Slow Bone's Bravado
It wasn't last year's announcement that Jack Perkins was about to open a barbecue restaurant that sent a little shock wave through the barbecue community. It was the confidence behind his statement. Perkins, who had built a solid reputation with his burger restaurant Maple and Motor, said opening a successful barbecue joint was purely a matter of diligence and perseverance. Once you learned how to run one type of restaurant, you could run any of them.
The notion was counter to every common convention regarding the art of impeccably cooked brisket. Sure, turning out terrible barbecue is a cinch. Dickey's, Sonny Bryan's and a slew of other corporate operations have made big bucks peddling salty, softened cardboard. But good barbecue restaurants — those that turn a pedestrian hunk of beef into a dream worth a multi-hour drive followed by a multi-hour wait in line — hone their craft for years. Fires built with post oak and hickory smolder under the watchful eyes of pit masters, demigods amongst the barbecue geeks. Eyebrows were raised when Perkins rode into Brisket Town with a shiny new smoking rig, raised his hand and said, "I've got this!"
The Slow Bone opened this April, and for a day the barbecue biz was just as Perkins predicted. A line formed outside his freshly painted restaurant, and smoked meats and sides filled his pink plastic cafeteria trays that mimicked school lunch days. When the lines died down after that first day, Perkins and his crew sat at the bar and celebrated. They'd just loaded the smoker with tomorrow's brisket, and they felt home free. Then they heard what sounded like a shopping cart falling over in a parking lot. And then they heard what sounded like a hundred shopping carts falling off a cliff. It wasn't good.
The heart of The Slow Bone is an Oyler Pit from J&R Manufacturing, an automated rig with seven racks that rotate on a carousel to help the meat cook evenly. The racks pivot so they can remain level as they rotate through the cooking chamber, and they have to be loaded evenly or bad things can happen. A brisket had fallen from one of the racks and got caught at the bottom on the pit on another rack, forcing it loose from the carousel. That fallen rack caught a second rack, which then got caught on a third. With one rotation all the racks in the smoker had broken. The bottom of the cooking chamber was a mess of twisted metal and barely cooked brisket. The barbecue biz looked a little more difficult now.
Luckily for Perkins, his pit manufacturer is based in Mesquite, and workers got his smoker up and running the following morning. The Slow Bone was back in business the next day, and since then the brisket served in this Design District restaurant is often quite good.
"It's not rocket science," Perkins says. "The idea that you need to sit under a great pit master for 10 years, and then hone your craft for 10 more before your brisket is edible is kind of bullshit."
That's not entirely true. The revered pit masters often work with custom-built pits that are temperamental, and it can take a great deal of time to learn all their quirks. Even once you know your pit, it has to be watched closely throughout cooking times that can stretch well past 12 hours. One mistake can ruin an entire day's business.
To simplify things, Perkins bought a highly automated barbecue pit with a proven track record and set out to create a repeatable process he says he can train any of his employees to master in just a couple of weeks.
In the three months since he opened, Perkins says he's still tweaking his technique, and you can see evidence of those changes in his inconsistent brisket. But his barbecue is improving and has already surpassed many other barbecue restaurants in Dallas. Here is how it's done:
In the late afternoon, after the lunch rush, Perkins tosses three hickory logs into the firebox of the smoker he's lovingly personified as Miss Jessie. Still smoldering coals from the previous day's fire ignite the logs, which he watches closely for visual cues to determine when it's time to add more wood. If the fire's too cold, the additional lumber can smother the flames. If it's too hot, the resulting smoke produces undesirable flavor characteristics in the finished barbecue. "What you want is a nice white, cool smoke," Perkins says. That's when he fills the firebox with more wood and loads up the racks in the smoking chamber with brisket. Then he goes home.
While hard-core pit masters tend their fires all night, Perkins' Oyler Pit boasts a thermostat and dampening system that keeps his smoke chamber right at 220 degrees with no work at all. After a little TV and a restful and uninterrupted sleep at home, he shows back up at the restaurant at 5 a.m. and feeds the firebox a few more logs.
For the next two hours he runs the smoker at 275 degrees, checking the briskets often with a thermometer, while he also smokes sausages and other meats he plans to serve that day. He monitors tactile cues; lifting the thin end of the briskets to feel how pliable they are and giving those that don't relax properly a bit more time. When they're done, he wraps them in foil and lets them sit at room temperature till he opens for business.
There is room for improvement still. Some of Perkins' briskets are egregiously fatty, with a cap that's much too thick for the well-smoked meat beneath. The texture of that fat is perfect, though. It's soft and melts in the mouth with little more resistance than butter. Perhaps that thick blanket is the reason Perkins' lean brisket boasts so much moisture. While lean is often synonymous with dry at most barbecue restaurants, it's quite decadent here.
And indulgent cooking carries through an endless array of side dishes. There are mustard greens studded with plenty of bacon and a sweet-potato casserole capped with brown sugar and pecans that eats like dessert. There's macaroni and cheese with soft squishy noodles and plenty of dairy, and a Brussels sprouts casserole loaded with even more cheese. There are hushpuppies, cornbread, salads and a tangy sauce that boasts plenty of heat.
If you prefer pork to beef, you have plenty of options. Ribs are cooked perfectly one day, but a little tough the next. A pork loin is stuffed with more pork and wrapped in caul fat before it's smoked. The membrane of fat keeps the meat impossibly moist. A number of sausages from Hudson Meats in Austin are available, including an Old World style that's coarse and spicy, a smooth jalapeño sausage, and a pork and cilantro sausage that's loose and crumbly. But the brisket is the meat that all Texas barbecue restaurants are measured by.
Perkins admits he's learned much since he started. "The brisket we served after three weeks was better than the brisket we served when we opened," he says. And the brisket he served a few weeks later was better again. "We've served bad brisket too," he admits, though he quickly hedges. "Now I think we're making as good a brisket as you can get in a 190-mile radius," he says, noting the distance to Austin where some say the best brisket in the world is served.
"I'm not even going to try and compete with Aaron Franklin — yet," Perkins says, as confident as he was the day he started. "I'll let you know when I feel like I'm there."
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