Will Break for Brisket
Mention beef brisket in certain places and you may start a war!
There are three distinct camps of brisket aficionados, all based on preparation (dry rubbed and smoked, kosher or with sauce during prep or after). All are passionate that the correct way to prepare beef is their way. Falling somewhere between passion and cult in its following, Texas brisket has been called the “national dish of the Republic of Texas.” Meanwhile, in Georgia, which one Texas-inspired pitmaster described as being in the heart of the “pig belt,” these crossfires continue within yet another argument: pork or beef?
So, who does it best? While countless competitions throughout the Southeast constantly attempt to settle and resettle the score, we hit the road to get to the heart of the matter.
ALL ABOUT THE PREP
Regardless of location, a nearly spiritual quest for perfection underlies each and every battle. In our local barbecue restaurant business, a few purists devote the time and effort to produce a true Texas-style brisket. Each is done and served in a unique environment that adds memorable characteristics to each experience. These range from a take-out window with nearby picnic tables or a simple dining room and porch to a busy and high-energy sports bar and even a shopping center storefront.
To get technical, beef brisket is part of the pectoral tissue of a beef or veal. Since cows do not have collarbones, this tissue area actually supports most of the animal’s weight, making a portion of the brisket particularly lean. The flat and the point are two parts of a brisket. The point has some marbling while the flat has essentially none. Although there is a substantial fat layer on one side (known as the fat cap), brisket has the potential to become very dry if not trimmed and prepared properly. The pitmasters I talked to all look for certified Angus, choice and untrimmed. They then trim to their standards, essentially a quarter inch fat layer. It is this preparation that defines the style of brisket. The two major elements that contribute to a tender, well-prepared brisket are moisture, either retained or introduced into the meat, and slow, usually indirect heat.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” differentiates smoking and grilling (or barbecuing). Texas brisket needs to be bathed in hot smoke. The flavor of the variety of wood used is what produces the unique flavor of each pitmaster’s brisket. Some may alter the smoke flavor by soaking their wood in a flavored solution.
TRUE TEXAN STYLE
In our state’s northeast corridor from Clayton to Dillard on U.S. Highway 441, an unassuming small red building stands along the east side of the road flanked by a small pavilion with picnic tables and the Osage Farm Produce Market. There is no dining room, but the picnic tables add to the character of the food. This is Tomlin BBQ. With the aroma of the smoker, located directly behind the small building, and the view across open farmland to the rolling Blue Ridge foothills, the brisket defines sheer comfort. While many typical barbecue side dishes are offered, the two you really want here are the black-eyed pea salad and the cornbread salad. Stephan, the pitmaster, and his wife, Jane Tomlin, prepare everything. If you find yourself passing by on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday this month, pull over – rain or shine – for a taste. Tomlin closes at the end of October and reopens again in May.
If you think that’s a limited window, consider Scott’s Walk-up BBQ in Cartersville. Scott Panter took the time to explain his three-day process to produce true Texas-style brisket. Because of this preparation time requirement, Scott’s only serves brisket on Fridays and then only until they run out (which happens almost every Friday). A standard at many brisket and barbecue restaurants, customers “walk up” to the counter to place the order and the food is brought the table. Tables are available inside or on an open front porch area.
Going to Athens this fall? Whether dining in or picking up on the way to tailgate, Pulaski Heights BBQ, owned by Pitmaster Chuck Ramsey, is also true to the Texas brisket methods and worth a stop. Listed on the menu is the sandwich or brisket stew, but brisket plates are prepared upon request. Like most brisket houses, unique homey items are offered. Pulaski has house-made pickles, deviled eggs, smoked cauliflower and a special vinegar lime slaw.
Perhaps Flowery Branch should secede from Georgia and become a Texas outpost because this small town boasts not one, but two outstanding Texas brisket havens. Ask most folks where to go and the most frequent response is “Moonie’s.”
Becoming a legend in the barbecue business where everybody is “the best” or “world famous” is not easy, but Jason Martin, owner and pitmaster along with his wife Brooke, make sure that everything is fresh daily, including the meat in the Texas-made J&R Oyler smoker with oak wood. “Pitmaster J” spent 11 years in Austin, Tx. learning the craft. Their approach sometimes causes Moonie’s to run out of certain items like Brooke’s creamed corn, which is so rich, it puts pounds on just looking at it and the brisket chili, with Moonie’s signature spicy, heavy smoke flavor, that is so thick your spoon will stand up in it.
Less than 7 miles from Moonie’s, Southern Smoq is owned and operated by Pitmaster Steve Starnes. This Miami, Fla. native spent his career in television postproduction considering the possibility of opening his own brisket place after retirement. In addition to tasty and moist brisket, Southern Smoq offers fried okra that is fresh cut and hand breaded just before each order is cooked. Located in the Clearwater Crossing Shopping Center on Sprout Springs Road in Flowery Branch, Southern Smoq is only open Wednesday through Saturday.
No list of Georgia joints is complete without Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, which was founded by Lone Star State transplants and may provide the most complete Texas style barbecue in the area. If crowd size and wait times are indicators, then this is definitely the place. Unique among all brisket houses is their beef short rib. This nine-inch offering provides a true-to-Texas smoked portion that could feed an army. Fox Bros. has specials from time to time, like their jalapeño-cheddar sausage. Also famous to Fox Bros. is Frito pie, a generous ladle of beanless chili and pile of grated cheddar dumped into a single serve bag of Fritos — a tribute to brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox’s favorite baseball park concession snack as children.
Barbecue/brisket aficionados can be very particular about their side dishes. The list generally offered includes baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, collard greens and Brunswick stew. Sides, much like the meat, are also traditional and some are just as personal as the brisket process. Many are old-family recipes of relatively common dishes such as Meme’s potato salad at Southern Smoq, an homage to Pitmaster Starnes’ mother-in-law. Additional sides include mac and cheese, fried okra and brisket chili.
Dessert standards include puddings, especially banana and Nilla, and cobblers, particularly peach. Fox Bros. delivers a decadent chocolate pecan pie while others offer homemade ice cream. Southern Smoq’s occasional specialty is salted caramel bread pudding.
In September 2016, the Atlanta lodges of the Hebrew Order of David International sponsored the fourth annual Kosher BBQ Competition with a record-breaking 25 teams. Since pork is not kosher, the primary meat is beef brisket. Recent competitions have taken place at the pavilion in Dunwoody’s Brook Run Park and teams are judged on beans, chicken, ribs and the brisket. Like other barbecue competitions, samples or “bites” are available for purchase after the competition as well as full brisket meals and other foods. The kosher barbecue teams utilize a salt-and-pepper dry rub, very similar to the Texas-brisket preparation, but with less salt due to the kosher salt treatment of meat. True coal, not charcoal, is used rather than wood with smoke generated from soaked wood chips. Frequently, a kosher brisket will be accompanied with grilled vegetables, somewhat like a pot roast.
How else is brisket made if not Texas or kosher style? Georgians believe that Coca-Cola may be the answer to almost everything and the third way Southerners prefer brisket preparation has not escaped that notion. Recipes for Southern-style brisket utilize Coca-Cola as the liquid that the brisket either rests or is cooked in. Generally, these recipes are not smoked or grilled, but rather braised or baked, a heresy to the Texas tradition.
Because sauce(s) are not what Texas style is all about, the usual contention these create is replaced with other topics like sides, but also the type of wood used for smoking, dry rub or liquid; and if liquid marinade or injection or both, the trimming of the fat layer; and resting periods (how many, when in the process and for how long).
Like many traditional or legacy dishes, variations occur over time and across geography. Texas-style brisket, perhaps by a route through Kansas City, took on the application of Kansas City BBQ sauce. Many Southerners, and particularly Georgians, accustomed to sauce with any smoked or barbecued meat dishes followed suit. Smokejack in Alpharetta presents both traditional brisket and burnt ends in this modifi ed fashion. Dave Filipowicz, owner/ pitmaster, prepares the brisket and burnt ends much in the traditional Texas manner including using certifi ed, and trimmed, aged Angus beef with salt-and-pepper dry rub. Burnt ends are served with Kansas City sauce and sliced brisket with Pasilla sauce, a Kansas City sauce supercharged with roasted Pasilla peppers. Sauces are optional for the visiting Texan. Smokejack o ers all the standard sides with the addition of pimiento cheese grits and tomatoes and cucumbers. The standard dessert list has also been expanded with Coca-Cola (of course) cake and an apple crisp.
“And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest,
That my heart will be peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this.”
One day, if the barbecue wars are over and the brisket pitmasters have each taken their best shots, the lyrics of a Frank Sinatra song just might summarize it perfectly.