UPDATE October 2016: JR’s Smokehouse BBQ’s Coolangatta location is now closed. Follow their EVENTS page for the latest location of their food truck.
“We’re going to a BBQ tonight,” I tell the Main Squeeze, a smirk curling up the edges of my lips. That’s a mighty understatement, as I’m sure he’s never been to a BBQ like this one before! It’s a popup weekly event held at Miami Marketta with food from the master of southern style smokers, JR’s Smokehouse BBQ.
JR’s has had a stall at the Marketta Street Food on Saturday nights since it started, but the Thursday night Supper Club event gives diners far more choice of what they want to eat: real wood-smoked Texan beef ribs, pulled pork, Angus beef brisket and maple glazed chicken all cooked low and slow, served with cornbread, smoked Mac and cheese and Collard greens.
We place our order at the van, get our drinks from the bar and settle in. There’s a really cool night vibe at Rabbit + Cocoon on a Thursday, laid back without the crowd. This feels like real popup territory! With concrete floor, crate clad walls and parachute ceilings, it’s warm in the shed. Most of the tables are full, well spaced out, with the ‘girls in black’ checking out that everyone’s happy. It’s chilled and relaxed with the sound of quiet chatting, families and groups of friends kicking back with a few drinks, grabbing an early start to a long weekend. We only have a couple, but it still feels like forbidden pleasure. The bar’s doing a steady trade – cocktails and craft beer, some smart boutique wines, there’s plenty on offer.
“Do you want to be with a caveman, baby?” It’s the comment from the next table, accompanied by chortles of laughter, which prepares us for the paleo onslaught – lots of meat, cornbread muffins, the only vegies in sight being pickles! Oh, but we didn’t order the greens or sliders with slaw! Our food arrives in a lined aluminium tray; nothing fancy looking, but the taste is amazing! Four large pieces of chicken, two chunky beef ribs, freshly stuffed bacon-wrapped jalapenos and pulled pork. I’ve made pulled pork before but it’s not a patch on this! I remember a quote from ‘Joe Beef’:
“When you add the element of smoke, the dish becomes completely different.” Falling apart, there’s no fatty ‘afterburn’. It’s overlain with another dimension, yet the smoke is not too dominant; there’s a balanced soft mouth feel. Truthfully, it’s the food you’d expect to find in a real Southern States BBQ joint half a world away, not in a Miami warehouse!
We’d passed the smoker on the way in, a cylindrical trailer with ‘JR’s Smokehouse Barbecue’ stencilled on its side, so I seek out owners Joel Romo (JR) and his partner Simone Helm to find out a bit more about smoking.
Joel tells me that he’s from Arizona, although he grew up in California. (What the heck! Forget California. It’s got very little to do with this story! This is all about the Southern states!)
“When I was about 8 years old, my dad took me to a real barbecue place. It was a family restaurant but in a bad neighbourhood. That was the first place I had really good smoked ribs and it set the standard for everything else I’ve tasted since.”
“So when you talk ribs, are you talking beef or pork? We’re used to pork ribs, mostly, but there are beef ribs on the menu tonight,” I comment. (The Cape Grim ribs are one of the richest dishes on the menu, packed with meat, tender, full of flavour and completely different to any ribs I’ve ever tasted.)
“The price of pork ribs in Australia now has gone through the roof. Yes, it’s the BBQ that everyone knows, but with butchers charging $18.50 a kilo, you often pay $60 per kilo on the table, and there’s not a lot of meat on the bone. We want to charge $20, so we’re slow cooking pork shoulder and beef brisket instead – they’re probably our two most popular dishes.”
‘Damn!’ I think. ‘We’ll have to order the brisket next time we’re here.’
We talk beasts, sourcing ingredients, and there are a few surprises in store. The beef is Cape Grim, natural grass fed, a choice meat by any standard. Joel tells me that there are bigger animals in the US, and beast size is important for smoking. Aussie animals are also drought affected right now; they’re eating less, and drinking more, so in the smoker the meat reduces too much, so he’s bring up the meat from Tassie.
You’ve got to love the commitment it takes to bring our meat to the table. After setting up in the Marketta at 4am, the meat is hickory smoked for 12 hours in Joel’s little smoker, a handmade number he made with the help of local fabricator Bob Little. There’s the constant tending, the temperature control (even 15 degrees makes so much difference, Joel tells me), as well as making the accompaniments.
The more I read about smoking, the more it fascinates me:
“There are complex rules about smoke dynamics…As a river finds its bed in soil, the smoke goes where it wants to…airflow in a smoker is finicky: you want smoke, but not too much; you want heat but in good proportion.” (Morin et al, 2011)
Joel has just returned from a week in Austin, Texas and Memphis, where he has been learning new techniques. Smoking is a very competitive business over there. Everyone has their own collards mix (kale, mustard greens and beets), he says. He worked for a week with pit master Evan LeRoy in Freedmen’s Bar, Austin, a restaurant housed in an 1869 Civil War building in the first neighbourhood where black slaves were freed. It’s renowned for its amazing barbecue; they pickle their own vegetables, make their own bread, and the BBQ sauce is a two day process. Meat is bark coated with a dry rub of salt, pepper and spices, rather than being smothered in marinade – that’s the way a true barbecue should be done! Mighty fine, and certainly ‘blow me away’ territory!
And just when you thought you couldn’t squeeze another morsel between your lips, you realise that there’s dessert waiting: Mama J’s (or Joel’s mum Joan’s) Sweet potato pie, a more delectable, cinnamon-flavoured Southern States’ version of the pumpkin pie. That’s on our agenda for next week’s Supper Club – but only if we can get a booking!
Morin F, McMillan D & Erickson M 2011, The art of living according to Joe Beef, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, p.144.
Want to read more about Texas BBQ? There’s a pretty neat summary on Rhythms by Burger Mary.