trendy, that felt like we’ve always been here. We’re not claiming to do something that’s never been done before, we’re just presenting it in a different way.
You’re presenting it in a totally different way. If you’d told me five years ago that upscale barbecue joints were going to be a thing, I probably would have laughed at you.
There is that element, you know? People do ask why we would want to do table service with barbecue. We considered doing counter service, and we just realized that the idea of counter service and a line would have taken up more than half of our square footage. But from a hospitality standpoint, I want people to be able to come in and be taken care of even if there’s a wait.
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In terms of refining barbecue and the dishes that go along with it, what did that entail? How did you make it fancier than cole slaw served in styrofoam cups?
It’s all about how we present it. We expect our servers to dress a certain way, we’ve got good music. The way that we plate our meats and sides is just different than a counter service spot. Scott’s been really helpful in that, too. We wanted to give a fresh look and feel to things that were really familiar to people.
Do you feel like there are adjustments that you’ll have to make along the way to suit Dallas’ barbecue expectations?
Maybe. It’s always going to be Kansas City-style barbecue, that’s just the soul of what I do and where I come from, but we will make things the way people want. We’re already slicing our brisket in a really thick, good Texas cut. It’s a little thicker than I would probably do, but it’s still good. It doesn’t feel inauthentic. I’m open to the conversation with people, and we’ll see where that discussion goes.