The international food scene is seeing a trend in opening authentic, American-style barbecue joints.
“We aren’t just selling food, we’re selling American culture. Eating at our restaurant is an American experience.” That’s what Craig White told CNN a few years back when the news outlet profiles his Tokyo barbecue restaurant White Smoke. White, a native Texan, learned the craft of smoking meat from Wayne Mueller at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, and during a conversation we had at last year’s Texas Monthly BBQ Festival, he told me he wanted to do justice to Texas barbecue even if the local community wouldn’t know any different unless they’d been to Texas. “To date, our American food ambassadors in Japan have been McDonald’s, Subway, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, all of which I love, but we can do better than Ronald McDonald.”
White’s efforts to take his endeavor seriously is commendable. A few other high-profile Texas-style barbecue joints that have opened across the world have failed, in part because they’re focusing on the wrong things. The Texas Embassy Cantina in London was widely panned – and is now closed – for serving up more flag waving than actual Texas cooking. Texas Bar-B-Q in Puebla, Mexico, looks like a Texas-themed gift shop, and the menu covers the whole state too–barbecue is joined by fried cheese sticks, fajitas, and even pizza. Tim’s Texas Bar-B-Q in Beijing offers American food–quesadillas, pasta, and shrimp creole–versus being a real barbecue-centric joint. Bubba’s BBQ in Shanghai is no different. Now I like kitsch and pizza as much as anyone else, but I’m not sure I’d trust authentic Texas barbecue to stem from a place that was heavy-handed with both of those things.
A commercial for Texas Bar-B-Q in Puebla, Mexico:
But there’s at least one group from across the pond that’s trying to do things right. The crew from Red’s True Barbecue in the UK are visiting Texas to go on a barbecue bus tour. With two successful locations in Manchester and Leeds they don’t need to change much, but they wanted to get back to the basics of barbecue. Their 2014 Pilgrimage Tour (you can follow along on their journey here) will take them all over Texas in order to seek inspiration and to see how their stuff back home measures up. Yesterday we met at Pecan Lodge in Dallas where they were wowed by the smoky brisket and ribs, and the homemade sausage. I spoke with one the owners about why their group chose to focus on Texas barbecue in England. Simply put: “The demand is there, and no one else does it.” The latter part is a bit of an exaggeration that we’ll get to, but he’s onto something about the demand. Right now Red’s has weekend lines of up to three hours to eat. “If I could open fifty in the next two years, they’d all be busy,” owner James Douglas says confidently. Plans for two more locations before the end of this year are in motion, and they hope to have eight locations of Red’s open across England in 2015.
— Reds Low ‘n Slow BBQ (@RedsTrueBBQ) October 24, 2012
The food critics are taking this new wave of barbecue joints seriously too. Noted London Observer critic Jay Rayner didn’t much like Red’s True Barbecue when he reviewed it last year. Not happy with their claim of putting out “true regional barbecue,” he opined that they merely “represent a victory of sugar and tomato purée.” At least there Texas trip shows that their heart is in the right place. Red Dog Saloon (no relation) was also lampooned by Rayner for serving American style barbecue and not having been to the U.S. at all. He described the place as “a total waste of time.” But then, they call themselves “Authentic Kansas City Bar-B-Q” so at least they’re not offending Texans.
Others are not making the same mistake. Rayner is as widely read as he is respected, so it’s possible his high standards are making an impression on all of the Europeans looking to make a living from smoked meats. In just the last year I’ve met or spoke with barbecue dreamers from Austria, England, and France who had all planned meticulous tours of Texas to learn from the best. They sought audience with the likes of Wayne Mueller and Aaron Franklin. They all went to Mesquite to tour J&R Manufacturing, home of the Oyler smoker. Every one of them saw their barbecue borrowing as a serious endeavor, and at least paid lip service to the importance of doing things the real way – the Texas way.
The Texas way is exactly how AAA Bar in Toronto is doing their barbecue. More specifically, the Central Texas way. From their website: “We are a BBQ joint serving Central Texas Style Dry Rub Ribs, Brisket and other traditional favorites all smoked daily on our offset barrel smoker.” Promising indeed.
— AAA Bar (@TripleAToronto) March 27, 2014
I haven’t had a chance to get to Europe and try any of this barbecue for myself, but Houston’s J. C. Reid – a food writer and friend whose opinion on barbecue I respect immensely – was in England eating barbecue for a week and wrote about the experience in the Houston Chronicle. While there he found that “the smokehouse traditions of Elgin, Lockhart and Luling have found a welcome home in the land of tea and crumpets.” Reid was more surprised to find some legitimately good barbecue. Joe Walters of Texas Joe’s in London was born in Dallas and grew up in Texas. That upbringing seems to have seeped into the barbecue. According to Reid “Walter’s barbecue was easily the best I had in the England, and would rival some well-known places in Texas.”
That’s the sort of high praise they’re seeking in Paris at The Beast where Thomas Ambramowicz is awaiting his Oyler rotisserie smoker. These are the same hopes of Big Smoke in Vienna who plan to open next month after extensive research (and filming for a barbecue documentary) in Texas. They represent the new breed of Texas barbecue abroad where wood pellets will be replaced by oak logs and where fatty brisket and beef short ribs will be worshipped. With disciples like these, Texas barbecue is on a path to take over the world.